A Passion For Leeds

Every so often I have to think about the things that make me write.

It’s a compulsion, there’s no doubt about that, and my first novel was published quite late in life (I was 55) that I’ve been filled with a hunger to say all the things I’ve wanted to say in books.

What changed everything for me was writing about Leeds. Leeds as it might once have been. When I began writing novels, I hadn’t loved in Leeds for 30 years. I had no idea what things were like in the day-to-day now. I was back often to see my parents, but I wasn’t here. I couldn’t write about it now and make it feel real.

The history of Leeds had captured me several years before that. I like to think it still does. But that’s what I keep checking it to consider. My next book (The Hocus Girl) has plenty of things from the city’s past: the first steam locomotive able to move heavy loads, Joshua Tetley opening his brewery, and the government using agent provocateurs – something uncovered and written about in a Leeds newspaper. Making history part of a tale is something I relish. I try to bring Leeds alive, to make people feel they were there, walking the streets.

tetley

Joshua Tetley’s Brewery

Next spring, my novel Rusted Souls, the eighth in the Tom Harper series, is centred around the 1908 Suffragette Riot, which actually happened, although it wasn’t a great riot and the Suffragettes weren’t really behind it. My characters are involved in this history. Not in a Zelig way, but because it’s happening around them in Leeds. It’s natural that they’d be involved.

Leeds isn’t London. It doesn’t have that glamour. It doesn’t even have the big history of York. But it’s a city that made its fortune on wool, grew powerful and rich with industry, and saw its fortunes decline with industry began to decline after World War I. These days it’s money is in retail and digital. The thing is, rich or poor, it’s my home. I care about it. I’m proud of it, happy to be from here. If I have a loyalty to any place, it’s Leeds.

That passion for the city isn’t the only thing that makes me write – I like to tell a story and crime provides the perfect moral framework for drama and tension, good against evil. I like to create characters. Or perhaps I channel them, I’m not really sure.

As I said, it’s a compulsion. But you know what? I’ll never feel bad for writing about the place I feel in my bones.

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In Leeds In 1820…A Story Begins

1820, and with the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, Britain was at peace for the first time in a generation. In Leeds, the Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold of the town. Manufactories (as they were known) had sprung up, with businessmen eager to take advantage of the new machinery and steam power to increase their profits. For the first time, a haze of smoke hung over the city, one that would only grow worse and worse and these factories and mills grew and grew until the Leeds skyline became a forest of chimneys.

leeds 1826

For men with capital and vision, there was plenty of money to be made. The world’s first steam locomotive was already operating, hauling coal from the fields in Middleton down to the staithe near the bottom of Salem Place. Another two years and Joshua Tetley, from an Armley family of maltsters, and with a family shop on Mill Hill selling malt, as well as wine and brandy, would gamble and buy Sykes’s Brewery. Yes, there were fortunes for men who took chances. Benjamin Gott and John Marshall had already proved that at Bean Ing and Holbeck, with wool and flax on an industrial scale that no one had seen before.

leeds 1830

Factories created jobs. The population of Leeds at the start of the 1800s was around 30,000. Two decades later it was 48,000, with plenty more in the out-townships (where the home weavers still made a living of sorts, although that would rapidly die away).

Conditions in the countryside were poor. With enclosure, many agricultural workers and the families were turned off the land they’d known for centuries. People pressed and piled into Leeds, hoping that the streets would be paved with gold. Of course, they weren’t. With so many seeking work, labour was cheap; the bosses could pay what they wanted, and the workers had no union to represent them. You took what was offered, or you got nothing at all.

All these people needed somewhere to live. The first back-to-backs had been built in the early 1790s (ironically where the upscale Victoria Gate shopping centre and John Lewis now stand); now speculative builders began to develop streets of them in the Leylands and the area beyond Millgarth. There was money to be made in housing.

For most people in Leeds, though. Life was grinding poverty. The chance of getting ahead was non-existent. Simply treading water was daily effort. Many went under or left, dispirited. For some who stayed, political radicalism offered a ray of hope.

It was a time when only the wealthy and the landowners had the vote. Leeds didn’t even have an MP. Most people had no say in the way their country was run. The government was still scared that revolution might be possible and cracked down hard on sedition. On all crime. Small offences could mean transportation to Australia or Tasmania, a brutal life in the young colonies. Shipping the criminals to the other side of the world became government policy, although many would serve at least part of their terms on the old ships known as prison hulks. The magistrates imposed harsh sentences. After all, it was for the good of the community.

prison hulk

For all that, though, they couldn’t stop people thinking, and radicalism was already firmly established in West Yorkshire. Around the turn of the century, right the way through to 1812-13 the Luddites had tried to wreck the new factories, as machines took away job from skilled craftsmen.

With the war, food prices had risen, to the point where keeping a family alive was almost impossible. Leeds had seen food riots over the price of grain, notably one led by ‘Lady Ludd’ – probably a man in a dress; the population was swift to stir and slow to cool.

lady ludd

That’s Leeds in 1820.

And into that landscape walks Simon Westow. Orphaned at four and put in the workhouse, set on to work in a mill at six. An angry man. And now, grown, a thief-taker. With no police beyond the Constable and the night watch, thief-takers are the only resort for those who’ve had property stolen. At this time the definition of property included wives and daughters and anything they possessed or brought to a marriage. Most prosecutions for theft had to be undertaken privately. The result was that people generally only cared about the return of their property.

Simon is resourceful, successful. Married with a pair of young twin sons. Until their birth, his wife Rosie had worked with him. Now his assistant is Jane, somewhere around 14 years old. When she was eight, her mother arrived home to find the girl being raped by her husband. Preferring the security of a wage to the temptation of a girl in the house, she threw Jane out to survive on the streets. She did, and discovered she had the gift of being able to follow without being noticed, a useful trait for a thief-taker.

A girl who chooses to reveal nothing, who hides her emotions behind a wall, a feral life has made her into a deadly young woman.

Simon’s business takes him from the wealthy to the underclasses. He knows how the town works in every way. He knows its secrets. The one thing he doesn’t expect is the past.

The Hanging Psalm will be published on September 29 in the UK.

Hanging Psalm revised

Coming In September, The Hanging Psalm

I’m really pleased to reveal this….it’s coming out in the UK on September 29, and there’s already something unique planned – just in Leeds, I’m afraid – prior to the launch.

But here it is, ladies and gentlemen, The Hanging Psalm, and isn’t this cover absolutely wonderful?

And if you click right here, you can read the opening.

Leeds, 1820. Simon Westow makes a good living as a thief-taker. The boy who grew up in the workhouse has become a success, finding and returning the stolen possessions of the rich – for a fee. But when mill owner John Milner hires Simon to find his kidnapped daughter, Hannah, he faces a challenge like no other.
With his enigmatic and deadly young assistant, Jane, by his side, Simon’s search takes him through the dark underbelly of Leeds, where poverty, industry and death live cheek by jowl. But he soon comes to understand that the real answers lie in his own past, and an old enemy seeking revenge . . .

Hanging Psalm revised

The Hanging Psalm, Part 2

When I put the opening to The Hanging Psalm on here (the previous blog entry – scroll down to read), it brought some interesting reactions.

It’s still moving ahead, and looking a bit more like a book – although that always remains to be seen. I start many more things than I complete.

But I thought I’d give you one more taste of it, as the plot and characters open out a little. So, please, tell me what you think.

 

As he left the Moot Hall, Simon curled his hands into fists and pushed them into the pockets of his trousers. Briggate was thick with carts and people. He moved between them without noticing. His head was filled with the faces from the past. The children who fainted after working for twelve hours without food or water, because the overseer wanted the most from them. The boy who lost three fingers in a machine, just standing and staring at the stumps, not able to say a word.

And finally, the day he carried a girl back to the workhouse, the bloody patch steadily growing on her skirt after two men had their pleasure with her during their dinner break. Catherine, just turned eleven the week before; that was the all he ever knew about her. She moaned in his arms, in too much pain to cry.

He was thirteen, grown big and strong and defiant. He pushed the door of the matron’s office wide, and gently lay Catherine on her desk. The woman was protesting, shouting, but he didn’t want to hear anything she had to say. Simply turned on his heel. He was never going back.

 

There was still an April chill in the air as he stood and gazed down on the river. The water moved slowly, stinking and dirty. Swirls of red and ochre and blue eddied on the surface, waste from the dyeworks. The body of a dead dog bobbed lazily up and down in the current.

Simon took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He needed to let his thoughts ebb away. He needed to forget. To let the fire burn down to embers again.

From the corner of his eye he noticed a movement, a shadow.

‘It’s only me.’ The girl kept a wary distance, eyes on him. She was thirteen, older perhaps, maybe even younger. As invisible as any of the children who roamed the streets in Leeds. An old, patched dress that was too small for her. Stockings that were more holes than wool, battered clogs on her feet. Dirty face and hands and a grubby cap covering blonde hair. ‘The missus sent me after you. I saw you leave the Moot Hall and followed you down. You’re all dressed up today.’

Simon had worn his good suit, the short, double-breasted jacket in fine worsted with long swallowtails and tight, narrow trousers. A ruffle at the front of his shirt and a tall-crowned hat with its curled brim on his head. He’d wanted to make an impression, to show that a boy from the workhouse could be a success. But by now he probably didn’t even exist for them.

‘What does she want?’ He took a breath, tasting the soot that spewed from the factory chimneys. Slowly, he felt the anger recede.

‘Someone’s waiting to see you. Looks like a servant, I caught a glimpse before she sent me out.’ She waited a moment. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Tell her I’ll be there soon.’

He watched her move, melting into the press of people. Who noticed a child? Who noticed a girl? That was what made Jane so useful. She could follow without being seen, she could overhear a conversation without anyone realising she was close.

Simon gazed around. Grim faces everywhere. People who looked as if they were just clinging on to life. He began to walk.

 

The house stood on Swinegate, right on the curve of the street. He could hear Rosie in the kitchen, talking to the twins as she worked. She raised her head as he entered, pushing a lock of hair away from her cheek. An apron covered her muslin dress. She brought the knife down sharply on a piece of meat.

‘Jane found you?’

‘She did. Where is he?’

‘I gave him a cup of ale and left him in the front room. Arrived about half an hour ago.’

Simon nodded.

‘How was it?’ she asked.

‘Give them three lifetimes and they’d never understand. All it did was drag up the past.’

She gave him a tender smile.

‘It’ll fade again. It always does, Simon.’

‘I suppose it will.’ She was right; it always had before. His sons peered at him around the corner of the table, two identical heads. He stuck out his tongue and they began to laugh. They were the best medicine he knew.

 

The smile vanished as he opened the door and walked into the front room. The man in the chair jerked his head up at the sound as if he’d been sleeping.

‘I’m Simon Westow. You wanted to see me?’

‘My master does.’

Jane was right. He was a servant. But a trusted one, if they were sending him here. Older, with sparse grey hair and a grave, formal manner to match his dark clothes.

People didn’t seek Simon out. They placed a notice in the Mercury or Intelligencer for their stolen property. He found it, returned it, and gave them the name of the thief. In exchange, he received the reward. If they chose to prosecute, they could take their chances in court.

That was how a thief taker worked. No one came here for his services.

‘Who’s your master?’

‘He’d rather not be identified yet.’ The man gave a forbidding smile. ‘But he’d like to meet you today.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s a delicate matter. He’d prefer to tell you himself.’ The man reached into his waistcoat pocket with two long fingers and drew out a sovereign. ‘He believed this might convince you.’

The gold felt heavy in his palm. Solid. Real.

‘Where and when?’

‘Three o’clock. Do you know Drony Laith?’

‘Yes.’ Out beyond Gott’s big mill at Bean Ing. Just woods and fields, where the town ended and the countryside began.

The man stood and gave a small bow.

‘What would you have done if I’d refused?’ Simon asked.

‘My master gave me a second sovereign. He’ll see you at three.’

 

He tossed the coin. It skittered across the kitchen table. Rosie’s had moved swiftly and it vanished, disappearing into the pocket of her skirt.

‘Handsome money,’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’

‘I’ll find out this afternoon.’ He poured a mug of ale and drained half of it in a gulp. She kneaded the bread dough, fingers spread as she pushed it down. She’d given the boys a small scrap; they sat, stretching it between them until it snapped, then starting over again.

This was where he felt complete. This was home.

Rosie began to shape the loaves, concentrating on her work. She’d blossomed, he thought, so different from the girl he’d seen sitting at the side of the road twelve years before, staring helplessly at a mile marker.

‘Can you help me, mister?’ she’d asked. ‘Does it say which way to London? I can’t read it.’

He’d told her, but she didn’t start walking. Instead, he sat next to her and they began to talk. She was still here. Now, though, she knew her letters and her numbers. He’d taught her, the same way he’d taught himself after he left the workhouse. And she learned quickly. His pupil, after a while his lover, and finally his wife.

‘Do you have any idea who sent him?’ Deftly, she slid the loaves into the oven.

‘Not yet. Has Jane come back?’

‘I heard her go upstairs.’

 

He knocked quietly, waiting for her reply. The attic was almost bare, just a bed, a basin and jug on a small table, and a haze of ragged curtain covering the window.

She’d been here for two years, yet there was nothing of her in the room. As soon as she walked out, it was empty. But he understood. Own nothing you couldn’t carry. A portable life, always ready to move, to run. Until he met Rosie, he’d been exactly the same.

‘I saw him leave.’

‘Go out to Drony Laith,’ Simon said. ‘I’m meeting his master there at three.’

He didn’t need to tell her to keep out of sight. It was habit for her; she’d learned it on the streets. Don’t let anyone see you steal. Keep clear of authority. Get caught and you’d be in chains, waiting for Botany Bay or the noose.

‘I know his face. He works for John Milner.’

Interesting. Milner had property all over Leeds, and investments in two of the manufactories that had gone up since Napoleon’s defeat. They’d never spoken, but Simon seen him in town, a sour prig of a man with a miserly face.

But what property had he lost that needed to remain such a secret?

‘Let me know if anyone goes along with him or if anyone’s following.’

The girl nodded.

‘Dinner will be ready soon.’