Something Very Different

This is…well, I have a good idea about what I’d like it to become, but whether that will ever happen is another matter.

I’ve long harboured the idea of a book where Leeds is the main character, seen as it grows, seen through different eyes with different views. How to do it has always been the question. Finally, an idea came – a multi-generational saga. Not covering all of history, but a part of it. My own ancestors arrived here in the 1820s. Going from there to just after World War I would let me tell a very fictionalised version of their stories, as well as leaving Leeds the focus of it all in what was probably the richest time – in every way – of its growth.

Who knows how far I’ll get. But this is a tentative beginning. Please, let me know what you think.

Many years later, sitting by the hearth as the flames rose from new coal on the fire, he wondered what he used to dream after he closed the shutters in his room at the Golden Lion.

The market square would be quiet by then, the echo of the bell at St. Michael’s tolling eleven. All of Malton dark. His wife would already be asleep, the children bundled together in another big bed. Finally the darkness would take him for a few hours, until first light crept through the window and the day began again.

Hard work, running an inn. Long hours, frantic whenever a coach arrived. The bustle of market day, people crowding in to eat and drink. No time to plan then, not even to think. But man was made for work and he earned money.

In the rare luxury of off hour, he could stroll around the town. See the butcher’s shop he’d once run on Newbiggin. It was a milliner’s now, run by Mrs. Mercer, catering to women with taste and husbands who’d allow them to run up bills.

The butcher’s, the inn, all of them of them had steps, he realised, always moving towards something, even if he didn’t understand then what it might be. Going back to being six years old in Westow, set out in the fields to run around and scare the crows, working in the harvest until he was big enough to help with the farming.

Then  he was twelve, riding with his father in the cart, five miles over tracks, looking at the endless flat fields and hedgerows and stretched away as far as he could see. They followed the old road into Malton, the old horse weary in its traces, hooves dragging up dust on a bright, dry summer morning.

‘You must do your work well, Isaac. Promise me.’ His father wasn’t a man to spend words. The village parson had taught him his letters, enough to make out the words on a page and sign his name. But he could read the land and the weather, It was knowledge he kept inside, small secrets to be hoarded. He turned his head, eyes watching his son. The hands that cradled the reins were hard, the colour of oak.

‘I will.’ He was going to live with the butcher and his family, apprenticed in a trade. He’d make something of himself, his mother insisted. The second of the three sons, not the one who’d inherit the scrap of land that fed the family and gave them produce to sell. The money they’d saved for this opportunity was his inheritance.

The cart moving through the market square, almost empty today. He’d been here before, several times a year. This time, though, it seemed larger, more forbidding, ready to swallow him. No journey home at the end of the day. The year of our Lord 1792. The first step.

Each one after that had been bigger. A journeyman butcher. His own shop. Marriage. The tumble when his business failed. The change to managing the inn.

And finally the leap, the move to Leeds. Was that the idea that filled his dreams on those winter nights upstairs at the Golden Lion? He couldn’t remember now.

 

The fire crackled, a coal sparked on to the rug. He stamped it out and a memory came unbidden.

He was fourteen. A chilly late autumn day, across through the market square in his bloodied apron on an errand for his master. Isaac spotted his father, one of so many selling and buying. He sat on the back of the cart, vegetables piled neatly on the wood. A face as weathered and creased as tree bark as he took someone’s money. Dividing the coins between the two pockets of his waistcoat. Dipping his head as he handed over the purchase with large hands, scarred from a lifetime of the fields. He’d become like a shadow Isaac had known for so long that was now slipping away as the light changed.

The man didn’t see his son and after a moment Isaac ran on, the apron flapping around his legs.

Fourteen, thinking he was a man because he worked for a living. Sleeping in a butcher’s house, eating at a butcher’s table. Doing all the petty, menial jobs: sweeping in the morning, raising the shutters on the shop, the cleaning and scouring when business was done for the day. The only consolation was eating meat with every meal. A life that was so tightly fenced that he might have been penned like one of the animals waiting for slaughter.

 

Months passed, piling one upon the other. Gradually he learned the trade. How to identify a good carcass, to wield the cleaver with a single smashing blow. All the cuts, setting the best aside for certain customers. He could lift a side of beef on his shoulder and heft it through the marketplace, laughing with the traders. From a solitary child he’d grown into a social youth, with a ready laugh and a pleasing manner. A shopkeeper’s pleasing traits. The opposite of his father. His hair grew thick and wild, a rich brown he kept trying to tame with a comb. He had a tilt in his eyes that made him look as if he might be trying to see beyond the horizon. Growing into manhood.

The only thing he could never do was wash the smell of blood from his hands.

‘It’s the butcher’s curse,’ his master said, watching as he scrubbed with the strong lye soap one night. ‘But at least the money you’ll earn will make up for it. Plenty of woman will put up with a bit of a stink for a secure life.’ He laughed as he lit his pipe.

Isaac stared, not understanding, scrubbing harder until his hands were raw.

And then, finally, he was in the last season of his apprenticeship. He could feel his freedom like a breeze, almost smell it. Served his seven years like a sentence, not even sure who he’d been when he started. A child he no longer recognised, someone dulled and fogged in the looking glass.

Half a day’s summer holiday, so rare it seemed like riches. A chance to wander around Malton without rushing hither and yon. Gazing in windows at the things he might soon be able to afford, then turning to stare at the clear sky over the tower of St. Leonard’s church. He’d arrived here on a day like this, he remembered, the earth dry and crumbling after three weeks without rain. Why should he recall that?

He lowered his eyes, breathing in the smell of horses and sweat, and spotted two figures emerging from Chancery Lane. Mrs. Coultas and her daughter Jane, walking arm in arm towards him. He’d served them both in the shop, always staring at the counter to avoid Jane’s steady look. Every time she saw him she seemed to be weighing his qualities and always fining them wanting.

As they passed, he raised his hat and wished them good afternoon. Mrs. Coultas nodded and gave a polite smile. But Jane stopped, inclining her head.

‘Mr. Lawrence, have you run away from your job?’

He could see the twinkle playing on her face, a little devilment. Her lips curled in amusement, as if she was gently laughing at him.

‘A half day,’ he told her, then blurted, ‘I’ll soon have served my time.’

Why did he say that, he wondered? To try and impress the girl three years younger than him? It wasn’t as if she came from grand stock. Just a farming family like his own, with a smallholding in Appleton-le Street. With her country face, turned brown by sun and weather, she’d done her share of work outside. But she carried herself like a lady.

‘What will you do then, Mr. Lawrence?’ the girl asked. Before he could answer, he mother was tugging her away, up towards the Golden Lion.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Come on, he’s got better things to do than waste his time talking to you. Honestly, I’ve told you before. So forward no man’s ever going to want you.’

Jane didn’t look back, walking over the cobbles in quick, confident strides and raising her chin in the air.

A Journey Through The Past And Back Again

Sometimes life holds out a little magic, and all you have to do is grab it.

Looking back into my family history, I’d reached the late 1700s, and I seemed to be stuck there. Digging into a different family history site recently, I struck lucky. Suddenly I was tumbling back and back through time. All the way to 1545, in fact. 250 years in a day.  It felt like being the Doctor, but without the life-threatening adventures, Daleks, or sonic screwdriver.

I discovered that my family has in roots in Westow. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s a tiny village (current population 339) near Kirkham Priory, and five miles from Malton. 1545 was the first Nickson birth recorded there, but keeping births, marriages, and deaths in Parish Registers only became law in 1538; they could well have been there for centuries before that.

John Nickson was the first, then his son Thomas, born in 1587, and his son Thomas, who arrived in 1617. William came in 1660, Richard in 1692, another Richard in 1729, And then Isaac in 1752. One of his children – had had seven – was yet one more Isaac, who came squalling into the world in 1785, hanging around until 1857.

That Isaac is pivotal to the family tale. He certainly broke away from Westow. Around 1720 he ran an inn called the Golden Lion in Malton, five miles from home, and somewhere around the middle of the decade decided to try his luck in Leeds, taking his wife and children with him. That’s how we came to this town.

The descendants remained. Isaac himself went back to Westow to die in 1857, so the pull of the place and his forbears must have been strong. Or perhaps he’d simply had enough of life in a noisy, dirty town that was growing by the day, with its dark Satanic mills, industry, and crime.

On Saturday I visited Westow. A pilgrimage of sorts, if you like. I needed to see the place, to sense if there was any atavistic tug. It’s barely a village, really more a hamlet. There’s a pub, but no shop. Some old buildings along the main street, which is pretty much the only street. It’s peaceful, bucolic, surround by fields, deep in the heart of arable farming country.

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A number of the places look as if they were probably standing when Isaac struck out for Malton. Did he live in any of these houses? There’s no way to tell, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. Too many other generations of stories will have filled the stones since then.

And there’s an old hall, of course, as there should be in every village. Safe to say my family never lived there.

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The church is about a mile away, equidistant between the two villages it serves. The old Norman tower still stands, I’ve read, but the rest is newer, rebuilt from the original stones. It was locked, but what I wanted was outside: the graveyard.

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It was always hopeful thinking to imagine I’d see a Nickson headstone. Maybe Isaac’s after he returned to die. But no, not a single mention of Nickson. Yet, that was fine, I realised as we drove away. I’d seen the place, I’d walked some of the same earth they did all those centuries before. Now I knew.

From there, to Malton. The Golden Lion still stands in the marketplace. It’s been empty for a few years, apparently, but still in good condition. I stood across the street as I took a picture and looked up at the two floors above the bar, thinking that Isaac and his family lived and slept there. They had joy, they had pain there. That single upward glance seemed to cross 200 years in a heartbeat.

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That’s what I try to do as a writer. I try to bring the past alive, to make the people breathe in the here and now. It’s a way to try and commemorate people who would otherwise be unremembered. Many are fictional, of course, but some did live.

Like all writers, I love hearing from readers who enjoy the work, for whom the people who spring out of my head seem real (so please keep the emails coming). And good reviews are heartening. Two that arrived in the last week for On Copper Street, out in America as an ebook on June 1) made me happy. Booklist gave it a starred review and call the series “top-notch,” writing: “the story features meticulously researched period detail; a strong sense of the social, economic, and political situation at the time.” Publishers Weekly noted: “Nickson successfully creates an intimacy between the characters and the reader by showing, with each successive book, how his protagonists grow and change as they face life’s milestones: marriage, children, promotions at work, and the death of dear friends.” And past is place as well as people. The Fully Booked blog wrote: “When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy.” It’s not the first time someone has said I have Leeds in my core. But it’s probably true. I came back here after almost 40 years away. Isaac Nickson had his Westow, the place that called him home. I have Leeds.

Yes, those reviews make me feel I’m doing something right in my writing.

As I said at the start, sometimes life holds out a little magic.