City 20: Leeds


England's Rose, Princess Diana, visiting the city in April 1993.

England's Rose, Princess Diana, visiting the city in April 1993.

In Pursuit of the White Rose

From Newcastle to Leeds is 82 miles, roughly 90 minutes in the van. Lichfield to Leeds is slightly longer, 97.6 miles via the A38 and M1. Today I’m back on  the A1 heading south. Already the day is hot and heating up and I’m mindful of an important meeting I have at 13.30 on Teams. Of the seven cities of Yorkshire this is the sixth. Only Wakefield to go after this one. First was Sheffield, then Hull, York, Ripon, Bradford and now Leeds. It’s been quite the odyssey and I’ve become more ambitious for future jaunts, doing multiple cities in less time. I have an idea for the south coast that starts with Truro, in Cornwall and moves eastwards, along the coast, taking in Plymouth, Exeter, jumping up to Wells, back down to Southampton and finishing with Portsmouth and Canterbury.

Looking for an access point I find free parking in a number of roads but plump for Meynell Approach. There is for no other reason that I have a friend of many years standing whose surname is Meynell. WTS has changed greatly in form since I began and my perceptions have changed with it. Now its not just about the history of cities, its about my history and about the people who are caught in that particular web. 

But how to get there.

Walking In

There is no solitary ring road that guards the approach to the citadel as there is with London or Birmingham but an amalgamation  of roads; the A643, the A58, the A64, and the A61, with loops and slip roads and roundabouts providing the points of linkage. Parking near the well manicured Holbeck Park, a mile and a half from the city centre I can see the city has green lungs and open spaces in which to reenergize and take one's leisure . I stare at my phone and scrutinise google maps intently, trying to decide where to go and a voice with a soft northern brogue calls down from the seventh floor balcony of a highrise flat to enquire whether I am lost. I say that I’m ok but thank the voice for its concern, Not something you’d encounter in London I reflect. Quickly the little machine navigates a course for me into the city centre and from there to the River Aire which my journey to Bradford with Bev Lear uncovered.

I set off down the park road cutting through Meynell Approach and onto Water Lane via Bridge Road. Water seems important today for some reason. Maybe its the sun beating down on my cap-covered head. Past the skate park and the woman on the black bench with the black hat talking on her mobile.  Past the new red brick apartments on Meynell Approach with their great glass lobbies, past roadworks and highrises and the gothic spire of the nearby church to the black stone Egyptian style obelisk, safe and stately behind iron railings commemorating the dead of two wars.

A Cross Section of the City

But these things are all familiar, I’ve seen them and recorded them countless times before in other English Cities. Martin Amis, great novelist that he is claims that style is all, newness is all and that repetition is, if not a sin, then the great folly, something at which to groan and tut and wag the finger of admonishment. It is all part of the great war of our time, the war against cliche.  And this too is the war I wage with myself. Onwards I barrel past more red brick buildings, these ones older, darker, more the provenance of the Victorian factory or workhouse. It’s not like Bradford. For one it’s bigger and there are far fewer  signs of urban blight and decay. There’s not much of an underbelly, just the occasional sprig of razor wire and impale-you railings. There are few potholes in the road and the terraced houses aren’t collapsing into the road. There’s little litter and men in high vis yellow and orange vests are already hard at work. There is a wholesomeness to the city that is lacking in Bradford. A yellow banner welcomes you to Holbeck and proclaims it as a space where families and communities bloom. 

Light industry looms larger, behind painted corrugated iron cladding. Crusader Industrial Doors Ltd has me arching an eyebrow. That seems rather a provocation so I file it and move on. The old chapel has an outbuilding painted with something resembling Van Gogh’s sunflowers and the rainbow array of buses have their own compound where they are neatly parked and protected. Into the city centre proper where the cranes rear up like dragons ever larger. At Bath road a bizarre mural of magenta, blue and white catches and detains  my eye. On one panel is the Egyptian eye of Horus, on another the word Renaissance.  

If the city is a patchwork quilt of allusions and quotations then Renaissance works. Leeds is a phoenix rising from its own ashes, in   of continuous renewal and rebirth. I wonder at the inclusion of Nineveh, a Biblical town of loose morals that God saw fit to punish. A dayglo electricity box, the cross keys pub, cobbled streets… they are separate and yet connected because cared for.

Water, Water Everywhere

Before long at Granary wharf I find the water I was looking for only it is not the fast running River Aire but the sluggish brown waters of the canal, reminiscent of the reworked and gentrified  Gas Street Basin where we moored up on my excursion into Brum, earlier this year. A highly colourised and easy to read map of the city is to be found on Victoria Bridge, the expected homage to our imperial sovereign and from there an improving vista over the water to the city beyond. It’s beautiful in its own distinct way and I think of my conversation in an Oxford Book Shop where a bookseller and an architect both lamented the death of Old  Oxford. What they both fixated on was the fact that the city planners had failed to integrate the old with the new, the ancient with the modern. There nothing worked, besides the University and the Old Town, safe behind its listed status, because the modern had been imposed upon the town, not woven and integrated into it. Here that is not the case; the modern stone and glass buildings sit comfortably beside the Victorian redbricks and the gothic spires and steeples.

An Age of Glass

And I understand finally something of importance in this Age of Glass. 

Into the centre proper and along streets I recognise as I’ve been here twice this year already on team building jobs for Eventurous. There the venues were spacious and elegant hotels like the Hilton and our task was to challenge and entertain in the slick, efficient and non-threatening way that defines the all inclusive, if exclusive Corporate Package.At Bishopsgate, the Scarborough  Hotel Saloon Bar has mustard signs and magenta flowers and is open to all save the homeless who bestrew the streets or beg on its corners. I have seen them and spoken with them before in this city as I see them everywhere. These men and women I cannot ignore and feel an affection and affinity for. In the City Square, the obligatory clocktower looms and below it a not-yet toppled statue of Edward, my second namesake, with his dates. He looks like a Number 8, or maybe a second row in chain male on a portly stallion. Next to him today's royalty looks positively febrile. Pigeons seethe and scurry underfoot devouring everything in sight and beyond the naked female statues with their torch-bearing left arms raised in something reminiscent of a nazi salute is a sign saying window of opportunity. Nine Bond Court is the tower not struck by lightning and opposite a gothic confection, festooned with gargoyles. The Yorkshire Penny Bank, founded in 1856, was not just a place to do business but a flamboyant work of art, updated and prettified by G.B. Bulmer in 1994, and built on the site of the Old Leeds Infirmary (1771). I’d like to think that G.B. stood for Great Britain but I’m sure to be disappointed.    

Of Art and Dirty Martinis

At the place of the Dirty Martini I find a statue of Atlas with the world resting on his shoulders. He is grimacing a little and his brow is lined but he seems to be bearing up rather well. I love this, love that the city is full of statutory and classical allusions. The City Hall is back underwraps and undergoing a facelift like other buildings of note in this electric city but the Leeds Art Gallery is back open as is the Central Library. It's there I head, drawn by invisible strings. Outside, amongst the advertisements for various pop acts, amongst them Tears for Fears, I find a photo of Princess Diana. She visited the city in April 1993, meeting its good people before stopping off at the West Yorkshire Playhouse to presumably meet more people and watch a play. She looks incredibly photogenic and natural and sort of outside of time even though she has become part of history. Brando had the same quality, I recall. He was bigger than any costume of the age they may have put him in, his spirit shining through and eclipsing everything around him. I wonder what Diana might have achieved had she lived. Whatever one thinks of her and by extension royalty she stood for something beyond mere narcissism. She was an activist who raised awareness of many issues. Land Mines, AIDS, Cystic Fibrosis, Anorexia. Etc. She understood too that media was a double edged sword but used it anyway. Does that make her an artist I wonder?

Inside. First the pictures and then the books. There’s a Gormley statue in the lobby made of red bricks. It looks like a mummy and reminds me of when my Cartoonist friend Wallace said that Anthony was a one trick pony. This multi brick wonder is only a maquette and was intended to be made into a 120 foot colossus situated in Holbrook Triangle by the Leeds Train Station. However the good people and the politicos complained too much and it was never built. Poor Anthony. But I suppose that is democracy in action, or perhaps reaction.  Paintings line the walls, as one would expect of an art gallery but there are screeds too, and lots of them, telling you what others think and perhaps how you should think too. Here art is being problematized. One cannot simply enjoy a picture anymore; one must be cognizant of who painted it and why? And one must ask other questions too. Were they privileged, what was their party line, are they representative, do they even deserve to be on that gallery wall? Should we even be looking at them? Or should we rather not condemn them and then cancel them, airbrushing them from history? 

The pictures in the current exhibition explore and ‘deconstruct’ depictions of people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage in a very interesting way. They seek not to airbrush the past clean but to interrogate it. The most fascinating by far are a series of drawings by London-based artist Charmaine Watkiss whose work depicts a pantheon of female guardians who ‘facilitate care, protection, knowledge and empowerment.’  The large scale signature drawings are wonderful and alive and the expressions on every face reveal so much. A word that is banded about so much these days, but one I feel that is little understood, is resilience. And for all the millions of words that have been written about that state, these images reveal it in stark and direct ways. Whilst the words will be forgotten the images will remain, at least in my mind.

Retreating to the cafe to gather my thoughts I order chocolate cake and peppermint tea. The exhibition has both provoked and stimulated me. I am happy this work exists and that voices of our multicultural nation, long denied a platform or gallery space are finally being heard. Bev and I talked about this in Bradford, how whole groups of people are denied a voice and when they are finally given one, nobody listens to what they have to say, because pain and rage, and accusations of abuse and discrimnation are things we would rather not hear. And anyway what can we do with what is said? How does it change us and our strategies for facing the world. The child in me wants to make everything right, wants everyone to get along but that is not the world an adult sees or understands. Walking these cities has been a way of confronting the past but also seeing where the future is headed. More cities need to follow where Leeds leads, into the lives of those so long ignored and amplify for all to hear, the sounds of forgotten voices.  

Mr Gormley's Maquette and the Empress of India chastising the Wild Tiger that is India. Art as Propaganda.

Mr Gormley's Maquette and the Empress of India chastising the Wild Tiger that is India. Art as Propaganda.

To The Library

Its dog eat dog, or rather lion eat lion in the City Library

Its dog eat dog, or rather lion eat lion in the City Library

 As I move from gallery to library those forgotten voices continue to echo. Every city has a story, written in the buildings and statues, the people and spaces. So what is the story of Leeds and is it a story i will find in the library?

York may give its name to the county which I have heard referred to as less of a county than an Empire but Leeds is its Modern(ist) capital. In York a merchant told me that there was a city ordinance banning the construction of buildings higher than 12 metres so that the cathedral would always be the central point of reference, dominating the skyline. Here there is no such ordinance. Leeds, like any social climber, reaches upwards, grabbing the air, to climb and build. It doesn’t want to be a city so much as  a megapolis. And it was ever thus the librarian of the city library tells me. And the reason, Leeds was not controlled by a central aristocratic family who decided what the city skyline should look like. The standard MO was to have a central estate with most of the choice land and the main river flowing through it and then the serfs squeezed into a marshy bog down in the soon-polluted valley, there to thrive as best they could. 

But in Leeds, it is the merchants and traders, the bankers and guilds who dominated the politics of the city and held power there. With no Aristocratic ordinances, born as ever of extreme self interest, there has been little  to curb the city's growth cycles or the possibilities of what it might become. And that is immediately apparent as you approach the city from the motorway and then via its tangle of A roads. The place is a building site with moving cranes dominating the horizon and high rises shooting upwards. I am reminded of my visit to San Francisco in  2018 where, with the wealth of google and facebook and other multinational conglomerates, the city was accelerating at a rate of knots and expanding in the only direction left, upwards. Like an amazonian forest the trees that thrive are the ones that reach up and grab the light, throwing others into shade. As with San Francisco, so with Leeds. If new things are being built that means there is investment, it means the city is growing, that wealth is being generated and that usually people want to live and work there. And the stats bear that out. Over half a million people live in the City of Leeds and more than 800,000 in the greater borough making it the biggest city in the county by far. 

And that makes it a success, and England, like all other countries in the world needs its successes and it needs to celebrate them.  

Gory Stories

There’s still much to explore as I head back to the car, down St Paul’s Street past chess players and an Italian Restaurant called Bellissimo, past the wonderful Metropole Hotel, that would look as much at home in Gotham as in Leeds, over the River Arne, with its gin clear water and its ornate bridges. But there’s always a fly in the ointment, always shadows from the past, always a gory story to make you shiver when you walk the streets of any city. 

Here it's displayed in a shop window with pale blue stately letters. Savill’s. It could be suits that are being sold or it could be buildings but my thoughts head in one direction only. Sir Jimmy, James Savile, OBE, friend of judges and royals and high ranking coppers, keeper of the keys of Leeds General Hospital and native son of this fair city. Yes, every city has horrors and Saville, ghoul, abuser, sex offender and child molester  is the principle horror of Leeds.

It's one I’d rather forget so I walk on. 

But again the past rears its ugly head and on the side of a bus shelter I find a photocopied flyer by one L. Moses detailing various alleged offences perpetrated by Leeds council against him and his family. It's a semi cogent rant that could have been written by someone with a genuine grievance. Or it could have been written by someone who is, to use the vernacular, cracked and delusional. Names are named, fingers pointed and I’m I back in the gallery with those other voices, once forgotten, now remembered, given wall space and air time to make heard their grievances. Mr M, if he even exists, is not one of those people. He is one of the marginalised and ignored and it is unlikely his claims will ever be investigated. 

Shocked I walk away, unable to say definitively what is true and what is false,  what I believe and what I don’t. It’s possible just possible that L. Moses is not a real person at all but a mask worn by an artist. Perhaps this is what the new Banksy looks like and pretty pictures are replaced by troubling words, all the more troubling because we can no longer discriminate between the truth and the lie. 


David Titley

14.10.2022 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

Stuart Goodwin

14.10.2022 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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