Saturday 7 March 2009
A strange city, impossible to feel entirely at ease, bearings difficult to grasp. The usual 'high street Britain' of the 2000s but pockets of oddity and certainly a sense of somewhere, musically in particular. Up the Briggate a secondhand record shop with a rightful emphasis on the vinyl downstairs with a compere willing to play anything you were interested in. Few if any secondhand bookshops (though admittedly I didn't investigate the university area, greater Headingley seemingly a variant on Newcastle's Sandyford / Jesmond / Heaton axis). A sense of being rushed, of a subdued malevolence, a city with recalcitrant tribes - a former and perhas current alcove for subcultures - and a stocky mainstream. "Victorian Leeds, Concrete Leeds", as Luke Haines posited, cannot be banished by the bland; the shopping arcades, lanes and Whitelocks clinging on bloodmindedly - and the Concrete Leeds of West Riding House... coexisting?
It is a city resistant to the picture-postcard and the packaged tourism so often applied to another major city of the North, Newcastle; it resonates instead with an Anti-Heritage, with David Peace's vision required alongside John Betjeman's, as conveyed in this recently rediscovered 1968 film:
That late-'60s era clearly stands at a crossroads; the proud provincialism starting to fray - pre-Ripper but the cracks beginning to show, as in Reginald Hill's first Dalziel and Pascoe procedural, A Clubbable Woman, centred as it is on working v. middle class tensions, bonhomie and the sinister vying within the community as embodied in the secretive Rugby club...
Also, the unfairly obscure 1969 film about Halifax, This Town. The epochal Revie v. Clough rivalry just starting to simmer. One recalls the old couple's 'escape' (leading to that end of the world and civilisation that is Morecambe*) from Leeds in Alan Bennett's 1975 TV play, Sunset Across the Bay, despair, outright despair after the rueful mapping of averted Utopias in A Day Out three years earlier. One thinks also of the bluff northern humour of Alan Plater's Beiderbecke series; the first of which particularly captures recognisably eccentric Yorkshire types flying in the face of the times - it being pertinent to recall that it was being filmed during the Miner's Strike. Progressive schoolteachers like Barbara Flynn and character-types drawn almost from Tinniswood, who would brook neither Scargill nor Thatcher, to their cost. When did Jake Thackray leave Leeds?
"Dark voices... dark voices... dark voices..."
When should one fastforward to the future, only to find vestiges of the past? Tribe Records, by the Corn Exchange - a haunt of teenagers and the more unusual - tucked away in a gloomy alley. Up a low staircase vaulted with graffiti into a record shop you could not find in Newcastle, say (which is good for secondhand vinyl, but tends more towards the IDM / electronica in its vinyl shops); specialist dub, dubstep and all variants thereof. I pondered over purchasing Shackleton and others, but decided on a Zomby remix and a mysterious record selected purely on the basis that it was in the Dubstep category and its label read 'Made in Leeds' or something to that effect. All four pieces across the two sides of aXXo's Silvah Bullet (2008) are essential, but I would select B2: 'Punk 5' as my favourite - which simply will not leave the memory. Sinuous delay, a dubstep as bereft as all the best dub must be - life-support synth gurgles, terminal beach cascades - instrumentation an irrelevance. The voice gradually dehumanising into elliptical fragments, merging with the elastic, backalley and down-the-well percussion. A great counterpart to "I'm from Leeds", the reflective afterthought to that proclamation of intent. Here's A1 from aXXo; perhaps appropriately, B2 can retain some of its mystery within the context of Where Shingle Meets Raincoat:
There was also the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and a full house to see the excellent Northern Broadsides theatre company - ran by Barrie Rutter with the remit to stage the classics using northern actors and dialect - with their Othello. Much built up in the press due to Lenny Henry's appearance - he certainly did well - but of course Iago is the key and I thought Conrad Nelson was superb in that role, playing the arch-manipulator as a mean-spirit who would be at home in Peace or Hill. An excellent play - which I had only seen in terms of the Orson Welles version previously - accessibly staged and interpreted, with nothing shied away from, in terms of gender, politics or race.
I am not sure I could feel entirely at home in Leeds, but it demands to be seen as a major city, important in how this country has developed - having more in common with Bristol than anywhere else. There is an element of alternatre lives, of personal associations; my parents met in Leeds, a cousin (now based in Hackney) also went to Leeds University to study English - doing an amount of dub-related DJ-ing in Leeds in the late 1990s.
* Considering the cockle pickers' deaths and its being a favourite haunt of Peter Sutcliffe (the house of waxworks, as so memorably and distburbingly described by Gordon Burn), Morecambe stands as a rightfully maligned place, worthy of such treatment by Alan Bennett and in films such as The Entertainer (1960).