‘It’s a shit town, but it’s our town’ – Lloyd, joking, Wakefield.
I wake up in Wakefield, and the weather’s bad. Grey and rainy, my original plans to see Halifax, Bradford, and Leeds fill me with mild dread.
The map is driving me mad. There is simply so much to see, so much to comment on, so many people to talk to, and talk about, that my brain is unravelling and my certainties disappearing. It’s liberating, certainly, but it can lend itself to an unhealthy obsessiveness about documenting everything.
It’s a condition that one earlier traveller of these isles, John Leland, suffered from. He set out in 1536 to record information from the endangered libraries of monasteries, then in a state of dissolution, and find evidence of England’s Arthurian past. On the road though, he discovered a more compelling and truly impossible calling, to map the entire landscape of the country in words. The task eventually drove him insane, as he criss-crossed the country, visiting and re-visiting locations, with his book gradually losing all form. Layer upon layer of observation was added in an attempt to record everything. As he wrote to Henry VIII,
‘In so muche that all my other occupacyons intermitted, I have so travelled in your domynions both by the see coastes and the myddle partes, sparynge neyther labour nor costs by the space of these vi. yeares past, that there is almost neyther baye, haven, creke or pere, river or confluence of ryvers, breches, washes, lakes, meres, fenny waters, mountaynes, valleys, mres, hethes, forestes, woodes, cyties, burges, castles, pryncypall manor places, monasteryes, and college, but I have seane them, and noted in so doynge a whole worlde of thynges verye memorable.’
I’m brought to life by conversation with Nick and Gemma, who return to the flat in the morning from work, or holidays. Nick describes a problem which resonates with the sights and stories of the previous days. He worries that a new cultural attitude has crept in, ‘it’s not my problem’. It excuses not helping others in need and justifies acting selfishly. It denies all social obligations and duties, and makes any kind of cooperation or plans to distribute support to the vulnerable impossible.
Is it a generational issue? I think some would say so, particularly with the young, but I’d disagree. I’ve been helped by young and old on this trip. One of the joys of travel is discovering just how kind, generous and helpful most people are.
I head out and cycle not too far up to the newly-built Hepworth gallery. It’s a joy to behold: an ambitious grey design intended to connect with the industrial surroundings of the town and the adjacent River Calder. It’s a regional arts museum with a superb collection and a sense of energy and pride about the place. When over 80% of arts funding goes to organisations within the M25, places like the Hepworth or the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park ought to remind us that London is a region too. The common attitude of London and the provinces should be abandoned, but with London’s current swollen over-status this seems like wishful thinking.
I quickly enjoy peeking about the place. There is a superb gallery of works by Barbara Hepworth, a local artist and sculptor most known for her curving and somewhat public sculptures. At first her work can seem a little too cerebral, evoking questions of disbelief over its apparent purpose or lack of. But it merits closer attention. Her studies of ‘two forms’ are particularly moving, seeking to capture the interdependence and connection of two beings in one place. They’re inspired by the birth of her son, but they seem to offer a new form of expressing sensation. These forms are sensually expanded and melt into each other, reminding of the feeling of touching, or being just about to touch another. They express the excitement of such a connection with another person, of the tingling of touch. I’m enjoying this naturalism more than I ever have before. I once wrote and thought highly of masculine Surrealist painters like Magritte, or Dali, and particularly the destabilising and horrific bodies of Francis Bacon. The isolation and paranoia that can appear in their works resonated with a set of feelings I had about myself and the world. But these feelings have begun disappearing. It is curious that today these rebels sell for far greater sums in a bloated art market than someone like Hepworth, or Henry Moore, who were later a little dismissed as part of the establishment.
Hepworth joined together with Paul Nash, Herbert Read, Henry Moore and others to form the Unit One group. It wanted to bring together different art formed that shared ‘the adventure, the research, the pursuit in modern life’. There is something worth prizing about these artists working outside the capital, producing a form of art that seeks to be progressive yet of the people, experimental yet not worried about appealing to popularity. I find it all inspiring.
I wander on, glimpsing the heavy rain through the windows. I come across another set of exciting works, this time from the Parallels of life and art exhibition at the ICA, autumn 1953. It was staged by the vaguely-titled Independent Group, which included architects Alice and Peter Smithson and artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson. They brought together found objects, grainy photos, in order to cast closer attention to discarded items and their secret symbolism. They also wanted to capture the everyday banality of these things, using a grainy quality to photos reminiscent of newsprint, and staging the works in odd settings, like the floor and ceiling. It was a full-scale attack. They took what they could from science, industry, and popular culture, and threw it together with then-unfashionable abstract expressionism and children’s drawings. ‘Found art’ started to become possible, and popular culture felt increasingly culturally significant and rich.
This may all seem like a potted art history, but there’s something important about these developments for other cultural forms. Closer attention to popular culture prefigured a shift in academic disciplines like English and History that, in the works of people like Richard Hoggart or Raymond Williams, started to turn their interests to everyday culture and working class life. J.G. Ballard, perhaps my favourite visionary of human nature’s contradictions and repressed desires, was also heavily influenced by pop art. I’d suggest that his literary technique was a development in writing of artistic forms developed ten years prior.
This turn to Pop Art is also politically ambivalent. When Richard Hamilton staged his ‘Man, Machine and Motion’ exhibition in Newcastle in 1955, he was on one hand sticking a finger up to the arts establishment. The works are regional and wilfully industrial. Aesthetic quality is not the concern. Instead we come across a youthful rejection of good taste and the classics, the cultural forms that separate high from low. Hamilton argued that Elvis Presley was as culturally significant as Pablo Picasso. But note how his rebelliousness reinforces and revels in consumerism. It prefigures some of today’s issues. As he wrote in 1957,
‘Pop Art is
Popular (designed for a mass audience)
Transient (short-term solution)
Expendable (easily forgotten)
Young (aimed at youth)
These are often the values of the mainstream arts establishment today. Big business and private owners have intensified the marketization of art into the production of valuable cultural forms. Many artists I’ve met have entered the university with a self-reflexive passion for producing new and interesting work. As the competition of the arts market looms towards the end of their studies, a demoralisation kicks in that takes hold during the long periods of unemployment that follow. The value of art, and public art, is immense. It brings life to dull areas and introduces familiar or new ideas to the public. Art-works often raise questions rather than attempt to solve them, which is why the antipathy to modern art (‘but is it art?’) strikes me as remarkably healthy.
But these works can only exist if local and national governments are willing to spend good money funding them. At the Hepworth is one good example of how community art projects can work. The Cast project brought together twelve schools and community groups around Wakefield to work with artists to explore the Yorkshire landscape in clay. Over 300 participated, producing visions of the landscapes and little cyclists spinning through.
Lloyd works at the gallery and tells me more about the area and the building. ‘There’s a new confidence back in Wakefield’, he tells me. Unity Hall has recently re-opened after a ten year close, and nearby are the Art House and Beam galleries, showcasing new work. He tells me that there was some local opposition to gallery, with angry letters appearing in local newspapers and in the post. Some people disliked its concrete appearance, reminding them of cheaply built 1960s social housing. Critics felt that money could have been better spent on other things, like hospitals, but such projects come from other budget pots.
Lloyd jokes about a comment his Dad made, that there were informal competitions among building firms to build blocks the quickest during the 1960s, cutting corners as they went. It’s an apocryphal story but it helps indicate people’s feelings about how brutally boring and ugly this structures were, indicating from a great distance that one was entering an area of social housing. But local people have started to be won over, with visitors often coming back and bringing their families. ‘It can take 50 years for a building to fit into a place’.
Were these angry local critics right in arguing that hospitals or houses ought to be built before art galleries? Yes, I think, but the communities will suffer with just the one. One of the most devastating opinions of human nature to come into vogue in the last forty years is that human beings are little more than an economy of needs. The need for attractive places to look out on, relax and socialise, and places where individuals can be taken for a moment out of themselves, to a vantage point where they can discover things about themselves or the world, mustn’t be taken for granted. Why can’t there be both?
Public art can be painfully dull however. Works often seem cynically dropped in place, like Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower in Stratford, a silly spiral that has no truck with the social cleansing of parts of Stratford to make way for the Olympics. Barbara Hepworth had one public work stolen from a south London park in December 2011 by scrap metal thieves. Repurposed for better use? No no, but there should be a degree of consultation with local communities about what kinds of art they might like.
I do a little writing in the Hepworth café, supping on a bottle of Masterpiece beer brewed especially for the gallery with a light hoppy taste. The rain is holding back. I take the moment to head up to Leeds, skipping Bradford and Halifax for another time. My cousin Ben has offered to put me up for the night, and it’s an opportunity to see a town that has been a second home to me. I pass through little suburban towns with names like Robin Hood and the sun generously warms me up on the ride.
I love Leeds, but it can be a hard place to love. It’s a large and bustling town, defined immediately by its grand Victorian public buildings and run-down Victorian red-brick terraced houses. My mum’s family are from the town, and we used to visit here from London several times a year when we were younger. My mind is full of memories of the place, of wandering around Kirkgate market buying sweets, of birthdays in the over-the-top Bibi’s restaurant, of playing football in Sheepscar park and finding packs of polo mints buried inside my grandma’s armchair in Chapeltown.
I cycle around the city centre first, absorbing in the banter of passing shoppers and buskers. Though it boasts some pretty Victorian arcades, Leeds has a classic British Town Centre, a pedestrianized zone densely packed with the usual high-street brands. Shopping centres seem to open up here every five years in a crazed and totally useless series of property speculations. Trinity Leeds has just opened up, drawing in passers by to consider an iPad, jacket or new phone which about an hour ago they had felt no need for. I wander by the Merrion Centre with its shops closed. In its day what, fifteen years ago?, it boasted the latest brands.
But there are so many charms to the place. Look up, as you should always do when visiting a new town, and there are some extraordinary Victorian buildings here with pretty period details. There is a large square nearby facing the train station, and the town’s free gallery is quite superb. I spent time in its library a couple of months back when I came up to the town to present some research at a conference, and loved loafing about the place, drinking in the architecture and the cheap wetherspoons beer.
I head up to Chapeltown to see what I remember. I quickly get disorientated on the 1960s ring-roads, a convenience for drivers that devastates any kind of idle walking about the place. I get directions from a local man but they’re a bit confused, and I pass through a large council estate before getting back towards Chapeltown Road, scooting by the New Roscoe pub, where a few months back my uncle staged an insane birthday do featuring the Chinese Elvis. The drinks were so cheap that we often used the leftover change to buy shots with each round. It was a full moon night.
Chapeltown looks largely the same. It’s still a lively multicultural area, with independent supermarkets and derelict shops. Sheepscar Park has been renamed after Norma Hutchinson, but kids still play on the swings and lazily kick balls about the grass. I head onto Saville Drive, where my family once lived, and where we used to visit my grandma Bridie.
The red-brick Victorian back-to-backs are really distinct, but I struggle to remember what house she lived at. It’s a fitting reflection of the past, an area always eluding our control and beyond one’s grasp. Was it twelve, or ten, or eight? It seems not to matter. There is nothing present here that I can connect with except a bunch of old memories. I cycle around the back lane, remembering games of pat-ball against the wall and the kids we were friends with, Wahid and others, mostly from Bangladesh. My mum’s family were Irish, and their stories speak a good deal about how society was in living memory, and how far things have changed.
My granddad came to Leeds from Co. Mayo, Ireland, aged 13. He was supported by an established Irish community here, and initially found work shovelling snow during the cold winter. He eventually went into bricklaying, a job he did for his adult life. My grandma was a bit older, and came to England to work in various jobs, as a child-minder and cleaner. They met and together brought up six children, living first in an overcrowded house near the university which was later slum-cleared in the 1960s, then moving to Chapeltown, an area racially charged and marked with poverty. There have been repeated riots in the area, in 1975, 1981, 1987 and 2001. Both Irish, they grew up in absolute poverty but worked hard to give a much better quality of life to their children. My grandma was particularly sparky, full of life and fun. There’s an infectious fun and love of life amongst my relatives. They love music and many played in bands, or continue to do so. My gran passed away a few years ago, and my granddad when I was only very young. There had been an Orange march in the area shortly before he died, and his car was vandalised with anti-Catholic graffiti, as my mum remembers. He had a heart attack soon after.
My mum’s memory of this place is particularly ambivalent, and today she calls herself a south Londoner. Her university education (a privilege not possible to her parents) and travels across the world seem to express a need to escape from the poverty and violence that once dogged the place, and Leeds, more broadly. Sharing tin baths and communal toilets seem like otherworldly features of Victorian destitution, but the six children grew up around these. They’ve all come far since. My two uncles (still alive) have made money and careers in insurance, whilst my mum and two aunts have established careers in business, charities accounting and local government. They each enjoy a quality of life that would seem ‘middle class’, but they’ve been formed by these experiences of deep poverty in working-class communities. It’s in stories like these that the ambivalent cultural and economic meanings of ‘class’ come out.
The working men’s club is still there on the end of the road but looks more like a night-club today. I cycle up towards Scott Hall Road, content with the proximity and inaccessibility of the past, and weave over to Potternewton lane, towards Headingley.
Headingley’s known for a few things, and brings together an odd assortment of people. Well-established locals clash with the huge number of university students here, whilst people often travel here for the cricket or to visit the nearby Kirkstall abbey, a pretty and large ruin well worth detouring to. It’s a Saturday evening and I see groups of young people on the Otley Run, a formalised piss-up where people wear fancy dress costumes and travel up and down the road necking strong brews.
I head up to Woodies, a classic Headingley boozer, where my cousin comes out to greet me. It’s a real pleasure to see a familiar face. We sit in the beer garden and catch up, drinking quickly and taking in the evening sun. I’m glad to relax at last. We move back to his to watch the football, but first Ben opens up a huge book full of lyrics and chords. He starts to play his own songs which are beautiful and moving, taking the heart and chords of The Smiths but expressing a unique musical idiom that’s his own.
‘Try and have your say, come what may. Accept what you can change, and what must remain the same. Needless thought, your needless control, don’t stress about them, don’t grow cold in your soul’.
He tells me about his young daughter, and of the unconditional love that he’s discovered as a dad. It’s not something one can ever anticipate. It’s just known, discovered. He sings lullabies and moving songs about relationships and love, before quoting the famous sage Kris Akabusi, who he met not too long ago: ‘the past is a point of reference, not a place of residence’.
It’s a fitting end to the inaccessibility of the past, of the expressions of social life that once were, and what today remain. I finish more beers and eventually pass out in front of the England match on his sofa, dead to the world. Ben manages to get a kebab into me, not realising I’m a vegetarian, but I’m out, dead to the world.
E.P Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst staying in Siddal, in nearby Halifax. It’s a place I had hoped to reach but was rained off though, like Leeds, it’s also somewhere I already know well enough as a child. He begins the book with an appeal to working class culture as a historical phenomenon:
‘The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.’
The remainder of class has been haunting me across the north. Class remains a fact of human relationships, as Thompson argued, from forms of expression like accents to modes of dress, like jeans and baseball caps, to the sheer economic fact of needing to work in order to live. Class remains a major feature of all these relationships, built into ex-industrial landscapes and housing that signifies either poverty or affluence. But a positive class consciousness is all but gone. If it became present at its own making back then, among shared experiences of poverty, bad housing and insecure work, can it arise again today?