Every time I come back to Leeds it’s a little more swaggering, a little busier, a little more glamorous in a brassy, ‘come and get me’ way, and every time I love it a little more.
Arrive by train or car and the cities sheer appetite for fun and profit will rock you on your heels. Arrive on foot as I did, tired and bored from the semi-rural monotony of the A61 from Harewood and as the city opens up before you, as the crowds thicken and the traffic buzzes, then Leeds will take your breath away, for many reasons, some of them vaporous. Every packed street groans these days with ‘twisted street food’, ‘kitchens’, ‘canteens’ and while you may not like the words, who does not the love the buzz of a great city getting on with its almost unseemly dedication to dressing up, getting out and having a good time. It is not a city that would do something as spoony and daft as giving the Nobel prize for Literature to Bob Dylan (silly old Norwegian hippies) though it would give the Nobel Peace Prize to David Batty;indeed it’s has already put up a statue to Billy Bremner, which I wholeheartedly approve of, being a child fan of Super Leeds during their ‘Nazis In Umbro’ years.
Eighty years ago, when the Jarrow Marchers came to town to be feted grandly in the crypt of the town hall, magnificent then and now, they were given the best reception yet, beer and roast beef and Yorkshire pud, a night so grand for these tired lads that one of them, Bob Maugham, still remembered the night glowingly when he spoke to the South Shields Gazette “It was a bit of a holiday. We got a grand meal in Leeds…”
But Leeds was yesterday, you will say quite rightly, aren’t you off to Wakefield? I am but I wrote a good deal about modern ‘Wakey’ in my last book, the reasonably priced and still in print The Pie At Night; things such as the splendid ‘Art Walk’, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and the kebab shop owner who thought the picture of Shakespeare on my tote bag was Hitler
Plus I still had a little tarrying to do in Leeds, such as Cuthbert Broderick’s magnificent town hall. The crypt where the Marchers dined is not open to the public, not even to sneaky ones, although I did manage to find my way into an old courtroom from which I was fairly promptly ejected. All of these tales will be expanded in the finished book; provisionally entitled, like this blog, Long Road From Jarrow
I crossed the Aire and headed south, Wakefield bound via the environs of Hunslet and Dewsbury but taking a detour to the urban suburb of Beeston on (I think) an inspired whim. If the Jarrow marchers were headed for London now, they could know perhaps that wherever they saw the orange mast of a Sikh gurdwara fluttering above the skyline, a welcome awaited them and the offer of shelter and hot food. Hospitality to strangers is one of the many selfless pillars of Sikhism and at the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara, I was given delicious chana and daal by the ladies ( seen below challenging me with ferocious chillis) , shown around the temple by a helpful, earnest, knowledgable young man called Inderpal and quite by accident met two of the greatest Indian classical musicians in the world. None of this was arranged or planned, like all the best encounters, and there’ll be more down the line in the final book.
By the way, that was no hyperbole about the music. The academy here is acclaimed and Ustad Harjinderpal Singh, one of the gentlemen I met, is one of the greatest exponents in the world of the Santoro, a trapezoid instrument with seventy two strings. He explains all this to me and I only realise later that this was rather like bumping into Yo Yo Ma in a back street near Hunslet and him explaining patiently and sweetly, as if to a small stupid child, what a cello was. This is Ustad playing the santoor in a concert at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Rooms
Before someone tried to prevail open this world maestro to go in the back and get his instrument out and give me a tune there among the lentils and washing up bowls, I thank them profusely, pack my notebook and little audio recorder in my tote bag adorned with Shakespeare or perhaps Hitler’s encouraging, smiling countenance and head south…