At Leeds Station, when you come up from Platform 2, there is a concourse, upwardly sloping, towards the other platforms and the ticket barriers. Set in the middle of this wide, open area (I want to use the word ‘plonked’) are two sets of brightly-coloured, thickly-set handrails. As you pass between them, it feels a bit like entering a giant, modernist sheep-dip built large enough to take human beings. Maybe that was what was in the designer’s mind – delivering the masses for their daily dunk in nine-to-five corporate hell, rewarded not by a comfortable, pest-free fleece but by a regular income and food on the table. Hold your nose and in you go…
My destination is not corporate hell. It is the West Yorkshire Playhouse where I’m to meet a colleague. After a swift ten minutes walk, I’m sitting in its cafeteria (and that is the right word – it’s a bit functional, a bit shabby, but it feels egalitarian and welcoming in the way an active community hall or education building often feels – it’s not one of the chi-chi, trendy cafes that are often found in modern theatre spaces). Strings of coloured lights – small, dim globes – hang high and wide across the ceiling. Yellow, blue, red and green – they hover between gigantic brown lightshades and Chinese puff-balls of white tissue – all manner of roof art before you even get to what’s on at the theatre. It feels a little dejected in the harsh daylight, like the aftermath of a hell of a party; the sound system oozes an unremarkable, hangover-sensitive playlist, and the muted clink of crockery spells tea and sympathy.
On the way back to the station, my colleague suggests that I walk through Leeds Indoor Market. It’s sunny, really bright in my eyes, so I stumble gratefully towards one of the many entrances, holding my hand up to block the glare. I take pot luck, and set off up one of the maze of little alleyways, past market stalls that feel more like mini-shops. And then I am halted. I can hear a whirring – tck,tck,tck,tck,tck,tck – it sounds pre-digital, clockwork, even. I spin around to see an adorable little train-set laid out on the floor in front of a toy stall. Barreling toward me, no higher than my shoe, is a tiny engine pulling three carriages around an oval track. It has a brave and terribly hopeful little lamp shining out from the front of the engine.
Its weak, yellow light reminds me of the bulb in the palm-sized, oblong Philips Ever-Ready torch that I used to use to read books after lights-out, under my grey striped blanket and green paisley eiderdown, in the late 60s, when I was 7 or 8 years old. I used to shine it against the web of skin between my thumb and first finger, peering in sea-sick fascination at the blood vessels it revealed. I used to put the tiny bulb on the tip of my tongue and feel the low-level warmth of the plastic casing and the pinpoint of heat, feeling that tiny pulse of energy. I’m glad for the light it lent to my bedding-cave; that torch helped me to speed through the Secret Seven’s adventures; to wonder at the girls of Mallory Towers, incessantly diving into the pool down in the cove; to follow the Children of the Oregon Trail across the hot, sandy desert through danger and hardship.
The train’s lamp would be too dim to light its way through a long tunnel, but it’s strong enough to tug this freight-load of memories from the dusty corners of childhood. And now I’m back there, crawling across the knobbly sitting-room carpet, a waffle-pattern on my sore knees, but I don’t care because I’m building bridges, towns, farms, houses, with the wooden bricks that Dad had made for us (the arch-shaped ones were my favourite; I feel their smooth, cool curve with my mind now, rather than my hand); they were kept in a box, behind the Habitat sofa, low and stylish, with speckled-black, squared-off cushions. I lived amongst these design icons without knowing that is what they would become – from the sofa to my mother’s see-through Mary Quant ankle-boots with the daisy on the side. I was literally a child of the sixties, a child in the sixties.
I need to make a bit of progress towards my life-sized train to York, so I turn to walk on, but I’m stopped once again in my tracks – what is this, now? I am greeted by – no – kidnapped by a display of gaudy and vivid artificial blooms, lush and daring and utterly compelling – I cannot tear my eyes out of this four-foot-high nosegay. This stall sells a fantastical range of kitsch artefacts and religious representations – gaudy pictures of Jesus and other figures from the stories of the bible, vases of twigs decked with small multi-coloured lights, a wall-clock shaped like a green apple; I am trapped in a cabaret of wonderland saviours and fantastical, glorious distortions of reality that contrast completely with my usual ‘Walk to Work’ back in the Yorkshire Dales, which takes me quietly through the sensible greens and greys of the fells.
In the end, to stop my head spinning, I have to turn away and relax my eyes on the steadying sight of coral-pink sweet potatoes, glossy red peppers and cool, green plaintain, neatly stacked in piles on a stall across the alley – still vivid, but more securely grounded in nature.
My brother, Paul, did a film project when he was doing Media Studies at Bradford Uni many years ago; it was to make a case for saving this indoor market, which was under threat at that time. The campaign was successful, it seems. Looking up at the glass roof far above, I think of grand old stations like St Pancras and Hull – frail cathedrals, of glass and metal rather than stone, rearing up against the bright winter sky. Many modern shopping malls are being built with glass rooves now – they have caught on to this magnificence – but there ends the similarity.
Here, families carry on businesses for years, or individuals send the flare of a cheap and cheerful idea into the mix, or sewing shops sell all the haberdashery you could ever need – and there is no corporate blandness. Just a delicious mix of fabric and buttons, meat and fish and fresh cut flowers, bargain clothes and bags and shoes, fresh veg and spices, cheap toys and bizarre ornaments.
This is the first blog post in my new 2016 series of this ‘Walk To Work’ project, which this year will include more of these urban ‘walks to work’ as I travel across Yorkshire with my new day job. This dash through Leeds Market feels like an enlivening and promising start.
All photos taken by myself.
Attribution for: Reading In Bed: By James Abbott McNeill Whistler (United States, 1834-1903) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons