Time on my hands

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Last week we visited the wonderful Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds. Don’t worry, I’m not going all Fred Dibnah on your ass but I will be singing the praises of industrial revolution heavy metal, incredible artistry and bygone age.

Armley Mills sits unassumingly on the banks of the Leeds Liverpool canal in a part of the city that has seen better days. Clearly it was once at the heart of the action, but things have moved on and the enormous mill complex still sits proudly, elegantly even; a potent symbol of the birth of the city that now exists: all modern and hoity toity, forgetful of its past.

This proud mill is home to an eclectic collection of industrial revolution evidence. Enormous weaving machines still trundle, doing the job they were designed to do over a century ago, solid printing presses stand frustratingly still, evidencing Leeds’ heritage in this industry. Huge iron beasts sit in their rust waiting patiently for their time to come again. Unknown histories dwell in the machinery, a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle of a city famous for forgetting its heritage as quickly as possible.

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This resting place is home to iron steam giants, locomotives built in the city by firms long gone: engineering ingenuity and brute strength forgotten and unvalued. Wandering around this engaging and lovingly curated assembly, the question at the front of my mind was can this collection of yesteryear tell us anything about the city we live in today? Leeds was at the forefront of invention and ambition and the sheer effort and intelligence required to build and develop this technology surely inspires the inventors and innovators of today. I think there’s no difference between software developers working on a life-changing iPhone app and a steam engineer refining one of his engines. Maybe I’m going off on one, but take a visit and see for yourself.

There’s also currently a lovely temporary exhibition in Armley Mills featuring renowned Leeds Clock maker Potts Clocks. The Leodiensian horologists (now I am going off on one) are famous for providing pretty much all of the public clocks in the city and across the country. Their distinctive  trademark hour hand is easy to spot and there is much satisfaction to be gained spotting these elegant timepieces around Leeds. There is a melancholy but satisfying air to the ticking, whirring machinery, seconds and minutes marked off efficiently, as if they were insignificant, easy to retrieve.

Worth a visit, if you can find the time.

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The North (and almost everything in it)

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The NME always seemed impossibly glamorous to me growing up in the bleak, fucked up Leeds of the late seventies. We had little glamour in the city: Revie’s Leeds United were long gone, replaced by a series of dysfunctional teams that could never fill their stylishly brutal boots. The city centre was a ghost town with fountains perpetually filled with spectres of foam. The North seemed to have nothing going for it and as usual, London was the centre of attention.

Music was one of the ways we could escape the harsh reality of Britain and when music started to become important to me, so did the NME. It was a window into another world, speaking of bands making the big time, fantastically hip scenes that I could only dream of being in, the glamour of touring the UK and beyond and a mythical London that boasted Carnaby Street and The King’s Road. I’ll talk more about myth making later but these were imagined narratives for me that were anything but dark and satanic.

My favourite NME writer was Paul Morley. At the time I knew little of him except he got all the top jobs, wrote the most provocatively and was always at odds with everything, always challenging and probing. He would never review an album, he would pontificate endlessly about philosophy and then write a paragraph on the record. He would provoke and piss off artists with his own seemingly pretentious approach, but he did set the NME apart at the time, seizing the high intellectual ground from the plodding rock journos on Sounds or the inanity of Smash Hits.

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Morley was destined for great things and went on to found ZTT records that, amongst other things, made Frankie Goes to Hollywood famous. These days, Morley can be seen, heard and read across all media forms as a serious writer, observer, reviewer and all round ‘cultural commentator’. Like him or not (and many don’t), his views are well-considered and always demand consideration.

The North (and almost everything in it) is Morley’s latest book –  a weighty tome that although I bought it a few months ago, I’ve only managed to read the first quarter. But I’m not anxious about that, honest. Sometimes big books challenge the reader, daring them to come and have a go if you’re hard enough and there’s no doubting there’s a little of that with this book. The number of pages and scale of ambition screams SERIOUS WRITER!! But the macro experience is much more intimate, drawing the reader in to snapshots, narratives, factoids, lists (Morley loves lists) and a style of writing that can take some getting used to. The combination of stream of consciousness and hard facts set the tone for a philosophical but factually driven journey of how the North is the North and what that actually means to people who live in the North and those that don’t.

We made the short journey to Ilkley (Victorian spa town near Leeds) to hear him talk about his book and his relationship with the North as part of the excellent Ilkley Literature Festival. The event was a well attended, genteel gathering at the appropriately faded glamour of a large hotel in Ilkley. The format worked well with interviewer and questions although I wasn’t entirely convinced that the host had read the book (and who can blame him, it is mahoosive), but perhaps I’m being unfair.

Morley comes across as a suitably dour, erudite Mancunian who grasped his chance at London NME fame at the right time, but never forgot his roots. I was interested in his assertion that he ‘never went to work in London, but at the NME’ and his affirmation that he ‘took the North with him’ and didn’t leave it behind. I liked his thinking there – I work in both Leeds and London and the North/South divide is a well-worn and tiresome discussion most business people are fond of exploring endlessly. Morley contends that the North South divide is an ideological construct, created to keep Northerners in their place. Conversely, he takes the North with him wherever he goes, as state of mind not just a geographic location. I’m aware as I write that sounds incredibly pretentious, but it’s altogether a more progressive discussion.

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I was also taken with another of Morley’s ideas: people and cities can be architects of their own fame. He explored the theme of myth making in the North and charted the rise and renaissance of Manchester’s music scene right back to The Sex Pistols appearing at The Free Trades hall in 1977. Of course, we have no idea if any of this is really true, but we make our own myths and they in turn become reality, part of the narrative of where we live.

There’s a lot to like (and dislike) about Paul Morley, but it’s no dispute that he is good value for money. For his followers, he is a Northern provocateur camped in the belly of the capitalist beast, prodding, annoying, carping. For his detractors, he is a turncoat living not in his beloved North but in the cosseted comfort of a W1 flat, drinking lattes all day long and eating sun-dried tomatoes.

Of course, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle but we do need more people like Morley stirring it up in a stereotypically Northern way. I came away challenged to think about my own Northernness in a different way and my own perception where the North begins and ends, both physically and metaphorically. The North is both a comforting, recognisable account of a physical place we all know but also a challenges our pre conceived ideas of what The North is and can be.

 

Something wicked

When I go on holiday I usually take along a stack of books to read. I know you Kindle types will be laughing at my old fangled ways with paper and ink, but I do prefer a physical book at certain times even if it does play havoc with my baggage allowance. There’s something about the tactile nature of reading a paper based novel and the way that the glue melts in extreme temperatures and all the pages fall out…I digress.

Amongst my recent stash of holiday readage I took a couple of companion pieces. Or at least that’s what I discovered after I read them because when I bought them I had no idea they would be beautiful to read on after the other. The first was Neil Gaman’s latest The ocean at the end of the lane and the second was Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes.

Both these books came by recommendation and previous experience of the authors work – I’d read a fair bit of Gaman previously, my favourite being his superlative American Gods, read my review of it here.  I’d not read any Bradbury previously but I’d heard a lot about his work and not being able to talk the boys book club into having a go at one of his books, I decided that I’d be better off reading it off my own bat.

 

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The Ocean (I’ll truncate) is a slender volume hot on the heels of the might tome that was American Gods. I read the hardback version which was a lovely treat as the physicality – touch, smell, weight – is reassuring with a story of this kind, I have no idea why…perhaps it helps to bring a realism to an otherworldly tale. This book tells the story of a boy and a girl in an almost fable like way that’s set in our world but also sits along side a magical, mythical otherworld. Gaman likes these kinds of constructs and uses them to access our childhood dreams – and nightmares – and brings them to life freely and vividly.

The Ocean is a dreamlike book that dips in and out of our so-called real existence into another supernatural and mystical realm, inhabited by flying wolf manta rays, millennia-old witches and unsettling spectral shed beings. It explores hard hitting themes as child abuse and suicide and how these affect children and the mechanisms they use to cope with them. It’s a poetic, ancient story set against the backdrop of childhood and the fear of growing up and indeed grown ups.

I had no idea Something wicked would be a suitable book to follow with. The two central characters are young boys, Jim Nightshade  and Will Halloway (both great names) living in small town USA in the nineteen fifties (I think). Either way, it’s a time of innocence before the advent of the internet and mass media consumption, when the thought of the carnival coming to town would generate huge excitement.

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This is a refreshingly simple tale of evil coming to visit a small town and the ghoulish delights of a devilish troupe of intolerant carnival folk – ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’ (Bradbury has a way with brilliant names) – who have been peddling their evil ways for centuries. Althought the book tells a familiar story,  it’s the innocence of the tale that is part of the charm – it doesn’t try shock horror tactics – this is all about the anticipation, the atmosphere, the mood and the cracking yarn that Bradbury spins. 

Something wicked is all about time and how it affects all of us. The boys are desperate to grow up and their fathers yearn for a life when they were younger. The malevolent and Mr Dark is at the black heart of the book, almost devil-like in his alluring, tempting ways. 

The book easily and surreptitiously delivers themes around belief and fear and the control people have over each other, for positive and negative. It explores our feelings towards age and growth and fits beautifully with the themes Gaman uses in Ocean. The author implies that our own self centred wishes and desires are the things that restrict us from enjoying the simple pleasures in life which lead ultimately to fulfillment.

It’s a source of frustration for me that books in the fantasy/horror genre are never taken as ‘serious’ literature. Both Ocean and Wicked have been praised highly in certain circles and I would certainly join in that praise. These books use serious, grown up themes to tell entertaining and thought provoking stories. There is a real sense with both books, once opened, the real world disappears but rest assured it’s never too far away in the telling.