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Home » Speakers' Corner

Leeds’ Identity Crisis and the Perils of PR Bobbins

Submitted by on October 11, 2010 – 11:24 pm8 Comments
Chapeltown Carnival

Chapeltown Carnival

Rather than hide this as a comment at the bottom of my recent musing ‘Aspiration V Reality’ we thought Mark Johnson’s post was a great antidote to the need for a unified marketing message! So go Mark…

Help, Manchester’s marketing cock is bigger than ours!

Yeah, OK, that was cheap. It’s probably not bigger, anyway. It probably just works better. In any case, over the last few months I’ve been reading the excellent series of blog posts on Culture Vultures discussing Leeds and its identity crisis. It’s been troubling me. It seems, to me at least, that there’s a lot of concern that Leeds has lost its way, that it has become, as a place, incoherent. That at least part of Leeds’ problem is that its identity has gone astray.

But, but…but! Reading the various posts I became a-bubble with arguments as to where Leeds’ identity could be found. Arguments about what makes Leeds great. I started mentally reeling off the things that make Leeds Leeds. The important and worthwhile bits that define its identity. For me, Leeds is the view of the city from the M1 at sunset as I drive back from work. It’s the university’s Parkinson building, which I wandered through as a student. It’s red brick terraces in Hyde Park and Headingly. It’s the suburban village of Chapel Allerton riddled with young professionals (and the grotty Nags’ Head tucked just out of sight). It’s the city centre as seen from OK Comics, where I work on Saturdays, and the arcades that lace LS1. (It’s a city centre that doesn’t want you to approach it by road.) It’s live music in the afternoons at The Adelphi and sunny afternoons in Roudhay Park. It’s the sense of history I get looking at old pictures of Briggate. It’s the different flavours of all those places.

But then… I’ve never lived in Holbeck, have I? Or any of South Leeds, for that matter. And I don’t give a toss about Leeds United. And I can’t remember the last time I wandered into Headingly Stadium. So, what do I know?

And therein lies the problem. And that’s where the official lines from official Leeds websites fall flat. You can’t pin Leeds’ identity down in a meaningful way. It’s a hundred cities seen from a hundred angles. You can’t pin down any city’s identity in any meaningful way. You can’t tell a city’s story unless that story’s going to encapsulate EVERYTHING, because it’s different for everyone. It’s a million different stories.

I went to London recently. On the surface, London’s London-ness is pretty easy to nail to the spot. You’ve got a good-sized handful of iconic buildings and monuments (architecture always seems to come first in these things), you’ve got the UK’s centre of government, you’ve got the West End and the museums. You’ve got the weight of history. Those are the things most people will think about when you mention London. But, my favourite part of the weekend was a trip to Brick Lane to visit Rough Trade, seeing all the independent shops and cafes and all the (sorry to use this word) hipsters populating them. Try telling those guys that London is about Westminster and Queen: The Musical. They’re not going to be interested.

Likewise, try telling the folk involved in our thriving DIY music scene that Leeds lacks identity. Tell the bjillion students hanging around the Headingly/Hyde Park/university corridor that Leeds doesn’t have anything for them. Mention it to a Leeds United fan (I dare you).

For my part, my view of Leeds changes every few years. It changed when I moved away as a little ‘un, it changed when I moved back as a student, changed when I started working in retail, changed when I got a shit job, changed when I got an awesome job. Changed when I moved to Hyde Park and changed when I moved out to Chapel A. Most recently, it’s changed as Twitter, Facebook and resources like Culture Vultures have helped give me a sense of Leeds beyond my immediate social circle and the removed point of view offered by newspapers.

My point is, the best we can hope for in terms of a Leeds narrative is a fairly throwaway marketing line or, far more importantly, thousands of narratives from thousands of different people that wind together into a greater whole. It’s a great, heaving, shifting narrative that constantly changes. That’s fine, that’s what real narratives about cities are.

Any attempt to sum up a city in a snappy burst of marketing spiel is just going to be a line picking at what some marketeer considers to be desirable and pointing itself at tourists. It will fall far short of describing the experiences of the majority of its residents.

So, what I am saying here is not that we don’t need to get a greater sense of cultural unity and not that there isn’t a whole great horrible chunk of Leeds that needs cleaning up – it’s that if we can’t get a cohesive narrative or one-size-fits-all identity out of this dirty great city, we’re probably doing it right. It’s that an identity problem for a city isn’t much of a problem at all.

A bit about our guest blogger

Mark Johnson gets paid for being a nerd. He’s a professional videogames journalist on, comics columnist for The Leeds Guide and will occasionally take money from you at OK Comics, which full-time employment has failed to lure him away from. He’s lived in Leeds as a toddler, student and wage slave for 16 years all told. It’s rumoured that he might one day get a real job, but it’s dangerous to put too much stock in such tales. Mark can be found on Twittertumblr and his very own blog.”

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  • Well said Mark.

    I’ve never really been comfortable with all the talk about Leeds as if it has a definable identity.

    It’s like trying to come up with a plot synopsis and marketing blurb for a book. Except the book isn’t really a book at all, it’s the Yellow Pages.

  • Great article, love the optimism. Celebrate the un-unified chaos!

    And phew, it wasn’t a reference to me! ;)

  • David Allison says:

    Agree with almost every word.

    Regarding Manchester, it’s a city I know very well. My sister and my best friend live there and my wife works there and I work there regularly myself. It’s not as rosy a picture as everyone over here likes to think. What many Mancs will tell you is that the city is being suffocated by its cultural history – that the Factory Records/Tony Wilson/Joy Divison/Smiths iconography is oppressive and tedious and not a single day goes past with Peter Hook or Peter Saville or whoever hashing up another anecdote about the good old days. The music scene certainly struggles to overcome those ghosts of the past. I don’t know how many more bands they can produce that sound like New Order. I’ve lost count.

    It’s led to a backlash such as brilliant blogs like this:

    So yes, Leeds may lack a unifying story or image or history. But that also gives us freedom to create our own, without the weight of a particular cultural past.

    • Mark Johnson says:

      That’s pretty interesting. My experience of Manchester has always been peeking at it from a distance, absorbing impressions of it by osmosis. I’ve never really thought of it as somewhere choking on its own history. I’ll have to dig in to FUC51. Thanks for the link!

  • Phil Kirby Phil Kirby says:

    Anyone who lives in Leeds detests those “Leeds, Like it or Lump it” marketing sites . . . they say nothing about the real place. I just realised though, reading your list of what made Leeds, Leeds, that most of my list has been regenerated away . . . the funny little row boats on Miggy Park lake that always threatened to tip you in the mucky water if you got too giddy, the cobbled, sooty streets around Domestic Grove that seemed to be straight out of Atkinson Grimshaw, the massive, bright blue portrait of James Connolly defiantly presiding over the smokey tap room in The Old Roscoe, the clatter of twenty tables of dominoes in the Trades Club, Brendan Croker and the Five o’ Clock Shadow at The Duchess of York, long summer afternoons playing pool in The Fforde Green then on to The Hayfield and The Phoenix (or Cosmos as my sister still calls it.) . . . oddly enough, even having lived in Leeds on and off most of my life, I still can’t identify with the centre at all. I suppose I am just a Holbeck lad at heart. Leeds has always been a different story.

  • I love Leeds, but can never really explain why. It’s all the little things and things I love are probably not the same for other people.

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