Typical start to Saturday. Up late, coffee ritually brewed and drunk, toast buttered, triangulated and attempted, paracetamol popped, hangover held at bay, bowels evacuated, and I’m away, down two flights of steep narrow stairs of the converted Victorian end terrace I seem to have stuck to these past few years, pretending to myself that it’s only a temporary attachment but fooling nobody, gradually gluing myself to the area, tying myself down with little threads of narrative and strong bonds of memory.
There’s a freshly broken bottle spangling the pavement just outside the gate. In the sloping late morning sunshine the shards seem craftily arranged in a splash shaped arc; as I’m kicking them into the kerb I wish I’d paused and taken a picture. Never mind. Not like we are likely to run out of smashed glass around here.
I’m full of springy joy as I head off down Malvern Road. The sky behind St Luke’s Church (I’m wondering about that apostrophe, is it right in the context? I’ve heard that God’s a stickler for the jots and tittles and I can’t afford to get on the wrong side of the supreme being owing to errors of punctuation) is cloudless and the same blue as the stumpy little clump of flowers that just about survives beside the improbably leaning tree – don’t know what those flowers are called but they must be regularly stomped on by the majorette troupe who appear to be the only people ever to animate the place. Many evenings the church throbs to the sound of girls twirling their batons to the beat of desperate disco.
My bald patch is to the sun as I head down the hill past truncated Victorian terraces on my left and squat seventies social housing on my right. Aluminium sheeting protects a few of the bottom properties, so new and shiny it demands some scrawled sweary graffitti – I’m almost tempted to draw something rude but I’d never have the nerve, or the draftsmanship. Most of the flats are recently empty. Almost half the windows are bare, some covered with old newspapers gone yellow in the sun, the rest unashamedly exposing grimy abandonment. There are no gardens as such just a stretch of uneven grass surrounding the block. Low white painted picket fences lean iinto the pavement. In front of me the local landmark looms, Bridgewater Place – a building of surpassing dreariness, not ugly enough to be brutal, not bold enough to overwhelm with it’s disregard for human scale and local context – the locals call it the Dalek, presumably because it looks like it was designed on an etch-a-sketch by a prepubescent Dr Who nerd – a place that regularly features in my tweets and blog posts as a touchstone of everything wrong about Leeds.
Halfway down the hill there’s a small car park, the only moderately tidy space for miles. Mostly this part of Beeston is an assault course of discarded consumer crap – Happy Shopper lager bottles, torn and buckled cardboard boxes that once contained washing powder or breakfast cereal, three legged plastic garden chairs, decapitated dolls, stained mattresses spilling stuffing and springs, the packaging and greasy remnants of innumerable take aways – and hundreds of black bin bags, plump and round as raisins, plopped randomly like the droppings of some giant waste eating rabbit.
As I slip through the underpass and into Holbeck the rubbish changes composition, mainly crisp packets, ripped out pages of porn mags, cigarette boxes, polystyrene tea cups, carrier bags – Tesco bags are ubiquitous, I assume because they are so flimsy and easily snatched by the lightest breeze – fluttering freely down the road, snagged on lamposts, wrapped around railings, dangling from branches or tangled in the treetops like the nest of some strange kind of Asbo bird – Tesco bags by the ton. And condoms. You have to watch where you step around here.
This bit of town has been called the doughnut of despair. But I’m not going to think about that today, I’m going to shut my eyes (metaphorically! I don’t want to be on the wrong side of a road traffic statistic) and pretend everything is sweetness and delight . . . tra lalaa la laaah. I’m only off shopping now anyhow, dashing to town to stock up on essentials – coffee mainly, and a couple of bottles of decent wine for later. You can’t buy proper coffee in the few shops remaining in Holbeck and I don’t really trust the wine that the local offy sells – I’m pretty sure it’s all Makro Merlot and catering Cabernet. But who wants to know about shopping . . .
Crossing Bishopgate Street – which on a Saturday afternoon should be classed as an extreme sport – I hear my name I think (Philip not Phil, so I know it’s family) close behind me. It must be close as the traffic is booming, drowning out even the Big Issue guy who hangs around the sliver of safe ground between three roads and is hardly backwards at coming forwards – so close that I know there’s no escape, not even if the traffic lights mercifully go green and allow me to accelerate away without turning around – a trick I have practised to perfection by the way, just in case you catch me at it. A second later as I’m staring wistfully at the other side of the road, wondering if I could risk a dash and dodge the Number one bus and the boy racer, I feel my shoulder tugged at.
“Hello auntie Joan,” I say, “fancy seeing you here.”
Auntie Joan says something about watching the game in The Bank (took me a second to realise there’s a pub of that name somewhere on Park Row) and that “we won, four-one!” I can’t bring myself to ask who “we” are or what game we were playing, instead smirk inanely and nod my head, “good, great, smashing.”
“You coming for a pint then, or what?” My uncle Tommy suddenly emerges from out of the crowd.
“No, no, have to be somewhere by four,” I protest weakly, already knowing there’ll be no escape before two pints at the very least.
“The Hop, or The Grove?” Tommy asks, appearing not to have heard my piteous plea.
“I’m off that way, home” I point, in the general direction of Holbeck Moor.
“One in The Grove then” Tommy decides. “You still working in that place . . . “ Tommy fumbles for the least offensive noun, pointing over to the right as we cross Victoria Bridge, clicking his fingers rapidy, “that place that . . . fell down.”
“Temple Works! Yes, was there till late last night. We had an exhibition . . . and a band . . . and, “ I try to muster all the solemnity I am capable of, “the building never fell down, that’s just a myth. Just a small problem with . . . “ Tommy is looking at me the way a crocodile looks at a pair of knees in the shallows, “ . . . anyway, there was a bar last night. We always have a bar.” I try to find common ground and references to alcohol generally seem to work.
Tommy makes a sound like brakes bringing a large truck full of livestock to a sudden halt, “people go . . . there!”
“Yes Tom. It’s famous you know. Internationally . . . and we have stuff going on all the . . .”
Tommy interrupts: “famous! How come I’ve never heard . . . what the bloody hell do you do in there anyway?”
“Art, Tommy . . . we have . . . stuff . . . performances, theatre, shows and stuff . . . you know . . .” Clearly he doesn’t know. I’m never going to find the right words. My powers of persuasion just aren’t robust enough to crack this one. My Morrisons bag hangs loosely by my side while my free hand jabs at the air as if I’m trying to semaphore a prayer for celestial guidance. “Look, here’s the pub,” I say, “what are you having . . . ?”
Three and a half pints later it’s almost six o clock and I’m still trying to extricate myself. We’ve covered the usual topics; why we hate the monarchy (can’t believe we’re paying for that wedding!) why we hate politicians (they all piss in the same bucket!) why we hate foreigners . . . again, I’m not sure who that “we” could be, but obviously I try to distance myself from such indiscriminate venom. Embarrassingly half my family have political views which are nasty, brutish and shit, and no amount of critical reason can shift them. Trust me, I have tried. Nice people can believe some seriously offensive crap. I grab my shopping and say my goodbyes. “Where did you say you were going again?” Tommy asks.
“It’s an art project, in a friends house . . . have to be there for seven and need to eat first so have to dash.”
“What sort of art?” We have had this discussion so many times and I reply wearily, “video mainly, some sound stuff . . . maybe photographs . . . not exactly sure.”
“Pictures?” Tommy shapes his hands into a small square as if he’s imagining a frame,”pictures, something you could take home and put on the wall? I mean, I know photographs . . . but proper art, pictures. Painting . . . if I wanted to buy something?”
I don’t want to get into an aesthetic discussion at this stage in the day – uncle Tommy must have had ten pints by now so is at the stage where politeness has clearly dissolved but incoherence hasn’t quite taken over – so I do handshakes and hugs and silly promises to meet soon to carry on the argument. I make my escape.
Dinner is a quick affair of salmon, new potatoes and a pile of veg. Just as the potatoes are done and the veg is steaming there’s an almighty clatter from downstairs, then some vigorous pounding. I’m going to ignore it, I say to myself. It’s twentyfive to seven . . . But the pounding gets heavier, more concentrated, hard enough to rattle the cups on the kitchen shelf. Investigation is required. I find my neighbour in the middle flat hurling his considerable bulk against the door handle. Then he aims a half hearted kick at the frame.
“Fuckin’ lock. Key’s stuck. Won’t open,” he pants. “Have you got a screwdriver?” That’s a better idea than brute force I reassure him – though I’m not convinced it’ll work, just hoping for a breather so I can introduce a bit of sense into the situation. When I return after rummaging through my drawers (I’m not the sort of person who naturally can lay his hand upon a pozidriv) Chris has already barged his way into his flat and the hallway is a mess of splinters and plaster dust. The door is resting at a peculiar angle. There’s a hole where no hole should be. “Will you watch nobody gets in?” he asks, “I have to go out, looking after my little girl . . . have you got the emergency number?” I mumble that it’s a bit late for the locksmith and write the 0800 number down on a scrap of paper. When I get back into my flat the kitchen reeks of incinerated carrot, cindery sweet . . . the fish is overcooked, the potatoes sludgy and the green veg limp and unappetising. I’m also running very late.
By the time I leave the flat it’s getting on for half past seven. I’m striding down Dewsbury Road whistling the latest British Sea Power tune before I realise I’ve forgotten the wine, bugger-bugger-bugger! Thank heavens for Tescos – of course I’d prefer a Waitrose, but the choice locally is Tescos or Spar and I’m not middle class enough to be ideologically precious about shopping. Bruce and Debs’ house is just around the corner and I can hear party noises as I turn into their small street. I don’t really know what to expect tonight, just there’s art, in a basement . . . it’s like a project. @debi_holbrook and @loubitheartist are in the garden (I think in Twitter these days.) I hand Debi my bottle of better than half price Merlot as I am stamped on the hand by one of Bruce and Debs kids and led away into the house by another.“Get yourself a glass” I yell over my shoulder, noticing Debi didn’t have a drink, a very unusual situation.
The kids seem to know what they are doing. I’m led into the back room, bare but for a rather low settee (well, everything is rather low for me I suppose) a microphone on a stand and a laptop. The artist introduces himself – Kim – I’m already envious of the hair and the stylish glasses! Kim types something into the Mac and tells me to sit forward, nearer the mic, and speak clearly the words “I am in this house.” I’m not one for public speaking and my usual verbal stand in and spoken word substitute, Sir Ivor Tymchak, has a previous engagement, so I decide to go along with it. How hard can five monosyllables be?
One take and I’m finished . . . a bit hoarse, slightly out of breath, definitely on the whispery side, but still I’ve done my short little sentence, audible and recognisable. Phew, I can get back to the wine. I smile at the kid who has been beaming at me all the while, “Right, you’re the boss, take me back to the kitchen . . . “
“Photo first,” she says, “you need to get your photo taken now.” Probably I groaned. Certainly my expression grew dark and troubled.
“Photo . . . really?” I turn to Kim who is already herding me towards the next stage and am about to launch into my “you’re the artist, I’m the audience; you do your job, I’ll do mine,” but I can already tell my usual anti-interactive spiel won’t wash in this context. This is someone’s house. It’ll seem simply churlish, like refusing to sit at the dinner table or tweeting while eating. Kim starts to explain the procedure . . . I’m trying to listen but my attention is grabbed by the possibility of wine – it’s been a long day, I’m in desperate need – so I just smile gormlessly and hope it’ll be over quickly. Kim takes the photo and tells me what to do. Verbal instructions just don’t sink in I’m afraid. Anything more than two sentences and I’m lost. Write it down and I can memorise whole pages with one skim reading but the sound of a human voice offering me instruction is as the sounding of brass and the tinkling of cymbals. Whatever it is I’m sure I’ll get someone to show me. Later.
After about an hour of wine and general chat Debs discovers that I haven’t been in the basement yet. Kim tells me that “someone” did my bit with the photo (I’m smiling but I still don’t quite get what it was I was meant to have done, though I know it involves string, Kim has mentioned string a couple of times, at least I think he said string . . . ) I feel bad. Ashamed at myself for not even attempting the basement (though in my defence the steps looked dark and my eyesight isn’t great) and annoyed that I haven’t even tried to join in with the interactive thing (though again there are good reasons I never do art, the main one being I’m frankly incompetent; why would anyone outsource the practicalities of making art to me? Just seems a bad idea.) Understandably Debs wants to show off the project. I brave the basement stairs . . .
First thing I notice is a printer. There’s a moment of confusion as I’m not sure if the printer is meant to be part of the art – quite frankly it’s a bog standard printer, so I’m wondering if there’s something special about the ink, or the position, or if perhaps I’m just being too literal. Then my eyes adjust a little. I notice something white and square in the centre of the room on the right. As I enter the room I catch sight of a face I recognise, smiling at me through the gloom . . . then it clicks about the photos and the string. Faces framed in polaroid sized photographs suspended from the ceiling – a very high ceiling (I try to touch it and just manage fingertips so I wonder how everyone managed to attach the tape that holds the string in place.) Kim told me my pic is in the corner somewhere – best place for it I’d have thought – and I try to locate it hoping maybe to deface it with a tash or a relatively rude speech bubble – sadly that’s the only kind of interaction I’m comfortable with, juvenile graffiti.
The photos, good as they are (thanks Kim, appreciated) don’t really do justice to the work. Probably because it’s in a basement – actually Bruce and Debs, it’s a cellar isn’t it? What’s wrong with cellar arts project eh? – there’s something a bit weird about the space. Domestic but dark, inside but not really part of the home, social but not somewhere you’d normally spend time, a place with potential but normally full of stuff that isn’t of much use, somewhere generally in a state of becoming something else (and Debs was full of ideas of what could happen in the space.) Genuinely uncanny in this case as there’s a mini house in there, bright white, with a TV.
A space made doubly disturbing by the loop of voices . . . I recorded this audioboo (ignore the first 6 seconds or so.) I bet I wasn’t the only one there who listened out for their own voice . . .
I’m not sure what will happen to the space once Kim vacates. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the place, it’s a fabulous idea.
As I was making my way home, back past some of the empty properties, now looking even more desolate and deserted in the glare of the unforgiving white streetlamps, it did strike me that what Bruce and Debs were doing in one little part of Beeston could be reproduced and magnified block by block, making Beeston a place of imagination and wonder . . . what if those abandoned unloved domestic spaces were given to artists, makers, poets and painters? What if, when we hurried along the mean streets of South Leeds we weren’t assaulted by ugliness, wreckage and human waste, too scared to stop and spend time with our neighbours, too worried what was around the next corner to care about conviviality . . . what if instead we had people like Kim doing something a bit wonderful, something that might get us talking to each other at least . . . what would it take to make that happen I wonder?