Guest blogger, Anthony Clavane (@LUFCPromised) writes a love letter to complex, contradictory 1970s Leeds in his new play.
The opening scene of ‘Promised Land’ – written by myself and Nick Stimson – is set in Leeds Station, May 1975. 37 years ago, a series of strange refereeing decisions prevented Don Revie’s great Leeds team winning the most prestigious bauble – apart from the World Cup – in football. In a parallel time zone, as Leeds fans are expressing their dismay, disgust, anger – and more – at being cheated out of their destiny, a bewildered Jewish immigrant arrives at the station. There is a sign, from the 1970s, bearing the legend: ‘Leeds: the Promised Land delivered.’ Then he sees a man with a handcart. The man turns out to be an Irish-Catholic boxer who speaks Yiddish. The man takes him to one of the worst slums in Leeds, the Leylands, just outside the town centre, also known as the Jewish ghetto. The former boxer says: “Mir zanen do.” Which is Yiddish for “We are here.”
Something, it seems to me, changed in May 1975. Leeds didn’t just lose a football match. They were, as the fans sing, “robbed, cheated, cursed”. The Damned United. Since then, the end of an era of glory on the pitch and transformation in the city, we have been waiting for our train to come in. The train was identified by 1960s’ and 70s’ northern realist writers, particularly those from west Yorkshire like Keith Waterhouse, David Storey and Tony Harrison, as a metaphor for escape. It was the way out of a psychological ghetto, if not a physical one. Just like, to me at least, the theatre and football worlds were back in the mid-70s; in my mid-to-late teens, I used to be an usher at Leeds Playhouse during the week and stand in the Elland Road Kop on a Saturday, often after going to the synagogue in the morning. At all three places I was “taken out of myself”, into the worlds of the past – the synagogue – the present – Elland Road – and the future – the theatre (this was a great moment of astonishing new northern writing by Bleasdale, Russell, Griffiths et al). All three expressed different sides of my identity. By themselves, they restricted me. Together, as a compex, contradictory whole, they defined me.
The two lead characters of ‘Promised Land’ are Nathan and Caitlin and they, as a combination of personalities, represent a complex, contradictory whole. Let us, for the sake of brevity, call it ‘Leedsness’. Nathan is a young, Jewish, north Leeds, middle class, Leeds United-mad idealist who want to be a writer. Caitlin is a young, Irish-Catholic, south Leeds, working class, Leeds United-hating singer-songwriter who protests against racism and fascism and wants to “make it” – to find herself – to make people listen. She believes the only way to realise her potential is to leave Leeds and move to London. Nathan is undecided about this. They become friends and then lovers.
Of course, there are echoes of Billy Liar, but the aim of the play is a lot broader. It is a love letter to Leeds. But it anatomises, as well as celebrates, Leedsness. I still haven’t decided where I stand on Leedsness. Leedsness was coined by Mick McCann to describe having a strong sense of place, a strong sense of pride and belonging, but also a fatalism, a stoicism, a feeling that this place you feel ever so proud of will never ever fulfil its potential. It’s what I describe in my book ‘Promised Land: A Northern Love Story ’ as the two contradictory narratives of Leeds: we are destined to be the greatest – but we will never be the greatest. For we are Leeds. The ‘Promised Land Delivered’ sign can be read in two different ways. As cocky and self-satisfied or as taking the mickey. My attitude lies somewhere in between.
The Jewish immigrants, like the Irish before them and the Afro-Caribbean and Asian after them, brought an energy, drive and movement to Leeds. In helping to transform Leeds, how ‘Leeds’ have they become? They started off as outsiders, arriving by train at Leeds station, and they have become inside-outsiders, not quite Leeds. My ancestors arrived by train; I left – 30 years ago – by train. Leeds Station is still, has always been, a place of comers and goers, appearances and disappearances, arrivals and departures. Like the city itself. It was built on the sweat of strangers in the late nineteenth century – Yorkshire, Irish, Scottish, Jewish sweat – and reinvented by migrants in the twentieth century. It is slam bang in the middle of Britain, equidistant between Edinburgh and London and Hull and Liverpool. It is, in my mind at least, a microcosm of belonging, holding up a mirror to what it really means to be British in the twenty-first century.
‘Promised Land’ is about big themes and abstract ideas. But is also a funny, poignant, at times frightening, human story about a boy and a girl falling in love with each other and – possibly – out of love with their city. In the 70s, as Caitlin says there was the Ripper, the riots and the recession. The three Rs. There is a reason why David Peace set his astonishing Red Riding quartet in Leeds and its surrounds. But Britain itself was fracturing. The old post-war consensus was dying; a new world – of Thatcherite thuggery – was yet to be born.
So what was a boy or girl, or a boy and a girl to do? Get on the train? Leave behind their woes, escape to – away from? – the Promised Land?
Watch this space.
‘Promised Land’ is on at The Carriageworks, Leeds from June 22nd to 30th – book now to avoid disappointment.
40 local people have been cast by Red Ladder Theatre Company in this new adaptation and film-maker Simon Glass is making a documentary of the process – watch the latest installments here.