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Tuesday, 27 April 2010

In Defence of the Fleece - An Anti-Travellogue

"Clickety-clak, clickety-clak!" reverberates around the station as I await the delayed 17.38. "Tshppt! Tshhppt!" accompanies the arrival of every train as the platform gets increasingly packed. "Fizz! Fizz!" says the air, leaden under the weight of additional, odorous particles.

Not, you understand, "Clickety-clak! Clickety-clak" of steel wheels on steel track, but the "clickety-clak! clickety-clak!" of they're-in-fashion-so-I'll-wear-them high heels on marble, as the new emancipated woman returns home after a day at work. And not the "tshppt! tshppt!" of steam engines gently idling, or even clever carriage doors opening, but the "tshppt! tshppt!" of a million office-worker 'tut's" at every imagined inconvenience. And not even the "Fizz! Fizz!" of energized industrial particles making busy with their doings, but instead the "Fizz! Fizz!" of oxygen, carbon dioxide and water molecules breaking down under the sheer weight of day-old perfume, body odour, bad coffee and tramp's piss in doorways just next to the toilets.

Of course, I am in Leeds station, my second most unfavourite place on Earth, apart from Leeds proper, that is. And, after a long absence from the place, I realise that my impressions of England, after a protracted abscence were possibly - no! definitely dammit - coloured by the fact that the first place I had intimate acquaintance with on this island, after six months of depressing unemployment, was this town. I could'nt have chosen a worse place to reacquaint myself with the planet's eighth largest economy. In short, I have since learnt to discriminate, and after a week's abscence I am desperate to get home to beautiful, friendly, small, cutting edge Hull. It is a sentence that I did not think I would ever utter, even from before I could think, but Hull is great. Especially compared to Leeds.

Understandably, that there is a difference between the two places may be lost on some. THey are both, if known at all outside England, just places on a map. But in that they are just places on a map lies many of the reasons I hate Leeds. Hull knows it is a small town on the margins of England and just gets on with, doing its own thing, and in doing so is unpretentious, unconcerned with image, and secure in its poverty.

Leeds, on the other hand has goals. It is trying to transform itself from a dirty-grey powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution to a "destination". It has targets. It desperately wants to be corporate. It is a "city" where "things" happen, deals get done and the business card tells its inhabitants who they are. People go to meetings in Leeds, incessantly, and they love Barcelona because of the "design" but they cant name any artists. The magnificent Victorian buildings of detail and solidity that once dominated the city centre have been replaced by angular pastel architecture - mostly temporary regional headquarters for minor multi-nationals just waiting for the next tax-incentive in the next town. The business quarter consists of the outline traces of narrow medieval roads, with 14 storey tower blocks squeezed into place where merchant offices once sat comfortably. These cobbled streets are fed by fast highways and a motorway that cuts right through the middle of town which makes the cars transition from 70 to 20 mph almost instantaneous. Consequently, the fat middle aged men behind the wheels of the sporty BMW's (trying for all the world to look as if they should be driving these cars) that flit around Leeds make no attempt at transition. It's just 70, then stop. A cyclist and pedestrian's nightmare.

Did I mention I dont like Leeds? Not the people - I have no judgement of them, apart from that architecture and civic aspiration might explain why the place is just so unfriendly and uncultured. The down town bars are all immaculately clean, ultra-designed and fake titanium, so there's not a square inch of intimacy anywhere in the city centre, the interiors so shiny they echo harshly. You have to shout to be anyone in Leeds. On many evenings, I trailed the Crosstowner through this desert during my employment and after a while I longed to see someone among the cardiganed crowd who's clothes were practical, not ironic, or whose hair had been just cut (at a barbers) instead of being styled. "If civilization collapsed tonight", I would think to myself " then these people are entirely inappropriately dressed".

For the moment, the nightmare of Leeds is abated. I, eventually, return to Hull, the train having gone from sardine packed during its trawl through Leed's commuter belt to just dangerously overcrowded as it pulls into Paragon station. The remaining commuters relax visibly, suits crumpling unstylishly. Dressed-to-the-nines office divas head for the run-down boozers of Hull's tiny, crumbling old town, shedding the second skin that working in the metropolis has forced on them. I stroll through the casual, tattooed, slow moving crowd, bumping into three of my pupils and explain that I cant go for a beer now as I've been away, but definitely next time. I get a taxi back to Large Mansions and it heads off in entirely the wrong direction, but eventually bumbles it's way to my house, the driver chatting all the way. I count, and only see one BMW en-route, and its not silver.

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