THE LANDS OF MY CHILDHOOD
I am leaving the holy city of Leeds
For the last time for the first time
Leaded domes of minarets in Kirkgate
Market, the onion-dome of Ellerby Lane
School, the lands of my childhood empty
Or gone. Market stalls under wrought
Iron balconies strewn with roses and
Green imitation grass, a girl as beautiful
As the sun who might be Margaret’s
Daughter or Margaret herself half a
Lifetime earlier, with straw-gold hair
The colour of lank February grass.
Cook’s Moor End Works with three broken
Windows, lathes and benches open to the
Wind of my eyes this Sunday morning as I
Fly over the cobbles of Leeds nine to the
Aire’s side, the steps broken under the weight
Of the Transpennine Trail; forty years ago
I stood here with Margaret who whispered
In my ear, “I love you, I love you”.
Margaret, where are you?
Great timbered escarpments over green and grey
Terraces to the rolling sky following the shiny way
To the Cimarron in the purple distance.
Margaret, I am making you of sun and shadow,
Of harp and violin, silk and satin skin,
Bluebell and harebell, sand and wave, grass
On the hillocks of the Hollows, the violet
Tears of your eyes.
Breath and rhythm
Now and always
Heart and head
Bride and mother.
The heron on high stilts through the sky
Over the Band of Hope Annual Treat
Margaret and I, sitting together at the front
Of the green corporation bus to Garforth
Past Crossgates council houses, the bare
Hedges of Leeds left behind, the green fields
Rushed at us waving as we joined them riding
Through all the years of our days.
We hunted thimbles in hedges and kissed in
A hidden copse; there was ice cream to buy
But none of us had money so they gave
It away and that was how I understood
Christianity, make everything free, just give
It away, treasure on earth can only rust,
Heaven is a Band of Hope Treat with
Margaret and me and everything for free.
South Leeds was poverty and poetry, cellars
and magical stone step
Paths to paradise, concrete floors with earth
Showing moon craters through, stone breasts
Of an Indian goddess, a rusty cobbler’s last
And green wire-mesh keeping safe.
Every other week coalmen with grimed faces
And flashing eye-whites heaved half-hundred
Weight sacks, the grate’s chains loosened
Like a raised portcullis, motes of choking
Dust in the rays of sun. There was a secret
Way with loose bricks into every house
Like an underground network of paths,
Arteries and veins of my ten year old heart.
The kitchen was wartime brown and green, a
Brick boiler in a corner lit once a week
For washing and once for bathing with the
Scrubbed ribs of the bath top, pot sink and
Cooking with a Yorkist range blackleaded
Every day and blackberrying down Knostrop
With thorns pricking blood from our fingers
Like the wicked witch in the wood and jam
Jar fulls of frogspawn on the windowsills.
The Roundhouse at Holbeck
Housed the engines of Empire
Kirkstall Forge hammered out
Axles and bogeys for wagons
Yellow flames in the velvet
Dark with the great wheel stuck
In the earth for two hundred
Years; when a man jammed in the
Casting shed his body was half
Melted down and those who got
Him out went on a whisky
Spree before they could drag
His body free.
Standard I’s Miss Gibbons was
Like a crinkled leaf in her
Sere brown dress packed with
Cracked parched skin and thin
Ringless fingers. “She’s wearing
Falsies”, the boys whispered
To the girls as she fiddled
Ceaselessly. She had us learn
The Psalms by heart a whole
Hour every day, it took me a
Whole half century to find
They were poems like mine.
Auntie Nellie was the best mother I never had
I spent my childhood at her house, not our’s,
It was always light and bright and warm
The tablecloth like a blanket of comfort
With a plate of cream biscuits just within
My reach, ‘Peg’s Paper’ and ‘The News of the World’
And Zane Grey from the Strand Library and the
Coal fire hissing and burning yellow and orange.
Once a mouse came out and sat looking at auntie
Nellie, who stood in frozen terror a whole half hour
Until I wandered in and it scuttled away. One Saturday
Uncle Arthur dropped a smouldering match back
In the box and the whole lot flamed and flared
And for an hour we shared the room with swelling
Smoke. And when I had to have a tooth out it was
Only Auntie Nellie I would trust to tie it with
Cotton to a door knob, shut it fast and pull.
Tony Harrison, you write hard
While I write soft about
Our common Leeds; we share
A hatred of all grammar schools.
You see Luddite blood while
I dream of Margaret’s first
Menstruation; you see the Aire
As slime, to me it was the
Halcyon’s nesting ground.
The Kardomah Cafй
Breathed a smell of coffee
You caught a street away
A roaster in the window
Kept bursting into flames
Like the sudden poems
I write when my feet
First touch South
Accommodation Road on
Saturday morning and I
Scour the Hollows for you
Margaret, queen of my
Ten year old heart
Among the tansies
And the broken sills.
My trouble was I’m not
Really working class,
I never was, we never were,
It was an accident of war
My family landing there;
I’ve got no working class
Leeds uncles and aunts,
A family needs a family
To fall back on but
We had none, no aunts
In Hunslet streets
With daughters who’d
Take their knickers
Down for me with the
Excuse of having to wee.
Morning disappeared in sunlight
In shadows of Kirkgate Market
Motes of light birthed me and
Brought me to consciousness
Of chaos and calm.
There was the green mesh
Of a keeping safe
In the cellars
Of my childhood.
There was a stone
From the lands
Empty or gone.
Margaret, there was
Stardust in the seadark
Your face in Primavera,
Primavera, gold of Masaccio,
Gold, gold of Fra Angelico.
Your hair, your touch, your laughter
Running over the water, spilling
Down the steps to the Aire.
Middleton Woods took me by surprise
Drying the tears of my eyes one Saturday
In late August, in fields of carnations
Below the faience tiles of Kirkgate Market
Dahlias and chrysanthemums, pink and maroon,
The lemon yellow sheen of the sun.
Murphy’s Everything-a-Pound stall
“Oh no it isn’t, Oh yes it is!”
City Lights tumblers, Big Top mugs,
Ireland flagons, Octavian glasses,
We must clear
All nice gear
Royal Crystal Clear
It isn’t far to the wacky bazaar –
“Cadbury’s Curly Whirlies ten a pound.”
John Dion, I prefer
To your’s, they are
More rare and far
There were pigeons on the roof
So still I thought they were stone
Grey and brown and slate-blue
Made me think of you.
So far away I thought of you
On a morning like this forty
Years ago I was waiting at the
Corner of Falmouth Place
And you came running and my heart
Was still as the sun as you spun
On the tips of your toes and the rose
In your hair is everywhere
And your laughter is Spring, eternal
Primavera under the gaslamps
Of Leeds Nine.
Autumn in the air
And God has put it there
Wills Star cigarettes
On a gable ending
In South Leeds
All roads bending
Towards you, Margaret,
Sitting on a park bench
Counting Autumn’s coming
By the beating of your heart:
I am the harp of Aeolus
Listening to the river dream.
The only games I ever liked
Were on our street, hop scotch
Squares we jumped for luck,
Rainbow chalk, catch-and-kiss
I’d never miss, hide-and-seek
With heads buried against the
Folded house walls, relievo
Running and touching and
Scattering fast round
A gateway blocked for fifty years
By a standing elm opened a way
For the dead to come through:
See how they stretch and set forth
In cloth caps and Sunday suits
Fresh from their graves amidst
A grove of trees in Chapeltown
Where the downwind strokes the
Backs of leaves.
Margaret, I have
Carved your image in mother-of-pearl
Beauty like no other born.
Of the Muse, make me sing.
Arthur Pickersgill, I remember
The night of your dying, Auntie
Nellie came crying to our door
To beg a sheet to lay you out
A night of storms and the unfathomable
Darkness of death, your worn pocket watch
Lying on the table, your Sunday suit
Folded over a carved chair back.
For twenty years you sat watching
The fire, the chiming clock kept
Twenty minutes fast, caught up
With you at last.
Death, you will drag me screaming
From the back of Leeds market
At closing time when suddenly
For seconds the electric dimmed
And gas lights flared again and I
Remembered when coal fires glowed
In every stall and costers’ wives
In shawls drank tea in china mugs.
I want a poetry
Bitten back from the tongue
Or spat like phlegm
Into the fire back
In a language that has
Centuries of speechBurned into tree
Bark and exposed to
Weathering like stones
In hillside farms.
I want a poetry
Like cobbles in rain
And molten like a river
If the sources of Aire
Are veiled in mystery
She is hardly to blame
Barges brimful of coal
And iron-ore look
Just the same.
‘Leeds for dirt and vulgarity’ –
The canal banks wor like a carpet
O’breet colours – an th’river ran below
Shaded wi’ trees under which th’ground
Seemed covered wi’ a claad ov hyacinths –
May soa thick on thorn trees wol they
Lukt as if they’d been in a snow storm.
Or to see Kirkgate Market
As Matisse or Derain
And hear its sounds
As Takemitsu or Hoddinott:
Ghost of MacDiarmid, rise with me and light
The dodecaphonic bonfire this All Hallows Night!
Auntie Nellie, will you come
For one last cal on your way
To the binyard with the slop bucket;
Call in one last time before winter
Falls and shops and stalls are packed
With plain and fancy tree balls;
Tell me about Mrs. Pearson’s last laying out
Or the final strip of wallpaper she hung
Before they knocked the houses down
And I was too old for teddy,
Watching him go tied with a bow
To the back of the bin lorry,
His hair as sparse as snow
Around the gaslamp’s glow.
Dip, dip, dip
My blue ship
Sailing on the water
Like a cup and saucer
Dip, dip, dip
By the Hilton Hotel
I sat down and wept:
They were burning the sleepers
Under the rusting crane
Making a pyre so hot and red
I thought the very air had bled.
This is no land for me
I who have seen Excalibur
Pulled from the living tree
I who have drunk the wine
Of Margaret’s memory.