David’s Bookshelf – Issue One – Cup of Tea Tales
Sometimes it is good to take another look at the things that made us what we are. Being born in the mid-1950s means that we are creations of both the time and the place, and Leeds was a very different place from the way that it is today, but still has many similar features. Probably one of the main differences is the air. The air in modern times is nothing like the smoke filled air of the past where almost all houses burnt black coal in fireplaces. Every house had a heavy smell of coal and the buildings of Leeds were black stone. When I was young, I thought the stone was black, but in the sixties and seventies, coal fires disappeared and buildings were sandblasted, or pressure cleaned and revealed the original stone. The air quality was improved to the point that fog returned in winter rather than smog. The smog was green, dank and you could taste the pollution in the air as you breathed it in. The introduction of lead-free petrol also assisted in cleaning the air and saw a movement where the health of the population became a focus of change.
As a child, I never thought about such things. Life was just the way it was. I had no real concept of history, apart from Romans, knights in armour and Cowboys and Indians. My grandma’s house was older than ours and the fact she still had gas-lights, an outside toilet and coal fires, was just the way it was. Grandad and grandma were warm and cuddly and she cooked lovely meals. The only issue I ever had with her was when she decided to wash me. She would scrub you raw, and she definitely followed the adage that cleanliness was next to godliness. Even worse was when she would wash me standing in the kitchen sink, in full view of anyone walking past. Even the drying with a towel had a thoroughness that was on a par with the sandblasting of the stone buildings in Leeds. She would always ensure to thoroughly dry you ‘around the houses’ as she referred to the male anatomy. My older brother and I still loved to visit and, even better, she would take us to the pictures. The local was the Dominion at Chapel Allerton. We saw Dumbo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and many other films there and it was a treat. They were simple times and as a young boy, it was the simple things that we got great pleasure from. The Kia Ora drink, the tiny ice-cream tub with a wooden spoon. Nowadays, quantities are vast, in comparison, and the humble tiny chocolate bars are now family size blocks.
What we had at this period was freedom. We were sent out to play, and not just in our own gardens and constantly supervised. The streets were our playgrounds, and there was certainly less traffic. You didn’t find cars parked partly on the pavements all along the streets, and cricket, soccer, riding bikes, scooters and roller skating happened freely and, usually, safely. When a car or a van did come along, the game would stop, the vehicle would be allowed on its way and then we just returned. We didn’t have watches, but our stomachs told us when it was time to return for a meal, or a mother would yell down the street for their missing child to return.
As we got a little older, then it was the local woods or bit of waste ground that became our playgrounds, and again we were free to roam. It is such a shame that children do not enjoy the same freedoms today, but parents worry. I am not sure that the dangers have increased, just that we are all so much more aware of them nowadays. I can only speak from my own experiences, but I was in the scouts, church choir and I never experienced anything that made me scared or concerned.
The city of Leeds did have a dangerous edge to it, as did certain housing estates. The Gipton estate had a bit of a reputation, but I used to cross it on my own at night, going to and from St Wilfrid’s Church. Leeds city centre, though, was different, and I did see some street brawls, but they never impacted on me. I used to walk home from Leeds Poly late at night, often on my own and despite being a little nervous, I never saw anything to cause me concern. Maybe I was just lucky, and the bands at the Poly and other venues were worth the risk at the time. I know when I was in my twenties there was the Yorkshire Ripper period and I wouldn’t have walked the same routes if I was on my own.
Leeds was, and still is, surrounded by spectacular countryside. The Yorkshire nature seems to reflect the crags, fells, gorges and valleys of the Dales: hard, honest, forthright and with rough edges. We used to go on day trips to places such as the Cow and Calf, The Strid, The Chevin, Brimham Rocks, Arnscliffe Crag, Almscliff Crag, Malham Cove, and there each place had its own magic, a different ambience and hidden delights. We climbed, tunnelled between the boulders, had our adventures real and imaginary and wore ourselves out, much to our parents’ delight. Each spot was just a short car ride away and at those times they were not as busy as they now are. Sometimes you had the place to yoursef. It was magical!
Of course, there was the coast, and Leeds had the beauty of being just an hour and a quarter from Bridlington, Scarborough, Filey, Flamborough, Hornsey, North and South Landing, Danes Dyke, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and Sewerby. Each spot was unique and offered different excitement for us. Scarborough, with its two bays, had amusement arcades, beaches, donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows, cinemas, theatres and history. It had the Mere with the pirate ship, the Hispaniola with the hunt for treasure, outdoor swimming pool, outdoor theatre and Peasholm Park with the battle of the River Plate re-enactment. We were not a wealthy family, but by golly, did we have a good time, particularly if the weather was good! Flamborough had rugged cliffs, the lighthouse and, if lucky, the foghorn. We used to clamber over the rocks all over the coast, and search rock pools for sea urchins, crabs and starfish. At Bridlington, we went on the Bridlington Belle for trips along the coast, saw seals, and colonies of seabirds. We hunted for fossils, dodged the tide coming in as we clambered through sea-stack and caves. In my imagination, we were part of the Famous Five or Secret Seven, and expected to meet smugglers at any moment.
I guess I never appreciated how fortunate we were. We had a happy family with two parents who cared for each other and for us three boys. We laughed a lot, fell out a lot, sang in the car a lot and shouted with excitement a lot! My father, being Scottish, added a slightly different element to the Yorshireness of us all. He had the broadest of accents, and yet I never heard it until it was pointed out to me when I was at Roundhay School. He was just dad. He was famous for his holiday moods. It took a day or two for him to relax into a holiday. He started out quite morose, not saying much, but my brothers and I worked on him until, after a day or two, he became quite jolly. Mum would always try to keep the peace between us all, and on the whole, she succeeded.
The wider family only really came together at Christmas and my aunty on my mother’s side, who lived in Coventry, and later Kenilworth, would come for Christmas and Boxing Day. I loved this time as a child, but my mother found it a struggle. She hosted the party on Christmas Day and when we got a little older, she invited people from the church who would be on their own, an elderly man from further along in Gipton Wood Crescent, who would be on his own, Mr Benton, the choirmaster from St Wilfrid’s (an old Roundhay School boy) and Mr Waites, the driving instructor who became a family friend and these just added to her stress. The reality was that everyone had a good time, had a few drinks, a laugh, and then we did it all again the next day at my grandma’s in Chapel Allerton.
As I got older, I continued to visit the countryside, climbed and potholed, traipsed over the moors, studied what had shaped the countryside, the ice, the water and the people. I learnt about the building of the dry-stone walls, the ruined abbeys, castles and stately homes, and how the invading armies from Scandinavia, France, Rome and other places created the language, the names, the roads, the cities and fought battles. People in Yorkshire experienced the plague, saw the introduction of the Industrial age, the move from rural living to city and urban life, fought against change, endured religious wars, civil war and world wars. Yorkshire moulded the people, and the people shaped Yorkshire.
I guess wherever anyone is from, home has a deep impact on their lives, but I can only comment on my own experience. The largest county, one of the most varied landscapes, a people who share common attributes. Soft water, hard folk, beauty and dark satanic mills, culture and architecture, history and future, sport and literature, Yorkshire has it all! As we age, memories become more important and tinged with sadness for those who are no more. It was a place I chose to leave for adventure and it is a place that I love to return to. Under the present circumstances, I am not sure when I will be able to return, but I hope it won’t be too long, as I miss it.
The next collection of my tales will be available in book form soon. Cup of Tea Tales – The Teenage Years is currently being edited. If you like a thriller then Dead Men Don’t Snore, may be just the thing for you. The next book in the series, A Trembling of Finches is currently being written and is set in Leeds.