The city has its grids This is one where the sun is absorbed
The disc itself fades far off in the distance behind towers behind seas Here though, bookended by two busy roads of bars, restaurants, entertainment halls Are running as warps to their weft smaller streets Taking you up and down one of the city’s few hills
A rare space of peace in the city Quiet streets some still Georgian cobbled, mewsed Punctuated by pubs nestling in corners Pubs which give it lifeblood Boxes of energy in otherwise often silent throughfares
This is one of those places in the city though, where the energy lies buried waiting to be dug up
All the faded red brick Cracked paving stones Black painted iron Even occasional marble and contemporary pre-fab capture the sun as it retreats
As the gold and red bounces off surfaces Reflects in dark glass and double yellow lines Brings brief heat to alley beer gardens and casts shadows long and lean
Sweat pricks brows nearing the top High enough to watch the disc slide away from view Leaving only the vast blood and honey glow
As you look back down the long straight vista and up beyond it to the distance the buildings step down beneath
That energy though flowing through the streets warp and weft The ghosts of dwellers and idlers, prophets and priests, of the past Remains even after dark
Where can we find this powerhouse then? The concrete cooling towers of coal fired power, as they switch off one by one, are now more likely to be found in coffee table books than looming over the Northern landscape. Reverence only for our everyday once it becomes something safe and of the past.
Travelling transpennine isn’t just going through the peaks and troughs of the mountain range that divides east and west, it’s also a journey though the sites of the birth and death of Industrial Empire Britain. Those battles may have been sketched on the playing fields of Eton, but the cannon, and the cannon fodder, came from here, not down near Slough.
Northern clichés are ten a penny and mainly now something for clips on beer pumps and museums of social history. Silk union banners, pigeon racers, brass bands. All still there, but increasingly cultures of the past kept going not thriving. This of course is still much of what academia and the media want to pick over, as its easier than dealing with the contemporary cultures of hip hop from Hull or boy racers from Burnley.
Culture and place rarely stay still. Even in the rural spots that can seem idyllic from the trains that grumble through the landscape, the agrarian was often long ago replaced by the Range Rover commuter and the loft conversion firm owner. Things shift even faster in the cities. In Manchester and Leeds, you pass through clean modern stations, see towers and tower cranes soaring, all looking VIBRANT for CONTEMPORARY LIVING.
Yet on our route, where once a variety of specialised economies brewed particular cultures, now a few graduates are concentrated into the biggest conurbations, while the places they left struggle ever more. While culture rarely stays still, in some places it stops being renewed and begins to fall back in on itself. Looking always to the better times of the past, even if they weren’t that much better for most, because of the lack of a coherent present.
You cannot explain to someone who has not experienced it, the collective psychological damage to the people of a place when you remove from them its reason to exist. When the new replaces the old and gradually becomes the way of life, agrarian to commuter village, industrial city to financial one, someone always loses in those shifts. But as people are born and die and the social and physical landscape changes, leaving traces of the past to be wondered at, there is at least a sense of moving forward. In many places though and definitely as we move transpennine, there’s a sense not of change, but of growing wreck and continued loss that has hit many places.
Transpennine is a landscape you struggle not fly through and so much of it is suffering from being in the wrong part of a country with a logjammed imagination. The Pacer trains, lest we forget just bus bodies fastened to freight wagon frames, may finally be shuffling off, but the gulf between rich and poor, North and South remains as crude and uncomfortable as those trains. Fractured transport links take us through fractured locations. Places which once thrived, but at the stroke of many faraway pens over many years, have been rendered down. Once it seemed that the grim post-industrial tide could be contained. Single out the few places which had ‘failed to adapt’. An odd city, a few towns, all those mining villages swiped for the Thatcherite victory. Too bad for them. It couldn’t happen here. Yet, one by one, more places were hit. Write them all off, don’t include them in the glossy proclamations of the future, then the bitterness grows and grows.
The people in these places can see the future too. The arse end version of it. The Digital HQ in Manchester, the Digital Warehouse in Doncaster. The chosen and the not chosen. In the cities flush with capital, anti-capitalism grows. Too much money, too much petrol poured on the bonfire of development. All those deals signed in fauxthentic bars with big lightbulbs. Each handshake another nail in somewhere that doesn’t light up on investors radars. While those left on the other side of the glass, nursing broken promises of education on a Deliveroo bike, are driven by the need for change. In these cities there’s so much power and wealth, it can seem like all you need to think about is how to seize it.
Outside the chosen places though, capitalism might mean the one last shiny factory which pays well. Controlled by a faraway head office and let’s say it makes something to do with war or pollution or both, but what if there is nothing else left? Try telling the people who live there it should be abolished. When so much else has been hollowed out, fallen into malign decay after years of broken promises. Football teams struggling to survive outside of the Premier League elite. The boarded pub, the empty shops, all those building societies liquidated for the benefit of The City, and the civic, the long, poor battered civic. No longer the proud striding constructors of fine buildings all pushing to a better tomorrow. Now desperate for Government aid to even keep the streetlights on. And when everything is in decline, trying to believe in a more equitable and brighter future is hard. Especially when your young people often leave. Even in the cities of glass they head for though, the disquiet increases. They grew the middle class but didn’t lift up the left behind. The homeless an ever-constant reminder you cannot hide from the poverty in this country. Even for the middle class, the DESIREABLE suburbs are increasingly out of reach, along with the permanent contract and the final salary pension. The university fees, the good schools. The fear grows. The anxiety never leaves.
Yet despite all that weighs down, there is still a beauty ever under-appreciated and unacknowledged. From the immense flat vastness of East Riding, like Kansas made Yorkshire, bits of it crumbling away every day trying to find the lost link to the Netherlands. To the West, the arrival in Liverpool, cathedrals soaring out of the density of terraces before the descent into the dramatic dark cutting in and out of shafts out of light towards Lime Street. In between the two, all those mills that built the place and then left them. Cotton and wool. Wool and cotton. Cloth, like many things, something we actually still need but decided that we no longer needed to make. The mills fate too, divided between places chosen and not chosen. In the bright spots converted into startup complex No.32 or Urban Luxury Living. Elsewhere though LOW DEMAND FOR PROPERTY and LIMITED RETURN ON INVESTMENT means being left rotting or crudely subdivided MOTOR REPAIRS UNIT TO LET DANCING STUDIO LABELS WHILE U WAIT. But mostly TO LET.
What was formed on this route from the land and how we shaped the land itself too. From the expansive shires, their land-owning gentry going back Yea, even unto the Middle Ages. The rain of Manchester to stop the breaking of the thread. Yorkshire mills on hills next to river courses. The vast estuary ports feeding all those needs. Poets cried as industry scared the landscape, the extraction of coal, the rising of those dark satanic mills and squalid cities. Yet from that darkness rose everything we know and the fragments of which we still hold dear, the grand buildings, the railways and avenues. Yet it was all built on the belief of endless growth and the exploitation of faraway colonies. They thought the landscape was being destroyed by the mills, now we mourn their loss. The industrial terrain reduced to ruins like all those Yorkshire abbeys painted by Turner. Yet the postmodern shopping cathedrals built to replace the factories now too are running empty. Even shorter lived, crumbling visions of our once new consumer future. Arcadia it seems never really existed. An easy lie, the corruption and iniquity of the past forgotten as we absorb only the positive images of what has gone before. Passing still through our civic centres though, even if cuts have left their scars from endlessly deferred maintenance and damp in the walls, you can still see where we tried to build Jerusalem. Now we’re told, who will pay for Jerusalem, son? Step off the train. Where to from here? Become a London satellite or a forgotten corner? Things get worse, things fall apart? Is there an alternative, some threat to the Capital’s status quo, like when industry thundered from the North like a sonic boom? A Wind Turbine Factory for every town? Maybe, but not likely. One day perhaps they will build a fast train for us to cross this landscape, see all this and each other that much quicker, that much easier. Yet it is not enough. If we are to thrive again it is down to us. If we want to live, if we want to be heard, if we want to be different then we must build our own future across this post-industrial land. All of us, not just the chosen few. Our way. Across this spine. Transpennine. This piece was published in Issue 5 of Lune Journal in July 2021.
– I never thought I’d live in the countryside. – This isn’t the countryside, it’s the edge of a city.
In Yorkshire though, the rural and the urban have a more indistinct relationship than elsewhere. Something not always appreciated by those born there. For those of us who moved in though, the ability to walk in an hour from Bradford city centre to, yes, up on a wild and windy moor, is not taken for granted.
The place that meant most though, was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I’d known the same waterway at its other end too. Liverpool though, is a river city, dominated in every way by the huge estuary. The canal there is an afterthought, just another body of still water amongst the many docks.
In West Yorkshire though, the canal has a central function, having helped define the districts and towns that it passes through. The shape of the cities too. When I shifted once more in my life, this time from London to the outskirts of Bradford, the Leeds-Liverpool became, by accident, hugely important to me.
Another canal, the Regents, had played a significant role in my brief time living in London. The dense urbanity of East London was exhilarating. To the point when I sometimes had to grip to manage the intensity of feeling. Like it had been in Liverpool too at its absolute best, but that was a deeper, more personal feeling of shared experience, communal understanding and expression. In London, it was an external force and you knew you were just a tiny cog spinning in it, which had its own allure. The canal represented calm in London. A long straight place to head along without a particular purpose. Somewhere to burn off energy when collected fears and ghouls and ideas threatened to overwhelm.
Moving from Bethnal Green Road to Bradford district meant no longer trains to Liverpool Street thundering past the front of my flat, instead expansive fields and skies. The canal though was a rare constant and still a place for mental space. In London, this had meant a deep walk through every shade of urban life, in that city now mostly polished to within an inch of its life. In West Riding though, it was a walk through increasing ruralness, striding into ever wider, open spaces. All along the way, the black and white mile posts at various angles of lean, reminding me that my origins in Liverpool were just a, long, walk away.
Without needing a car, the canal was a place to head where tension could be felt lifting from the shoulders, often with every step. Where tasks, troubles and frustrations could be put aside to go deeper about ourselves and everything else. On the surface, a straight graded route next to the murky mirror shimmer of water which required no thought or strain to navigate. Really though it is a winding, up and down route through the path of least resistance. The idea of this once deeply capitalistic functional waterway, now vintage leisure route, as a way of working out a way through lives which had involved some wandering and some extremes, was not lost on us. The passage of time felt slowed and so better to consider it.
It helped. Both of us. Not having to think about the direction helped us to figure out where we should be going. Sometimes, breathing in as we passed further out with nothing around but fields sweeping away in the distance into hills, that same exhilaration again. Where you almost need to grip something, but now, sucking in fresh air rather than the dense electric hum of the city.
There have been more moves since, but I find somehow the canal keeps coming back. A much needed place to pace along the path of least resistance and think about then, now, the future, nothing at all.
Lying on my back on a bunk bed, on a very long, very bare train. Going a very long way through a very bare landscape a long way from anywhere.
At this point, I’d been travelling on it for so many days, that whenever the train stopped and I briefly stepped onto the terra firma of a platform to buy food, I had sea legs. Well, train legs. So used to the constant shaking and rhythm of the railway journey that, removed from it, everything seemed unbalanced and off kilter.
Being on a train for so long, there is nothing but time. To be filled in many ways. Looking out for the arresting moments between endless tress and endless desert. Games. Chat. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Someone brought a laptop with downloaded films and music, which in back then seemed over the top and now seems like common sense.
With me always being a late adopter, I’d brought books. Although like everyone else I’d been very affected, if not traumatised, by the animated film, I’d never actually read Watership Down. She had recommended it in her usual passionate way, so I thought, why not get a copy for my travels. In what was no doubt another daft attempt at maintaining a connection.
So, with an incongruity recognised by myself and others, I found myself reading a novel about anthropomorphic rabbits filled with descriptions of the lush, green and wet English countryside, whilst sat on a train going through the depths of dry, summer, eastern Siberia. With this being August, Siberia of course was nothing like the snow covered images of popular culture. A week earlier we had sunbathed near the Kremlin. As you do. It was odd but all the more vivid to be down the, er, rabbit hole, of this book about the loss of an arcadian England, whilst being on the other side of the world in a moving metal box going through a striking but unforgiving landscape.
Of course, wherever you go though, you are still you. I dived into the depths of this book and this journey, trying to concentrate on reading whilst also sucking in the vast stream of everyone and everything going past. On this bunk in the quiet afternoon though, in the world of rabbits as the eternal human struggle, I still found myself thinking of her and the chest pressing gulp of the pain swept back in.
Back then though, the wider world seemed brighter. This journey just another example of it opening up ever further, ever faster. Here we were crossing continents, a multiplicity of backgrounds filled with camaraderie, in a world of expanding global interconnection, dialogue and understanding.
Yet the warnings of how thin a veneer this all was were already on display here. A guide telling us of the racism he experienced all the time. Russians more than happy with Putin telling us ‘we need a strong leader’. The call to Free Pussy Riot provoking indifference, ‘they shouldn’t have behaved like that in a church.’ No one likes us, we don’t care. What now stares us in the face as the growing threat to democracy in the 21st century was all there lurking in the background. We had thought then perhaps that this was just the leftovers of an old world that was dying. Really though, the post 2008 trauma was still just sinking in. The thwarted ambitions and dreams of millions, many struggling now even for a basic standard of living. Their sense of injustice ruthlessly diverted to other targets by those in power, so they could maintain the status quo, despite its diminishing returns for the majority.
The world has turned darker in the last decade. So many of the places we visited then, even if it still possible, we might not choose to now. Borders going back up. Minorities oppressed. Rights shredded. History coming roaring back to bite. Wherever you go, you are still you and you take your experience and culture with you. Sometimes though, what you see when you go elsewhere follows you back home much later.
Those 1950s American cars are a key symbol of Cuba under Communism, giving a bit of old glamour to all those Lonely Planet images and travel documentaries. They’re real enough, seen all over Havana. Many however are like ‘Trigger’s Broom’ – having had so many parts replaced they’re more new than old. There’s no denying though that they’re still cool. In Cuba, they are a key part of that desire for ‘difference’ that attracts people to a place. And their owners are only too keen to earn some extra cash taking visitors for a ride along the sea drive, the Malecon, under the sun and close to the spray of waves.
Less well photographed though are the Ladas. The reason the old American cars are still there of course, has largely been the lack of something to replace them, due to the ongoing economic blockade. Though now they’re so famous they are likely to always remain, as visitors will always want something of the past that meets their expectations. The Ladas from Mother Russia though, were the main replacement car for all those decades after the Revolution. They were popular locally for their ruggedness and relative modernity, though of course the Ladas themselves are now also ancient. While less well known as a symbol of Cuba, Ladas are a big part of the modest traffic that runs around Havana, in particular being used heavily as taxis.
I had little naivety about Cuba’s ‘alternative’ system. While there’s a general lack of the hunger and homelessness that marks much of the UK, in turn you are faced with a Government which tolerates no alternative political parties or dissent and heavily restricts its citizens. While basic needs are generally met, the standard of living is also low. Those old cars may have a certain romance and now a tourist income for their owners, but having to constantly repair a forty year old refrigerator has less allure.
The famous free education in Cuba also doesn’t always translate into liberation. In my final Lada taxi to the airport I spoke at length with the driver. He had a master’s degree in IT but saw little point in using it in Cuba when he could make more money by driving. As well as have more freedom, not having to work for the state. He talked about how he felt his education was wasted and how, like many, he wanted to leave. In turn he asked me about IT work in the UK. I said as far as I knew, it was well paid, but highly competitive. And that a lot of IT jobs were now being ‘offshored’ to other countries where labour was cheaper. He was aware also that we had to pay for university and asked how much it would cost to study for an IT masters. It took me a bit of time to work out the maths and then convert it into to Cuban currency. He was aghast at the expense. “Yes, it’s a real problem,” I said. “Especially if you’re from a poor background.”
We were pretty quiet after that as we did the final leg towards the airport, pondering the madness of our two systems. Neither of which anyone really believes in anymore, both slowly falling apart. This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in September 2020.
The relationship between Liverpool and Ireland is well documented. The relationship between Liverpool and Wales less so, yet just as deep. At one point, Liverpool had the largest urban settlement of Welsh speakers. From teaching to building to retail, the Welsh were a key part of the region’s fabric. The National Eisteddfod was held several times in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Relations were not always cosy though. In particular when Liverpool Corporation constructed the Llyn Celyn reservoir over the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn, helping fuel Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. Liverpudlians too, were also part of Wales. From the earliest opportunities the working class had for holidays, Wales represented open space, clear air, leisure and countryside.
Even now, Liverpool may no longer represent the economic powerhouse for Wales, especially as Cardiff has grown, but it’s still the closest major urban settlement to North Wales. A place to study, to go out, to shop. While, despite the advent of cheap flights, Wales remains popular for holidays and days out. And both still hold a pull to each other, particularly for the young of each place, long after cars replaced paddle steamers as the quickest route between the two.
Possessing dramatic landscapes and cultures fired with passion and poetry, they are places separate but intertwined. Hills and tall buildings just visible through the distance on brighter days from up high. For populations with experiences so different, how each viewed the other was and is so much about perception, projection, longing. The Welsh idea of Hiraeth, is something many from Merseyside are also familiar with even if they couldn’t put a name to it. A bittersweet longing for homeland, for a lost golden age, even by those who never knew it or never left in the first place. A yearning to return to something which no longer exists, or maybe never did, but is a feeling which always remains.
In urban Merseyside, Wales is a place to escape to. Peace and space and blinding light. The intensity of openness. A bucolic place of nature, of school outward bound adventures, as much about crisps and kissing as mountain climbing and canoeing. Cheap, accessible holidays and golden if chilly beaches. The romantic weirdness of Portmeirion. Steam trains that go from nowhere to nowhere but at least the landscape looks pretty. This though, of course, ignores the vast holiday industry driven by Merseyside, Manchester and Birmingham, the undulating, boxy sea of caravans along the coast. There are the pseuds too who pretend they’re not tourists, that claim they come for the ‘real Wales’. What is real North Wales though? There’s the real of lakes, mountains and beaches, but also the real of intensive agriculture, nuclear power stations, Japanese factories and RAF jet bases. The holiday parks too are just as real.
In North Wales, Liverpool is a place to escape to, especially for the young. Noise and density and blinding lights. The intensity of urbanity. The possibilities are bigger in London of course, but also much further and harder away. Good times, clubs and music, different people and alternative cultures. Freedoms away from small town oppression. Anonymity and maybe even opportunity. A life closer to the edge, even if it’s easier to fall off. But of course, what is the ‘real Liverpool?’ All of this but also, pleasant suburbs, vast parks, technology hubs and polished shopping centres, like so many others. What both places have is a fierce awareness of themselves and their cultural uniqueness, but that sometimes blinds to what is more universal and what is shared. As well as that, living in cultures so strong, can create a drive for some to escape from it.
The city in the distance. The hills in the distance. The distance is what matters, near but far. Something to daydream of, to work towards, to long for. A projection in the back of the mind, both real and unreal. The closer you get, the more the longing fades and you begin to think what you saw in the distance was a chimera. The longer you stay, the more you think back to what you have left and realise, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe. Fresh eyes. Hiraeth again. The intangible feeling.
And it is everywhere. Strive to break from hard lives or particular places and we find we always take them with us. When we achieve our escapism, we find it’s just another different reality. What we’re looking for has never existed and it never will. Yet we still always look for it. In the distance, just out of sight.