I wake after a night of nightmares and feeling like I have been wrung through a mangle. I cannot find a way to write about the last couple of days without either being untrue to my feelings or risk triggering people who like the north. The mist, the lack of real daylight, the grey skies, the built up enclosed claustrophobic feel to all of it, town and country alike usually end in me feeling very depressed.
In mitigation I need to say that I spent the first 28 years of my own life living in various parts of Northern England, and was terribly unhappy; unable to be myself. More and more I come to believe there is a place for everyone, a place we call home, a place where sense of place has meaning for us, and for me this is in a town that is not too big and not too small, nestling in the South Hams of Devon.
I got to that place via 14 years in Brazil, where I learnt that not only is it OK to express your emotions, all of them, that everyone still loves you when you are angry or sad, but more than this, that it is very healthy to express yourself openly. It is only in looking back at what made me miserable, and looking at the feelings I feel now, as I traverse the north, encountering again all the things that I found difficult, that I really begin to understand what made me miserable, what made every fibre of my body feel uncomfortable.
I feel uncomfortable when I look at the dirty, grimy post industrial buildings that cover our land. I feel uncomfortable when I cross mile after mile of empty moor; our old forests, stripped to this state hundreds, possibly thousands of years ago by ancestors without the knowledge that if you over use the land you destroy it. I feel uncomfortable when I see young men roaming the streets like caged tigers, desperate without knowing why; that their heritage; their land, has been stripped of its power by their ancestors, leaving them nothing on which to build, to create, to grow. Young men whose very hope for the future was taken away from them before they were ever born by disconnected ancestors, reeling from the consequences of the enclosures act, the hardships of the industrial era, and two world wars, and given as inheritance; post industrial wasteland.
I feel uncomfortable when I see people being cheerful, a laugh in the voice no matter what. When I hear Barnsley being described as the a*** hole of England, the most deprived town in our land, and read in the tourist magazines of south Yorkshire that Barnsley people are the friendliest in the county…
I know this cheerfulness you see; I know it of old; it masks pure unadulterated desperation. It is the save all of a people so battered by life that it is their only refuge. It has its blessings of course; these things have a way of balancing out; these people would do anything for you, are kind and helpful, within their limited power; for they often lack knowledge of so many of the things that would help them and others. I am struck, as I spend an entire afternoon in Huddersfield shopping centre (no, mall; it even has an American name!) trying in vain to get a new battery for my mobile, a new contract from O2, in fact any kind of assistance at all for my dead phone, by where I have come across this kind of helpful but ineffectual behaviour before; it was in the small towns of the NE of Brazil!
I find I am shocked; here we are as a nation glibly allowing refugees of all kinds into our country, when we have people living in terrible social conditions in our very own land! And worse, we send those terribly traumatised and hurt refugees, in need of succour, into the very heart of our cities where people already live on the edge of desperation, poor facilities, poor housing, poor education, and a legacy of ancestors who had lost everything; their land, the learning that went with it, their lives for other people’s quarrels, and in the end their very power.
Whose needs are we really addressing; our own guilt for the situation that we allow to continue in our country so that we are constantly looking outwards to point the finger at wrongdoing elsewhere? …Assauging that guilt by offering help to others failed by their governing people whilst ignoring the plight of our own? What kind of help are we really giving when we allow this to happen, and to whom? When I hear that Barnsley, and nearby Dewsbury, (where I should have been last night, but didn’t go for I had no place to stay and I had been told that it was not a safe place to be in, and that gangs of drug dealers fought one another in the streets, reminding me for all the world of the stories I was told of Rio de Janeiro when I was in Brazil; the difference being that Rio is in the most beautiful geographical setting in the world; nestling between sub tropical rain forest covered mountains and the most glorious beaches to be found anywhere, and with a climate to die for) have the most members of the BNP in the country I am not surprised, and for the first time in my life begin to get a sense of what perspective that party is trying to represent and I feel suddenly ashamed for ever having dismissed them as fascists without first understanding the deep set fear that lies at the root of their hatred.
In Huddersfield as I walked, head down, defeated, to the train station I cross the main plaza, its fountains adding to the dejected wet dog feeling I have inside, as their water joins the rain to obliterate any dry summer feeling anyone might still have been harbouring, I pass a statue. It is of Sir Harold Wilson, labour party prime minister twice during my lifetime. My heart does a flip; he was born here in Huddersfield; a man of the people, maybe in circumstances very much like that of Lula, president of Brazil. Wilson, I read, founded the Open University. I want to cry; for the brave efforts of a man who knew the suffering of the people and who rose to power to try to give them voice.
The train from rain filled Huddersfield takes me in minutes to rain filled Leeds where I collapse in surrender to my present state in a railway station side hotel in the city centre.
Later, in a brief foray out to find food I am taken aback by the splendid city market hall with its surely cathedral inspired turrets and spires, and wonder if Leeds escaped the blitz? It did not escape the industrial era, that’s for sure; it’s old buildings are grimy, and it has that faceless early evening city feel, where people wait for buses with that resigned on the edge of impatience air that people adopt when they are not in control of their rhythm but must wait for others to take them to where they want to be.
Once back in my room with a window overlooking nothing; a dirty rooftop between 4 dirty walls decorated by heating pipes, and with a light that stops it from being dark but which does not give light enough for me to pore over maps nor see my keyboard well I go to bed and cry and cry for an hour or more. I have sunk into the depression only a city can cause; depression from being cut off from trees, natural sunlight, and wide open spaces. Again I have the strong sensation of wanting to tear up every human made structure that has imposed itself upon the natural environment. Where did we think we got the right to do as we pleased with the land which we inherited? How did we come to this that we think it normal that a few have much and many have very little indeed?
I read on the walls of the corridor last night that the Discovery, my haven for the night, was once the Griffin Hotel, and that it stood on the sight of a cock fighting area in the city, in wide open fields, and that the house that latterly became the hotel was built in the18th century. The information board speculates on the name griffin, apparently this name was given to places where it was thought there was buried treasure though none has been found. Nor would it either, till they have the good sense sometime hence to knock it and other buildings down, and there would be the treasure; our natural inheritance; the land with its potential to grow our food and feed our spirit.
I recall Maurice, the Frenchman who gave Maggie and I a lift to Huddersfield, was scathing about the English and the land. There is frustration in his voice; non comprehension of our obsession. I know too little of French history to talk of their experience, but from the little I have heard from those who have spent time in France there is a strong peasant growing tradition there; something that was taken from us in Britain many years ago and affects us still.