From the Grim-Up-North of David Moore to the Grim-Up-North of Peter Mitchell.
Mitchell's new book, Strangely Familiar is another blast from the northern past; this time it's Leeds inthe 1970s and 80s. Life is grim in Mitchell's Leeds; decaying house, delapidated cafe fronts and closed down stores give the book that contemporary ruin porn touch.
But at the same time, you get the feeling Mitchell liked it that way, that Leeds then was not as grim as Leeds. There is an affection in there that goes hand in hand with a hostility to contemporary architecture and urban planning.
Owen Hatherley wrote about Leeds in his excellent book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. He describes Leeds as ‘….the token ‘successful’ northern city along with Manchester, because it’s boring enough for southerneers to understand.’
Mitchell talks about the 'glittering emptiness' of the city, a critique of its current status as a consumer and leisure paradise, a mini-Manchester with the inner life (and architecture) flattened into one amorphous consumerist mass.
While I was writing a review of the book for Photo-Eye, I looked into the history of the Quarry Hill Flats - pictured above before and after their destruction. Built in the 1930s, the flats were supposedly modelled on Karl Marx Hof flats in Vienna and were hugely advanced for their time. The balconies, crittall windows and monolithic modernism give it the mittel-Europa aesthetic that (northern rumour/humour has it) inspired Hitler to earmark the flats as the headquarters for the SS had the Nazis invaded Britain. Supposedly that’s why Leeds wasn’t bombed much in the Second World.
( In fact, there’s a whole load of nonsense conspiracy theories about what Hitler planned to do in the north of England. Blackpool was saved from bombing because it wasn’t going to be Hitler’s Capital of Fun on the Irish Sea, the Ballroom at the Blackpool Tower home of the All-England SS Argentine Tango Championship. Think Strictly Ballroom with Hitler as Barry Fife! I don’t think so.)
Anyway, it’s a wonderful, wonderful book and it does raise the question – which was crapper, Leeds then or Leeds now, England then or England now, almost anywhere then and anywhere now.