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Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Peter Mitchell's Leeds: Hitler's Northern Capital

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.


Deborah Parkin Photography said...

I had some photographers travel from the U.S this summer to come & visit me here in Newcastle. It was really lovely to show them the city - to show how lovely it was. I also took them down to the Quayside & we visited the Side Gallery which had a fabulous exhibition from a variety of photographers - all about the region - places such as Jarrow, Elswick, Scotswood, Byker - so it was good for me to show them the areas & the life that my own family came from. My family are from Jarrow & most of them had worked on the Steelworks & the docks.
I do sometimes get tired of the cliche of 'it's grim up north' - yes, it can be, but so can the south, east & west - but I also think it's good for photographers to keep this visual history of what is effectively being wiped away as the cloning of cities take place.
It's funny really as I don't have the answers - I wanted to show these people what a beautiful city Newcastle is - & it is (as is the countryside & coastline) & to show them it's far from grim. The city looks great, the Quayside looks great but to be honest, they have also ripped some of the heart out of it. I can't help feeling all cities are starting to look the same - lose their personal characteristics. All the independent pubs that I knew have been replaced by chains (their are few left) - the pubs I used to go to have now been demolished to make way for a new road or mysteriously burnt down & then rebuilt as expensive flats. It's not just the pubs of course, cafe have gone to be replaced by Starbucks - I can't imagine sitting in one of these after closing time (don't think we have that now) & the staff listening patiently to my drunken woes of life like the lads in the cafe did. Oh those were the days ;)
Maybe it's a generational thing? Maybe a sign of me getting older? Doesn't every generation say the same thing?
So to answer the question - was it better then or now? I actually preferred it then.
Thanks also for stopping by the other day, so kind of you - it was so great to meet you - only wished we had more time to chat.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Deborah - better then or better now? There was more personality back in the day, everything has been conformitized a bit - the rough edges have been removed from visible society, but then huge swathes of society have been rendered less visible or acceptable than they once were. Soon the only thing that will be left are those flats and the people that live in them. But that's part of a political/media process.

We'll meet again when you go to Lacock! Let me know when you're coming down, so we can fix smething up. We'll have a chat then.