Dear Santa ... by Catherine Czerkawska

Cool cats
Dear Santa, please could you send me a time machine, Doctor optional, although David Tennant would be a nice addition. He could pilot it for me.

I want to go back to 1950s Leeds. Just for a little while. Oh, and I want to be a child again, so that I don't find it too much of a shock. But with just enough adult hindsight to be able to observe with a certain amount of clarity. And take notes. 

Tall order, I know.

The alternative, as I've discovered, may be a magical website called Leodis, which is one of the old names for the city. You can visit it here. I first discovered this wonderful site when my cousin sent me a link to it, and I must confess that back when I was working as a writing fellow for the Royal Literary Fund, I browsed it in between appointments whenever my students were late. It was ideal for filling in the odd five or ten minutes of free time, easy to click on a few photographs and just as easy to click off them again. Now I've been spending whole evenings, clicking on one image after another, searching, reminding myself of my roots. Feeling homesick, not so much for the place and for the people that once inhabited it, but for a particular time of my life. And dreaming about it. I have certainly been dreaming about it.

We first moved to Scotland when I was eleven or twelve, because my father's career brought him here. I've lived and worked in Finland and Poland and I even went back to Leeds to do a Masters Degree at the university there. But recently, I've caught myself pondering my feelings about Scotland  - and my own identity. I married here, had a child here, I love where I live and some of my best friends are here. I've written extensively about Scotland, both in my fiction and my non-fiction. Most (although not all) of my novels are set here. And you don't get much more Scottish than my forthcoming novel, The Jewel, about the life and times of Jean Armour, wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns. So in some sense, I do have a Scottish identity.

Daddy's girl
But I'm Polish, of course. And Irish. My grandmother was 'Leeds Irish' but her father was from Mayo. My grandfather, an auburn haired viking of a man, was from the Dales - Swaledale to be precise. They had been lead miners who gravitated towards the city during the Industrial Revolution. There's a part of me - quite a strong part - that is still the Yorkshire lass of my childhood.

The black and white pictures here were taken outside the place where I lived till I was seven. We had a tiny two roomed flat above the small sweet shop owned by my grandparents, in an industrial part of Leeds: sooty Holbeck. It has recently been gentrified and some of the old street names seem to have disappeared along with the buildings. Then, when I was seven, we moved to a flat on the other side of Leeds. At that time, the council had taken over a number of houses and converted them into flats, in an effort to address the post war housing shortage. We rented part of a house that had once been a Victorian vicarage - big, light and freezing cold because, of course, central heating was the province of the rich. We had paraffin heaters. I can still remember the smell. And the frost on the inside of the windows.

Last night, I did a bit of wallowing on Google Earth as well, and discovered, to my astonishment, that in spite of countless changes and numerous new builds, the house is still there, not far from Woodhouse Moor. This was not a moor at all by then, although it once had been, but a well kept park with allotments on the fringes of it. One of my uncles used to grow cabbages, potatoes and leeks there. I would sometimes pass him on my way to play on the swings. Courtesy of 'street view', I could gaze along the driveway towards the front door of our old house. Not only that, but the sycamore tree in the garden, beneath which I had once played, was still there, the garden well kept and pretty. I can't describe quite how that made me feel: a strange mixture of excitement, sadness, longing and love. The very epitome of nostalgia, I suppose.  

Then I came across something I had completely forgotten: the lion and the serpent, on Woodhouse Moor. I used to do exactly what these kids are doing (typical 1960s schoolboys, probably from the nearby grammar school) and ride on the lion, hugging him and stroking his stone nose. In fact a little later, when I discovered C S Lewis and Aslan, I suspect it was this beloved lion I had in mind! The picture is from an excellent blog, by the way - well worth visiting if you have any Leeds connections - Woodhouse Moor Online - where you can find out lots more about the sculpture itself. 

Later, I googled Cockersdale, a bus ride away from the Holbeck flat. (Cars were as unknown to us as telephones and  televisions and central heating. How did we survive?)  This is where my dad and I spent many a blissfully happy summer Saturday afternoon wandering through the countryside. He was a country lad at heart and taught me pretty much everything I know about trees and flowers and wildlife. I found that it too is substantially unchanged, still rural, still pretty. I had imagined it all built over, but it seems to have been protected and preserved.

Much like my memories.

So it turns out that I don't really need a time machine. Just the power of my imagination and the internet. 
I think I feel a book coming on ...


Susan Price said…
Beautiful post, Catherine.
JO said…
You caught my imagination the second you mentioned David Tennant ...
Lydia Bennet said…
yes a lovely post, I'm finding like you that early memories are coming back but with power injected into them, not just vividly recalled but almost relived, the feelings that went with the experiences, sounds, smells, colours. This is a precious gift and I'm writing more memoir poetry at the moment because of it. I do feel Catherine that life for 'ordinary' people has changed more during our lifetime than at any time - we owe it to those who come after to chronicle it, as they may find they one day have to do without all the things they find essential. OTOH, how wonderful is the internet, allowing us to explore the past and other places so easily.
Thanks, all. And it's true - the memories are relived - and it's such a powerful feeling that at times it's overwhelming. Also, you're right about needing to chronicle these experiences in some way. The internet is a wonderful time machine, isn't it?
Mari Biella said…
Beautiful post. I wouldn't say no to a trip in a time machine, though...
Bill Kirton said…
Lovely, Catherine. I read it just after reading the article in this month's Society of Authors newsletter by Jonathan Fryer about age regression therapy. His memories were largely painful but it's fascinating to think that you may have the time machine you seek (though sans David Tennant) in your subconscious.
alison333 said…
I'd be interested to read Jonathan's article as I too have painful memories, so much so that I seem to have removed most of them. A lovely piece Catherine; you need to write the book now! It will bring them all to life again.
Yes - the time machine trip would be good! Bill, I just read that piece in the Author - fascinating. (Alison, I can lend it to you!) I'll have to investigate, although it's all so vivid for me at the moment that I'm not at all sure I need it. But I didn't even know such a thing existed. Intriguing.

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