“Leeds is a lavatory,” a friend in London who’d escaped it kept reminding me, and why I felt so impelled to visit my man’s family I’m not sure, but it was January, London felt like just another big city, and I figured a short trip to England’s industrial North might be an unpretentious antidote to the five-star hangover I had after too much New York life. So I boarded a Rapide coach at Victoria on the night before New Year’s 1990, and we twisted endlessly through London and onto the motorway. In England the long-distance buses are plush double-deckers with service like airplanes. “Tea, love?” the steward pushing an aisle-hogging refreshment cart offered earnestly, and I told him that’d be lovely. But as I settled into my tea a too-small, too-loud TV began its rant at the top of the bus. Is there no escape? The airline across the Atlantic had shown six hours of big-screen TV, so whenever the 300 captive passengers looked up, they were drawn to the brightly lit colors just like the corporate sponsors wanted. Even when I’d withdrawn money for the trip, a TV on the bank line assaulted us with screaming pink CD rates and a SEASON’S -blink- GREETINGS. Adjusting my seat to obstruct the screen, I watched the overcast land and tried to read. The bus droned on, until the interminable vista of tenement chimneys, like a nightmare out of Dickens, announced the brick and asphalt factory town of Leeds.
Graham’s brother Paul, a big shy man still single at 47, was waiting at the station. He felt awkward about embracing, so I gave him my cheek and bubbled on about nothing to save him the worry of what to say. In his Vauxhall, we drove the wide gray avenues that always seem empty in Leeds, as if half the town’s moved away and the rest sit huddled round teacups and gas fires. We rode along an industrial canal, crossed a massive soot-blackened stone bridge, and turned left onto Lancastre Avenue, a short street of semi-detached postwar brick houses. Paul honked the horn and Graham’s mum Eileen yanked open the sticking door to greet me. Her face was round, flaccid, and startled; her reddish brown hair gray at the roots and in need of a set. But her little brown eyes were just like Graham’s. “Hello, love,” she said nervously, and wrung her hands. “Come in then, I’ve kept you some tea.”
Not much had changed since my last visit, though Paul, after 26 years of it, was no longer willing to work as a plumber. Giving no real explanation except that he was tired, he sold his house amid talk of opening a Chinese restaurant— a dream of a more international and cultured life that he also tentatively explored with fortnight holidays to Spain and French classes at an adult education program. He had also studied German and had once been to the Oktoberfest, though he was too shy to exchange a few sentences. The restaurant had never happened. He became a driving instructor for a company that didn’t have enough business to keep him in work, and he lived with Eileen in this damp house with its ubiquitous wall-to-wall carpeting meant to offset the lack of heat. Eileen appeared with my “tea”—a frozen fish rectangle, tinned peas, and Lipton-Cup-a-Soup garnished with rubbery croutons that had probably lain about for years, protected from decay by preservatives.
In the family room the everlasting TV filled in our lulls in conversation. They were watching “Blind Date,” an English version of “The Dating Game,” and within a few minutes it was as if a visitor from America had never arrived. If they turned the TV off, they might have to talk—and what would they say? I noticed that Eileen had “done up” the room. The carpet, a wild gold and black swirl on a red background, undoubtedly bought because it was cheap, was so garish it could only have been made for a casino. Long money-saving fluorescent bulbs glared overhead. The gas heater—the kind the English so euphemistically call a “fire”—was, however, new, and behind it a fake brick mantel tried to supply the idea of a cozy hearth. Gracing the bookshelves were little porcelain meadow maidens, dainty kittens, a Bible, three well-thumbed paperback romances, and Black Beauty. On top of the TV, hugely planted in the corner , was a Christmas tree that had been dutifully hauled out of a closet for years, its trunk a metal pole that could be lengthened or shortened, its branches practically leafless, though Eileen had done a nice job of covering its nakedness with fading tinsel and bulbs.
Two dying cats lay by the fire. The white one had recently had its ear amputated from cancer, but he still had sores on his nose and eyes, which twitched in pain. “They’re awright,” Eileen denied their malignancy, but they didn’t look like they would heal. Black Sooty, once a huge Tom, was now a limp lump of fur and bones with an old rag wrapped around a wounded leg, though he had admirably roused himself to yowl demandingly around my fish stick. “Blind Date” continued, and I could see why tears had come to Graham’s eyes at the thought of coming: only seven o’clock and I was bored out of my skull. Paul left to meet his mates at the pub, and rather than face an evening in front of the tube I invited Eileen out for a pint.
The bright, merry little Bridge Inn with its darts and big oak furniture had none of the furtiveness of American bars. A couple with their married children, all dressed up, were finishing off a nightcap. As I brought two bitters to our table, I could tell Eileen was wondering what we’d talk about, so I worked the conversation around to war and work, her two main experiences in life. To Eileen, the war was still as vivid as if it had happened yesterday. Leeds, a manufacturing and textile center making uniforms and weapons, had been hit nine times, showered with high explosives and incendiaries. The bombs had come right up t’street—”T’were a miracle they di’n’t ‘it ‘ouse,” she remembered; the homes of some neighbors had been completely destroyed. Now she was bitter that the Germans, who started the war and lost it, were all so rich while the British had such a rough time of it.
She had started working when she was 14, moving crates in a textile mill—finished school on a Friday and started work on Monday. But the overseer always followed her to the toilet and complained through the door that she was taking too long, so her father got her a better job working 6:00 am to 4:45 pm for 40 cents a week in another mill. Three years later she met Graham’s father George, a tailor’s mate who picked up extra money selling suit lengths to friends. Courting, they rode tandem bicycles up to the Lake District on Sundays; they were married, and then the war came. She had one lad and was pregnant with a second, working for a pound a week to add to George’s army pay. Every day she put thread on cardboard bobbins until she heard of a job for two quid a week working in an office. She stayed there 13 years until Graham was born. When he was old enough for school she got another factory job and left him with his grandmother; she could only see him on weekends. It was two buses to her mother’s after work, and with having to fix George his tea, where would she have found time? Graham remembered waving good-by to her from his Gran’s front step; he liked it at Gran’s because she had a garden. This was 1961. Eileen stood all day in front of a razor blade attached to some sort of apparatus that it came down and split—only splinters of the razor would sometimes fly into her face. “Oooh, it were ‘orrible,” she remembered now, her hands protecting her face from the thought, and yet there wasn’t the slightest anger that the employer hadn’t provided goggles. “At least I can be angry for her,” Graham once told me.
The last time we were here we took Eileen to the cathedral town of York an hour away. We’d planned to see the town and have lunch and drinks in a special restaurant, but when we came downstairs on the morning of our trip, Eileen was wrapping up a dozen egg and cheese sandwiches so we could save the expense of eating out. Graham and I just looked at each other. On an old cobbled square in York we looked for a cup of tea, and across the way a cozy little tea room with white lace curtains and tiny tables seemed inviting. “That looks lovely,” I said, heading over, but no one followed. “Ooh, I don’t know, love, it looks awfully pricey,” Eileen said fearfully. She looked stricken, and hung back as if cemented to the spot. The English class system had done its work: the dainty little place wasn’t a working class tea room, and Eileen felt there’d been a “Not for your kind” sign right out front. Her house was paid for, she had a pension and money in the bank, but she’d never be able to have a meal out without agonizing over the price, and she’d forever trudge up the hill to save 5p for a bus transfer, lugging her canned groceries to stock the shelves for another war.
When we left the pub and walked up the dark, foggy English street, Eileen took my arm. I was surprised and pleased. Every time I’d opened my mouth in the pub it was to express some absurdly intellectual articulation, yet this woman, warmed by the beer and my interest in her life, took my arm as if I were a daughter, or a friend, and invited me to sleep in her bed. With Paul home there was no place else to put me. “I’ve got a nice ‘lectric blanket, love, it’ll take the chill off,” she assured me.
The next morning, Saturday, Paul invited me to Bradford Market with one of his mates. Another once-important textile town near Leeds, Bradford was the site of that horrendous soccer stadium tragedy in 1985, when 53 people died, trampled or burned, trying to escape a fire started by ancient garbage under the stands that devoured the old wooden stadium seats within minutes. We passed through Bradford’s city centre, an old-world display of ornate facades, street clocks, huge banks, and the neo-classical grandeur of St. George’s concert hall. But the city was deserted, the stores locked shut with the metal anti-crime grates that after dark so grimly line the poorer streets of New York. Up a curving hill and into more working-class districts: sooty houses pressed up against the street.
Like Leeds, Bradford is a depressing study in the architecture of exploitation because so much of it was built to cheaply cram in as many textile workers as possible. Brick row houses called back-to-backs, constructed 42 to an acre after an 1860 by-law found the earlier 65 to an acre too ghastly, were designed block after block with no garden space or earth at all, a daily reminder that industrialism crushed everything in its path. After 1900 it became illegal to build them, and though their common outdoor lavatories, once shared by up to 40 people, have been replaced by indoor plumbing, they’ll never attract anyone but the poor. We turned left into a huge car park on the edge of a sloping hill and got out. The ground was littered with broken asphalt, brick, and bottle glass; a curling rusted chain link fence lay uselessly near a stone wall streaked blackish-brown with pollution. Washing hung out to dry, hopelessly, from the backs of tenements, and in a corner of the lot, a car wrecker’s squashed vehicles were piled up against the sky. Vendors who couldn’t afford inside space hung cheap clothing on racks in the rubble. I turned around to look down the hill: row upon row of the brick black-roofed houses, capped by an endless sea of coal chimneys bleakly and treelessly shouldering their way into the fog.
Most of Bradford’s factories are now idle, demolished, or used for something else, and the market was held in one such old brick warehouse. It was crowded. Paul suggested tea, so we threaded our way down some stairs into a basement cafeteria heavy with cigarette smoke and the smell of fried foods. Around us, people chatted easily in the slangy, ungrammatical English of the North; children dangled their legs from chairs and ran off, quickly pulled back by thin young mothers with overprocessed perms. Many of the people had the pallid skin and bad teeth of the poorly nourished; Northerners have traditionally been manipulated by the food industry. In 1937 George Orwell noted the alarming working-class preference for tinned vegetables and prepared foods; Eileen’s Cup-a-Soup and frozen fish were no accident in a land where tea and saccharine-sweetened juice drinks are more readily available than juice or milk. In 1985, Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy lived in the Manningham section of Bradford and noted the extraordinary consumer exploitation of poor Britons by the packaged food concerns: she watched an undersized, disheveled, and obviously malnourished teenage couple leaving a Bradford supermarket. They carried disposable diapers, frozen dinners, and soft drinks, and the mother poured some fizzy soda in the bottle of their cranky, rashy-looking baby before splitting a bar of revolting looking pink candy with her companion. The disposable diapers belied poverty: this was ignorance. Interestingly, Pakistani immigrants, who come from a culture where food is prepared in the home, seem to have been less susceptible prey to the junk food merchants.
We decided to meet in an hour and I wandered outside: plastic shoes, Batman T-shirts, fake gold chains, disposable watches, vinyl handbags, dancing flowers, magic gloves, miracle knives, juicers, tube socks, porcelain souveniers of Blackpool, toy guns, and doilies, sold outside by shivering Pakistanis or young British grandmothers in ground-level unheated rooms. Leather goods, stained glass, antiques, and books were handled by vendors who could afford spaces in the cavernous but partly heated lofts upstairs. And always the shoddy British clothing: cotton skirts in January, acrylic cardigans, jackets just too light for the penetrating cold and relentless damp of the Pennines. I’d noticed this about England, even in London: there isn’t that much really warm clothing to buy, as if the clothing companies just don’t care or the millions of Britons without central heat are trying to ignore the cold. And I wandered on through the endless assault of squeegees, cassette tapes, boom boxes, egg-timers, magic markers . . . .
Where does all this shit come from? Innumerable little trinkets for the perpetually poor and unemployed, and endless markets for them from East L.A. to the Bronx and all the way to Bradford, England and beyond: the unplanned and unchecked over-production of cheap junk, motivated by nothing more redeeming than greed. I was so struck by the sheep-like way Bradfordians still followed the whims of the captains of commerce that I spent 20 minutes searching the market for paper and pen, tools of an art that has no relevance in the world of the Bradford Market. Stationery? Who writes letters anymore? and I trudged uphill to a tobacconist across from a rubble heap that backed onto another tenement and bought the only paper he had, a schoolchild’s notebook. He looked at me funny, too.
Bradford isn’t a huge city, but the market was teeming. Buying junk is a main occupation here on Saturdays, as if there is nothing else to do in life, and it was distressing to see these undernourished people half-heartedly prowling through unnecessary merchandise on their day off, their children, anxious to please and join in, begging for “this, mum,” and waving TV Hulk dolls with a terrifying enthusiasm. And in total corruption of the idea of human endeavor, I could imagine these purchases displayed at home as accomplishments. It seemed to me that consumption somehow makes people feel proud, participatory, successful, and this fills a pressing need, since the underemployment of people in Northern England or inner-city America is evidence that governments in fact care very little whether they participate or not. To see the indifference one need only look at the slums. There, involvement largely means existing as a surplus cheap labor supply or an outlet for a dumped-out excess of merchandise just as likely to come from Korea or America as from England. A great dehumanizing feature, that the Bradford Market could really be anywhere: the products here show absolutely nothing of the local culture; there is nothing Bradfordians can point to with the special pride of creation. And maybe this is source of the great alienation of the global economy, where buying is one of the few ways of belonging to society.
Of course, consumption also feeds the illusion that one is a success instead of a failing ne’er-do-well from the despised masses. I myself have spent absurd amounts of time thinking I must have a new sofa so I will feel I’m moving up in life, or that I can’t drive my 1980 Datsun because people will think I’m a failure and can’t afford anything better—which they of course will. The ability to buy means you’re on the winning side, and Imelda Marcos’ shoes were merely a more vivid than usual reminder of how the rich insulate themselves with luxuries from the misery they’ve helped create. And so, too, the lower-rung consumers insulate themselves from their own misfortune. These pale bored people will have done something today, will have been to the market. They could also go to the movies, of course, and see the mogul-backed blockbusters which are the only films that come out this way; they could also opt for the quiet public library so seemingly disconnected from the flash of late 20th-century capitalist culture; but intellectual pursuit is an acquired taste. No, there really is very little for the soul in Bradford. And so, though the people here struggle like everyone else with the unspeakable passions that govern human life, they are here, “where all their deep longing is reduced to an hour and a half of greedy buying,” as the American poet Gerald Stern so aptly put it. The great escape from thought. “Buying is what keeps you from thinking about death,” echoed the poet Colleen McElroy, and I think she also meant the death of dreams.
Of course, some manage to get out from the crushing gray fog of long-standing exploitation surrounding this place. I mean, the Beatles were from Liverpool. And Graham, a factory-worker’s son tracked into a vocational school at eleven, became the only person in his high school class to go to college. One—out of only six who stayed in school till they were 18, the other 120 or so having left at 16 to be manual workers. And then there was Paul, who’d bought a two-volume history of the Civil War. We headed home on the Leeds Road. We dropped off Brian, said good-bye to Eileen, and drove to the bus depot. On the way Paul talked about how he wanted to learn to sail. He didn’t really have much interest in work anymore, he spent his youth as a plumber but there was never enough business, and he never got anywhere. He wanted now to be more bohemian, to travel and look around the world, go up to Scotland and hear their strange accents, over to France to speak his French. At 47 he was groping for a more meaningful life, and as I got on the bus I wished him well. Six months later, after being diagnosed with diabetes, Paul finally got the council housing for which he’d waited 16 years, about the same time it used to take the East Germans to get new cars. By then the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the papers kept gloating about how capitalism had won the Cold War.