‘English Journey’, ‘Room at the Top’, ‘Hand on the Sun’, ‘Britain’s Lost Cities’…
Tong to Bingley
Bradford drew me like it drew tens of thousands before me. Bradford, a city of promise and thwarted dreams, evident in its very fabric, its buildings and its landscape. Sweeping down the A650 from Tong to Bingley the promises and dreams can be glimpsed in neoclassical mills, gothic churches, corrugated iron, prefabricated shopping centres, hastily erected scaffolding, derelict and roofless buildings and, for ten years, ‘Bradford’s hole’. The essence of Bradford lies within striking distance of the A650.
Sunlight picks out shades of brown, ochre and yellow from the Yorkshire stone, while variegated greens and purples peek out from the city’s parks and moors. To the North, the ‘Tops’ stand between Bradford and the Dales. To the South and West, Bradford is embraced by the Pennines. Bradford is a city forged from geology, industry, human ambition and folly. Bradford is a city that wears it successes, and its failures, proudly in architectural discord. Bradford is, in many ways, a jigsaw of a city, a testament, to industrial advance, decline, nascent renewal, incompetence, corruption, inertia, determination, and ambition.
Bradford is a destination and point of departure. The city was destination for Joe Lambton, post war anti-hero of John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’.
Twenty years on from Lambton, Tariq Mehmood’s ‘Hand on the Sun’ opened with another angry young migrant, Jalib, looking out through the windows of the school assembly hall at wide eyed cows in the fields of the green belt and gently rolling hills around Tong Village, as he, like Joe Lambton before him, dreamt of a different world. The novel is a remarkable achievement, as Mehmood began writing from a top floor cell on the remand wing of Armley Jail, a young man who had not yet passed ‘O’ level English. ‘Hand on the Sun’ was written to ‘bear witness’ to the hostile culture Mehmood encountered at school and on Bradford’s streets in the 1970’s.
In the 1970’s, and the decade before, much of Bradford’s Victorian architecture was demolished and replaced by Modernist, not to say Brutalist nightmares. Some of these, such as those at Market Street and Foster Square scarcely made it into the 21st Century before being demolished themselves. At the time of writing, these replacements are waiting their replacement. Yet some of the buildings that remain tell a compelling story. A story of corrupt architects and politicians, freemasonry, financial collapse and failed leadership, culminating in the conviction of council officers, a former leader of the council, and imprisonment of the architect, John Poulson.
John Braine’s fictional Joe Lampton left Dufton to follow his dreams to Warley (Bradford) only to rail against monochrome post war austerity and suffocating class norms. Today many of the buildings he worked in, played in, fought in, have new ambitions, as art galleries, theatres, apartments, restaurants, enterprise centres and, more prosaically, carpet warehouses. Purpose is confused, social class distinctions blurred, but purpose and class still resonate in the grand aspirations that lay among the broken dreams of Bradford’s hidden glories.
J.B. Priestley, returning to Bradford in the 1930’s for his ‘English Journey’, found the same monoculture encountered by Lambton in the 1950’s. Priestley mourned the passing influence of German and largely Jewish merchants who settled in the 1850’s, leaving 55 listed buildings reminiscent of Germany and Northern Europe. Little Germany remains, but Priestley felt immigrant influence had diminished and Bradford was the poorer for it. He looked back to the Bradford he knew before 1914 as the most provincial and yet at the same time, ‘the most cosmopolitan of cities’. Priestley was fortunate enough to see the rebirth of a multi-cultural city, through East European, West Indian, African, and south Asian immigration.
Priestley returned to Bradford a number of times. The Yorkshire Film Achieve has a record of a visit he made in 1959, where he laments the threat to the Swann Arcade, where he worked before becoming a full time writer. Priestley predicted the arcade’s demolition, fearful of a ‘concrete monotony from Brasilia to Bradford’.
Leaving the city centre, just beyond Lister Park, Lister Mill, has survived major restoration. Once, it was the biggest mill in the world. It was here a strike of, largely women, mill workers led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party – an event commemorated on a mural in Little Germany .
The incoherent nature of city centre architecture also reflects de-industrialisation, declining incomes and a city often overlooked in favour of wealthier neighbours. To quote from the title of Jim Greenhalf’s recent history of the city, ‘It’s a mean old scene’, but one that is fascinating in its complexity and intrigue. The title of his book is presented through a photograph of graffiti hand painted on a Yorkshire stone wall blackened by working mills. ‘It’s a mean old scene’ passed into Bradford folk lore. During one of the council’s ‘bouncing back’ phases the graffiti at the junction of Dirkhill Road and All Saints Road was removed, only to return weeks later with the hand painted repost ‘It’s STILL a mean old scene’.
Bradford’s wealth attracted immigrants throughout the nineteenth century, including Irish labourers – many settling around Westgate. In Leon Uris’ ‘Trinity’ the central character, Conor Larkin, comes to Bradford as a Rugby League professional with the ‘Belfast Boilermakers’. They play a game in Bradford and Uris uses the Irish communities in ‘Boulton Road’, Wapping, and Goitside as a backdrop. The area of Goitside is now largely repurposed mills and warehouses, but on the edge at Longlands, the Irish community is still celebrated in the Harp of Erin.
At the North West end of the A650 Salts Mill is an inspirational vision of what Bradford could be. Salts Mill was the dream of Titus Salt, who built it and the surrounding nineteenth century model village, and latterly of Jonathan Silver, who had the vision and energy to breath life into what had become a crumbling industrial remnant.
The Leeds-Liverpool canal towpath runs from Salts through Hurst Wood, parallel to the A650, and on to Bingley where John Braine worked in the library and created his angry young man. Joe Lambton paid for his ambition. Lambton was trapped, although he never suffocated, escaping to the ’tops’ of Baildon, Rombald, and Ilkley moors. Priestley also escaped to these ‘tops’. As a young man he took the path ‘beyond Dick Hudsons’ to the ‘grand escape’, looking down on Bradford where ‘nothing was standing still’ and he saw the world glistening in the distance.
Working at Swann Arcade, so close to the Wool Exchange, Bradford introduced Priestley to a wider world, a world where he pursued his dreams. Mehmood wrote ‘Hand on the Sun’ to ‘tell the truth and re-shape the future’. Priestley chose to leave Bradford to do the same, Mehmood had little choice.
Constant change is a Bradford reality and a Bradford strength. Bradford, city of thwarted ambition, engine of dreams, of missing parts and broken pieces. A jigsaw that can still inspire.
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