Those streets and squares: the Headrow, Kirkgate, Boar Lane, Lands Lane and Park Square; those inns and taverns: the Ship, the Turk’s Head, the King Charles (sorry, that one’s gone); those suburbs of Woodhouse and Kirkstall with their moor and abbey – does it all sound familiar? If you live in Leeds or know the city well, so it should. It’s the Leeds of today, the familiar Leeds you either love or hate.
But my Leeds, the Leeds of John Eagle, uncommon attorney, is the Leeds of my imagination as I pictured how it once might have been: a strange place with strange people, where the strangeness of both was so interlarded that what came first, strangeness of place or strangeness of people, is impossible to say. I chose wintertime for my plot, deepest, darkest January, very grey by day and very black by night. I know the streets and the landmarks as they are now and I tried to imagine them a couple of centuries earlier. But the modern city, I soon discovered, is a poor guide, a kind of blind Virgil who never speaks his mind. I had to look elsewhere, back to my childhood and adolescence. Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies I caught the last dim glimpses of a vanishing townscape with all its attendant evil (I can think of no other word). Yes, it was the modern age, trains, planes and automobiles and stark electric light in numerous shades, but the shadows of an older world, a different world, hung on. The river Aire had kept its ancient look but its waters had been darkened, deepened, poisoned by the evils (that word again) of the factory age. It felt like a river of the eighteenth-and nineteenth centuries. And at the edges of the city, where stretches of countryside remained untamed, the night felt still like night should feel; it was pure uninterrupted darkness save when the moon shone and gave you another – ghostly – portal to the past. Parts of the city – Horsforth included, just a village back then – were lit still by gas-light, which had an atmosphere – never benevolent – all of its own.
I tried to tap into all this, tried to tap back further to when the streets were lit by oil or candle or flaring links dipped in tar. And from place to people: I tried to imagine how they might be the same and yet different, actuated by the power of the pre-industrial old ways, some of which, I believe, were supernaturally charged. Belief in dark forces, in the power of the dead, and the undead, in witches and curses and all that went bump in the night were prevalent alongside the growing rationality of the age. There was science and there was magic; the two, for a while, were able to coexist. I imagined ill-lit streets and ill-lit taverns and houses and I tried to fathom what they might have done to people’s spirits and minds. I think it was this, the unknown darkness lit by feeble light, that was the life force of the book.
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