Saturday, March 13, 2010

Flowers of the Forties

Yesterday I had a long gap in between my roleplays, so I visited Leeds City Museum.

It's both fascinating and free.

The cafe's good too - I had a baked potato with cheese and salad and then a scone.

The museum's been converted from the old Leeds Civic Theatre, and though I was sad to see that go, I'm glad Leeds now has a proper museum - it did have one when I was a child, but it mostly consisted of some ancient Victorian badly-stuffed animals and the famous Leeds mummy, which was apparently blown out of its case when a bomb landed during the war.

I always liked the stuffed tiger and I still do. It's a bit odd-looking, having spent a good number of years as a rug before being resurrected into a tiger shape, but to me it symbolises Leeds like nothing else and I think it should be adopted as the symbol of the city. I think a slightly wonky tiger would be a symbol of both Leeds's civic pride and its citizens' sense of humour.

After lunch I wandered into the huge oval room that used to be the theatre. There was a big screen on which a film was playing on a loop. It was a series of clips from Leeds Camera Club's cine division, all filmed in - I'd guess - the 1940s, and it was of the good people of Leeds tending their gardens.

It sounds dull but wasn't: it was fascinating. We never usually see film of ordinary people in ordinary streets and it was wonderful to see all the hairstyles - those rolls that they had in the 1940s, and the women in floral frocks. The men were generally in white shirts and the boys, of course, in shorts.

There was one very staged-looking scene in which a dozen or so schoolboys were all tending a garden in immaculate white shirts, ties and grey shorts. In those days boys wore shorts until they went to secondary school, at least. I don't know why - perhaps the fresh air was held to be good for their legs, or for other parts of their anatomy. Certainly this practice lingered until the late sixties - all the boys were in shorts when I was at primary school.

There was also some footage of the infamous Quarry Hill Flats, a massive housing complex at the bottom of the Headrow in Leeds. The link gives pictures of both the grey and extraordinarily ugly flats, and the housing that they replaced.

The flats opened in 1938 and were very well-known - I always found them rather scary-looking. But in this film we looked inside the complex itself - I never went there - and there were dozens of tiny, brightly-coloured gardens. The flats were considered very modern at the time, and a vast improvement on Leeds's slum housing: but the steel frame covered in concrete fell to bits with remarkable speed and the flats had to be demolished in 1978. However, my mind's eye is a bit slow to cotton on to things like that and I still see them for a second when I drive past, even though the West Yorkshire Playhouse has been on the site for years.

I found it very moving to see all those long-gone gardens. They looked pretty but very old-fashioned and I was trying to work out why - I think it was the mix of all the old varieties - lupins, hollyhocks, dahlias. But to me, the most interesting thing was to see the people. In Quarry Hill Flats we went past an elderly couple. She was wearing a long dress and an apron. He raised his cap and smiled for the camera. They reminded me of my grandparents.

Just to see all those long-dead people with their trowels and spades and forks, smiling with pride in their gardens, made me feel rather emotional.

Then I came out of that room and went into the next exhibition, where I found a Silver Cross pram, just about identical to the one that I travelled about in when I was a baby. So now I felt both rather emotional and rather old!

I left Memory Lane and went out into the sunshine for an afternoon of medical roleplay up at the University.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the shorts - wasn't there a rule in wartime that under-twelves couldn't wear long trousers?

I have picked this factoid* up relatively recently, possibly from the fabulous Horrible Histories series - the joys of having children.

*factoid, n: a statement of highly specific interest which may or may not be actually true

Julie paradox

10:32 pm  
Blogger Ailbhe said...

Shorts are less laundry and less mending, too.

11:44 pm  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

As a fan of The Tigers (Hull City A.F.C.) I am all for Leeds adopting a tiger as its civic symbol. Leeds United fans might be less happy.

I wore short trousers for school until I was thirteen. I can still remember how grown up I felt travelling to school in my first pair of long trousers - even if they were a bit itchy on my weather-hardened leg skin.

12:43 am  
Blogger Silverback said...

As you know from my blog, I wore short pants till I was 35 !

And I love the idea of trowel wielding zombie gardeners. I wonder whatever happened to them ? Died out probably !

3:20 am  
Blogger Michael said...

When Leeds got Google Street View it was a shock for me to see the changes in the old Bramley cul-de-sac where I grew up. One of the biggest differences I noticed was that almost all the gardens of the semis had been paved over. Where once every neighbour had a patch of roses out front, now most of them had a car parked on a patch of concrete instead. Are gardens to go the way of 'old-men pubs' and newspapers, and become a quaint relic of the 20th century?

9:27 am  

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