Underground Leeds

Yesterday I raced to Leeds along the motorways of Wales and England, hotly pursued by the Olympic torch which was traveling along my road at midday with accompanying corporate sponsors and police outriders.

I arrived in Leeds city centre mid morning and parked underground in a branded disorienting car park burned beneath a hotel. Two men stood at the subterranean barrier and offered me gold token that they said would allow me to leave. I rose from the bowels of the hotel in an elevator that I shared with two sharply suited business-women in high heels who had disembarked from an oversized white Range Rover and were discussing the day’s planned dire deals with too much enthusiasm. When I reached the City’s surface I found myself in a 21st century shopping mall that led to a 1990s shopping mall that led to a 1980s shopping mall – I struggled to find my bearings despite having visited Leeds on many occasions before. In one of the malls I found a long lost stationery shop where I purchased a new memory card for my camera. I was starting to get confused – not only about where I was in town but also about which town I was visiting. The walls of steel seemed confused too…

Eventually I spotted the rear of an older building and wandered down the street in the warm June sun to find myself somewhere between the City Museum and the Leeds School of Art. I started to photograph the walls and doors almost habitually – drawn to the same combinations of stained walls, victorian masonry and boarded orifices that I seem to find in every town. As I turned the corner by the main entrance of the museum, a man came running down the steps and told me that he’d seen me photographing the masonry and thought that I might be interested in something. He explained that he was a museum attendant and ran back up into the building to find a map for me, explaining in great detail that the map illustrated a tour of the city’s stone owls. I decided to have a quick look around the museum which was more interesting architecturally than for its contents. There are some interesting displays about collecting and on the top floor a temporary exhibition displaying photographs of Queen Elizabeth II for which there was an entry charge in excess of two pounds (I didn’t visit this display for at least two reasons). Here is a picture of one of the museum’s many ass/butterfly/quartz displays:

I headed back out and found myself in “Millennium Square” – like most town centres that I have visited on my Phantom trips, it has a large television screen fixed to a wall so that people can gather in public and watch telly in an open piazza – like they do in their living rooms at home. 24 hour rolling news looks slightly odd however when the only creatures watching the giant screen are huge golden owls. The owl below was watching a report about a terrible tragedy in Derby.

Having found my bearings, I carried on through town past the remains of the previous evening’s celebrations.

Through the business district, past wig shops where human hair is for sale alongside the artificial stuff…

Through back alleys in the search for an emotional connection with the city…

I eventually found that the most atmospheric part of Leeds on the day that I visited was away from the sun and beneath the city’s streets. Perhaps it was my subterranean arrival point which drove me back underground, or maybe it was a seed that Bill from the Leeds Surrealist Group had planted in my mind… but I finally wandered under the main railway station where the cars, trains and waterways echo through dark tunnels and under blackened arches. It was here, on the mossy walls and in the reverberating darkness that I found the material for the Phantom of Leeds (yet to be assembled).

After my wanderings had finished, I met up with Bill in the City Art Gallery and had a very pleasant but all-too-brief chat and cup of tea before racing home again to deal with more mundane matters. On the way back into Wales I passed the Olympic torch – it was heading out of Wales in the direction of Chester, travelling on a large executive coach with police motorcycle outriders and large police Range Rovers blocking all lanes of the expressway, causing a huge tailback in a Nazi originated tradition sponsored by fast-food chains and soft drinks. I’m not quite sure what the police were protecting…


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