Daniel Chapman | Writing etc

Peter Mitchell & Tom Joy

Forty-six years ago Peter Mitchell moved from London to Leeds, got a job as a truck driver, and started photographing the city.

Two-and-a-half years ago Tom Joy moved from Aberdeen to Leeds, left his job as a graphic designer, and started photographing the city.

While we talk at a table in the bar at The Tetley gallery, Peter is recognised by two artists visiting from London, and tells us about his invitation to recreate his 1979 exhibition of photographs of Leeds and elsewhere, A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, at the Arles 2016 Photo Festival.

“Can I boast for a little bit?” he asks us, because when you’re up north, you do have to check. “I’ve only ever been to one photo show, Paris Photo 2007, and it was shite, really. But Arles is supposed to be bigger than the Houston FotoFest. I’ve got plane tickets, I’ve got a taxi for the week, free food. And the director came to see me in Chapeltown.

“Because it’s all colour work, the photos have faded, but the negatives aren’t too bad. So they’ve said, right, we’ll do the whole exhibition again. I said you can’t do it again, it’s sixty-five images, and pictures of Mars to go with it; but they said they can do it, they just need the measurements and the weights. So it’s being recreated.

“It has impressed me no end, but now… it’s like going to see Gerry & The Pacemakers, or Marty Wilde at The Grand. How can you ever bear to see these people you used to adore in your youth? And it’s the same with photography. This stuff is just shite. But that’s the risk you’re taking here. You don’t want to be associated with me.”

Often that was the case; that people didn’t want to be associated with Peter Mitchell.

“I’ve a sort of unsteady attitude, in a way, that has done me quite well. I was never an outsider or an evil eye on things; but you couldn’t get critics up from London to shows in Sheffield, in Newcastle, Barnsley, Huddersfield, Leeds; I got down to London two or three times and it sort of counted then because you would get a write up in the British Journal of Photography.

“I had my first one-man show in 1975, and it was a renegade show in as much as it was European Architectural Heritage Year, and Leeds had put on this great big show of its Victorian heritage in the art gallery, and I was in a separate little art gallery showing stuff I’d shot from the truck. Which proved to be massively successful.

“In the late-eighties, when we were about to be twinned with Dortmund, they were sending over an exhibition of their city, and some people at the council wanted to send my exhibition of Leeds: the truck driver’s view. And of course it was stamped on completely, it was thrown out, no one wanted to see that rubbish. So Leeds City Architects were commissioned to photograph Leeds: Park Square, the Civic Hall, Temple Newsam. I thought, that’s great.

“I’ve always thought Leeds was a very philistine place. I’ve been taking that back over the last two or three years, I have to say. But I came to Leeds in 1970, and I remember all those gable ends that you saw from the train coming into Leeds, whole lines of them to the railway edge. This is what amazed me about Leeds, coming from the metropolis where you could only see little bits of north London or south London, but Leeds you could see in a whole day. And I got the impression that Leeds’ time was up, that it was being demolished all over the place – which it was.”

The demolition of Quarry Hill flats gave Peter the subject for his most enduring work; photos of the end of life of 3,500 homes, presented together with the utopian blueprints and plans from its beginning; and photos from Mars.

“I had a sense that people didn’t know why they were knocking it down or what they would do with it; it was a PR exercise, somehow. Okay, its reputation had gone from bold utopian experiment to dumping ground for the misfits, but maybe just given another ten years, that great curve on the front, with its flagpoles; this great fortress, this great citadel opposite the bus station…

“But it’s a failure of the imagination, on behalf of Leeds. 3,500 people lived there, and it’s still empty. The site is still a car park, it’s just got bits that got lucky, like the Playhouse, like the big dole office with the spike on top.”

Tom Joy moved, two-and-a-half years ago, to a very different Leeds to 1970, in most ways; although the future now of the South Bank, and still of Quarry Hill, still exists as a test of the imagination. But in a relatively short time in Leeds Tom has been taking photos that make us imagine and have ideas about the city, by seeking out photographs away from the Civic Halls and the Temple Newsams, or seeing them differently.

“My understanding of culture, I think, becomes more warped the longer I’ve been in Leeds,” says Tom. “I’ve only been here two-and-a-half years, so it’s a difficult thing.

“I came here from Aberdeen, the silver city, which is only silver if you clean the granite; otherwise granite is quite dull. I came on a whim, and when I got here I wasn’t aware of everything that was going on. The cultural change that I’ve seen, and the cultural enthusiasm, is really cool.

“Because Aberdeen is so isolated, people there keep themselves to themselves; there’s so much money in the city, but nothing goes back into the city. It annoys me no end.

“Whereas in Leeds there’s far more cultural diversity, there’s acceptance for difference, whether that’s fashion or ethnicity. Everything feels very diverse and everyone is accepting and open-minded.”

Shortly after moving to Leeds Tom started his Leeds Lurking photography project, a way of building a portfolio, exploring the city, and sharing his fresh viewpoints of parts of Leeds that Loiners might not have thought to look at. He’s carried that intent through to the photos for this project.

“People are always in a rush and don’t look around,” says Tom. “My focus in the photos is to present people missing what is around them. They need to look up!

“My message is really to look around and enjoy the diversity and growth in Leeds right now. Everything is shot in portrait to accent the height of our skyline, which is growing at an incredible rate.”

As we discussed culture and photography with Tom and Peter, conversation turned to what people do look at, and take photos of, which in many ways is everything, but as Tom points out, is also nothing.

“I went to the KAWS exhibit at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and I was just seething the whole time,” he says. “90% of the people there were like, glance, snap, selfie, take photos then walk to the next sculpture to take photos. They leave at the end of the day thinking, well, I got all these photos.

“But you didn’t do anything. You did what everyone else has done. And did you truly experience the moment?”

“That’s interesting,” says Peter, “And I don’t quite agree. There was no photography when I was a kid. I had one uncle that took photographs, and they were rare things, cameras. I went on holiday package tours in the late-fifties and never took a camera at all.

“But for photography to have taken off so strongly, it must be to do with something very deep inside people. With things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, they’re all integral now with that idea of photography being assimilated into your bloodstream. And I still regard it as something very special. That god-made sun hitting somebody and you managing to capture their image on a surface of some sort, I find quite emotional somehow, quite profound. What it does is, it gives me faith in the person actually doing it, because that’s where meaning comes from, I think.”

“I do get to a point where I have a passionate argument with myself about the whole thing,” says Tom. “Because I realise I’m a bit of a hypocrite. I do take photos of loads of things, and I do post them online and tell people about it.”

“You can’t keep these things to yourself,” says Peter. “You can’t put it in a drawer. Well, you could, and it still might be wonderful, but I feel that you have to go public with them somehow as a part of society.”

Peter’s sympathetic view of the amateur phone-photographer is perhaps shaped by his thoughts about his own status in the world of fine art photography; the man with the recreated retrospective show at Arles 2016, who has always done photographs for fine art galleries and “scorned photobooks”; who also claims to be “a one-trick pony”, and is used to being regarded as ‘quirky’.

“What’s the other expression for funny old men? Eccentric. There’s this idea about quirkiness, because I’ve lived in the same flat in Chapeltown for forty-two years, I’ve rarely been out of Yorkshire, I’ve got no credit cards, smartphones or computers. I shoot film only.

“This all gets mentioned in things, as if to say, ‘He’s naive, or he doesn’t know much about anything. And he’s still doing them you know, still going round Chapeltown, looking at bits of graffiti or bits of paper stuck to the floor.’

“I remember an interview with Lord Lichfield when he had a retrospective, and was asked on the BBC if he’d chosen these eighty images in the show as his favourites. He said he didn’t have favourites because choosing was too difficult; ‘When you’ve got between four and five million negatives to look through…’

“People always ask me now, do you still take pictures? And I say yeah, I do. They ask, how many do you reckon you’ve taken? And I say, I’ve probably taken about 3,000. Maybe 3,500. And they go, ‘Is that this year or what?’ No, that’s in a lifetime!

“I’ve just crept around, doing – not lurking – but noting, and making a sort of position out of it. And I got lucky. There’s been no money in it, but I’ve got by, and it has paid off over a longer period. I’ve just sort of dribbled along into the foothills of old age now, and I think, well, I’m still here. And you’re here, half my age.”

We’re here because, as much as Peter’s photos of the South Bank from what we tweely call years gone by inspire nostalgia, we know they were taken by someone who is not nostalgic (“Although, obviously, I am”) but was taking heavily considered fine art photographs that, while they’ve earned him the status of an eccentric quirky character in Leeds, have also earned him a spot at one of the world’s most prestigious photography festivals, and mean he can’t have a pint in The Tetley without being recognised by visiting artists. Perhaps that says something about Leeds’ understanding of its own culture, as Peter’s photos of Quarry Hill – and the failure of imagination visible since – say something about a future course for the South Bank. Tom’s here because he’ll be recording all that, and because that’s what culture is, not something separate to the city and the way we live our lives, but integral to both, a way of confirming that we are living, and of thinking about how.

“A job to do in the near future is to find out where the ghost train man is, or whether he is dead,” says Peter.

“He used to come to Leeds with a ghost train. And I used to photograph him. I’ve not got many pictures, probably about a hundred, of which about three or four are okay. But I use the ghost train man as a sort of memento mori.

“He’s there in most of my photographic shows, in different disguises, sometimes covered in snow, sometimes taking his ghost train down, sometimes standing there with his dog. But I’ve not seen him since I think 2010. I know he’s retired somewhere. The last time I saw the ghost train, it was deteriorating at the same rate as people. Lost its teeth, its eyes had fallen out of the giant skull, its arms had dropped off. But I might look to buy it if he’s not using it anymore.”


First published in a Leeds Culture Strategy project

“Liverpool works on beauty & time” — Andrew Ellis

During two hours of soft spoken intensity Andrew Ellis chainsmoked Camels and unfurled before us a thought and spoken map of the city of Liverpool, with his annotations, and regard for space, community, music and beauty.

We met Andrew on an afternoon that blustered sunshine around us at a table, outside The Buyer’s Club, where Andrew is a fixture. His studio is nearby, but doesn’t have any windows, so The Buyer’s Club is a better space to work in, to talk in. Spaces are important to Andrew. He was a vocal narrator of The Kazimier when its fate was in the hands of the council; on the day we met, he was looking forward to the night, and the opening of The Kazimier’s new production of a new space, The Invisible Wind Factory.

“I’ve been down there about once a week for the last couple of months,” says Andrew. “It is such a beautiful thing. We had a period of mourning, but during the whole time that there was the fear over The Kazimier, there had been this space just quietly working down on the docks, where they were building everything. And it’s huge.

“As it became acknowledged that The Kazimier was closing, there started to become this transition towards making that a new space, with a live space and plans for big events, a new garden, the workshops, and then upstairs this integrated artistic community. So it’s this beautiful building, and it’s Liverpool in a nutshell; the studios giving people the space to do the work they need to do at a low cost, and to do work for Kazimier productions, who benefit from this happy community working together and producing amazing stuff.”

We wanted to talk to Andrew first about his photography, because we’d seen some of his pictures and loved looking at them. After looking at his pictures we looked at Andrew, or what we could see of him through Google and social media, and realised how much more Andrew might be able to talk to us about, apart from his considered clicking with a medium format camera. That activity is a hobby made serious for Andrew, a way of seeing something new, of getting out from behind a computer – he shoots analogue – and a way of being creative.

“I’m not a particularly creative person,” says Andrew, who told us a lot about himself in confessional asides:

“I float about in conversations too much.” “Sorry, I chain smoke.” “I say ‘context’ so fucking much.” “I swear too much.” “I’m a fucking horrible nerd who likes coffee and weird ambient records.” “I really do smoke too much.” “I don’t even know if diaristic is a word, but I’ve used it three times now.”

Andrew is the rare interviewee who will ask to go off the record so that he can say some people are “the nicest people in the entire world, they give me faith.” The secret of who Andrew meant here will die with us, but if you’re Andrew’s friend, you can be pretty sure that if he didn’t say it specifically to us about you, he will think it about you, and he’ll mean it, because Andrew is brimming with a sincere appreciation of and gratitude to the people that make Liverpool the place he wants to be, every day.

“One thing I find beautiful, is finding that more and more people are moving to Liverpool from other cities,” says Andrew. “There’s a migration from London, with the rise of the digital age. I have always struggled with the choice, because there aren’t really that many jobs open in Liverpool for what I like doing – commissioning multidisciplinary, artsy stuff. But up here I’ve got my studio, and the fun shit and the stuff I really enjoy is up here.

“So I made the decision for myself based on happiness. And I think the economy here works more, although it sounds so pretentious, on beauty and time. What is more important? Capital, or time? I think the people who migrate here choose time, and the time to pursue the things that make them happy.

“The movement isn’t just about Liverpool being a port anymore, when it was a natural place to come to. It’s about moving to a place because people know they can have a little bit more financial freedom, a community they can embed themselves in, a place that’s open so people can dip into things quite easily. That was my experience when I moved here; I asked a few promoters about putting on shows in Liverpool and they helped me out straight away.”

That was ten years ago, when Andrew moved from London to Liverpool to study popular music, and not necessarily to live in a house with twenty people, to put on shows at Magnet, Korova, The Kazimier, to commission music for the biennial, to work in artist development with Merseyside Arts Foundation, to programme one-off shows with Immix Ensemble; although he ended up doing all those things anyway, propelled by the people he met, the spaces he found, and an urge to create experiences.

“I wasn’t the best student,” says Andrew. “I really enjoyed learning but wasn’t very good at hitting deadlines. So I was cruising through university and about three months in I started putting on gigs for bands that weren’t really playing in Liverpool – weird DIY noise stuff. Trencher were the first band I put on – Casio grindcore, very odd.

“After I’d done about ten shows of weird noisy shit, I got an email from Mike Deane, who runs Liverpool Music Week; I’d never met him, but he said he’d seen what I was doing, and asked me to co-promote a show for Daniel Johnston.

“It was around the time that a few bigger promoters came in, like Harvest Sun and Evol, who were putting on bands like I’d been doing, but doing it at the next level. And after the Daniel Johnston show, I got more interested in the idea of shows being one-offs, in giving people experiences.

“The Biennial approached me in 2012 to put together a commission with Rhys Chatham, who I’d put on before at Bluecoat Gallery. It was for an orchestra of one hundred guitars, at Liverpool Cathedral. The queue was out the door and we couldn’t get everyone in, but I remember someone who was left just outside the door said that, though it was a shame they couldn’t see it, look: four thousand people have just queued up to see a weird art performance in Liverpool.”

Which is what it’s all about.

“It’s giving people the opportunity to see something. It’s not about educating people, or about high art or low art, I think that’s bullshit. People should just enjoy what they want to and experience as much as they can. But to give people something that otherwise wouldn’t happen in Liverpool – that is, in a roundabout way, what I aim to do.”

It’s currently done through Immix Ensemble, which exists in one form as a recorded group of performers led by Daniel Thorne, whose talent as a jazz composer was hidden from Andrew behind the counter of Dan’s job in Bold Street Coffee; one day, or it sounds better if we say it was at night, Andrew heard Dan playing saxophone from the back of the shop; we like to think it was as if he was soundtracking a detective noir. Except Dan was playing Happy Birthday.

“I remember thinking, he’s never brought this up,” says Andrew. “And I said to him, you’re a really good saxophonist. Later on he came through the Merseyside Arts Foundation scheme at Metal, and it turned out he’s a fucking great saxophonist, and he’s won a load of jazz composition awards and commissions.”

Dan founded Immix Ensemble at Metal, with Andrew managing what has become in its other form a series of one-off performances, with an expanding and collapsing cast of performers, including Stealing Sheep, Bill Ryder-Jones, Ex-Easter Island Head, dancer and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir, and more.

“The whole raison d’être of Immix Ensemble is uniting different voices around the city. Liverpool does a really good job of pulling people together; as far as the artistic community goes, it’s a city of hundreds or thousands of individual artists, and everyone has ideas. It seems like everyone is pushing towards something, regardless of what’s in the way.

“Immix is very much about building connections between those communities. On a personal level, Liverpool is too small for there to be rival communities, like punks versus metal kids. Everyone is just mates with everyone. But those conversations weren’t necessarily happening on an artistic level, they were mates and pints.

“Immix is a catalyst. A lot of people see this instrumental group playing experimental modern music as a barrier, as if it’s this higher thing they can’t touch, but Dan was like – it’s not higher than anything, it’s just a way of creating sound. So let’s bring different communities together to create good work.

“I’ve never been interested in managing a band, because a band has this upward trajectory, where the aim of it is to keep moving upwards. But with Immix each project is within itself; the goal each time is one scratch performance and then the artists can take that further if they want. It’s always a fiver in, it’s always in a nice venue, it always has good programme notes, it’s a Wednesday or Thursday night and an artist you’ve heard before is involved, so it’s a good way for people to take a punt on what might be some interesting music.”

The experimental, one-off nature of each Immix Ensemble performance is appropriate to a city that, Andrew says, has an increasingly visible artistic resilience, an understanding of the need to build on spirit rather than bricks, particularly since the closure and demolition of The Kazimier.

“I remember in 2008, when there were murmurings of this new space,” says Andrew. “I remember going in a week before, and it was love at first sight. Walking into the space was so perfect, no person opening a space would decide it would be like The Kazimier was.

“With the space it came to a point where we knew it was going to be sold. Everybody in the family knew. It is a family, a family of a thousand people, each with their own role or connection. But Liam at The Kazimier was saying, we’re not going to get in the way. We’re not going to try to list the building to stop it being sold. There’s a quote by a guy called Robert Montgomery, I have it printed on my wall: All palaces are temporary palaces. I think that was reflected in The Kazimier.

“Although I think there was a period of mourning before it closed, and after it closed, you’ve got this really beautiful space, and it’s got this amazing community around it, and it’s going out at the peak of where it’s at, with a huge party.

“The fear was in the unknown. What was going to happen? But I think venues like The Kazimier are also inspirational. People see that these people have turned up, they have worked hard to find a space, and through being good people, and showing that when things are done right and for the right reasons, something beautiful can spur from that.

“Communities are inspired by the stories of things that have come before them, and there will always be somebody who will say yeah, we’ll find a way to do this. Liverpool has always been a fighting town, about justice and not being downtrodden. Yes there are negatives, and we get angry about those negatives, but we try to find a solution. And if it’s not a solution with big players, it’s about finding a way to start things slowly at the bottom.”

The principle that fleeting beauty, made with sincerity, can inspire long after its moment, also applies to Andrew’s photography – “A small part of what I do, but something I really enjoy.

“It’s also an excuse to travel. I don’t take many photographs in Liverpool anymore, because I feel like my eyes have adjusted to it too much.

“I think photography is really helpful in giving us an understanding that, generationally, people aren’t all that different. If you cut out the politics and the technology of an era, and want to look at what brings communities together, photography is a good level.

“Mark McNulty has been taking photographs in Liverpool for years and years – and he gave me a shedload of film he wasn’t using, because he is a solid human being. You look at his photos of Cream and Eric’s and the early clubbing scene, and it’s an interesting insight into how those communities form. The people might be dressed differently but you can tell, they’re having the same sort of time that we have now.

“I think photographs are amazing for that purpose, and I think we take it for granted. I try not to take photographs of things that are obvious, that have been taken before. But it’s later down the line when it comes in. If I took a photo of this bar now, people might like it because they like the bar, but there’s no real story behind it; there’s nothing new for me here. But get that photo out in ten years, and people will have memories relating directly to it, remembering this is what it was like at this point.”

When we asked Andrew about his photography, he told us about how he uses a medium format camera for the self-discipline involved in not being able to take five hundred digital shots, transferring real life to jpegs at a real frame rate; “It’s fifteen shots a roll and it’s a real pig to reload, so I consider things a bit more; and I also have the financial implication, where every shot is worth a quid, so I take the time to compose and find what I really want within a frame.”

Then he told us about all the other people around him in Liverpool that inspire him to take photographs, from projects with Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords (“sonically he is very much of the Wirral,” says Andrew, “his music sounds to me like the landscape that surrounds him”), that led to documenting Forest Swords’ tours with an old camera; to the people in Liverpool Andrew says do it better than him.

“There are some really great photographers in Liverpool. Most of the bands in Liverpool all take their own cameras out with them, and they’re all great photographers. Kieran from Circle Waves always has a camera with him, all of Stealing Sheep take cameras out with them and they’re all great photographers. Joe Wills produces loads of bands and he always has a camera with him. My favourite photographer in Liverpool is Simon Gabriel, who is in Organ Freeman, who are a really fun band.”

And finally we came to what Andrew really loves about photography, which seems to stand true of a lot of what Andrew really loves about a lot of things – that it’s a way to everyone.

“I think the iPhone is the greatest thing that has happened to photography in twenty years,” says Andrew. “It has democratised it, because so many people have a smartphone in their pockets, and are able to document their daily life, and anything they think is beautiful.

“I think what attracts me to photography is that everyone has their own eyes. I am attracted to the idea of the beauty that people see in different things, and to photography as a literal representation of somebody’s viewpoint in a way that other things aren’t.

“I really like having that insight, into people’s worlds. Into what they find beautiful.”


First published in TCT

“I always felt i had to do something more with my life” — Rav Matharu, clothsurgeon

“I was living the dream there for a while,” says Rav Matharu, as he sits and talks to us in a basement studio in London, where he is living a very different kind of dream today.

And yeah, he sounds wistful, as any sports mad Leeds lad might, who played football for Leeds United’s youth teams when Leeds United were a club in the semi-finals of the Champions League, who eventually had to let that dream go.

We weren’t totally sure how much Rav would want to talk about it; sometimes when you leave a life behind, that’s where you leave it. But now that he is Rav Matharu, clothsurgeon, and living a new dream as one of London’s best designers of genre-modifed menswear, working with artists like Nas, he has all the perspective he needs to look back to those days and appreciate the memories.

“We were pretty much spoilt,” Rav tells us. “I lived at the Academy at Thorp Arch for two years, and it was like a big holiday camp.

“We’d wake up in the morning, clean the professionals’ boots, and go for some breakfast. That was all laid out for you, and you could have whatever you wanted. Then we’d go to train, which was what we all loved to do. Then we’d have lunch with all the first team players and staff, obviously banter filled. We were so well looked after, all we had to do was play football, which we were obsessed with – then every now and then we would go out and enjoy our hard work on the pitch.”

Looking at the photos that, from time to time, Rav posts on Instagram, it’s amazing to see how far back his association with Leeds United goes. There are photos from 1992, of young Rav posing with a football, proudly wearing the Admiral home kit of the League Champions and Charity Shield winners; in the blue-and-yellow striped Asics kit, just like David Batty or Brian Deane.

“My school headteacher sent me for trials to Leeds City Boys, which was the representative side for all the schools in Leeds. I was ten years old. A select few from the LCB team where then sent to Leeds United trials.

“I was a little smaller than everybody else, but I had an amazing trial and scored about three headers. Andy Beaglehole was the youth development officer, and really took to me, telling me I rose like Gary Speed.

“My dad would send me and my cousin to the Ian St John Soccer Camp every summer. Eddie Gray, the Leeds legend, used to take training sessions. He remembered me when he saw me at Leeds United, because I’d once won some boots for being player of the camp – ‘You’re that lad who won that pair of Umbro Speciali!’ It was nice to be known and remembered by someone you admired and watched videos of.”

You can tell that sort of attention from a legend meant something; still means something. Leeds United, at the time, was a club filled with superstars, and young, dream-eyed youngsters like Rav, working as hard as they could to get to where Alan Smith, Harry Kewell and Jonathan Woodgate had got to. The first team. The Premiership. The Champions League.

“The atmosphere at the club was incredible,” says Rav. “The energy at the club was contagious and it spread like wild fire, from match day at Elland Road, it filtered down through the reserves, the youth team, the canteen staff to the laundry ladies. The place was buzzing with positivity.

“I remember when Tony Yeboah was just god. I didn’t play or train with Yeboah, but I was at the game against Liverpool when he scored that amazing volley. And I remember watching Jimmy Hasselbaink take free kicks in training, nobody I’ve ever seen could hit a ball as hard as him. Ian Harte could hit a ball but Jimmy just pinged it off two steps. It was ridiculous. All the youth team would watch him, we would all be trying to hit it like that in the playground the next day.

“Probably the best in training was Robbie Keane, he had the quickest feet, he was amazing. Harry Kewell was incredible in that one season when he ran everyone ragged. Lucas Radebe was a true chief, the nicest guy, who had a quality of making you feel secure and protected. Mark Viduka and Nigel Martyn would spend some time in the boot room with us cracking jokes. Nigel had shocking banter, but had a fair few stories.

“And David Batty. Nobody could get the ball off him. No chance. He’d let them get close and then no, he’d just lay off a simple pass and start again. Only the players who played with him know how good he was, an unsung hero, and I felt that’s just the way he liked it. I used to clean the club captains boot’s, also the manager’s, David O’Leary. Your professional would give their boot boy a tip at the Christmas party, I remember Woody gave one of the lads £1,000, Duberry £600. I was rubbing my hands thinking, happy days! What am I going to spend this money on? And I was waiting all night. I got nothing! Neither of them gave me a Christmas tip. If they’re reading this I hope they’ll forward the cheque in the post.

“I was in the age group with Anthony Lennon, Aaron’s older brother, and everyone was talking about Aaron coming through the age groups below us. You knew from a young age he was going to be exceptional. He used to play in the same team as James Milner, so you can imagine Lennon and Milner together, just tearing other teams apart.”

That was the standard in a first team squad of international stars; that was the standard in the under-14s. That was the standard an eighteen year old at Leeds had to reach to stand a chance of playing. There was pressure on all the youngsters, and additional focus on Rav and teammate Harpal Singh when the media’s search for the next young Leeds stars uncovered a rarity – two young Asian players with a shot at playing in the Premier League. Their careers – particular the older Singh’s – became a cause célèbre, and then subject to closer scrutiny in 2000, when first team players Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were charged for their involvement in an attack causing grievous bodily harm to an Asian student in Leeds.

“There wasn’t really extra pressure on me and Harps,” says Rav. “It was there in the back of our minds, that if we broke through to the first team there would be a lot of media attention on us.”

For Rav, the story stopped just short of a dream come true: a first team appearance.

“I don’t think I got close,” he says. “Maybe I’ll tell people different in the pub after a few drinks, but I don’t think I was near to breaking through to the first team at Leeds. There were internationals playing in the reserves, it was hard to progress. I remember being on the bench for the reserves against Sheffield Wednesday, and that was probably the closest. Chris Waddle was playing for them and I was watching him, remembering idolising him at the 1990 World Cup.

“It was hard to break into that team because it was doing so well. There were internationals in the reserves like Jason Wilcox, David Hopkin. It was a club where you had to do exceptionally well to even get on the bench of the first team.

“I think Aaron Lennon and James Milner were the only ones who really made it at the top level. Everyone was on the lookout for another club, or going for trials when they were still with Leeds. Frazer Richardson got into the team; Frazer was an animal, pretty sure he had a six pack when he came out the womb, he was solid. Jamie McMaster was doing well; Caleb Folan went to a few clubs and is still playing, last time I spoke to him he was out in Myanmar, he is a spiritual brother, that area of the world really suits him. Simon Johnson also played in the first team, I spoke to him recently. He’s starting his own football camp to help people who come out of professional clubs at a young age, to try and develop them, give them a chance at another club.”

We suggest that might have helped Rav.

“It might have. I think I just lost my love for the game after a few trials. I was going round lower league clubs, and was like,” – Rav starts laughing at himself, remembering waking up from that dream world – “I have to wash my own kit? Make my own food? What is this? This is strange! I was offered some month-to-month contracts. But that didn’t seem like it would get me anywhere.”


“I was kind of lost for a couple of years,” says Rav. “I probably should have stayed at Leeds to keep up my fitness levels. I trialled at various clubs, considered going to America; my agent kept trying to get me to Portugal or somewhere.

“I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to work in sports therapy or coaching, it just wasn’t for me.

“I had to look for a job. I started working in retail and it was hard – people who knew me from Leeds, who knew me as a professional footballer, coming in and saying: ‘Oh. I thought you were a footballer.’ It felt like a fall from grace.”

That’s not an unusual script; professional football is notorious for discarding talented young players without support to help them find a new direction, and young men all over the country have experiences like Rav’s when they step outside of the dream world of the Premier League. But then, when they come to talk about that lost time, it’s usually in a confessional tell-all about the decline that followed, the dangers of a dream.

Not Rav Matharu.

“I always used to draw,” he says. “I was into clothing and footwear and designing. It seemed like something I could do.

I really wanted to learn more.

“I went to Loughborough University to do a foundation degree in art and design, and was then offered a place at London College of Fashion. I went there for two weeks but dropped out because the expense was too much. I moved back to Leeds and worked in retail for three years, but I always felt I had to do something more with my life. So I picked up my studies at Leeds College of Art.

“I didn’t know how to sew. I didn’t know how to cut patterns. But I knew I had a good eye for fashion and clothing, and from a young age I’d always wanted to know how it was put together.

“I put in long hours. I learned how to use the sewing machine, learned how to cut patterns, and read many books. I guess I worked harder than my peers at university because I had to, I was a little bit older and knew what I was there for. I was about twenty-five and they were all nineteen, going to freshers dos, and I was well over that scene. I knew Leeds, so I knew the nicer places!

“I was just focused on my degree and getting the most out of it. And then moving to London and trying, and hopefully doing, something.”

People say things happen for a reason, and while the years in retail might have felt like a fall from grace, they gave Rav a valuable tool for his climb to London, and back to grace – an enviable, and valuable, collection of trainers.

“I’d worked at Size?, and I’d been living at home not paying rent – the easy life! – so I just spent all my money on trainers. I had an amazing collection, something like four hundred pairs, with a lot of valuable collectors’ pieces. And that’s how I funded living in London. You get a shed for like a thousand a month in a terrible area, but that’s just what London is. It took about a year to start getting paid so it was a struggle, selling off sneakers and working it out somehow, and mum was always there to support.”

Rav was head designer at bespoke streetwear brand House of Billiam for three years, but without the creative control he need to feel like he was fully using the talents supporting his new dream.

“I had just married Parv,” says Rav. “I had been told on my honeymoon that the brand could no longer afford to pay me. It was a blessing in disguise, because it just pushed me to do my own thing, but it was extremely daunting. I was coming back from honeymoon and basically didn’t have a job, living in London, where costs are ridiculous. It was a case of, this has got to work, so we’ve got to do as much as we can to make it work. As much as it was scary, equally, it was exciting.

“When I moved to London I always had the intention to start my own brand. The name was born at uni; a lot of people cut patterns with scissors, but I would always use a scalpel, and my tutor would constantly tell me I was like a surgeon. I’d built a small website and registered the name clothsurgeon, but didn’t really do anything with it until it was time to do my own thing.”


The clothsurgeon vision and philosophy is simple. The clothes are scalpel sharp, streetwear delivered with the timeless razor judgement of classic menswear. Bespoke pieces and tight collections that operate through individual expression, sometimes celebrating an inspirational figure like Garrincha, the Brazilian football legend who entertained more than Pele; sometimes celebrating the inspiration of the clothes themselves.

“We concentrate on quality fabrics, quality production,” says Rav. “You can come in and create a wardrobe of quality clothes; we offer a full bespoke service where you can make whatever you want, timeless silhouettes with a contemporary edge that can last you a lifetime. Beautiful overcoats that will not go out of fashion in your lifetime. A bomber jacket, a suit, whatever it is.

“It’s generic modification of what clothing is to menswear. Altering the fabrics, altering the fits. We do a double-breasted overcoat that is not classically oversized to fit over every layer, it’s fitted so you can wear it with a t-shirt. There’s a different silhouette to it, but you see it as a classic piece.”

The designs can be eye-catching in first blush, but the depth is in the dependent subtlety of Rav’s eyes and ideas.

“It’s nice to create something a bit more subtle and unique, through hidden details, fits, certain elements that we can do. I like putting pieces together and outfits together. If someone came in here and asked for ten pieces they could wear for the rest of the year, I would easily be able to do that. Jackets, pants, tops, rotating so it looks like they’re wearing something new and different every time.”

The brand, website and a small collection came together in October 2012, “And just sort of took off,” says Rav. “We were supported from the start by blogs like Hypebeast and HighSnobiety, who just loved the products and would always feature us.

“We sold really well just through Instagram and Facebook, but then we’ve had some great celebrities who love the bespoke side. A$AP Rocky championed that. We did Tinie Tempah’s tour, Jessie J’s tour, Jess Glynne’s tour; various hip-hop artists come in for bespoke appointments, which is amazing.

“Nas in particular. I’m a huge fan of Nas and met him, and he was so cool. He loved what we were doing. Every time he’s in the UK he says, let’s catch up, what have you got for me?”

Rav still has the breathlessness of a fan when he talks about working with an artist like Nas, but mixed with pride at how that relationship is maintained.

“We’ve built relationships with superstars,” he says, “But that’s because we’re providing something. We’re not just fans. We’re bringing something to the table that they admire, so it’s mutual respect.”

We, at this point, is Rav and Parv, working with teams of interns between a production unit, and a workroom below a coffee shop.

“It’s becoming harder to find space in the cool areas of London,” says Rav. “I think people think we’re a lot bigger than we are. They don’t expect to come to a dungeon below a coffee shop. A humble space.

“But we’ve gained a lot of trust from a lot of people, which is so valuable. People buy from the website, £700 jackets, without touching them or trying them on. That’s trust.

“We’re growing slowly and organically, and working hard. It has been scary. It’s still quite scary now, when you do a collection – is it going to do well? Is it not? There is constant pressure.”

There’s also, in clothsurgeon’s fairly brief three-years-so-far existence, constant thrill at where the scalpel is taking them. Consulting for brands such as Asics; a window at Selfridges; appointed as ambassador for the prestigious Rolls Royce; attention-grabbing experiments like the Reconstruction Project, that crafted Nike fleece sweatpants into full suits, jackets and overcoats.

“That went crazy,” says Rav. “We didn’t really plan to sell that, but there was this huge demand. That Reconstruction Collection is now stocked in select stores worldwide.”

Working on brand-building with Asics prompted Rav to dig out the classic photos of young-Rav in his Asics made Leeds United kits, but it also took it him to Japan, where the Far East work continues through regular collaborations with Monkey Time/United Arrows.

“I love working with them,” says Rav. “Japanese people are perfectionists. Their levels of quality lift your levels. You think they’re going to be picky or selective but actually it’s just the way they operate, and that lifts your standards throughout everything you do. Going to Tokyo for the first time was an inspirational trip, seeing how they become obsessed with certain trends and sub-cultures, and take it to the next level.”

A new collection is on the rails when we visit, and a clutch of collaborative projects are ahead for clothsurgeon. But Rav and Parv won’t risk a jinxing comment.

“Nothing is done until you see it,” says Parv. “We love that freedom, to create what we want when we want, and not follow a regular fashion cycle that doesn’t work for us, that’s not what our brand is.”

“I think the longest we’ve ever had to make a collection is two months,” says Rav. “It’s because we can. I can turn around a sample from idea to garments in twenty-four hours and know it is exactly how I want it, because I’m making it myself with the exact fabrics. Once you have a customer engaging with your product and they really like it, they want to get on and buy it now, not wait six months.”

“We’ve done that since day one,” says Parv. “Build a collection, shoot a look book, then it’s available on the website soon after.”

One ongoing collaboration they could confirm was a visit from Monkey Time/United Arrows to the UK.

“We’ll take them out for drinks and ping-pong,” says Rav. “I just hammer them. I still have that competitive edge, I hate losing. They love playing ping-pong, and being the polite people they are they admire me wanting to win.”

“Rav takes no prisoners,” says Parv.

“I initially thought I’d take it easy, because I expected them to be quite good. Table tennis is popular in Japan. But then I just started smashing it.”

“Then he tells them, oh, I was junior champion of ping-pong,” says Parv. “Was that a lie, by the way?”

“I was junior champion of West Yorkshire at eleven,” states Rav. “Our headmaster at my primary school, Mr McHugh, was obsessed with table tennis. He set up table tennis club after school and he loved it, and really tried to develop our skills.”

Rav smiles at the memory; another time when hard work meant skills; when skills meant success.

“I wonder if I could find that trophy. I would love to have that trophy back.”


Maybe adding table tennis makes it three things Rav Matharu is good at. Maybe there are other things too. Maybe there’s no limit to the dreams Rav could live. He has the formula: dream, work hard, skill up, succeed.

“I would love to design a cricket kit,” says Rav. “I keep reminding Nike that I’m here, because I’d love to get involved designing with the Indian cricket team – they’re the only team sponsored by Nike, so that’s three obsessions: Nike, India and cricket.

“Or a Leeds United kit’s something I’d love to do. First thing I’d do is speak to die hard fans, discuss favourite kits over the years, do something nostalgic with it, but add the functionality and breathability of modern fabrics.

“I loved the Umbro kit when Leeds won the league in ’92. And I remember David Batty and Gary Speed wearing Asics boots with the massive tongues, these £300 made in Japan football boots. I’ve still got some old Puma stuff from my time, old training kit with the numbers stitched and marker-penned on.

“I still remember when we found out Nike were going to be sponsors after Puma. I thought it was amazing. Nike boots, Nike kits, Nike tracksuits! That was the golden era for me.”

The golden era in football, at least. The golden era in the life of Rav Matharu? Maybe he’s living it. Maybe there are plenty of dreams still to follow, plenty of risks. Plenty of hard work. What will be his golden era? That question will have an interesting answer.


First published in TCT

“Why don’t we start at the beginning?” — Tim Sayer

Tim Sayer, aged seventy, of Islington, has bequeathed the art on the walls of his home to The Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, and has been besieged since morning by journalists and reporters who want to ask him why.

Besieged was a theme we were happy to embrace. Secure in the first floor sitting room, we discussed tactics with Tim to delay the arrival of an expected reporter from the Telegraph, including heaving a bowl’s worth of boiling water at him from our upstairs vantage.

It’s not only the journalists.

“I find since this was decided that I now look more times when crossing the road,” says Tim. “Just in case The Hepworth are up to no good.

“I’ll keep checking their exhibition lists. The Tim Sayer Bequest! It’s all here now! That’s when I’ll see a crazed bus driver. It’s Simon Wallis.” Simon Wallis is the director of The Hepworth.

“Or maybe even you, Naomi, sent to run me down.” Naomi is The Hepworth’s PR manager, and in the corner of the room she looks appalled.

“It’s been a very quick process with The Hepworth,” says Tim. “Perhaps I didn’t realise how quick it was going to be.”


By the time of our visit, on a Wednesday afternoon, Tim has settled into a relaxed routine of charming his inquisitive guests and appalling Naomi.

“The response has been extraordinary,” he says, after greeting us at the door (“Tim?” we asked. “Jim,” replied Tim) and guiding us up the stairs. “Not only Look North filming. I had Front Row yesterday afternoon, which went out on Radio 4 last night. That only emerged about lunchtime. They asked if I would care to come in to the BBC for a live interview, and I said no, I wouldn’t. I don’t really want to go into Broadcasting House again. But why not come here? So their presenter popped round.

“It was extremely well done. They interspersed bits of Charlotte Green reading the news, and then me talking, because I had this career working at the BBC. It worked very well.”

Did they know about you already? we asked.

“Oh no, the BBC is so large. They didn’t have a clue who I was. Until about midday the presenter didn’t even know he was doing it.”

In retrospect we’re a bit surprised by that. Not only because Tim worked at the BBC, writing the scripts for news bulletins, for forty years, but because he must have made his presence felt. Robert Peston, we think, will remember him.

“Being nasty to Robert Peston,” says Tim, when we ask him exactly what his job involved. “My role in life was to write the news, on Radio 4 mostly. For the six o’clock news there would be about five of us writers, and two editors; writing the news, dealing with all the correspondents at home and abroad, being nasty to Robert Peston.

“I had a tremendous row with Robert once,” begins Tim, and the story that follows – Robert, hunted by Tim throughout Broadcasting House, cornered in a television editing suite, and browbeaten – “He ranted, I ranted, it went on a bit like that” – into changing his script – doesn’t sound like a one-off. Neither does its conclusion. “I got a topline message later, saying, ‘Thanks for your fucking help,’ and we were as good friends as we ever were.

“It was just pressure. People outside that environment don’t always appreciate that you could have a blazing row with somebody and be buying them a drink half an hour later.”

We’ve visited on the premise of talking to Tim about the life-long modern (and some ancient) art collection that he is leaving to The Hepworth, but we’ll get round to that, and we don’t know yet that The Telegraph are on our heels, so we ask more about working at the BBC.

“Nearly forty years,” says Tim. “It was all accidental. I just sort of drifted into it. Didn’t go to university or anything, got no training.

“When I left school I was offered three jobs. One was as a general trainee with The Hawker Aircraft Company, as it was then. One was as a trainee with Martins Bank, as it was then. And one was cutting up newspapers in the BBC News Information Library. So I went for the last one.

“I left after a while, went to work in magazines, and drifted back to the BBC. I left a few times. Most of my time there was freelance. What I discovered was the hours were such that I had lots of time to pursue other things, like collecting art, working in various galleries, things like that.

“The hours were long, very long. I worked a lot of nights as well, from ten o’clock at night to nine in the morning. A day shift would be eleven-fifteen until quarter to eleven at night. I had to know a little about everything, and become specialist in a story on Tuesday and forget it all by Wednesday, because there was so much to do.”

We’re all news-gatherers now, scanning Twitter, and editors, as we choose what to retweet, and experts, at least when someone forces us to factcheck a complacent opinion on Wikipedia. Forty years ago news was a job of hours, not seconds.

“I do sometimes wonder, I really do, how we ever did manage,” says Tim. “It was much slower in those days. If you wanted to check something you had to phone up news information, which was the library on the fourth floor, and they would look up newspaper cuttings for you. They would ring back in ten minutes and say, this is what we know. Amazingly cumbersome.

“All the editing was done on quarter-inch tape and five-inch spools, and there were studio managers who did that for you with a razor blade and sticky tape. Now that’s all done on a screen, you do it yourself.

“We used to dictate stories to typists, who would sit there with a cigarette in their mouths, fag ash hanging off the end of it, and the good thing was that if they didn’t like your English they would say so.

“They would say, ‘Well, you can’t say that love.’ And I would ask why not. They’d say, ‘Well, it’s not bloody English.’ Right. Thank you.

“It was great training. I had to write very tightly. In the days when I was first doing it, if you misheard something on the radio you couldn’t listen again, you had to wait for the next hourly bulletin. So you had to take the first sentence, grab the listener’s attention with that first sentence, explain it all in the second, and conclude it all in the third. It was as simple as that. I would be very lucky if I had seventy words to write.

“Which is why I don’t like all this bollocks that is written about art.”


Which is, remember, why we’re here; to write some bollocks about the art on Tim’s walls.

There’s a problem with that, because there’s so much of it. That ought to mean a wealth of material for us to write bollocks about, but walking into the house that Tim shares with his wife, Annemarie Norton, a costume maker and former dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, is an art experience unlike any other, making it hard to compare.

The art is everywhere; better behaved than it used to be, since Tim and Annemarie bought the ground floor flat, took down some of the art that hung on the upstairs ceilings, and rehung it on the new walls. And removed it from the banisters, where it was blocking the light.

Paintings and prints are edge to edge, with no room for explanatory notes to guide art-blinded novices like us. The vase on the table by which we sit, Tim says, dates from 2200BC, and we think of every vase we’ve ever seen toppled by a placid cat’s paw, and wonder how life here, with a placid cat named Otti prowling the rooms, can possibly be real.

Later, with freedom to explore, we discover the reporter from the Telegraph has breached our defences and is dazed on the first floor landing; “There’s just so much!” he exclaims to us, then, “My camera!”, and with that he rushes off to find his camera. While he’s gone, Tim guides us through Annemarie’s studio at the top of the house – an oasis of her tastes for mid-twentieth century glamour, to which a photo of Annemarie as a young ballerina adds – into the loft, piled with unhung art and more books (there are, on every bit of wall not covered by valuable artworks, incomprehensibly many books). The only place we’re not taken is to Jane’s house up the street – there’s more art there, apparently, that won’t fit here. It’s only after we’ve gone that we think to ask if Tim has a cellar, and what might be in it.

“Why don’t we start at the beginning?” asks Tim, ready to razor his life of art collection for us into a seventy word bulletin.

“I was seventeen in 1962, and I lived in Teddington in south-west London. I cycled across Richmond Bridge one Saturday and there was a junk shop, selling a portfolio of 183 prints. I know there were 183 because I’ve still got the list. It was ten shillings, which is about 50p. And I thought I would buy them. Fifty-four years later, I’m still framing them up. And then it sort of went on.

“I had always collected; I was only young, but I had collected books, Dinky toys, things like that. There was always a collecting urge. Gradually, as I started framing those prints, that’s what started me off. If I could put these on the walls and appreciate them, I thought, let’s see what else I can buy.”

The facts and figures of what Tim bought over the next fifty-four years, and how what he bought became a collection that a nationally important gallery would welcome, will have to wait until The Hepworth are able to catalogue and calculate the contents, because Tim bought without a system, although some systems were tried.

“A friend came round once when I lived in Finsbury Park and said, there’s a lot of black and white here. And I thought, he’s right. So then I went into buying colour. And at one point there was a lady called Nancy Balfour, who was president of the Contemporary Art Society, who said I should only buy art by living artists. So I kicked out all the dead artists and started buying living artists. Then one of the living artists died so I got rid of them, and I thought, this is crazy.

“So any time a living artist died I kept them, and then I went back to buying dead artists. The living artist’s thing probably only lasted for about six years, but unfortunately I got rid of a couple of things I should have kept. There are probably three or four things over the years that I really regret letting go.”

Do you think you’ve got enough to make up for it? we ask, having a bit of a redundant moment.

“What do you reckon?” asks Tim.

We reckon Tim’s done alright. In fact we reckon Tim is in a unique situation with his collection, developed according to taste rather than fashion, arranged around him in cramped domesticity; the effect on a visitor is like vertigo, but Tim is at ease.

“I am lucky that I can focus,” he says. “A lot of people ask how I manage to look at just one painting, and I say it doesn’t worry me, I can do that. I do like going round the house and picking something to look at.

“Living with art is a very good way of appreciating it. Most people can only manage it through books, but I am lucky enough to have not had holidays, and nearly bankrupted myself, and bought it.”

Which brings us to the question of what, having bought it, Tim is to do with it.

We’ve heard stories like Tim’s, of the odd fellow in the mid-terrace, that nobody knew had a valuable collection behind its front door. Usually, though, the Tims don’t appear in those stories, except as ghosts; the collections aren’t discovered until they’re dead and gone.

“I want people to see it,” says Tim. “It has always been our policy that people should be able to see it, and we have always welcomed people here to look round. I don’t like the idea of sitting behind the curtains saying, ‘It’s all mine.’

“Annemarie and I don’t have children. We don’t have siblings. So we have nobody to leave the collection to. And what I didn’t want to do was have the thought that, when we die, nobody will know what to do with it. So I was looking around.

“We went up to Yorkshire last July for an Anthony Caro opening at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth. And we were very impressed by The Hepworth. Such an amazing setting on the banks of The Calder, the building by David Chipperfield, the galleries themselves, the enthusiasm of the local people – this is the script isn’t it, Naomi?”

Naomi looks more incredulous than appalled.

“And the director, Simon Wallis. I had never met him, hadn’t heard of him before, but after he gave a speech to introduce the Anthony Caro exhibition, we sort of polled up to him and asked if he would consider a collection.”

On the spot?

“On the spot. And he said he didn’t know, because he’d never been offered one on that scale before, but that he’d come and look. So he popped down to London a few weeks later and took a look. And within about half an hour he said, yes please.”

On the strength of that yes please the Tim Sayer Bequest sealed a fate for the collection in the north, at a new – five years old in 2016 – gallery, in an industrial city far from the genteel, well-heeled world of London art. It’s an affronting gesture that Tim is adamant ought to be noticed.

“I didn’t want to give it anywhere in London,” he says. “London has got enough, I think. And The Hepworth is overwhelming. You’ve been, you know what it’s like, it’s ideal. It is a truly remarkable place and they have been incredibly good to me. They have sent curators down, gallery managers down, trustees; they showed more interest in the first month than I think anyone has shown, ever. And they’ve sustained it. There’s always one of the buggers on the phone nagging me to do something.

“Clearly, regional museums are starved of cash. This hypocritical government keeps

talking about a Northern Powerhouse, but it clearly doesn’t care about a Northern Powerhouse when it comes to the arts. I don’t think ministers care about the arts anyway. They’re a bunch of bloody Philistines. They’ve no idea how important the arts are to this country, culturally and economically.

“So I want very much to encourage other people to do what I have done. Either give their collections, or loan works, or make bequests of money, to regional galleries. They are the ones that need it.”

The Hepworth are not going to delay displaying Tim’s collection. From the end of April, until October, a selection from Tim’s walls will travel to Wakefield for an exhibition that will replicate, as much as it can, the domestic setting of Tim’s home in Islington. Which is going to leave Tim’s home with some bare walls.

“It certainly is.”

How will that feel?

“Come back and ask me when it has happened. But some artist friends have offered to fill the holes.

“It’s going to be a fascinating experience, seeing it out of this context. Seeing it possibly as a whole unit, or seeing things completely differently, or even seeing things and thinking, why did I ever buy that? That’s the great part for me. The different context, different setting, different lighting. Seeing people looking at it, listening to their comments. Maybe their rude comments. It’s going to be an adventure.”


While Tim has his photograph taken, we wander the rooms and staircases, disturbing the cat, trying to judge the value of the heavier ceramics, in case we need something non-essential to drop upon the head of the man from the Telegraph.

There is art on every side of us, of quality that could suffocate you if you attempted to breathe it all in at once. This, we suppose, is why galleries look like galleries; they talk about letting the art breathe, when actually it’s the viewer who needs air. But that’s also why so many galleries can be so deathly; all those people and artworks use up all the air. We’d rather be suffocated among Tim’s nearly-lost-at-Tetris wall hangings and long shelves of paperbacks than by a white plaster wall, and we’re glad that’s the atmosphere The Hepworth are intending to transplant north, alongside the art.

But then there’s one. A painting. Hung above a radiator, we remember, or maybe it was below a shelf. Those built in necessities of the house receded when we noticed it. All the other paintings receded too. It was burgundy mostly, a rectangle, with dull yellow stripes at angles that felt Soviet; it was abstract, anyway, as most of the collection is. It was brilliant. We looked at it for as long as we could. Maybe we’ll see it again at The Hepworth.


“A couple of weeks ago, a friend called from the Ronchini Gallery in the West End,” says Tim. “It was about Rebecca Ward, a young Texan artist whose work I had bought. I had spoken to her at her latest private view and asked if she could do me another small work. Well, she’s done it. It’s not here yet, but that’s the most recent one I’ve bought.”

So with the bequest settled upon The Hepworth, Tim is still buying?

“Yes, I’m afraid I am,” he says. “I’m not sure where the money’s coming from. But I’ll still stagger along – maybe not quite at my former rate – but I can’t stop. Only death will bring it to an end. Death, or incarceration in a high-security psychiatric hospital.”


First published in TCT

“That’s bloody magic, isn’t it?” — Auriel Majumdar, business coach

The Site Gallery café was closed on Monday morning when we went there to meet Auriel Majumdar, but because Auriel knows Kirsty, who works there, we were able to go in and sit and talk for a couple of hours.

First Auriel introduced us to Kirsty, so we could hear about Site’s part in the Going Public exhibitions that are on at the moment. International art collectors have granted Sheffield galleries access to their collections, and world class art that is normally hidden from public view is on display in Sheffield until mid-December.

Kirsty told us about the contemporary Chinese art, most from the Guangdong Province, on loan to Site from the dsl collection; a glimpse of some major artists from the Cantonese art scene in South Yorkshire. Then she offered us some tea and left us to talk to Auriel.

We talked to Auriel about a lot of things, and left feeling like two hours with her weren’t enough. One of the things we talked to her about was knowing people like Kirsty, and knowing that we would want to hear from her about the new exhibition; about being “a Malcolm Gladwell-type connector,” as she put it.

“There are two things that I wake up in the morning and feel absolutely privileged to do,” says Auriel. “One is to have this facility for putting people in touch with each other, and connecting people. That comes from thinking people are amazing, and being really curious about what’s going on. I always love to know what’s happening, I’m nosy.”

Another thing we talked about was the second of Auriel’s waking privileges, but perhaps the first of her passions; coaching.

“I call myself a business coach,” says Auriel, as if she would rather just call herself Auriel. “I think there is a lot of rubbish talked about coaching both within the coaching world and outside it, and lots of claims made for it that may or may not be true.”

We talked about how, five years ago, Auriel had no idea what coaching was, “And I was a bit sneery about it. I knew about sports coaching and I’d heard of life coaching, but I didn’t understand it as a way for people to develop.”

And we talked about what coaching is, to Auriel, and how she has been able to carve out a niche in Sheffield as a business coach for people outside of the traditional collar-and-suit world of what’s normally regarded as business.

“Coaching, to me, is about questions,” says Auriel. “It’s always about questions. Questions help you think about the world in a different way.

“A question like, ‘What would you put in a business plan?’ isn’t something I find particularly energising. It just makes me think of reams of boring paper. But questions like: Where are you going? Who is interested in what you’re doing? How are you going to reach the people you need to have a conversation with? Those are still business questions, but they’re a more interesting way of understanding business.

“I know a visual artist who has done her business plan in pictures. That’s genius. If it has to be taken to a bank manager it might have to be put in words, but why can’t it be planned in pictures if that’s what works for you?”

Auriel didn’t tell that artist to do her business plan in pictures; she doesn’t tell anybody to do anything. “I don’t think people have any problems being creative,” she says, “And I don’t help them be creative in any way.” But we talked about the difficulties creative people – artists, painters, poets, musicians, designers – have when faced with business practicalities.

“I think there is something about confidence,” says Auriel. “The real problem is taking an idea and making money out of it, turning it into a sustainable business. Making a living while doing the thing you love is the big challenge.

“People say things to themselves like, I can’t do it; what if I get it wrong? They worry about doing things for free, and about how much they should charge. Can I sell my work without selling my soul? What if I’m successful and people hate me? They fill their heads with all this crap.”

We talked about how although they may not realise it, the ideal people to face those challenges, and overcome them, and answer the questions, are creative people themselves.

“A coach is not someone who tells you how to do it,” says Auriel. “In coaching, we talk about ‘space’ a lot, and what I do is create a space so that people can think really effectively, and really creatively.”

We talked about how Auriel’s bag full of Russian dolls – “I have hundreds of these” – helps with that.

“There is a technical term, which is situational modelling,” says Auriel, but she also says that it’s really just about playing. “Creative people are wonderful with this, because as soon as they have permission to play, they just go for it.”

We talked about how easily people get used to telling the same old stories about themselves; because they’ve told people those stories before, they’re safe. But when people are asked to tell those stories using the dolls, they see the stories from outside, see themselves as characters, and see possibilities they didn’t see when they were rehashing their rehearsed yarns.

“People will take the littlest doll and say, that’s me,” says Auriel. “And then these big dolls will crowd around them: here’s the bank manager, here’s the rent. But when you see it in front of you, you can start to ask questions. What if this doll was over here? What about this doll, that you said was an opportunity, what if that came to the middle?

“A lot of work that artists and creatives do is in asking, ‘What if?’ And the power of coaching is in the same thing, in future possibilities, in asking, ‘What if?'”

Dolls are only one technique. We talked to Auriel about how she became a coach, and how she came to it by learning about coaching, and a drawing.

“I worked for Sheffield Council for ten years,” says Auriel, “And my boss was keen on supporting and developing leaders, so I was put on this leadership course. One of the things we accessed was coaching, and I was allocated this coach who was brilliant. A genius. She changed my life.

“She talked about those stories you tell yourself, that trap you, and how they’re called ‘limiting assumptions.’ I had a ton of baggage like that. I was never good enough; my best wasn’t good enough; I was getting old; I couldn’t do things that young, ambitious people could do; I had nothing interesting to say. These were all things that I believed.”

We talked about how those stories held sway over Auriel as she dealt with the impact of austerity on the council department she managed.

“I was in charge of quite a big budget, so when austerity hit I had to do loads of cuts and make loads of redundancies and it was just… well, shit. It was really hard. Every decision I made felt like the wrong one. Somebody was always going to be unhappy because when you’re making cuts nobody wins. And I was fifty.

“My fella is in the music business, so his income is erratic and unpredictable – the typical creative business model. So we had always seen my income as predictable and safe; somehow I ended up being the sensible one.

“But as part of a coaching session I did a drawing, and without thinking about it I drew these figures at the edge of the paper, getting smaller and smaller. And when I was asked what they were I said that was me, and it was me diminishing as a person. And that settled it. I left at Christmas, 2012, and started in business as a coach in January 2013.”

We talked about the hard times Sheffield has been through before, in the 1980s, and how the response to them was the making of Auriel, and in many ways set a template for the city’s reaction to adversity now.

“I was around in the mid-eighties, and that era made me,” says Auriel. “That scene is really well documented. My husband ran one of the seminal club nights, Jive Turkey, that lots of people have talked about. But I’m really keen on telling the story over and over again, and I’m really keen on me telling it over and over again as a woman. I’m still always the one with my hand up at music seminars saying, ‘Yeah, you know there were women there too?’

“You would walk through town then and it was grim. It was like Soviet Russia, so grey, with splashes of orange and brown because nobody had changed the carpets since the 1970s. We thought a lot about clothes in those days; Heaven 17 used to have that thing of fake glamour, emulating the Dallas and Dynasty style that was everywhere but playing with it in a wonky way.

“C&A used to be in the Hole in the Road, and we’d go there to buy this awful fake silk, and we’d go to Oxfam and all the second hand shops. Club flyers would say ‘dress to impress’ and you’d turn up to the club in some old man’s coat, but you’d be dressed up and it was a form of resistance: we might be poor, but we could look great.

“When we had parties in the flats and clubs like Jive Turkey, people came from all over the country, and that felt like an act of resistance too. There were no mixed places to hang out in Sheffield – you had white clubs and black clubs – but the parties were spaces where everybody could come, people of every race, gender, colour, age, political persuasion, musical persuasion, coming together around something that was shared: the desire to make music and dance all night.

“If you ask if it was a response to Thatcher, then it damn well was. Did we change the world? Through music? And dancing? Well, my world changed. My world changed utterly.”

And we talked about how while the form of protest has changed since the 1980s, what Sheffield has retained from that era is the character.

“I was very political in the 1980s, but not party political,” says Auriel. “I was at the poll tax riots in London – that scared the hell out of me. I used to shake buckets for the miners during the strike. I was forever picketing on Fargate and waving a banner. Politics then seemed more real and accessible; it was part of our culture to be angry and to be doing something. And culture and music were definitely part of it.

“Today people are rebelling through doing positive things and creating their own space and staking a claim to the city. Sheffield feels doable. Maybe you can’t change the world, but you can change Sheffield, and there are a lot of people who are very interested in doing that, who are interested in the impact of what they do. It doesn’t take the form our resistance did, which was marching and getting angry; it takes a more creative form, which is probably healthier.

“Girl Gang is an example. That’s a brilliant thing from a group of young women; I’m kind of a grandmother to them, the oldest girl in the gang. They have the most phenomenal manifesto that is about positivity; it’s empowering, liberating, inclusive, it creates a community and they’re having fun at the same time. The fact they have seen a need and got together and done that is brilliant.

“I don’t doubt that they are encouraging more people to do even more stuff, because if they can do it, why can’t somebody else? It’s like the graffiti art around the city, that makes people think, maybe I could express myself that way? Or my sixteen year old son, building a DIY skate park with his mates, because why not? That, to me, is saying ‘Screw David Cameron, we’re going to do this anyway.’ And I love that.”

We talked about how Auriel feels confident about her son’s future in the city, because of her confidence in the people.

“He’s sixteen and has been skateboarding since he was twelve. He doesn’t go to any of the legit places; he goes to DIY places with his friends where they make films and come up with millions of ideas.

“People talk about how it takes a village to raise a child, and I know that now he’s at an age where he’s starting to go out to parties there will be people there that know him and know me, so they are going to look out for him and keep him out of trouble. And that makes me feel great. I’m not talking about a mainstream education system, I’m talking about people keeping an eye out, people who will help if someone is in trouble. There are loads of random acts of kindness in Sheffield that nobody ever talks about.”

And we talked about how part of Sheffield’s character is its honesty, and how that can work for creativity.

“There’s a certain amount of what we in Sheffield call mardiness,” says Auriel. “But that mardiness is often just honesty. Sheffield is really honest.

“I hate the phrase ‘don’t get too big for your boots,’ because I want everybody to outgrow their boots and get new boots. But calling people out on bullshit? I’m all about that, and this city is brilliant at it.

“It’s great at keeping you grounded. I feel really centred when I’m here, part of something really organic; and nobody knows what it will be like in five years. That’s the beauty of it.”

We talked about the exciting future, and about how the cuts to arts funding have meant people have had to come together to keep going.

“I could tell you twenty million stories about things that are going to happen in the next year that are going to transform the city. Or not even transform it; just make it better or livelier or more interesting. It’s not all big showy stuff. There is some serious thought going into quieter things; it’s a tune being played on many levels.

“The recession and Arts Council cuts to funding have been a blessing in some ways, because it has meant people have had to fight even harder, and have become really good at doing cool things without much money. Instead of fostering a culture where creative people are dependent on the council or whoever, there are healthy partnerships where creative people are saying, let’s get together and do this. There is a lot more collaboration than there used to be, and that makes it a brilliant place to grow up and live.”

And we talked about how, while they might not have the resources they once had, collaboration means creative people in Sheffield have much more power.

“I think the universities and the council have cottoned on in the last five years,” says Auriel. “They understand that the creative and cultural sector have a lot to offer. So we have things like the Culture Consortium, where because the council understand they don’t have that capacity or understanding about culture within their organisation, they’ve handed that responsibility to people who do, to be custodians of culture in the city.

“I’m working on a project with the University and the council called Renew Sheffield, about meanwhile use; about reanimating empty spaces, which is something that is on everybody’s mind. The thriving independent culture means ownership is evolving back to the creatives; Renew can provide things that will help them, like money and space, and talk to landlords and help with the regulations side. You can see it already with things like Peddlers Market and the use of Castlegate, and that’s going to change the face of Sheffield.”

We talked about the strength there is in numbers, even if that number is only two.

“It can be a lonely world out there,” says Auriel. “When you’re trying to do something that is pushing the boundaries artistically, and you need to make some money, it can be really hard. The thinking behind things like the Culture Consortium and the development of the Creative Guild, which is like a trade union for creatives, is that rather than lots of individuals trying to get things done, if the city presents a coherent story about culture then that can work really well.

“I really believe there is strength in numbers, whether it’s a union or working one-on-one with someone. Joining together with people and making smart partnerships without losing your soul; that’s got to be good.”

And we talked about how, as economic realities bring people trying to make their living as artists or designers or writers or dancers into much closer contact with the apparently unfriendly world of business, coaching can settle minds and concentrate them on creativity.

“I’ve been coaching for three years now and I am more and more convinced that it’s a model for something that can really help designers and creatives flourish. Because where else can they find a space to think about all this stuff?

“Business means loads of things, like having to wear a suit, behaving in a certain way, having a plan; and the bottom line is money. And artists have a set of stories about that, about struggling, about not selling out; that they can’t do it, they can’t write a business plan, they can’t look after money.

“But they’re so different, and so complementary, that if the creative world and the business world were two people they should be best friends. So I’m the person in the middle, the connector, saying come on you two, let’s get together and work out how we can do this.”

And we talked about how the kind of coaching Auriel practices – Gestalt – can be summed up as a way of uncovering what it is in people that makes them awesome, and making them realise how awesome they are.

“One starting point of my coaching is ‘do no harm’. But my other starting point, that is on my business cards and all over my website because I passionately believe it, is that people are awesome. People are resilient and creative, wonderful at finding solutions and amazing in business. I start with that as my general philosophy of life, that people are fabulous.

“Gestalt coaching is about uncovering; what they call ‘raising to awareness’. It’s like in archaeology, where you blow the sand off something and it reveals itself. The way I do it is called co-creative, where you and I might sit and raise to awareness all sorts of stuff that is relevant to you, or might be getting in your way, or might be an amazing asset for you that you’re not aware of.

“And through the process of playing, telling stories, creating things, creating possibilities, you start seeing a way through. All the answers are yours, and they were always there, but I’m just kind of blowing the sand away, taking a look and asking, ‘What’s that?’ And you say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that thing.'”

And we talked about how Auriel feels when coaching works.

“I always say to people that coaching is not therapeutic in intention, but you will feel better. And people always say to me that they feel better. And I always feel better. I always feel amazing when I’ve been coaching, or even just when I’m talking about it.

“It’s hearing the stories from my clients that make me even more convinced that what I do is worthwhile. Of course you can make money and do amazing red-hot work, totally full of integrity. It’s a no-brainer to me. I can’t even conceive of a world where that is not true.

“I was working with one guy in my early days of coaching, and one of his things was that he was directionless. What I thought the problem actually was that he was really talented across loads of different areas, and he was being pulled in different directions.

“We worked together over four sessions, and at the last session we did a review of where we’d been and what his reflections were. I got this bag of objects and asked him to pick out something that described where he was right then, and he picked out this little toy compass. And he said, ‘I’ve chosen that because I feel really clear about my direction now.’

“It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. That’s my sweet spot; that supports everything I do, everything I’ve studied, learned, experienced, believe and am passionate about; holding it all in me, so I can hold that space so that guy can do the work and say: I know where that arrow is pointing.

“That’s bloody magic, isn’t it? That’s real, isn’t it? Oh god,” says Auriel, “I love it.”

And we talked about how Auriel had to leave, because she was going to have a coffee with someone, and talk to them about a project they were starting in Sheffield; someone she didn’t know, but who had got in touch on Twitter and said they had an idea, did she want to hear about it?

“People tell you about interesting things,” says Auriel. “Stuff you didn’t know about. When you connect with people, that’s meaningful to me; when you sit in a one-to-one with someone, that is the most intense, honest connection. I am a butterfly, but every flower I land on is a meaningful one.”

And then Auriel left, and we thought about everything we’d talked about in those couple of hours in the Site Gallery café, and thought about how we could have gone on talking to Auriel all day.


First published in TCT

“With what’s left of a memory of something” — Tony Fothergill, Ken Spelman Books

Ken Spelman can’t have been the only person who, walking the ash-strewn streets of post-war London, longed for air.

As well as the wish, Spelman had the wherewithal. His experience serving customers of the calibre of James Joyce at one of London’s most well-to-do bookshops stood him in good stead for future undertakings in the literary line; and his frugal nature was presumably reflected in his account at the bank.

With confidence unavailable to many in the teeming, shell-shocked city, bracing itself to ration and rebuild, Spelman placed a newspaper advert. ‘Wanted’ it read, ‘Small Country Bookshop.’ It could have read, ‘Wanted: New Life.’

The life Spelman found was in York, in 1948, when it could hardly be called the country. Spelman’s family had its roots in Norfolk, among the flat expanses of East Anglia’s farms and horizons, only occasionally disturbed by villages or church spires. A landscape painting in the Norfolk Museum Collection, by Colin Self, ‘Large Harvest Field with Two Hay Bales at Happisburgh, Norfolk,’ is two-thirds deep blue sky; the paint that forms the field below has real straw mixed in. The Collection paid for the purchase using the Kenneth Spelman Bequest Fund, presumably in accordance with his preferences, intentions and tastes.

York in 1948 did not look like that painting. And the shop Spelman chose – on Micklegate, the great road from London, along which monarchs had passed and rebels had died – could only afford country views if Spelman bought them on canvas and displayed them in the narrow rooms and corridors.

Behind the shop, beyond the end of the yard, was the old railway station; a city wall’s width beyond that was the new railway station; and beyond that, like a bale of black straw unbound and let fall apart, were the tangled iron lines of railway works as large as the town itself, each line a train, each train an engine, each engine a belly, belching thick coal smoke that the Vale winds blew across the city, and across Spelman’s skies.

Nevertheless, it was beneath Micklegate’s railway skies that Ken Spelman made not just his living, but his life. It wasn’t the country, but the building at 70-72 Micklegate had been a double-fronted bookshop before it was divided; at Spelman’s hand, the small half-shop began to sell books again at a steady rate, while Spelman dwelt on the floors above. It was a frugal kind of living, and his old bath and little kitchen are still there in the upstairs rooms.

Frugal did not mean without luxury. Spelman would only drive a Rolls Royce, and you can find traces of his life in log books; on 14th April 1958, Mr Kenneth Spelman paid £530 for chassis no. GRC28, a 1934 Rolls Royce Special Touring Saloon built to the specifications of The Right Honourable Lord Glentanor of Glen Tanor, Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, who instructed that it be suitable for “Touring at relatively high speed.” The bodywork was black, the interior upholstery was red leather; it was an essay in polish and sculpture. Such a car would only increase in value, which was in Spelman’s interest, and lay behind his preference for Rolls Royces. You could also, Spelman said, fit a lot of books in a Rolls Royce.

We don’t know if life on Micklegate was the life Spelman was looking for when he advertised to leave London, but it was his life for twenty-four years. And then, in 1972, it wasn’t. Spelman retired, moved to Norfolk, and never came back to York.

“He drew a line under it,” says Tony Fothergill, who owns Ken Spelman Books today. “The business had changed so much from when he started. He felt he had got his lifetime out of it. He loved gardening, so he went back to Norfolk, bought a house, and spent the rest of his life gardening.”

It’s as if Micklegate had been a stop-off point, the bookshop on the way from the city to the country; a stop-off that lasted twenty-four years and defined Ken Spelman’s life. And Ken Spelman’s wasn’t the only life to be changed by the shop at 70-72 Micklegate.


Ken Spelman would recognise his bookshop today. Certainly he would remember the old shop sign he commissioned, that now leans among the books in the window display; perhaps he would be happy to find his bath and kitchen upstairs. His frugal nature might not let him approve of the shop doubling in size, adopting again its old other half next door, but that would only be the first of many changes he would have to get used to. Business had changed a great deal in the quarter-century that Spelman had the shop; it has changed even more in the three-and-a-half decades since Tony Fothergill began working there as a shop assistant.

“Books have a kind of generational interest,” says Tony. “When I first came here the biggest section in the shop was for books about railways. Now there are probably about three shelves, because nobody is interested in railways anymore; that link to people brought up on steam trains has gone, and no one wants to collect books on diesels.

“Cookery and gardening used to be huge sections. Now people use an iPad for those things. If you’re cooking you’ll look something up on the internet; you don’t have shelves of cookery books anymore. People’s leisure time has changed, so they don’t spend all weekend gardening; they get their garden right, then go and do other things. These things evolve with the generations, and other things take their place.”

We ask what’s popular with Ken Spelman’s customers now, and Tony answers with a confident laugh. “Not books!”

And he means it. And, as a bookseller, it doesn’t worry him, because he saw it coming.

“We were ahead of the game I think, because we could sense how things were moving,” says Tony. “We didn’t move away from books, but about ten years ago we moved heavily into manuscripts, documents, journals, artefacts – unique material.

“A lot of our customers are big libraries, and they began to look for unique items because they could make a much stronger case for buying them. It’s no longer a case of waiting for another copy to come along; they either get it, or they don’t get it.

“A lot of the big libraries are part of teaching institutions, and they have to answer to finance boards. It became harder to justify spending their budget on fifty books, when those books have just sat on the shelf and no one has come and looked at them.

“But if they can say, we bought this big archive of material that two students have used for PhDs, and these objects that have gone out to be exhibited, it demonstrates activity, and that the budget should be refreshed, which means the library stays open.

“And that has led to a big change in the book trade, to dealing in photographs, original drawings, even costumes – things that are literary artefacts.”

The premium on the unique has changed bookselling from a steady trade to readers, to a hunt, much more competitive than it used to be. And more fun. Stumble across something truly unique and the prices it will fetch are exceptional; Tony showed us a catalogue from a seller in London, where an illustrated map of Middle Earth, annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, is offered for £60,000 and is “not underpriced – they’ve had at least ten orders.” It will also grab attention; in the week we visited Tony, newspapers were reporting the discovery of unseen manuscripts by a young Charlotte Bronte, stuffed among the pages of a book owned by her mother; exciting the interest of people who never finished reading Jane Eyre at school, but who love to hear about history being brought within their reach. If they can find it, or afford it.

“There is a real sense that you never know when the next nice thing is going to come along,” says Tony. “I’ve done the Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair for donkey’s years, and I used to come back with three or four boxes of good new stock. The last few fairs I’ve come back with half a dozen things. Everyone is looking at what you’ve bought, and wishing they’d bought it, and it’s fun. I like the serendipity of it. You just never know.”

Aside from book fairs, Tony answers calls from across the country to go and investigate houses about to be cleared or boxes discovered in attics.

“The last month, where have I been? Two and a half tonnes in Glasgow… four hundred boxes in Durham… the Lake District twice… Stamford tomorrow, then Chipping Norton…

“In the old days you only got calls from the places where you advertised in the Yellow Pages. So from here we’d go as far as Scarborough, Malton, Leeds. But now people are accessing information nationally, and there are far fewer bookshops to access. Go north from here and you’ll probably get to Edinburgh before you hit another bookshop like ours; south it’s Cambridge.

“When people are looking to sell big quantities of books they go to bookshops, because they still have an emotional attachment. They don’t want to feel like their library is going off to an industrial estate, on to a conveyor belt, barcoded and straight on Amazon.

“Once you drop having a shop and just go online, the phone stops ringing, because people like to know their books are going back to a bookshop. They like to feel they are doing their best with what’s left of a memory of something. That’s really important. And I think that’s why bookshops are surviving.”

When dealing with two-and-a-half tonnes of books in Glasgow, bookselling, or rather book buying, is the science of not-buying, and knowing what will not sell.

“We tend to work in quantities, but sometimes it can just be a shelf. You don’t know until you get there. You learn to never turn down calls, because how somebody describes a collection could be totally different to what it actually is.

“A lot of things that we used to be able to sell, there’s no point buying anymore, because you can buy it on Amazon for a penny. They’re good books, perfectly fine, and you can fill up your bookshop with them so it looks like it’s doing great, but you’re just filling your shop with books that nobody wants.

“Even at book fairs I might put my hand on something and think, that’s a nice copy. But then you have to think again: I haven’t sold a copy of that for ten years. Nobody has asked for it in ten years. You have to be really ruthless. So much of it now is knowing what not to buy.”

Mentioning Amazon is like ringing the bell of the traditional bookseller’s doom, but Tony is at ease with the impact of the internet.

“Things always evolve, and people always say it’s the end of the trade,” he says. “When book fairs started people said that would kill the trade, then when the internet came they said that would kill the trade. It just redefines it. It makes it into a different beast.

“When Amazon and AbeBooks started, this was the first trade that was doing online selling, years before anything else did. Booksellers looked at what they were selling online through AbeBooks, and their sales charts showed this big uptick. People thought, this is mad, why have a shop anymore? Why don’t we just jump in with that?

“But back then there were only 800 people selling on AbeBooks. Now there are 35,000. The huge wash of stock when American dealers came online, undercutting the prices, meant people were marooned with these stocks of books they couldn’t shift, and loads of them went out of business.”

As well as adapting stock, Tony adapted Ken Spelman Books’ methods of doing business; expensively produced catalogues that would crawl through the mails were replaced by overhead-free pdfs that could be emailed instantly and forwarded to potential new customers; Tony added an email newsletter, highlighting ten or so items that might grab someone’s attention to an artefact they never knew they wanted.

“Customers much prefer it,” says Tony. “The mailing list has trebled since we moved to pdfs, and it has transformed the way we sell to libraries. At a place like Yale University, you used to send one copy to a library, but there are probably fifty libraries scattered across that campus, and they can be miles from each other. Now one librarian can bounce it to another by email and you end up getting contact from someone you didn’t know before.

“I keep the email newsletters to about ten items because that doesn’t intrude on anybody; even on a phone they can quickly scroll through it. It’s a good discipline for me, to put ten items out that I haven’t catalogued; the catalogues are quite thematic, and these are a good way to show people that we get other stuff coming through – and that we’re interested in buying different things. So it’s two-way.”

Communication is key to the book trade now. Telling people what you want and what you’ve got, and finding out what people want, and how to get it for them.

“It’s nice getting things through to the right people,” says Tony. “You can find something that has been lying dormant in a house for a hundred years, and bring it out, bring it to life.” Tony’s biggest customer is Yale – “They did a catalogue of recent acquisitions, and as I flicked through, about 75% was stuff I’d sold them. I thought, ‘Oh god, I wish I hadn’t sold that, I’d like that back!'” – but outside of the institutions are the individual collectors looking for the unusual and, admittedly, the status.

“At the very top end there are the big firms in America, where Johnny Depp will call in and spend half a million dollars because he needs to buy four books for his new girlfriend. Which he does. Those shops basically have to have the books that people have heard of: first editions of all the James Bonds, A Christmas Carol, Pride and Prejudice. At that level of collecting it’s about getting something nobody else has got; and some of it is about a trophy.

“Even in the modern first editions market, if a book is a bit scruffy you can’t sell it at all. If it’s a fine copy you can sell it, but at the top end they want more; a fine copy with the author’s signature, or dedicated to someone noteworthy. It’s all about the extra things that make that copy the copy someone wants: you don’t have a choice, this is the copy you want. That’s the way things are going.”

The counter at Ken Spelman Books might not be the busy centre of trade it was back when it kept Spelman himself in mint Rolls Royces, but change is not the same as decline.

“The book trade is in fair shape. The York National Bookfair has 220 dealers every year, there are more than a hundred down at Chelsea, so there are a lot of people making a living out of it: they’ll always complain that they’re not making a living, but they are. You’ve just got to be working on so many more platforms.

“The old idea people have, that it must be nice being a bookseller because you just stand behind a counter reading all day; they have no idea.”


“In 1979 I was going to Oxford, to do a Masters in English and French literature,” Tony told us, as he leaned on a chair in the upper front room above the shopfront. His desk has a keyboard on it, in front of two large monitors; a shelf houses a complete-looking set of Guy De Maupassant, and others incomplete looking piles of mysterious, leather bound volumes, their spines giving nothing away.

“I’d been at college in York. I had the place at Oxford, but I didn’t have the funding, so I was kicking my heels, doing odd jobs.”

In that post-college limbo in 1979, it must have seemed the most natural thing in the world to accept the offer of a job at Ken Spelman Books, and let Oxford wait.

“I started as a shop assistant, and then managed the shop, and then went into partnership with Peter Miller, who owned it when I started. We were in partnership together from 1984 to 2012, when he retired, and I took it over.

“I never went to Oxford in the end. I enjoyed it here, and you get a bit of distance between doing your degree and what you’re doing. I didn’t want to take the risk of going down to Oxford and maybe not getting a job or anything. I got on very well with Peter, who had taken over from Spelman, and it was really like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, which is unusual. Unless you’re related to the people who own the shop and go into the family business, it’s unusual to spend all your time being unfit to do anything else.”

It’s even more unusual that the job, in 1979, was being offered to someone else.

“A girl I was at college with had applied for a job here, but then she got a job in London and left. The letter came to my flatmate who showed it to me, and I took it down to the shop and said, ‘I’m not who you were expecting, and I’m not a woman, but would you give me an interview?’

“And that’s what changed my life.”


First published in TCT

“Who do you think has been the greatest person in the world?” – John Poulson & City House

As above, so below; and Leeds station has long since been the place where above and below combine to form the one thing. The buildings above the tracks above the arches above the streets above the water below; if you go down there, you can tell a lost visitor, you’ll end up up there.

Above it all is City House; above, below, through, but invisible if you set your mind to it. That lost visitor will almost certainly have noticed the thirteen storey office block as tall as rain over the entrance to the station, but long-time Leeds residents have managed to blot it out. “Oh, that thing,” they’ll say, when you point out that facing due south of City Square you can not see the sky.

From there you can not see how deeply City House is embedded into the city, either. Its foundations were drilled through the piers of the Dark Arches themselves, concrete forms placed upon shale thirty-five feet below ground, great concrete columns rising from the depths to the sky. Over Neville Street a 110 foot steel table is both a bridge to the station and a foundation for City House. The engineering effort was admired around the world. The building, however, was not.

City House has been physically empty for a decade; spiritually, it has been empty since the day it opened, in 1963. Leeds was remarkably resistant to the corruption of John Poulson, the unqualified architect who defied his lack of ability by paying his way into building projects across the north, with only the not-so-Olympic International Pool slipping through. And we even grew to love that, even while the council tried to claim nearly £300,000 back from Poulson for his negligent design.

What John Poulson did have a talent for was identifying the most efficient uses of his backhanders, and the right gifts to the right people at British Railways opened up building opportunities in towns and cities across the country. £5,870 in cash, £2,000 in soft furnishings, clothes and a brand new Rover were enough to gain preferential treatment from the official in charge of 270,000 acres of valuable building land, and returned more than £400,000 in fees in four years of breakneck work.

Poulson’s systemic corruption made him “one of the most powerful men in Yorkshire business” by 1969, a reputed millionaire favoured by front-bench politicians, presiding over the largest architectural practice in Europe. And while he couldn’t design a building to save his life, he also couldn’t satisfy his greed, not even with the self-built manor house outside Pontefract or the suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel.

Web of Corruption, the book by Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor that plots Poulson’s rise and fall, tells a story about Poulson driving through his Pontefract domain with one of his company’s architects, a man named Clamp.

“Who do you think has been the greatest person in the world?” Poulson asked. “I don’t know, Mr Poulson.” “Well Clamp, I think it must be Jesus Christ. But I am as near to being perfect as it’s possible for a human being to be.”

He was also as near to a fall as it’s possible for a self-appointed angel to be. Poulson was not so different from the man impressing his grandeur upon Clamp when, on 3rd July 1972, a morning’s questioning in the Wakefield bankruptcy court left him sobbing, collapsed, led away to hospital and a diagnosis of severe shock; because he hadn’t changed, the shock was all the more severe when his web unravelled. When Poulson was eventually jailed in 1974, for seven years, he was described by the judge as “an incalculably evil man”. Poulson remained unrepentant. “I took on the world on its own terms, and no one can deny I once had it in my fist.”

His fist still reigns above, below and through the core of Leeds city centre. Dismantling his structural corruption took years and cost millions; dismantling City House would be just as expensive, and just as difficult.

Its concrete and steel is strong enough to elevate it not only above the water, the streets, the arches and the tracks, but above Poulson, and his ego, and his corruption, and his fall. City House is not only a fact of Leeds, it’s a feat, a marvel; Poulson’s grand scale meant that, occasionally, the talented architects and engineers he attracted to his office pulled off a grand achievement. Embedded in arches behind the old brick walls of Neville Street are glimpses of steelwork on a scale that will make you gasp the way the thirteen storeys of vacant office above does not.

That space is in the hands of developers now, who are trying to bring beauty and use to the tower; reasons to look at it, reasons to go in it. They have a task arguably more difficult than that of the engineers who embedded it into the city’s soil: connecting it to the city’s surface, and the city’s people.

John Poulson was part of everything, with a heart of nothing, and John Poulson fell; City House won’t fall. City House is above and below and through Leeds. Fill it, and one day it might really be part of it.


First published in TCT

“I can let my own ambitions be small & weird” — Katie Harkin

Katie Harkin had a secret. Her coat zipped up tight to the top of the neck, the school shirt and tie disappeared, and the schoolgirl with it, and the school: they all disappeared as that bit of YKK metal clenched concealing teeth together.

School was the edge. The edge of growing up, the edge of university, the edge of Hyde Park corner, the edge of the Royal Park Cellars, the edge of the the Brudenell Social Club, the edge of town. With her coat zipped up and a free lunch hour, or an hour after school, Katie could move from the edge to the centre, from schoolgirl to student, from common room to student union, from maths homework to math rock.

In Jumbo Records on a Monday, listening seriously to Matt behind the counter as he recommended a new CD by a band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and as he recommended the LP too, because he told Katie she would like the band so much she would want the record too. “My first vinyl purchase,” she says. “And he was right.”

To own your first record is to own a secret; to own a record from the USA is to own a key to the world, and to find out eventually that the world starts with you, and your secret, in Leeds. Your favourite bands are on Kill Rock Stars records, from Olympia WA, and their new release is a compilation by Delta 5, from Leeds. “I think that’s very indicative of the fact that Leeds doesn’t wear its cultural heritage on its sleeve,” says Katie.

“I remember finding out Gang of Four were from Leeds, and being outraged that there weren’t cardboard cutouts of them in the front of every record shop, to inform teenagers like me. If you go to cities like Manchester there are, but that would never happen here, it would never happen for a band like Gang of Four.

“And that is what makes it more electric when you do find out history that feels a bit hidden or private. It makes it more intimate somehow.”

More secret; and more secrets. Like worrying about proving her name at the Brudenell Social Club, because at this gig you got in free if your name began with K; her coat zipped up and “Katie” rehearsed, and entry from the edge to the centre of Leeds Six music and society. “The social aspects,” says Katie; “The place for people to meet. And the freedom of the lineups, that it can be any kind of music there.”

Eventually, Katie would live down the road, making music of her own, with people who are in on the secret. “There’s a lot of collaboration in LS6 because people really do live near each other, and people have practice rooms in their basements. So it’s not the hardest thing in the world to ask someone to come and play a song, because it’s probably two streets down from them.”

But for now the secret is Katie’s, at the Cockpit, unshared. “I mean this with love,” says Katie. “Every city needs a drip tray. The Cockpit was a really filthy venue where lots of filthy things happened, but I think you need somewhere that you feel like you can get lost in, that you wouldn’t bring your mum and dad to, that you wouldn’t dream of consuming food in. You need somewhere like that in order to be transported.”

It was at the Cockpit that Katie saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. “I was listening to their records in my bedroom, and I went to see them play at the Cockpit on my own, because no one would come with me.

“They were incendiary. Raw. Melodic. Masterful. Life changing.”


“I had to keep my mouth shut for a long time,” says Katie Harkin, singer and songwriter in Sky Larkin; drummer, keyboard player and vocalist in Wild Beasts. Last year, she fell asleep on the edge of a secret, woke up in the centre of it, and for the best part of a year, had to keep her mouth shut.

We didn’t ask Katie about destiny, and she hasn’t had time to reflect anyway: “It’s really wild,” she says, present tense. But looking back you can trace lines; the right secrets, in the right order, starting with those records bought from Jumbo, stuffed into a school bag, taken home and treasured.

Sky Larkin was formed by Katie and school friend Nestor Matthews, only after Katie had gone to university in London and Nestor came to visit and then Katie came north to visit him. “I would get the train back to Leeds to work on the band, and I found it really focusing because in the time I had at home that was all I did: play music and go to gigs.”

The chronology is fuzzy; “I remember being at the Brudenell to see my friend Hayley’s band, and the support was a band called The Cribs. It turned out to be the night Wichita Records had come up to Leeds and signed them.”

Later Wichita signed Sky Larkin, and later they sent Katie and Nestor to the Pacific Northwest to record. “When I had the opportunity to make music for the first time, Wichita asked us to take our favourite records, turn them over, and look on the back to see who made them. John Goodmanson’s name is the one that kept cropping up”; up on the back of Sleater-Kinney albums, of Kill Rock Stars records, and eventually on the back of all three Sky Larkin LPs.

Last year Katie went to visit John and his wife and his family, and to glean whatever recording secrets could be had from hanging out. “John said he was sorry, because the first couple of days I’d be there he was going to be away recording a band in Portland, and because I’m such a studio nerd I asked if I could come down and sit in and make coffee because I love doing that stuff. So I managed to go and drop in on the last few days of recording for the new Sleater-Kinney album.”

‘New Sleater-Kinney album’ doesn’t quite describe what was happening in that studio in Portland in March 2014. The gangs of incendiaries in the guises of rock bands that had characterised riot grrrl in the mid-nineties had necessarily flashed and burned quickly and brightly, scattering records and shows and fanzines across labels and towns and bedrooms with a mighty incoherence that made the far corners of the scene a secret; could you find your only one of the 500 seven inch singles pressed, and have your life changed, or would just knowing it was out there have to be enough? There at the start and still there on the other side of it all were Sleater-Kinney, ten years, seven albums, a body of work and a singular presence: “We did not have clear predecessors or successors,” Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein told the New York Times this year. “There was really no one like this band.”

Then, in 2006, they stopped doing Sleater-Kinney, and did other things for years, and carried on doing other things even after the end of 2012, when in secret they started doing Sleater-Kinney again. Telling no one, they wrote songs for a year in a basement in Portland; still telling no one, they recorded them for three months in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. With the recording done, they still told no one, for another six months. “For the life of me, I don’t know how they kept it so quiet,” said John Goodmanson to the NYT, in December 2014, and when he said it, in Leeds, Katie Harkin must have read it, and gulped, and fiddled with the zip on her coat.

“I went to Portland with John; I had met Janet and Carrie when I was on tour with Wild Beasts, but I had never met Corin. Within fifteen minutes she had bought me lunch and offered me a place to sleep. I thought, this is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

“I was so thrilled to be in the studio, but I was so jetlagged. It’s day two when it really hits. I was sat in the control room at the studio, listening to the new Sleater-Kinney record that nobody had heard, that was being made in front of me, and I felt the curtain fall. I just knew: I was going to be asleep in the next ten minutes.

“I was so angry at my body. It was that chemical switch, and it just goes. I was incredibly embarrassed. I thought, this is the rudest thing possible, to fall asleep in the control room while someone is making a record. But I think it’s been part of my evolution through touring with bands that I’m now able to fall asleep with very loud music playing, which is probably not the best thing for my future in terms of sleeping through fire alarms.

“I went out to the studio lounge and found this empty booth with a really hard wooden bench, and went to sleep. And that’s what I think happened. Sleater-Kinney saw me fall asleep on a cold, hard bench, with loud music blaring, and they thought: she has the skills and the endurance necessary for touring.

“I offered to be their guitar tech. I remember that. And a couple of months later I got a text and an email and I just fell off my sofa.”

The offer wasn’t to be Sleater-Kinney’s guitar tech, but to be Sleater-Kinney’s guitarist, keyboardist, percussionist; an on-tour fourth member of a band that had never been more than Carrie, Corin and Janet before.

“And I had to keep my mouth shut for a long time. The best part of a year. First of all there was the fact the record existed, and then the tour, and my involvement in it. I didn’t want to be the leaky tap. The reaction when I could finally tell a few of my friends was, ‘Great!’ and ‘That’s why you’ve been acting so weird!’ Because I’d been unable to commit to things; I’d had to say, I’m going to be doing something, but I can’t tell you what it is.”

The announcement, to the wider world, was handled by David Letterman. On his TV show. To millions watching live. To thousands more watching later on YouTube. “Do me a favour, welcome back to the programme Sleater-Kinney,” he said; “Kids! Take it away!”

And the camera took to them, and in the second shot, at Carrie Brownstein’s elbow, was a figure with a guitar and a tambourine and a new honorific title; not Miss or Ms. but ‘Is That’, as in, ‘Is That Katie Harkin?’

“That was my first gig,” says Katie laughing, still disbelieving. “My first gig! There was no warmup show. That was it. Their first show in nine years. And my first gig with them.

“Carrie had been promoting [tv show] Portlandia at the time, so I thought that Letterman was going to be just her. But we were on the train and she told me and she said I just went white. After the show my phone burst into flames; I’ve never seen it light up like it did.”

The disbelief is still real, even now, after playing 44 shows as the fourth member of Sleater-Kinney; it’ll be 55 by the end of the year, and the disbelief will still be real.

“It’s just so unlikely,” she says. Katie isn’t involved in every song, so takes a place off-stage for parts of every Sleater- Kinney show, and at the first full gig, Katie says, “When I finished and went into the backstage area, between the end of the show and the encore, I just couldn’t speak. I was genuinely speechless maybe for the first time in my life.

“It was so jarring. To go from being onstage with my mates, to being stood at the side watching them and thinking: that’s Sleater-Kinney. That’s Sleater-Kinney and they’re back. That’s Sleater-Kinney. And then I’d go back on stage with them. To get used to that, to that feeling like the bends, has taken a while. I don’t think it will ever go away.

“It’s very moving to watch the crowd as well, to be able to observe them. It’s been like taking the fandom I already had and putting 3D glasses on it. My appreciation for Sleater-Kinney hasn’t lessened because I now know how they take their day to day lives. It’s just like seeing them in glorious technicolour. It’s a really special place to be, and it’s saved me a lot of money in gig tickets. That’s one of the other things I’ve thought about, because I am the person that would have gone to every show in the UK; it’s not like I’m about to play it cool about saying that. To be stood where I am, I’ve got the best seat in the house, and I’m so thankful to them, because I really do feel like I’ve been strapped to the outside of this rocketship.”

Not only the trail of secrets learned, but the lineage of experience has at least given Katie the context for the special kind of outer space she’s visited with Sleater-Kinney, after tours with Sky Larkin and Wild Beasts across the same territories, if not with the same style.

“First of all to be in America in a tourbus, that’s a completely new experience for me. I’ve done sitting in a van or a car for days on end, and Sky Larkin got into some scrapes on tour because we were just hapless Brits who didn’t know better.

“We got stranded in hostels in New York for a while, we ran out of gas in the desert in Utah – those sorts of things. Snakes, mountain lions, piles of bones. Our tour manager decided to find a short cut off the freeway and found a pile of bones by a railway line that had been picked clean by a mountain lion. That’s when you realise you really are in the middle of nowhere in America.

“I was actually in New York two weeks ago, and turned a corner in Chelsea and came upon one of the hostels Sky Larkin were stranded in. I was pitstopping on my way to playing the Pitchfork Festival with Sleater-Kinney, and that was a salient moment.

“Headlining festivals and big stages has definitely satisfied one part of my musical curiosity. It satisfies the megalomaniacal part of my ambition! And it’s a part of the musical tourism of working with other bands: it’s really fascinating to see what that’s like, what it’s like to be on those stages. And it kind of gives me more confidence and freedom to let my own ambitions be small and weird, if that’s how they feel at that time.”

The collaborative element instilled by formative years in Leeds, the band-hopping that develops when bands are basement-to-basement along back-to-back terraced streets, the roles that have to be performed to survive and act as a musician in an era that is shutting down creativity as a paying concern, all turn out to be preparation when a call comes to become part of something you couldn’t ever imagine.

“I think that kind of agility is something that musicians have to have by default these days,” says Katie. “Sometimes you’re a front person, sometimes you’re playing in the background, sometimes you’re a mum, sometimes you’re a business lady, sometimes you’re just grocery shopping, as they say in the States.

“The thing about music is that it’s porous, and that’s why people want to be involved in it and want to be near it, because you feel like you can become part of it. And that’s something that I have carried with me for a long time, thinking that these experiences, these things really are porous, and if you start to think of it in any other way it’s just going to be cold and lonely.

“The experience of working with Wild Beasts was really formative, and I’m so thankful for those boys. There are more similarities between them and Sleater-Kinney than people might think; there are two songwriters in each band, two frontpeople, they’re both bands that definitely haven’t always sat with the perceptions of gender roles in the music industry, and both write songs about the expectations of femininity and masculinity. So it has been interesting to see the two.”

What Sleater-Kinney have, that’s unique to them, is the fact of being Sleater-Kinney, the band and its people and its secrets.

“It’s interesting to navigate chemistry that has existed for twenty years,” says Katie. “There are really deeply rooted friendships there, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold people that can collaborate and work together for twenty years. It’s a real lesson.

“It’s cemented my commitment to what I want to do as well. Meeting them, you see people that are so committed to what drives them, and that is an infinite source of inspiration.

“I’ve learned from them that you can get a lot done in a day. You can get a lot done. A lot! They’ve all got incredibly rich and varied lives, and it’s just inspiring on a day to day basis. And really fun. They were a part of music at a time that I find really inspirational, and then have continued to be completely involved.”

Preparing to walk the lines of every day with a band who were, once, a teenage secret, and with people who, always, are an inspiration, wasn’t something Katie found easy. She never considered turning down Sleater-Kinney’s offer – “not for a second” – but didn’t underrate the task.

“Having that year from when I found out, to when it happened, definitely gave me time to get my head around it, because it is all so different. I did need a run up.

“There was definitely the matter of how it would work, and there was also a matter of wanting to do a good job. And it made me think really deeply about creativity and identity, because Sleater-Kinney are a band that meant so much to me when I was young; and especially when you’re younger, if you don’t see yourself reflected in the world around you then you use popular culture as a kind of scaffold, and that’s how I came to think of it. Sleater-Kinney were part of the scaffold that I built for myself when I was a teenager, and now ten years later, if I pulled part of that scaffold out so I could look at it objectively from all sides, would the house stay standing?

“It seems to be. But in terms of satisfying the responsibility that I felt to my teenage self to do a good job, I had to try and think about fandom and objectivity, and whether it’s possible, in order to do a good job, to be objective about something that you’re so tied to.”

And the conclusion of that thinking is? “Er – I’ll have to – we’ll have to meet again.

“I haven’t really spoken about it before now, because I’m not part of the press that Sleater-Kinney have been working on, and I kind of hoped that by now I’d have a cool soundbite, some pithy thing to say, to sum up what this experience means to me and what it has been like. But I just don’t. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t reached the eye of the storm yet, or I haven’t achieved some kind of perspective, or if I never will, because it’s too massive and has been too important to me.

“But for this to be the end of that journey that started with me listening to records in my bedroom when I was a teenager, and going to see Sleater-Kinney on my own because no one would come with me, is marvellous.”


First published in TCT

“Do you see what I see?” — Sheila Gaffney, Leeds College of Art

For a while in 1994, every night, the cleaners at Leeds Art Gallery would look upon the works of Sheila Gaffney and despair.

“Hey!” says Sheila, when we remind her of Wunderkammer; Linda Schwab working in the Ziff Gallery among the permanent collection, and Sheila in the Models Room. “That was the twentieth century!”

Sheila’s work in Wunderkammer was itself a kind of investigation of the past. The Models Room accommodated the city’s collection of sculpture models and maquettes, and was rearranged by Sheila to accommodate three new bubblegum pink wax-and-table-leg sculptures of her own. The whole lot was sealed in the room, and viewed through a window, and there wasn’t a plan.

“It was like there was no one in charge for a bit,” says Sheila. “It was done quite bodily. Rather than say, ‘That’s something from 1760 there, and I’m having 1976 here,’ we just got into a neglected space at a particular moment, put our conservation gloves on and said, ‘Yeah! Let’s move this and move that.’

“I think intuition is a misused word, because it doesn’t mean there wasn’t intelligence working there. But I didn’t have to specify any plans up front. Instead I could start moving things and ask myself, what will the sensation of this be?

“It was a good moment when they let an artist in who was saying, ‘I’m going to think about history and my place in it, in this very haptic, spatial, sculptural way.'”

The haptic, the touch, was all Sheila’s to experience; viewers behind glass could look but not touch. But they could feel, and feel like feeling more. And that was why, every night, the cleaners would mutter and moan as they cleaned the glass of the fingerprints of people who had pressed and leaned to see everything in the room.


The Fine Art degree course at Leeds College of Art is run by Sheila from a thin-walled oasis in the grip of the co-working studio spaces on the ground floor; the wall clock ticks as if goading Sheila and her stacked tableful of printed out spreadsheets and budgets and timetables with its placid counting of the seconds to when all that stuff is needed. At times while we talk Sheila lifts the spread of papers from the table as one, like a basin of soap suds to be thrown out the window; another time she takes a small sculpted bronze figure and plants it square atop the paperwork as if to emphasise, ‘This is what I do.’ Sculpture isn’t much different from teaching, but the paperwork of teaching doesn’t make for much of a plinth, and the statue slides slowly down the spreadsheet slope.

“My work has never suited the Leeds market at all,” says Sheila. Nonetheless, Sheila has worked in Leeds since the early nineties, primarily as a sculptor, with questions about what gets sculpted and why. “Gaffney is a life modeller,” says the introduction to her recent show at Leeds College of Art, Class Forms; “But it is the definition of life that is critical in this instance.” Writing about Sheila’s work in 2012, Garry Barker said that, “Artists create worlds that others can inhabit in their minds,” but Sheila’s art explores the earlier parts of the process, working out how those worlds came to inhabit the artist’s mind in the first place.

“Gaffney imagines her subjects into embodied form rather than interrogating or studying them, in order to entice a haptic universal recognition from the viewer,” wrote Barker; or, to put it another way, Sheila makes sculptures and displays them to ask the audience: ‘I imagined this and then I made it; now does anybody know what it’s doing here?’

Sheila has found the language of the sculptor – modelling, object, dialogue – paralleled in the psychoanalytical writing of Christopher Bollas, where it explains concepts like ‘the imagined unthought known’ and ’embodied dreaming’ that have transferred back over into her art, and her PhD in progress. The first stands for all the things you know but don’t remember learning; the second is what happens when that inner consciousness begins to take shape before you. Those are some of the ideas, anyway: “But it’s going to take me 80,000 words to prove them.”

Proof and explanations don’t come easily when your art deals with the work of the imagination, and when all available effort has been taken up by the work itself.

“After my last show someone asked what press I got, and I said, ‘Do you know, I didn’t do anything, because I felt really tight for time and I just wanted to make the work.’ After it’s made, I usually just want to go in a darkened room for the next bit.

“I think I’ve really moved into the position that, with the work that I do, I want there to be a muscular engagement, a sort of gasp in the viewer; and whatever my driver in making it is, whatever my need and determination to work it out, I’ve accepted that other people will read it from whoever they are.

“I’m not a designer. I’m not putting something together to solve a problem. Is it even fashionable to make sculpture? I don’t know. But it’s the best way for me to express myself. And therefore I share that privilege with the students. There are fifty of them right now hacking away in the studios, working in the medium they feel they want to work in. What they’ll be in the future, I don’t know. But I think art is a fundamental part of being human and a really important way to teach people to take ownership of themselves in the world.”

Sheila has worked at, for, with and through Leeds College of Art for 25 years. Fourteen years were spent running a degree programme for part-time students, that started, “When I realised that the art world did quite exclude you if you were pushing a pushchair around, or you’re supposed to be at home giving everybody tea when the openings happen”; and the last seven spent developing the Fine Art degree for undergraduates.

“We’re seven years old,” says Sheila. “But you won’t think that when you walk around. We take 100 students a year, and they’re getting into places like the Royal College and the Slade to do post graduate qualifications. It’s as if we’ve always been here, but actually it’s been a busy seven years of standing up and saying, ‘Come to Leeds and do Fine Art.’ We’ve fought our way up, with our key point of difference here that we are a specialist art school.

“If you want to turn up for three hours of lectures a week and work the rest of the time in libraries, this is not the course for you. If you want to come to art school and work in studios together, with dialogue going across between the students, up and down, staff to student, across through the staff; to experience the real studio atmosphere and the learning through making that is distinctly special about the art school, come here.”

A difficulty of giving an art education is in trying to pass on to others something you don’t remember learning yourself; putting into words something you didn’t fully understand when it happened in your own making. You’re trying to teach people things you know but can’t explain.

“That’s the secret I didn’t want to share with you!” says Sheila. “I’m good at art because I practice it. It isn’t called art practice for nothing.

“Part of me spends a lot of time in solitude, because I want to get on with figuring out something I can’t verbally articulate, through making and doing. And it’s quite important to ground me. But when I’ve just done something I don’t always know then what it is.

“With a lot of contemporary art, it’s presented to us that people know what it’s about, and then they tell us, and we go and have a look at it. It’s not always that cut and dried. Some artists do really know their agenda and materialise it; some do their thinking through the making, and then part of showing it is to stand back and listen to it.

“I’ve had to learn in my craft of teaching that it’s not always that way for students. We have to devise situations to make sure they’re all comfortable in their differences, but to also get the work out of them so that we can start to see what it is and move it on.

“So I’ve ended up working here quietly for a long time – more noisily in this role – and using my knowledge as a sculptor. The college is presented to me, and this is the element with which I’m going to build this place that everybody comes in and out of. I mean, I didn’t invent the art college, but I’ve muscled my way along all the structures and the rules to make this place feel like I think it should feel.

“This is one big discrete participatory sculpture for me. But if I said that in a job interview they’d think I was crazy. But actually, this is where imagination is really important. I think it’s vital. You’ve got to have an imagination, you’ve got to be able to conceptualise something and then move that conception into whatever your output is – sculpture, photographs, words.”

Or degree courses; spreadsheets and budgets and timetables. Or loan books or bank ledgers; or database entry forms, or staff rotas, or brick walls; in any form of employment the imagination plays a vital part. A bricklayer’s imagination completes a wall before the first brick is laid; but we are too trapped by reverence and fear for inspiration and genius to believe the same faculties that produce a work of art also produce a supermarket’s annual report. ‘I just made it up’ is not something you want to hear from an accountant, but how else were the figures translated from Excel to the page, if they weren’t first imagined there?

‘I was thinking about something else’ is another not-so-great line for the boss, but it’s likely that in about 90% of workplaces, 90% of the minds that are getting 90% of the work done are thinking, 90% of the time, about something else. Because that’s what works.

“There are days when you can’t see the wood for the trees,” says Sheila. “And you just have to go home and watch a film. Or a boxset. And then come back and go – ‘Here are the answers.’ You didn’t do the right or logical things on the way, but you took yourself out of facing the problem, went on an adventure.

“That’s how it’s fine that I only live at the top of a three storey house, because I’m sitting on the bottom floor amongst all this art stuff, and I’m thinking about myself in the world and reconciling it. It’s part of work, it’s not just crazy. It’s very satisfying. It’s the best place to think.

“I think as a sculptor. I think I think as a sculptor. I could pretend I understand everything” – the paperwork is again placed at risk – “but I go away, I find an imaginative form for it, and then I draw it out somewhere. It won’t mean anything to anyone, but that’s at least me drawing what is happening. And then I can turn it into the sort of format that everybody actually would like to see.

“Even if we’ve had people round for dinner, I’ve drawn the menu. What’s it going to look like on the table? If I’m packing to go on holiday, I draw the outfits to see what will fit in the case. And that’s a set of drawings that should actually end up in a gallery.”

“I’m actually thinking I might run a club,” says Sheila. “A club where I set a situation up and say, it’s not a formal part of the curriculum, but if on a Thursday night you want to learn modelling skills with me for two hours, that’s what we’re going to do. And I’m going to learn it again too.

“Of course when I was a student, I wanted to throw out all that my teachers taught me, and be part of the moment, not part of the past. Then you reach the point where you think: that was actually a really fascinating skill to do. I might do it again.”

Art is a place where skills and sensibilities meet, and touring the studios with Sheila, we see her carrying that process to success. At the end of a detailed explanation for her visitors of the problems a student is having adapting her work for the end of year show, the student herself speaks up: “Actually, I’ve had an idea.”

Sheila achieves with her students the same effect that an artist or curator strives to create in an exhibition. “You want somebody to see it how you see it,” says Sheila. “We do a lot of work on exhibitions with students, not just because it’s a key part of learning professional practice, but because it’s a key part of passing knowledge on.

“We take students to Free Range in London to showcase their work, and they see us arranging pieces, going, ‘No. No. That – no.’ They’re like – ‘Can I put mine up? I’m ready.’ ‘No! Come here. Do you see what I see?’

“It looks really pretentious, and people think it’s ludicrous, but it’s actually the craft of getting the impact in the gallery, of getting the rightness. And I’ve seen graduates doing shows and whatever grief they gave me and my staff in that process, they’ve got it. The skill is passed on.”

The skill, and the way of being; the enabling of the future life of an artist. It might not click right away; Sheila saw that often enough when teaching part- time students, many of whom were trying again. The graduation ceremony is not a magic moment of becoming an artist. Instead, what Sheila talks about is creating in the students a “graduateness”; an understanding of what becoming an artist is going to involve.

“There are things we can’t run modules in,” says Sheila. “They don’t suit the modern audited world. ‘What’s this module called?’ Um, it’s called Maybe & If. ‘What’s the book list?’ Er, dunno – there’s nothing written down. ‘When do you teach it?’ Well, it doesn’t only happen on a Thursday afternoon – it has to happen all the time. It’s integrated. It’s their lives we’re dealing with here.”

Out of the office and through the studios; the sculpture workshops, the painters’ rooms. Like at the city’s Art Gallery in 1994, it’s another intervention, but with Sheila’s own fingerprints smeared across it, indistinguishable from those of her students. “I think maybe this is why I don’t like talking about my work anymore,” she tells us over her shoulder, leading the way in the corridor. “I think this is what I should have said to you before. Because this is where I do all my talking; it’s the students that I tell.”


First published in TCT

“Yet nothing changes, does it?” — Leeds, 1990 & The British Art Show

It’s easier to divide time into quarters than a city. Centuries and days and hours and minutes and seconds all slice neatly into fourths, but start chopping up a city that way and you run fast into the French and their crossover quarter definition of ‘district.’

You can divide time into quarters an infinite number of times; you can divide a city into an infinite number of quarters. That might be why there are so many quarters in Leeds; somebody in the city has found an infinite amount of time to fight a battle against infinity.

A quarter of a century has passed since 1990, and in 2015 one of 1990’s highlights, the British Art Show, is coming back to Leeds; a city much changed since that bygone era when Quarry Hill was largely unbuilt and Leeds United were in the Second Division and hang on a minute wait.

Some day we’ll be able to read the story of a city just by switching on ‘Track Changes’. But for now our analogue view of the recent past makes it look like a different country, but one where lots of things do seem pretty much the same; but only just.

The British Art Show 8 is a big deal. It might not have the popular appeal of a Grand Départ, that brought 250,000 to the city centre last July; but when BAS7 opened in Nottingham in 2011 114,000 people went to see it. The BAS doesn’t only show critically acclaimed British contemporary art, it aims to show it on the biggest scale, and has an international prestige that puts it in company with the biennials in Venice and the Whitney in New York.

It will open in October in a Leeds that took a Bambi-like headlong slide through 2014 and found enough elegance in its spindly legs to shut that little bunny berk Thumper right up, even if only for a moment; a city where more and more people are discovering and flexing their muscles and looking ahead a leap to 2023, and hopes of becoming European Capital of Culture.

The start of the year 2015 might not have a quarter of the significance given to an occasion like 1990; a zero at the end to signal the first year of a new decade will always beat a five. But the first Yorkshire Evening Post of the nineties, published on the decade’s very first day, seemed only dimly aware that 1/1/1990 was a date of opportunity.

The front page rang in the era with reports of a ‘Pub Axe Kidnap’ in Wakefield and an ongoing ambulance strike; you had to flick through to the op-ed pages for any sense of occasion, where regular columnist John Wellington set the tone.

“So it’s hello to 1990, and a merry wind to the tragic and traumatised 80s,” he wrote. “Yet nothing changes, does it?”

Not when you put it like that, no. Of hopes for the nineties, the only optimism to be found was from a cross section of British birdwatchers, whose aim for the decade was to record the 600th bird species in the country: ‘Bird Hope Takes Flight For 90s’ (the last official list from the British Ornithologists’ Union, from January 2014, has them at 596 – nearly there!); while a determined bunch of party-seekers had been spotted swapping Leeds at New Year for the Brandenburg Gate, photographed with a homemade Leeds flag that earned them a spot in their hometown paper under the headline ‘Berlin Wall Baht’at’.

Changes were coming to Leeds, and were visible in the city, even if the press seemed reluctant to start the year by looking forward to them. A YEP column did mention in passing that a refurbished Corn Exchange would open that year with bushels of speciality shops and a large public mural by Graeme Willson above the bus terminal on Call Lane, but only on its way to asking “So what’s gone wrong?” with plans to convert the old Jacob Kramer building on Cookridge Street for the Henry Moore Institute; in other arts news, Opera North were seeking a ban on beeping digital watches and a cat named Mischief was photographed helping a local family orchestra to rehearse.

Some newness was beginning to reveal itself anyway. On March 8th 1990 West Yorkshire Playhouse opened its newly completed “£13million pleasuredome,” as Leeds Other Paper dubbed it; “In daylight the ‘supermarket’ jibes are had to refute,” reporter Gillian Skinner added, “But at night, the internal lights shine out and the Playhouse comes alive, standing moored at the edge of the city like a great ship, full of potential and a certain mystic.”

Gillian even did dare to use the word ‘optimistic’ about the theatre’s future, although inaugural artistic director Jude Kelly sounded a more familiar note in the interview when she said, “Leeds needs to sell itself more,” hoping the Playhouse could help Leeds “project a stronger, more powerful image.”

It was in Leeds Other Paper where appetite for the nineties could be found. Fervent in its radical investigative reporting, it also harnessed and catalogued a music, arts and theatre scene that barely drew mention in the city’s mainstream. The Yorkshire Post, the YEP’s supposedly savvier big sibling, launched the new cultural decade with an interview with Dr Brian Durrans, anthropologist at the museum of mankind in London; and a review of Tom Phillips’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, also in London, filed in a section called ‘London Galleries’.

When the British Art Show arrived in Leeds it was at least reviewed by the YP, but it seems to have crept by the YEP without their noticing; although the reluctance to dig it might have been in part because, well, nobody was digging it. “The trial by media and critics which began months ago precedes the opening of the British Art Show like a baleful omen,” began the YP’s reviewer, referring to the rough time the touring exhibition had when it opened in Glasgow as a centrepiece of that city’s year as European Capital of Culture.

“Dreadful,” said Colin Bell in The Observer, adding that it had “nearly killed Glasgow 1990 before it had begun.” The main objection was to the selection; the BAS committee had eschewed the “summings up” of previous years for something “exploratory … forward looking … focusing on new developments”, and claimed to have visited over 1,000 artists’ studios all over the country.

Of the 42 artists in a thousand they found, three quarters lived in London and more than a third were recent graduates of Goldsmiths College, where one of the selectors taught. “It seems much of the selectors’ travelling and looking was to the wrong places,” wrote the Yorkshire Post; while William Feaver, again in The Observer, noted that in a nod to its opening venue, if the artists weren’t Londoners, they were Scots, but the wrong Scots: “Who would have thought a British Art Show in Sauchiehall Street could go ahead without any of the those painters whose boasted success helped promote Glasgow into becoming the Cultural Capital of Europe it is today?”

The show seemed to make little sense when raising the curtain on Glasgow’s year as the sixth of those capitals, so it’s little wonder the YEP didn’t glance twice when it passed through Leeds on its way to its spiritual home, and some context, in London. The London/Scotland carve-up by the curators left only Kabir Hussain’s single year at Jacob Kramer College in 79-80 to represent host-town raising; there were workshop events and discussions on themes from the exhibition, but no fringe, and no discernible impact on the city’s existing art scene.

That art scene included 86 exhibitions listed in the pages of Leeds Other Paper in 1990; fifteen of those made up the Final Year Show at Jacob Kramer College, and sixteen more were at the City Art Gallery, including the British Art Show, as well as exhibitions of local lad Henry Moore and his gang’s time in Hampstead in the thirties and forties; a retrospective of Andy Galsworthy’s sculpture since 1976; and three exhibitions of German Art to celebrate Dortmund Week and Leeds’ twin city.

As the Playhouse brought people back to Quarry Hill, Peter Mitchell’s exhibition of photos of the flats that came before it, Memento Mori, went on display at the other end of The Headrow, while David Collins of Leeds Other Paper felt out of place among the members of the Leeds Art Collection Fund at the opening of their 75th Anniversary Exhibition: “A strange affair with a tangible sense of ownership … There was something unnerving about men in tuxedoes drinking champagne, casually running their hands over their favourite sculptures in such a proprietorial way”; beating the rest of us into the future and renamed the Leeds Art Fund, they didn’t wait a quarter century after their 75th to hit 100; that milestone was celebrated in 2012.

Outside of the civic spaces, 1990 shows traces of today’s Leeds art. In partnership with the University, Pavilion exhibited paintings by Tehran-born Karen Babayan in the old park pavilion on Woodhouse Moor they transformed into the UK’s first women’s photography centre from 1983 until 1996; that’s now Akmal’s Tandoori Bistro, while Pavilion continue to commission contemporary visual arts in Leeds and Karen Babayan’s book of stories, Blood Oranges Dipped in Salt, was published by the University’s Wild Pansy Press in 2012. The Shot Up North exhibition of northern commercial photography was held in the reception gallery of the Design Innovation Centre at 46 The Calls; these days that show is held at the Gallery at Munro House, who last year began holding pop-up exhibitions back at 46 The Calls.

Other trails have gone cold. A rapid programme of eleven exhibitions by contemporary artists at Art Company on Bishopsgate Street ended abruptly in mid-July, just after permission was granted to build the office block that now stands in the building’s place, just up the hill from the Scarbrough Taps. Leeds Art Space Society opened a new space for installation work on Maris Street near Saxton Gardens; the old warehouses, the Leeds Consumers Ice & Cold Storage building and even the streets around there are no more – look under the grey chequered student flats for their rubble now. In a bright pink shed by the railway line, Fat Freddy’s Cafe offered a home for artists, punks and druids a viaduct’s width from the main run of Call Lane; there’s parking there now for the businesses within that viaduct’s arches.

It’s the loss of places like those that inspire nostalgia; but it’s the lack of replacements that one day we might want to be nostalgic about that’s the real loss. In some ways Leeds has changed a lot in the quarter of a century that has passed since 1990, and passed between the British Art Show’s visits. But in other ways it has stayed the same; maybe in too many ways.

After all, change: nothing does, does it? Much of Quarry Hill remains derelict; Leeds United are back in Division Two. There are still only 596 known species of British bird. Leeds at the start of the nineties would be different, but familiar; but we’re nearer to 2023 now than we are to 1990. We don’t have a quarter century to make the city’s next quarter turn, but with more optimism about the opportunities than we had back then, we might not need one.


First published in TCT