“Leeds is a city of hills and high places. Where we live, in the north east corner of town, is lofty too. It’s a hard climb with shopping, from the Number 12 bus stop: up from the roar of Roundhay Road, through Gipton Wood (pictured above) to the end of our street.”
THIS IS an opening extract from ‘The Street Where I Live’, a piece of writing I am working on as part of an artists’ exchange between Leeds and our twin city of Dortmund. This year marks half a century since Leeds, in West Yorkshire, was twinned with the German city of Dortmund in the Ruhrgebiet. Two great post-industrial urban centres in Europe, united in a post-war zeal for mutual understanding. For peace.
This year, also, sees the UK locked in a hopeless Brexit tangle – all ideals of the great European project about to be jettisoned on a tide of Little Englander populism. At moments like this, it is essential to swim against the tide. Galvanising too, to look at notions of geography, of place and belonging. How often do we look closely at the town, the street, the house, where we live? Instead of taking it for granted, it’s good to dig deep, to investigate. To connect. To belong.
Inspired by a writing exchange between Leeds-based poet Peter Spafford and German poet Ralf Thenior, Leeds/Dortmund 50 is a literature festival planned for the autumn of 2019, celebrating the artistic connection between the two cities. You can read about it here . The theme being offered is Neighbourhood: Nachbarschaft. And already, I am looking at my environment with different – and with more affectionate – eyes.
Matthias Engels is my Dortmund writing partner. He has already been involved in a mighty publishing project called All Over Heimat in which writers from 20 different countries wrote about their notions of home and belonging – see A Place to Call Home
Together we are beginning to communicate, sometimes in German, sometimes in English, about the place where we live. Striking, already, are the similarities: we each live on the edge of the city; surrounded by neighbours of different nationalities and experience. Just a few minutes away from here in Oakwood, Leeds, is the rolling Yorkshire countryside. Matthias’ own neighbourhood has a station nearby, “Dennoch ist man in gut zehn Minuten aux freiem Feld.” (“In ten minutes – you are in open fields.”)
Slowly we begin to discover – that there is far more that connects, than divides us.
(The little landmark of Oakwood Clock, just down from Gipton Wood, Roundhay, Leeds)
Languages and understanding
It is a great joy to work across language and culture – and something, as a longtime student of languages, that gives me particular pleasure. For many years, I have grappled with the complexities of Hungarian, and regularly work with a Hungarian poet called Péter Závada to render his own Budapest poems into English – see Poems and Pálinka And now, through working with Matthias, I return to German, the subject I studied at university, decades ago, and which is slowly, haltingly, being pressed back into service.
Communicating in a different language – or with writers who work in different languages – encourages the mind to think differently. To open up. To be more tolerant, more understanding, of the many different worlds we all live in, together.
Who knows what the writers involved in this evolving project will discover, about each other, and about their own backyards? One thing is for sure. We need initiatives like this, more than ever before. When the international barriers start going up: it is open hearted communication between individuals across countries and cultures, which will break them down again, and begin to re-create the world longed for, after World War Two. The dream of a free – and a free-thinking – Europe.
Would you like to be involved with this? Then contact Peter Spafford at: