How Not To Be A Writer - Part Six: Back to Leeds

A Moonlit Lane by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Leeds was a very different place from the city I had left aged twelve but it still felt strangely like home. I had managed to secure a room in a student house at the end of Wood Lane, the same long, dark lane where I had gone for my piano lessons at Leeds College of Music, all those years ago. 

My teacher back then was Miss Ingram. She was nice enough, but I was a little afraid of her. She wore a black velvet jacket and massaged her hands with Nivea Cream. The scent of it still reminds me of her. I remember the head of the school remarking to my parents that she had 'an iron hand in a velvet glove' . I was seven when I began lessons and even though I dimly perceived that he didn't mean it literally, there was some part of me that wondered about her hands. Especially since - although she wore no velvet gloves - there was that velvet coat ...

I remember little about the student flat apart from the fact that I wasn't in it very often, due to the nature of the course, which involved research elsewhere. I do remember that on our first night, we went into the shared kitchen to be met with a great commotion as what seemed like an army of mice scattered from the cooker. Investigation proved that it had not been cleaned for years, not even over the summer vacation when the authorities knew that the rooms were to be re-let. It was covered in deeply embedded fat. The previous tenants had been male students, and we blamed them vociferously, although the truth was probably that females would have been just as bad at cleaning up. 

Because the lane was long and dark, with high stone walls enclosing the gardens of large houses - exactly like the atmospheric painting by J A Grimshaw, above - we tried to make sure that if we were coming home at night we didn't have to walk alone. There was one occasion, however, a midwinter evening, when I got off the bus and realised that I would have to negotiate the lane all by myself. Reader, adrenalin kicked in, I slung my bag across my body, took to my heels and ran, not stopping to draw breath till I reached the front door. Years later, I realised that Peter Sutcliffe had frequented that area. His earliest attack was in 1969. I was in Leeds in the early 70s. Sutcliffe murdered a student, Jacqueline Hill, in November 1980, as she walked home from her bus stop at around 9.15 at night. He attacked her in Alma Road, which runs parallel to Wood Lane, presumably another lonely lane. Which still gives me a frisson of disquiet, whenever I think about it.

What possessed university authorities to house female students at the end of dark lanes? A recent question, asking women what they would do if there were no men in the world for 24 hours, was revealing. A large percentage of us would go walking at night, without fear. I can do that in the small Scottish village where I live. Women - especially older women - can often do the same in city centres with significant camera coverage. But I think most men have no notion of the ways in which most women police and prepare themselves, thinking the unthinkable, judging distances, walking briskly, keys in hand, middle of the pavement, seeking the light. And just occasionally, when instinct takes over, running like the wind from the monster behind us. Not all men are predators, but most sexual predators are male. 

I loved my time in Leeds. We were taught by Stewart Sanderson and by a fine lecturer called Tony Green. Among much else I wrote a poem about him called Sudden Man. It was published back then by Akros publications in a collection called A Book of Men, and I included it in my own more recent collection, Midnight Sun. The title is - I'm both moved and honoured to say - on Tony's headstone. I didn't meet him throughout all the years after graduation, but somehow, the poem stayed with his family and after he died, his wife contacted me to ask if she could use it at his funeral. She explained how vividly it seemed to characterise him. And yet - even though I appreciated his teaching very much indeed - I would never have claimed to know him well. 

Like most writers, I was a keen observer, deeply interested in people, in what made them tick, in how it might feel to be them. Interested in what fired my own imagination. I still am. So perhaps I am a writer after all! A piece of advice I was given very early in my career still holds good. 'The way to be a writer is to write.' 

This is not something people want to hear. I doubt if I did, back then, although I certainly loved to write. People often want the magic formula that will transform them. There isn't one. And it certainly isn't AI. We learn by doing, not by being. As Miss Ingram with her iron hand in her velvet glove would have said 'Practise, Catherine. You must do your practice.'  

Where writing is concerned, I have. I still do. Every day without fail. 

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