During my first Christmas in Leeds after moving here in 1974, friends and I held an informal contest to find the most verbally brutal line from the city's notoriously cutting barmaids. My own entry (from Sweaty Betty of The Pub With No Name) was deemed too poetic, her description of term-time's ubiquitous scent of patchouli-over-damp-Afghan-coat as "just like freshly turned graves". The victor worked in Gipton's Brown Hare, an area where Rottweilers go around in pairs. Her entrant had visited this establishment during the season of good will and, detecting an atmosphere as icy inside as out, had attempted to break it with the neutral remark, "Looks like being a cold Christmas again!" Winningly, she replied, "Well, it's not my fucking fault." '
Despite the profanity, there are echoes of Leeds' Puritan heritage in her response, which is from the same springs as the shoemender's to John Taylor in 1646 when he made a similarly mild comment on the time of year, he reported that he was told "...it was pitty that ever Christmas was borne, and that I was a Papist, and an Idolatrous Brat of the Beast" and so on. Incomers sometimes think such hostility encountered in Yorkshire is reserved for them, but once you learn a little of their language and ways you realise they let each other have it just as readily. One soft soul, slipping too easily into the familiar "thee" (cf French "tu") was slapped down with: "Don't tha 'thee-tha' me; tha 'thee-tha's them as 'thee-tha's thee." In Meanwood, where poet and translator from the Irish, Robin Flower, was born, the Working Men's Club has a sign at its urinal specifying the minimum distance men should keep apart. This is not an institution frequented by tourists.
With mythering outer as well as inner weather, local coldness became mythic. Resident here, the poet Martin Bell wrote, invoking Marlowe: "Leeds is Hell, nor am I out of it!" Never in it, Patrick Kavanagh (author of the schmaltzy "A Christmas Childhood") felt able to describe despair as "like winter alone in Leeds". It is certainly a place more for a Yeatsian withering into the truth, but I remember my mother telling me that one of the things she was happiest to leave behind in Ireland when the family emigrated was her fellow-villagers' superficial friendliness which often masked nosy intrusions. She often translated for me her favourite Irish proverb into "The truth is bitter", should I complain when she told me I'd a belly like a cow, looked like I'd put my clothes on with a pitchfork, couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow or what have you. We will be toasting her memory with sparkling vitriol on Christmas Day as I cut us all another slice of Tiny Tim, before we sit down to replay the videos of Richard Dawkins setting about the spiritual arguments of some hapless cleric like the Rue Morgue ape with Occam's razor.
But the weather isn't what it used to be. Autumns have grown long and gaudy. Snow and ice are rare. Winds like Meanwood skinners' knives are balmy zephyrs. Dante in his Purgatorio mentions "giorni di merla" ("blackbird days") in January when, according to the Lombardy proverb, that stupid creature sings out at the first flash of New Year sun, "Lord, I fear Thee no longer: spring is come!" Global warming has made the blackbird's song sound louder and less stupid every year. Soon we'll be living in some kind of bloody Paradiso, our white rose become the Rosa Candida. What a thought! God bless us every one.
Ian Duhig's latest poetry collection is 'The Speed of Dark' (Picador)Reuse content