Category Archives: LBC Exclusive

PODCAST – The Quest for the Christmas Spirit

So much excitement!!

The podcast is back! Huzzah!!

And it’s back because @BookElfLeeds is doing a new reading challenge – the 12 reads of Christmas!! Huzzah huzzah!!!

She will mostly be reading books that follow a strict and very complex criteria (reviews will start tomorrow) which she sums up as

‘someone has lost (or does not have) The Christmas Spirit. There is The Christmas Miracle (oft aided by small children or animals). The person therefore finds (or gains) The Christmas Spirit.’

Also, it has to have Christmas in the title.

From A Christmas Carol to It’s a Wonderful Life, hallmark movies and children’s classics, tv specials and Christmas music – we take a moment to appreciate the hope behind the holiday.

One of the first books in the challenge was called ‘The Nine Lives of Christmas’ by Sheila Roberts, which was turned into a Hallmark Christmas movie in 2014, starring a former Superman.Enjoy!

mp3 LINK

m4a LINK


Support the Puffin’ Puffin – Run for Cystic Fibrosis


As many of you know, Leeds Book Club just wouldn’t work without the effervescent Helen – she runs LBC Puffins, co-hosts LBC White Swan and is up for each and every reading challenge (that orientates around books for younger people). Frankly I don’t know how she does it – she’s a tireless wonder and source of inspiration and joy.

So it comes as no surprise to find that she has taken on a new challenge and will be completing a 10km run next month to raise money for a great cause.


If you can, have a read below and send any and all support to Helen (from virtual hugs to actual pennies).

There is still 4 weeks to go before the big run! All encouragement is greatly appreciated. 

Read the rest of this entry

INTERVIEW – The Wood Beneath the World

twb inside the outside

The Wood Beneath The World is a large­scale, magical forest installation hidden in the depths of Leeds Town Hall Crypt, which has been growing silently for decades.

Its roots and trees have now burst through the floors and walls, and the wood has taken over…

the wood beneath the world - YEP

Rebekah Whitney (of Lord Whitney ) and Alexander Palmer (the Director of The Wood Beneath The World) were kind enough to sit down with me for a chat about a million years ago (before Christmas) about their hugely successful installation at Leeds Town Hall.

Originally, we were going to record the interview as a podcast. However, we had such good conversational fun that we sort of forgot that this was supposed to be an interview and began to talk over one another, interrupt, idea hop (where one person starts a sentence and it’s carried on by the others) and all those traits which sort of proves that a conversation is going Really Well...but makes for annoying listening!

On top of that, the project was still in full flight and the pair were obviously working all the hours in the day together. Thy’d created a sort of joint speak, where they knew each other so well that they were almost of one mind. It was pretty incredible!

Honestly, there is something beyond embarrassing about posting an interview 3 months after it was held, it’s almost shameful. However, this was such an enjoyable conversation and genuinely insightful that I think it’s worth the humiliation of admitting how slow I was to get it up.

Here, finally, is a transcription of our chat! Thanks so much to both of them for allowing me a peek into their world!

On the Order of Events – or how The Woods Beneath came to be

Rebekah: Leeds Town Hall got in touch at the beginning of the year, saying that they had this space and had heard good things about Lord Whitney and would we like to do something for Christmas.

They liked the idea of a winters forest and we went away and realised that we didn’t want to do this is a normal way – we wanted to do something quite different. And we wanted to do something that adults could get something from as well, not just for children and families.

It was a while before they were in touch and in the meantime we went down to London and watched some immersive theatre by a company called Punch Drunk, who are just THE BEST at what they do, EVER. We were massively inspired by that; the detail in their set and basically the idea that the further you explore the richer your experience is and we just thought that we had to try and bring something like that to Leeds.

We wanted to do something like that with actors for a really long time as well so it all felt like it started coming together at the same time. It felt like this was the time that we could do create something really special and really different.

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This is wonderful but it isn’t really a traditional Winters Wonderland…

R: No not at all. The Town Hall have been amazing. They’ve really championed our ideas and really tried to push us and they trust us. They believed in our vision. And it totally developed over time, especially once we got a writer involved and once Alexander, our Director became involved.

We wanted to create this world that was not necessarily Christmassy, but that was reminiscent of that festive period and of Winter. We had done an Arts Council funding project at the start of the year, all around folklore in Yorkshire which was called Lore of the North and through doing that we discovered so many amazing tales that were based in Yorkshire. They were so incredible and the narrative and backdrop to them were fascinating and we thought that if there was a way that we could tap into that, that we could develop from that, that we could combine it all; we would get so much depth in this project.

That’s something that fascinated me about this time of the year; the further back you go, it was Christmas then Pagan when it was the winter solstice, there is something almost tribal, something primal…

Alexander: There’s something ritualistic.

R: It’s our heritage. And that’s where all of this comes from. It’s been interesting to highlight all of that.

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When putting it all together; the placement of the stars, the ogham alphabet, aspects of west European folklore – were these things that you knew about before or did you learn of these from your research?

R: A bit of both actually. Some aspects were brought to our attention earlier in the year during Lore of the North. We met an incredible scholar Stephen Sayers who used to work for the university and he was just amazing. He brought this whole new angle to folklore that we hadn’t really considered for that project. It was all about the importance of folklore and why it still so important to us today and how it can enrich our lives and provide us with an escape and escapism and just basically how as a society we need it still.

So we were really keen to get him involved  in this project as well. He pointed us in the direction of certain philosophers – Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey from an ordinary world into an extraordinary world. We used that as a model, as a kind of starting point for our narrative and script for the piece.

So most of the bits that we used, that we learned about – it kind of snowballed really. Folklore, speaking to Stephen, reading up and different people that we’ve invited into the project have all brought different knowledge making it really a rich project.

The narrative and storyline felt very organic to the set that you created. But if you hadn’t told the story of Will of the Wisp, of Jack – there were many other stories that could have been told. I walked straight out thinking that this has to run all year round.

(At this point, it’s worth noting that Alexander – who has been deeply invested in the project on a full-time basis and clearly has been forgoing sleep to get all the details spot on – paled a touch!)

R: Ah, it’s so funny that you should say that. Because, we actually had to curb everything by quite a bit. We felt that it was getting so massive and the will of the wisp seemed to fit so nicely. We decided to focus on that. The idea of this character that’s forever trapped in this limbo land with his lantern, his torch that will bring him to the edge of the forest. And he’s trying to guide people…or is he? Perhaps he’s not trying to guide them, perhaps he’s trying to entice them to that place. And we felt that by having all that research up on the wall – we really wanted to encourage people to look.

The more that they look, the more they are making their own decisions about how the story will progress. So it’s up to you to decide who are these characters, why are they here – there are so many answers too on that wall as to why they could be there.

There appeared to be about 5 core subjects that people seemed to pick up on. But of course you didn’t have to provide them, it could have just been a space. How hard was it to settle on those stories? How important was it to have a coherent thread?

A: To be honest, I was less interested in narratives per se, it was more about the experiences. And I think that it’s really exciting that from the same show, two friends can come out and think that this show is about two different things. I’m all for the audience filling in the gaps and having the opportunity to do just that.

R: It’s exciting to not spoon feed people so much with it, to allow them to come up with their own theories and explanations.

A: And to make it more difficult for audience members – obviously this is not a sat down piece of theatre in an auditorium. We’re not giving them a story, we’re seeking to awaken their senses – they are not relaxed – they are active and they are searching for these bits of text. They are not being given a narrative.

For some audiences that’s very frustrating and very out of the ordinary, for others that’s very rejuvenating.

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However, this still has a component where it is about Christmas and it is targeted towards children also, who see in ways that are very different to adults but also perhaps require a somewhat more highlighted road map?

R: That one is more focused, though it’s along the same idea that we’re asking the adult audiences. We’re asking why these woods are starting to appear beneath the town hall. And that’s the same thing that we are asking the children. They are still met by Jack, but Jack is a different character. He’s a lot more excited to be showing the children the space. He’s not as mysterious or mischievous character in that sense. He’s more of a guardian of the woods. Someone who wants to be showing these families this space but again he equips them with questions and challenges to go further. Why do you think that woods would start growing here again? And it’s amazing the responses that children give back to it.

Maybe its nature trying to tell us to slow down. And they are responding with these really big issues and themes. Particularly environmental images, these are tiny children and they focus on so many different themes. It’s amazing the capacity that they have.

We do workshops with schools during the week before we open in the evening and it’s the same themes. We discuss the Holly King and the Oak King and the winter Solstice and the summer solstice and they fight. And perhaps that’s why the Holly King is trying to take over – that we’ve all forgotten the real meaning of Christmas. It’s incredible, it’s profound.

Presumably, you’ve heard all sorts of different explanations – what are a few of the more random ones?

R: A lot of people think that Gwen is a figment of Jack’s imagination. And in fact, so are the woods. That comes up quite a bit.

A: Yeah, that it’s not real. Which is interesting because of all the elements – you’re actually walking through the Woods. It’s been interesting.

R: A lot of people think that they are lovers. Or father and daughter. That she’s dead.

A: That comes up quite a bit. That’s she actually dead. In both sessions actually. Or that he is. Or that he is searching for her.

Interesting that the children are coming back with so many environmental themes. My age group are quite consumerist in outlook – we don’t care how our iPhones are made, just that they work. So it’s interesting that the younger crowd are more focused on the impact that we are having on the city and the country…

R: We really wanted the Father Christmas experience to be very inclusive and to  – this is tricky to phrase right – we didn’t want it to be so much about the Christian festival or about the Santa Claus story and the consumerism. We wanted it to be about this gift giver that seen in a lot of different traditions. All across the world, there is this character that brings joy at this time of year and has a message that needs to be passed on. That’s one of the reasons that we toyed with called it Father Winter …having said that we needed to take it one step at a time…

A: He’s a story-teller as well. Stories used to be considered gifts.

R: He thanks the children for their gift – which is time and we thought that was a lovely way of doing that – one that isn’t orientated in consumerism. This is the first year that we’ve done something like this. We had to push boundaries and test the water.

We didn’t really know how it was going to go, so even just for ourselves we were setting boundaries and testing them. We still obviously want to bring across the magic of this time of year – we didn’t want to be about all these passive political ideas or anything.

That’s something about being set in Nature – it reminds us that whether it’s snow falling or leaves falling – every time of year can be a magical time of year if you take the time to appreciate it…

A: Actually, this green message that was seemingly being picked up on by Father Christmas – this also comes out in the evening show, especially when the stars are moving. The time period that it’s all set in as well.

It feels like it’s set in a period up to Sputnik and from then on, we sort of stalled. Our technology moved on but we stopped looking upwards and outwards…

R: That’s actually one of the reasons that we ask people to turn off their phones. We want people to have intimate experiences in the space and feel fully immersed. Jack asks for the time and it’s funny that so few people have watches. These things are really important. People are losing touch of real life experiences and that’s really important to all of us that were working on this. We are really keen to give people that experience. So not taking pictures and putting them on instagram – not that we didn’t want the images to be shared but that we wanted people to actually be there and to

A: to actually be part of the world and to know that they weren’t in an ordinary place still or that they only see everything through a screen.

R: We haven’t had anyone come out and say that it was frustrating not to have been able to use their phone. If anything they have come out and felt that…not that the world is boring but to maybe view it without the screen…

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Obviously, I’m a reader and when I came out – we talked about Narnia. That and Tolkien, middle earth and all those places that make us reflect on the natural world came to mind

R: Yes, all these places – Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Tolkien, Wonderland and Oz – these all had a massive influence on us all as children. All these worlds that you can escape to. And even Enid Blyton and the magic far-away tree and to create a space where adults felt like they could do that in the middle of the city. I’m really proud to think that we’ve achieved that.

A: A lot of people are coming out and saying that they’ve reclaimed their childhood excitement. That they’re seeing the world in that way again. That there is a thrill again.

R: And that’s exactly what Stephen Sayers was saying at the beginning of the year. That this thrill, this feeling of being a child again, that if you can find that feeling as an adult, it’s the most special thing ever. To not lose sight of us as so many adults do. Which is such a shame.

Do you think that this will not perhaps change the direction that you are moving in but that it will inform it?

R: Yes, I think so definitely. I think we can say that this is probably the most proud that we have been of any of our projects. The level of talent that we’ve seen in the team, the work that we’ve all put in from the writers to the set builders to the direction and the performance – everyone has been just put there. And we’ve all been on the same page, it’s been an absolute pleasure working with people. We’ve all had the same thing that’s driving us and we’ve all wanted to be part of and create this wondrous and magical thing. So yes, definitely.

Is there any prospect that this could become something longer? A bit more permanent?

R: Well, there isn’t anything properly. There has been some talk.

Presumably all the research that you’ve done has been for this time of year, but there is clearly a potentially season element…

A: Absolutely.

R: We have actually found ourselves wondering what the Woods would look like during another season. What would they be like in Spring? What would they be like in Summer? What would they be like in Autumn?

Who would the guides be?

R: We like the idea that if the Woods did come round again they would look and feel and *be* totally different… and there would be different people to meet and different doors to open… You wouldn’t ever see the same thing twice.

A: There are a lot of different ideas. A lot of different ways that audiences could move. I’m interested in how audiences could be part of a big spectacle but still get an intimate and increasingly personal experience. Just having more of that. Having more of that sense.

We only have two actors in this show. And what they are doing between the pair of them … it’s amazing. To give every audience member the breath of experience. And to give that to each audience. It’s incredibly focused. They have so much to do and convey and it’s very demanding for them. They are doing such a fantastic job.

But if it were to evolve. If it were to change, there could be more performers. More experiences and more of a sense of community within the audience from when they arrive.

R: We’re so passionate about the North and we’re so passionate about bringing these experience to people up here so we kind of had to test the water a little bit with this. We felt that this time round it needed to be focused but sure, we have some very big ideas. If there’s a next time next year they can be realised.

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The set design is incredible but with you saying that I’m already trying to imagine how it could look and sound and evolve. 

On that note, let’s talk about the importance of the music and the sound which adds so much to setting the atmosphere of the production…

A: Oh the music is such a huge part of it.

R: It’s had such an impact.

A: And there’s a huge potential for it to become more interactive.

R: We did consider having live music and dance and more elements of performance. More of the senses being engaged. Smell was really important to us this time round. That’s something we’d like to build on for next year. We have this mist that we use in the wooden cabin… We want it to appeal to all the senses as you walk in. Doing it was something that we knew we could build on.

The music was done by Buffalo Spaces and they were incredible. Lins (Wilson) – our producer – this is one of her projects with John Folger and they are just incredible. They’ve created this incredible sound piece for us and they do installations and again – how we researched the folklore and the forest and the history – they did the exact same thing with the sounds and music.

They only wanted to use songs from a certain era and sounds that reflected the winter season and yet also festive. Then also songs about being lost and to do with the stars . Even when you do recognise the song – it was never a predictable choice. It’s totally just informed the full thing.

When we hear any of the songs now, it just transports us straight back. That’s how successful they’ve been at curating this – it’s just been so amazing.

Leeds has a huge underground that’s not currently open to the public, it’s not being explored – I’m thinking now of the Library next door and the Art Gallery…

R: We know of some tunnels…honestly our ideas…at Lord Whitney, we’re not short of ideas, if anything we need reining in a little bit sometimes, so already we’re thinking  and we’ve had some discussion about next year. About this project, about other projects. Leeds is an incredible city. It’s got amazing spaces…a lot of empty spaces, unused. Which could all be opened up for some incredible performances and immersive environments. Next year, we’d love to do something. Maybe bigger.

[Alexander pales again, then gets this weird look when it seems he’s actually visualising a bigger version and what that could be]

This was my first immersive experience. I didn’t know what to expect. Is this possibly the largest immersive theatre experience that’s happened in Leeds?

A: In Leeds, yes. There was You, at the Playhouse, but I believe this is larger.

R: This is probably the biggest. We were cautious about advertising this as ‘immersive’ because we didn’t want anyone to feel excluded. Or feel like ‘I don’t do theatre’. It took us a while to find our wording for the project.

Hopefully now that its run, next year we’ll be able to build upon this. People will be more familiar and know what to expect. We have had people come in and wonder what they’re supposed to do. And we’ve had people who have never seen anything like it, have never known that there was anything like this who have come out of it going ‘I need to go again NOW’. And we fully sold out which was just incredible. We never actually thought that this would happen.

There has been a lot of word of mouth…

A: That seems to be how something like this works best.

R: If you have a friend who says that you just have to go, then you’ll think about attending it more than if you see an advert. You trust them, you know you like the same things ‘I’m just going to do it!’

And – not to be vulgar – but this is affordable theatre…

R: Totally! We didn’t want to be exclusive in any way with this project. That was the whole reason we didn’t want it to feel too Chrismassy, we wanted for anyone to feel like they could come and enjoy it. That’s why it was more to do with the seasons and our shared folklore

A: You’re actually getting incredible value for money. If you’re thinking economically, it’s incredible what an audience gets at this experience compared to those in London. If you’re thinking pound to minute of the performance, you get so much out of this.

And – aside from attracting the young – this is a project that can appeal to people who might not normally consider going to the theatre 

R: Totally! And that’s before you consider that there’s this gorgeous little pop up pub here also!

It might not be for everyone but hopefully there have been people who have come and had an experience they never ever imagined.

Certainly on twitter – people have sent really good feedback – even a few who have said that ‘this has changed my life!’ which is just like WOW – it’s amazing, it’s more than we could ever have imagined! To have had just *one* of those comments would have made the project for me.

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If there a weirdness to that? Getting a message like that and thinking ‘I wrote this’ or ‘I created that, I put that in place’…

R: Honestly, we’re all just so sleep deprived! Maybe by February we’ll be able to sort of take it all on board!!

A: For me, it was amazing. I brought some people up who are avid fans of Punch Drunk and they go and see all of those shows and can go back and see it many many times and who are used to spending maybe £50 a pop on a ticket (R: They are at the top of their game of this world) and they came up to see this. They booked hotels, they booked trains. And then they gave this rave reviews. And for them to do that… For me, it’s more impressive that we are bringing in Joe Public and hearing really positive things, but to ALSO get top end people, who frequent these type of shows – for them to admire the depth and detail that we’ve achieved. That makes me really proud.

Online, there have been a few people scratching their heads, but the reviews seem to have been very positive

R: We’ve heard a lot of that! People saying that they had to go back and do it again because they weren’t sure what to make or it! We never thought that we’d get it right straight away. We just hoped that we’d create something that people could relate to and want more of! And a lot of people have really responded to it so well. It’s been…just terrific.

So what’s next for the pair of you?

R: Sleep.

A: Definitely sleep.

R:  We’ve just done our dining experience which is our Feast of Fools, where we had 30 guests a night come and drink and dance and generally be a bit… A: Mischievous! R: Exactly! And that was brilliant. We used more actors, space and had a similar sort of experience to the evenings. It was great fun. So we’re sort of recovering from that now. We’re starting to get the team together to get everything packed up and move out. But we feel like we can’t quite leave!

A: I’ve been meeting with the actors once a week, to give them some new ideas, to discuss the quality of the performance, introduce new lines and things like that.

R: If people do come back again, they won’t be having the same experience. It’s been changing and evolving.

A: This is a totally different show to when it first opened. Totally. We wanted to see if someone came in the first week and then came back in the last week – we wanted to know that they would see a totally different show.

I TRIED! But you went and sold out. Very annoying

[Both hung their heads, then laughed at me. I don’t think they minded one little bit actually]

A: Sorry! It’s terrible really.

[He wasn’t sorry at all I tell you!]

R: It has been weird trying to think of what this will be like when it’s all over. I don’t actually know how I’ll react once it’s all done. What will I do with myself!

the wood beneath

Has this, or how has this – the philosophy and reconnecting with folklore – changed your perspective? I’m actively reducing my time online for example…

R: I was just going to say, that’s been one of the biggest things. This project has really made me reflect on the importance of switching off, or turning the phone around and having some time away from it all. I think it’s awakened – I mean we at Lord Whitney, it’s always been something that’s close to our heart – but that idea that feeling of being playful. This has reminded me of how important this is and how much I love that feeling. And if I can keep on trying to make other people see that for the rest of my life, I think I could die a happy woman! If I could show people that you don’t have to grow up, you can still play, you can still feel that joy…

For me, with the book clubs, there are quite a few now and I’m focused on getting back to the stories – books have always make me feel that way – and worrying less about the admin-y side of things

R: I know exactly what you mean. We (myself and Amy) work at lot in fashion and editorials. We can spend all days ordering things and writing emails. And it sort of sucks you dry and this project has made us both be out there. We are dressing sets and researching and doing the things that we love. This has made us so excited. This was a tough project and it’s grown so much and it’s been stressful at times but it’s been so worth it and exciting. If I could just carry on doing things like this, I’d be the happiest woman ever!

A: From a purely directorial point of view, it’s taught me a lot about exploring the possibilities of these one-to-one experiences and exactly how can you give someone a really, genuinely personal, not manufactured experience. So, I’ve done stuff in the past where it’s all a one-on-one, so you go from scene to scene with different actors but you know that this is kind of the formula of the performance. You know that in the next scene you will see a performer act and you know what’s going to happen. (R: I HATE that. I love it when you don’t know what to expect!).

Personally, I’m a lot more green aware and I feel like I wasn’t so aware of the impact that we have. I’ve become aware of Carl Sagan through our research. His philosophies which I’m become aware of due to this has had an impact. I’m quoting him to my friend which is just seriously uncool … but I love how – with a project like this – when it touches you in a deeper way.

R: I actually studied some philosophy as an A level and I love it. But I was torn between a creative career at uni – I would have loved to study philosophy at university but that wasn’t my path. I think all of us involved in this – we’ve all been touched by this. It”s been a pleasure to look at things like Campbell again. I never thought that it would have come full circle like this.

Well, it is actually quite a strange thing that here you choose at 16 really what you are going to do. To be a creative, or go down an academic route, or I guess a creative academic route. A project like this challenges you whether you regard yourself as academic, scientific or creative. It brings us all together in a strange sort of way and reminds us that we are none of us just that one thing

R: Yes. Definitely. I completely agree with you. When you do such a creative thing as a job, you get absorbed.

A: It’s possible to be creative and pointless…self indulgent. This just…wasn’t that!

R: The folklore project was like doing a dissertation again. It brought you back to what actually mattered. It was fascinating – the more I researched the more it opened doors. Of course, we then had to rein ourselves back in.

It’s almost upsetting that I had to experience this. If it was on a dvd, I could watch it every time I feel depleted…but that’s not really how something like this works…

A: It’s not quite the point of something like this. The point is maybe to go out and experience again to get back that feeling

R: That’s what is so special about these kind of things. That no photo or film will ever do it justice. It’s how you felt while you were there. That’s the important thing. That’s the importance of going to these things. And actually of real life. That you LIVE it, not live it through a screen or via an image or a recording…

We’ve already been wondering how the hell do we reflect this on our website. I mean, really. Really. What do you say? How?

A: How would you film it? There are infinite ways of capturing or seeing this. There are so many facets.

R: We’ve dreamed up this whole world and I’ve only seen about a fifth of it? I don’t even know what the actors do sometimes. I hear things and I’m like really? Where was that? I haven’t seen that!! I’m almost a little bit gutted that it sold out, I’d love for people to experience it again. We even considered making the group sizes bigger – maybe 30 people but in the end we decided to focus on that personal experience. That was our emphasis. That was our direction.

It’s having Jack look you in the eyes. Having Gwen take you to a room. Finding the nuts in the cabin.

We had this one guy the first week that just sat in the cabin, eating nuts. We were like – go for it! You experience this as you want to! Another was in the middle of the woods, just listening to the music.

I’m love to have left a bottle of wine for them.

Maybe the last night…?

R: Yeah, maybe

A: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s talk about that one!!

Check out the trailer for the Wood beneath the World on Youtube below!

Twitter: @LordWhitney

Twitter: @AlexanderPalmer

Visit the official The Woods Beneath the World website HERE


Twitter: @thewoodbeneath

Instagram: @thewoodbeneath

Chris Nickson Exclusive Short Story – Christmas 1890

Once again, Chris Nickson has kindly provided us with a special Christmas treat – a short story featuring Annabelle Harper (nee Atkinson) – instantly recognisable to fans of his Inspector Tom Harper series!

LBC would like to thank Chris for this short story and for his extraordinary kindness and friendship over the last few years!

Christmas 1890

by Chris Nickson

Crossgates Station c 1890 Has nothing to do with the story, but I thought it was interesting

Crossgates Station
c 1890
Has nothing to do with the story, but I thought it was interesting

‘Excuse me, luv, do you have one like that in a plum colour?’ Annabelle Harper pointed at the hat on display behind the counter. It was soft blue wool, with a small crown and a wide brim, decorated with a long white feather and trailing lace meant to tie under the chin.

The shop assistant smiled.

‘I’m afraid not, madam. We only have what’s on display. ‘I’m very sorry.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ She put down her purchases, stockings, bloomers, garters, and a silk blouse. ‘I’ll just take those, please.’

Be polite to everyone, that’s what her mother had said when she was younger, and it was a rule Annabelle had lived by. It cost nothing, and a little honey always ensured good service.

The Grand Pygmalion was packed with people shopping. Women on their own, with a servant along to carry purchases, wives with long-suffering husbands who looked as if they’d rather be off enjoying a drink somewhere.

Four floors, two hundred people to help the customers, wonderful displays of goods. It just seemed to grow busier and busier each year. But it was the only real department store in Leeds. She waited as the girl totted up the totals.

‘I have an account here, luv.’

She saw the quick flicker of doubt and gave a kind smile. Couldn’t blame the lass. She didn’t sound like the type of person with the money to shop here. Then the gaze took in her clothes and jewellery and the girl nodded. Annabelle had brass.

‘Of course, madam. What name is it?’

‘Mrs. Annabelle Harper. The address is the Victoria public house on Roundhay Road.’

Everything neatly packed and tied into a box, she walked out on to Boar Lane. A fortnight until Christmas and it was already cold. Bitter. A wind whistled along the street from the west. All around her she could hear people with their wet, bronchitic coughs. It’d probably snow soon enough, she thought.

Omnibuses, trams, carts and barrows moved along the road, a constant clang of noise. On the corner with Briggate, by the Ball-Dyson clock, a Salvation Army brass band was playing, their trumpets and tubas competing against the vehicles and the street sellers crying their goods.

She pulled the coat closer around her body as she walked, clutching the reticule tight in her hand. Plenty of crime this time of year. Married to a detective inspector, she couldn’t help but hear about it. And she had enough cash with her for something special; she didn’t want to lose that.

Strolling up towards the Headrow, all the lights in the shops were already glowing. Only three and it was almost dark. Roll on spring, she thought, then stopped herself. Never wish the days away. Who used to say that? She racked her brain. Come on, Annabelle told herself, you’re not old enough to forget things yet.

Then it came. Old Ellie Emsworth at Bank Mill. Annabelle was ten, she’d been at the mill a year, working as a doffer, still too young to be on the machines. Six days a week, twelve hours a day for not even two bob a week when all she wanted to be was out there, away from it all. Ellie had worked the loom all her life. She was probably no more than thirty-five but she looked old, worn-down.

‘I know you don’t like it here,’ Ellie had said to her one day as they ate their dinner. Bread and dripping for Annabelle, all her family could afford. ‘But don’t go wishing the days away. They pass quick enough, lass. Soon you’ll wish you had them back.’

She smiled. For a moment she could almost hear Ellie’s voice, rough as lye soap.

People pressed around her as she walked, some of them smiling with all the joy of the season, others glum and po-faced. Christmas, she thought. They’d never had the money to make a do of it when she was little. As soon as she had a little, when she’d married the landlord of the Victoria, she’d given presents and spent all she could afford.

Even the Christmas after he died, she’d been determined to put on a brave face. A big meal for friends, presents that saw their eyes shine. It made her happy.

And now she had Tom Harper. She had the wedding ring on her finger and she felt happier than she had in a long, long time. This was going to be their first married Christmas and she was going to buy him something he’d never forget. A new suit. A beautiful new suit.

Along New Briggate, across from the Grand Theatre, the buildings were bunched together. Business on top of business as the floor climbed to the sky. Photographers, an insurance agent, gentleman’s haberdasher. You name it, it was all there if you looked hard enough.

The girl stood in the doorway of number fifteen, a broken willow basket at her feet. At first Annabelle’s glance passed over her. Then she looked again. For a moment she was taken back twenty years. She was ten again and staring at Mary Loughlin. They’d gone to school together, started at the mill together, laughed and played whenever they had chance. The same flyaway red hair that the girl had tried to capture in a sober bun. The same pale blue eyes and freckles over the cheeks. The same shape of her face.

‘Wreath, ma’am?’ The girl held it out, a poor thing of ivy and holly wrapped around a think branch of pine. ‘It’s only a shilling,’ she said hopefully.

Her wrist was thin, the bones sticking out, and her fingers were bare, the nails bitten down to the quick, flesh bright pink from the cold. An old threadbare coat and clogs that looked to be too small for her feet.

‘What’s your name, luv?’

The girl blushed.

‘Please ma’am, it’s Annabelle.’

For a second she couldn’t breathe, putting a hand to her neck. Then, very gently she shook her head.

‘Your mam’s called Mary, isn’t she?’

The girl’s eyes widened. She stared, frightened, tongue-tied, biting her lower lip. Finally she managed a nod.

‘She was, ma’am, yes.’

‘Was? Is she dead?’

‘Yes, ma’am. Three year back.’

Annabelle lowered her head and wiped at her face with the back of her gloves.

‘I’m sorry, luv,’ she said after a while. ‘Now, how much are these wreaths?’

‘A shilling, ma’am.’

‘And how many do you have?’


She scrambled in her purse and brought out two guineas.

‘That looks like the right change to me.’ She placed them in the girl’s hand. Before she let go of the money, she asked, ‘What was your mother’s surname before she wed, Annabelle?’

‘Loughlin, ma’am.’

‘I tell you what. There’s that cocoa house just across from the theatre, Annabelle Loughlin. I’d be honoured if you’d let me buy you a cup. You look perished.’

The girl’s fingers closed around the money. She look mystified, scared, as if she couldn’t believe this was happening.

‘Did your mam ever tell you why she called you Annabelle?’

‘Yes ma’am.’ For the first time, the girl smiled. ‘She said it was for someone she used to know when she was little.’

Mrs. Harper leaned forward. Very quietly she said,

‘There’s something I’d better tell you. I’m the Annabelle you’re named for.’


She sipped a mug of cocoa as she watched the girl eat. A bowl of stew with a slice of bread to sop up all the gravy, then two pieces of cake. But what she seemed to love most was the warmth of the place. Young Annabelle kept stopping and looking around her, gazing at the people and what they had on their plates.

She was twelve, she said. Two older brothers, both of them working, and two younger, one eight and still at school, the other almost ten and at Bank Mill.

‘What does he do there?’

‘He’s a doffer,’ the girl said and Annabelle smiled.

‘That’s what your mam and I did when we started. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and went into service.’

‘But you’re rich,’ the girl said, then reddened and covered her mouth with her hand. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’ve got a bob or two,’ she agreed. ‘I was lucky, that’s all.’ The girl finished her food. ‘Do you want more?’

‘No ma’am. Thank you.’

‘And don’t be calling me ma’am,’ she chided gently. ‘It makes me feel old. I’m Annabelle, the same as you. Mrs. Harper if you want to be formal.’

‘Yes, Mrs. Harper.’

‘What does you da do, luv?’

‘He’s dead.’ There was a sudden bleakness in her voice. ‘Two years before my mam. So me and Tommy, he’s the oldest, we look after everything.’

Annabelle waved for the bill and counted out the money to pay as the girl watched her.

‘What work do you do? When you’re not selling wreaths, I mean.’

‘This and that ma’a – Mrs. Harper.’

‘And nothing that pays much?’ The girl shook her head. ‘You still live on the Bank?’

‘On Bread Street.’

‘Can you find your way down to Sheepscar?’

‘Course I can.’ For a second the bright, cheeky spark she remembered in Mary flew.

‘Good, because there’s a job down there if you want one. I own a bakery down there, and someone left me in the lurch.’ The girl just stared at her. ‘It’s not charity, you’ll have to work hard and if you’re skive you’ll be out on your ear. But I give a fair day’s pay for a fair days’ graft. What do you say?’

For a second the girl was too stunned to answer. Then the words seemed to tumble from her mouth.

‘Yes. Thanks you ma’am. Mrs. Harper, I mean. Thank you.’

Annabelle looked her up and down.

‘If you’re anything like your mam you’ll be a grand little worker.’

‘I’ll do my best. Honest I will.’

‘I know, luv. You’re going to need some new clothes. And I daresay the rest of your lot could use and bits and bobs, too.’ She took a five pound from her purse and laid it on the table. ‘That should do it.’ The girl just stared at the money. ‘Don’t be afraid of it,’ Annabelle told her. ‘It won’t bite. You buy what you need.’

‘Do you really mean it?’ The words were barely more than a whisper.

‘I do.’ She grinned. ‘When I saw you, it was like looking at Mary all over again. Took me right back. You’re just as bonny as she was.’ She stood, the girl quickly following. ‘You be at Harper’s Bakery at six tomorrow morning. Mrs. Harding’s the manager, tell her I took you on. I’ll be around later.’

‘Yes, Mrs. Harper. And…thank you.’

‘No need, luv. Just work hard, that’s all I need. You get yourself off to the Co-op and buy what you need.’

The girl had the money clenched tight in her small fist. At the door, before she turned away, she said,

‘Mrs. Harper?’

‘Yes, luv?’

‘Sometime, will you tell me what my mam was like when she was young?’

‘You know what? I’d be very happy to do that.’

She watched the girl skip off down the street. Who’d have thought it, Mary calling her lass Annabelle? She shook her head and looked up at the clock. A little after four. She still had time to go to that tailor’s on North Street and order Tom a new suit for his Christmas present.

* * * * *

True Love – Owen Elgie

A friend of mine – Owen Elgie – has been writing fantasy for the last few years and recently decided to ‘go public’ with it.

He has completed his first novel – The Circle of Fire – which will be released in a near future and is currently working on the second in that series.


Recently, he sent me a short drabble that he had been working on – two pages entitled ‘True Love’.

Frankly, it’s one of those horrible creepy shorts that makes you wonder if you really know a person at all!

Naturally, once I had offered his wife a non-judgmental ear -should she need it – I decided to record an audio recording of True Love.


PLEASE NOTE – the story and recording contain ADULT content.

Not for those of a nervous disposition or prone to Hitchcockian nightmares.


Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Check out Owen’s blog HERE

Interview with WY Playhouse Literary Director – Part 1

This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!

Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.
Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse. 
The interview will be posted in two parts. This section shall focus on Refugee Boy while part 2 will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse. 
Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. We appreciate that must be incredibly busy at the moment.
Refugee Boy is a 2001 novel by Benjamin Zephaniah about a young adult named Alem. He is abandoned in the UK due to conflicts in his country of origin.
How does something like this production of Refugee Boy get started? Does a writer or director approach you?
It happens in all sorts of different ways. In this particular instance it was our associate Director that deals specifically with young people and their theatre. She knew Benjamin Zephaniah and the book and said ‘I’d like to do a version of this’. Looking back through old files the other day, I came across my original document that had a list of potential adaptors. I came up with that list, we talked about it, we liked Lemn Sissay (a poet and playwright) – it turned out that he had himself a very similar history so that all dovetailed very well with the book. It’s been a very long journey getting it to this place for all sorts of different reasons.
It’s pretty much there now. Final few tweaks to do. It’s pretty much there. Then again, it’ll change again in rehearsal. And it’ll open on the 9th of March with its first performance with rehearsal beginning about four weeks before that.
Refugee Boy – is it an accurate portrayal of the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict?
There isn’t, in fact, in the book that much detail about the nature of the conflict and the little bit that’s in there isn’t necessarily terribly accurate, but that’s not the point of the book. The point of the book was to follow the journey of the Refugee Boy himself.
The two tiny flashbacks that he does in Ethiopia and Eritrea – the whole piece takes place in England –  there’s this sort of prologue of two tiny snippets and they are intentionally abstract and not realistic and very similar to each other another.
Benedict – one of our contacts – is himself from Ethiopia and Eritrea and he came over as a young man – not quite as young as the character in the book. Benedict says that you can pick at it; you can tear away parts and say ‘Well actually that wouldn’t really happen that way’ but on the other hand he read that book as a sort of alternative narrative of his own life because essentially the story was his and a lot of the emotional journey and the journey of adjustment to a different country was absolutely his.
You wouldn’t read Refugee Boy in order to gain insights into the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflicts. You do so in order to gain insights into what it is to be a refugee, an asylum seeker in this country.
Refugee Boy – the Charity sector
Since getting involved with this particular project, we’ve become much more in contact with the org and people and agencies that work in that area in our region. We’ve been struck both by the immense generosity and hard work and selflessness and kindness of people who work and volunteer.
And also about the terrible circumstances and deprivations which go along with that. In particular destitution being the big issue we’re dealing with at the moment – there’s a particular thing that’s happening right at the moment with the way that housing is changing which –  I imagine you’re aware of – it’s causing particular problems.
Refugee Boy – won the Portsmouth Book Award – and certainly caught the zeitgeist. Author Benjamin Zephaniah is renowned for his music, poetry and writing. This is a particularly inherently human book revolving around isolation, alienation and finding your own place in the world.
Benjamin Zephaniah
Have you spoken with him about the book or the WY Playhouse adaptation of it?
I haven’t spoken to him directly to him about it. However, I’ve read and heard him speak about it. I don’t know if there was a particular incident that got him interested in this but I know that he himself felt empathy for people who have gone through that experience. Coming from a Caribbean background, but one where he felt that he understood that isolation and being misunderstood as a young person. He also has a keen sense of justice that comes from his background and having experienced injustice. As a Rastafarian, who is practising and religious and spiritual; he particularly had an interest in this journey. [That of] seeming outcast and that essential notion of finding a family.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict was reaching a certain point around the time that he was writing it so there was a public awareness at that time.
How did you find the right playwright to adapt this novel?
Lemn Sissay who did the adaptation, is also a poet. Actually it’s one of those strange coincidences that happen in life. I had read a play of his called Storm I think (written for Contact theatre in Manchester) and it was set in a children’s home and I felt that it captured the voice of those young people extremely well. It was his first play and incorporated some poetry into the play writing. And he wrote those young people in a well rounded, un-clichéd, unsentimental way – which is very rare.
They were first and foremost young people and they happened to be in a situation and they reacted to that situation. Rather than them being types. That’s what made me think about him in the first instance. Because there is a part of the book where Alem goes to a children’s home and then a foster home so writing a piece where the main character is a young person. He’d directed a lot of young people. There was something in Lemn’s writing where I felt that he could find that character.
So I called him up, said that we were interested in adapting this book called Refugee Boy by Ben Zephaniah and had he heard of it? He said no, what’s it about and I summarised ‘it’s about a young boy, born half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, abandoned in this country and raised in the care system’. And he just exclaimed ‘You’re kidding me. That’s my life.’
And that is, it’s genuinely his life. He is half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, his mother came to this country to give birth to him here and then abandoned him here and went back. Lemn’s gone on a huge journey – which is quite well documented – to discover what his past is. And he started off in a children’s home; was then fostered; then he was essentially rejected by his foster home; returned to the children’s home; grew up there and left at 18 years and that’s when he was given his papers. This was when he discovered his birth name. He’d had a completely different name up until the age of 18. He gravitated towards Manchester, discovered poetry and found his voice and became, or was kind of taken up by John G at Contact and given a lot of support. Discovering that, he felt that he was the right person to take this on. He has brought a lot to the adaptation.
On making necessary changes from the original
There are some aspects of the play that are not actually in the books, but this was right. If you read the book, it reads very well but there are certain things missing that you’d want for a play. It’s telling you a story but the additional insight from any other characters apart from Alem can only be inferred.
It works in a novel but not as naturally as a play. So you don’t necessarily know what’s going on with Ruth or the foster parents. Basically they are ciphers. Although you do get a bit more from Alem’s father – the relationship between the two is fairly straight forward. There isn’t that much change in it.
Lemn Sissay
So, Lemn has sort of added aspects to that; while retaining the story of the refugee boy; keeping the central premise of the piece, but there’s a very strong relationship between Alem and a friend of his from the children’s home that is totally invented. It doesn’t exist in the book.
You need people for your central character to talk to. Otherwise it’s a one man show. And funnily enough, Lemn has already done that show. He did it about his own life. It’s called ‘Something Dark’ and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a one man show.
But he’s done it. It’s not actually about refugee or asylum but about a young man coming to terms with having been abandoned – the search for identity.
You watch that show and think ‘you’re still standing?’ So I think it’s really…now we’re at a place where we have I think a really good play from a really good book.  They are going to be there own things. Benjamin Zephaniah has read the play and was happy with it. He found it a bit strange – in that it is and isn’t his novel.
Different people have different levels on control. Benjamin has been very open and relaxed which has been lovely. It’s very good that it is happening.
Did you ever doubt that it would all come together?
The thing is that there is a burst of activity and then there would a long long while where nothing happened at all and then there’d be another burst of activity and then a long long while where nothing happened at all. But we’ve got the momentum back.
[All of this is of course worthwhile as] I think it is a play that will engage a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. I think that there are a lot of people who are broadly sympathetic to the issue around refuges and asylum seekers and will be interested in it for that reason. I think that there are people who will be interested in it because they’ve heard of Benjamin Zephaniah or enjoy his poetry and his writing. And maybe people who’ll try it because maybe their kids had to study it in school and hopefully they will bring them along.
I’m hoping that it will reach out to quite a broad audience.
Now the production is coming together, how involved are you at this point?
To an extent…personally I’m less involved now that the director Gail McIntyre [has taken the reins]. Certainly less once it goes into rehearsals. I’ll be coming to see it towards the end of rehearsal and once it goes into preview. I mean I’m very involved in how the events are happening so I’ll be working through the whole time and I’m probably more involved in this one that others because I’ve been so involved in the making of it. We’ll see. It depends on how much Lemn wants to be around. Whether there’s a need for me to manage the dynamic between how much you want it to be changed, how much you don’t want it to be changed.
Every production is different and needs different kinds of support.
Touch wood – it’s a huge tremendous success. Will it tour?
Our aim is to tour it the following year if we can make everything work out. Because Benjamin is a successful writer and that is a very popular book – it’s studied in schools – there is a certain amount of interest from other theatres. That’s the idea really. We’ll see; we’ll see what happens.
It’s not even always down to whether it’s a success. It’s down to money and what budgets are like and what other plays have been planned for [for other theatres].
And then of course, it’s onto the next stage of the project.

Well best of luck with the opening. And thanks so much for chatting with us. 


Theatre Reviews

Interview with WY Playhouse Literary Director – Part 2

This is a review from March 2013. 

Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!

Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.
Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse. 
The interview will be posted in two parts. The first section shall focus on Refugee Boy while this part will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse. 
Let’s jump straight in.  What is a literary director?
I am responsible for everything to do with writers and writing. That is everything from running schemes for very very new writers through to things like managing the commission and writing of a production like Refugee Boy. Pretty much anything to do with the writing of plays falls within my remit.
That can be incredibly varying. Some people think that it’s only to do with new writers who are not very well known and creating completely original work, but that’s not the case. For instance this season we’ve got Refugee Boy – an adaptation of a novel; Doctor Faustus– with two completely rewritten acts within the construct of the pre-existing play – that’s Colin Teevan. We’ve also have Sherlockwhich is a completely original storyline employing the characters of Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s by a writer that I’ve worked with a lot in the last few years – Mark Catley.
We’ve got the Transformseason – where we work alongside a lot of writers. In fact there’s a particular project that I’m very involved in that which is 3 writers creating a piece on being at Leeds Markets – At the Market – and that’s what we’ve most recently being doing interviews for. I’m involved in all of these things to different levels and extents.
I’m also responsible, of course, for developing newer writers and also for working with slightly more experienced people on creating plays that we will hopefully eventually do.
On the new Sherlock
Sherlock is a lot of work because it’s a completely original script. And in fact coming up with a completely original Sherlock plotline is actually quite a challenge. It’s a very enjoyable challenge at that. I’m really enjoying it.
I can’t say that I’ve read a great deal of the Sherlock books. I’ve read Scandal in Bohemia and Hound of the Baskervilles – I know the classic series and films and the recent series which I’ve enjoyed very very much.
[We each take a moment to properly appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch]
They are extremely good updates of them. They are steeped in a deep love of Conan Doyle.
This is something else. The decision was made to keep it Victorian so it’s not up against the show. And also, it is not an adaptation of an existing story. It’s completely original and still orientates around a mystery.
We did some years ago, a comedic version with the Peepolykus (People Like Us)theatre group of Hound of the Baskervilles. Essentially there are two performers that set it up. One was Basque – he played Sherlock and there was something very amusing about Sherlock having a very pronounced accent.  It was fantastic and hugely enjoyable and well managed the combination between comedy and a genuine love of mystery. It’s Hound so everyone knows ‘who dun it’ but that wasn’t the point. It was a fun-ride type of scary.
The Peepolykus production had people becoming groupies of this particular show. But you can only do that with a certain type of production. We have to come up with something that manages to negotiate these different genera’s.  It is based in London. Still working on that – it’s a work in progress but I think it’s looking really exciting and I’m looking forward to that too.
So that was very enjoyable but this is something totally new. It’s a periodic version that can use the clichés around Sherlock and use them to great effect.
Do you write yourself?
I have done a bit. I have written a children’s play, which was performed here a little while ago. It was called The Magic Paintbrush – an adaptation of a Chinese folk tale. It was lovely and I really enjoyed doing that.
I’ve also done a couple of translations. Which is writing of a different sort! And there’s been quite a lot of putting together of shows from different materials.
I also direct. Though not this season. Actually I suppose I am in a way. I am co-directing ‘At the Market’, part of the Transform project, I’m one of the directors of that.
Which of those titles do you use to describe yourself – Writer or Director?
I suppose I’d say Director. Because that’s where I started. That’s predominantly how I see myself and I see all the other skills as falling under that category. I think one of the major functions that I play is managing the dramaturgy of the scripts – working directly with the writer myself or with the director or managing a team. 
An awful lot of project management goes on within a building of this size. I do enjoy that side of it too. You get a lot of satisfaction seeing things coming to fruition. So; like with Refugee Boy; I’m one of the people that’s making that happen. It’s one of the great aspects of this particular theatre is that it pays as much attention to the whole round experience, not just the way that it feels on the stage but also in the many different ways that people will relate to that to how we make our connections within the community.
It’s important to give people a good experience across the project. Good admin is about making sure that you do things well. And take care of people in the process. It’s not that easy but in the end that’s what it comes down too.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse
[I’ve been] eleven years (at the WY Playhouse). It is home. Leeds feels like home – it’s the longest I’ve been anywhere since I left home at the age of 18. I was at university then going around the country for 7 or 8 years, ostensibly based in London but not necessarily there. Then I came to Leeds for this job. 
What has been of particular interest to you?
Well, obviously there are high points for me that involve work that I’ve actually done. There was a piece called Dustwhich was created by a writer called Kenneth Yates.
Again it was a verbatim piece, based in an asbestos factory about a woman called June Hancock. Having nursed her mother through pleural mesothelioma which is a cancer based on asbestos; she was then diagnosed with it herself. She subsequently sued the company responsible – or an American parent company of the people who owned the factory for compensation.
It’s an amazing David versus Goliath story. We told that with a community company and opened it in an old warehouse just literally a stone’s throw from the factory in Armley. Then we took it to the Courtyard for a week. That was an amazing experience.
Her children were there. Obviously June Hancock had passed away several years before. Pleural mesothelioma either kills you quickly, at a medium rate or slowly. The second longest survivor was just over three years. It’s terminal, there is no remission from it and it’s particularly nasty. It’s the cancer of the pleural lining. You can’t do chemotherapy and the tumour grows around your lungs so you can’t breathe. It’s also got an incubation period. You can get it from exposure to just one fibre. But it can take 40 or 50 years to manifest and by then…
The factory is still there. It’s concreted up, but it’s still there. It’s right within a residential area and was at the time. The local school’s playground is just over the road from the factory and the children used to play in the dust from this factory. Alan Bennet went there. And Barbara Taylor Bradford. Neither of whom have mesothelioma. It’s random chance basically.
But June Hancock did. There’s a …there’s one of those maps that has the entire borough’s of Leeds on it. Its colour coded according to incidences of Mesothelioma. White is normal – 1:10 000 or whatever. Black is a certain density. Basically the entirety, the whole area around  Armley is black.
So in fact – one of the shocking things – you don’t live in Armley do you? Because the stuff is still there. It’s in the attics, it’s in the terrace. Not just of the factory but all the houses around it. The company paid to clean up the area – they sealed off large areas and attics and so on. And in some sort of deal for the clean up; they had this taken off the land registry. As though it never existed. So if you buy a property in Armley now; it won’t show up on the surveys.
You get told on the quiet – if you live in Armley, don’t convert your attic. Because it could be lethal.
You can see why this is a piece that I’m so proud of doing. We worked very closely with Russell and Kimberley – June’s children. We also raised over a thousand pounds for a related charity. As well as, I think, doing a genuinely good piece of theatre.
Would you say that theatre is a reflection of the social world to you?
I probably am one of those people who got into theatre who thought that I could made a difference in the world.
Other things that I’m particularly proud of include – oh, I did a play with (Leeds born) Mark Catley – writer of Sherlock called Scuffer – which we described as a Beeston Rom Com, which I really really enjoyed. It was lovely – very funny, very touching and very enjoyable and did very well.
There have been lots of things that I’ve really enjoyed doing here.
As to the future?
There are some very exciting ideas which I can’t necessarily say at the moment. I think that yes, there is a gravitational pull to social stories. Not to say that these can’t be entertaining and fun.
That was one of the things I enjoyed most about Scuffer. It had a point to it. It was also incredibly entertaining. I don’t think that it was written with the Rom Com genera in mind. Yet, it did live within that genus to an extent as there was a character that was useless that came good in the end. There was such a huge amount of pleasure derived from that, seeing that happen, seeing someone overcome their … uselessness! Actually, make something more of themselves. Rise to the occasion. 
We’ve certainly got quite a literary season this year. May be of interested to those who are literary minded.
Doctor Fautus
Colin Teevan puts it very well. He says that the whole play straddles very well the tradition between two different sorts of styles – it’s modern in terms of manipulations, motivations and the psychology of the characters and then is also a medieval mystery play. 
The central section is all medieval mystery play. It can be quite heavy going actually. There’s not much else going on. It’s almost relentless. There are just a few big set pieces. And for comedy it just wasn’t…. A lot of renaissance humour is word play and references and puns and we don’t get it. It doesn’t mean anything any more. The third and Forth acts are not good and there’s a theory that they weren’t actually written by him – Kit Marlowe – but perhaps by a student.  
So, I think it’s going to be really interesting seeing people’s reactions to it. I think that it really does go renaissance, renaissance, MODERN. It’s quite a stark change, an attempt to make it knit together. I like what Colin has done. It echoesthe words that Marlowe used. It’s not trying to blank verse or … its set in the modern world, following some of the incidents in the Marlowe or the original Doctor Faustus but with a narrative line following through that. It’s not something we do so often in this country. Here we prefer our plays to be slightly homogenous. We tend to get a bit nervy when people start mixing up their genera’s.
On changing things up
There is the gang that turn up to Shakespeare and laugh at all the jokes because they understand it. Because they have studied it. And sometimes, [they are so busy getting it] they don’t seem to always get to enjoy it. 
I remember when Kneehigh did Cymbeline – they largely rewrote it; almost entirely rewrote it and performed it at Stratford , they were invited as part of the RAC festival of Shakespeare when they did the full works.
It was a very strange experience for them. Normally the Kneehigh audience shows up knowing who Kneehigh are and what to expect from them. But a lot of people came to the play because it was Stratfrod. And they wanted to watch Cymbeline. Not because it was Kneehigh. And Cymbeline got a lot of shit in it too to be perfectly honest. As beautiful as some parts of it are…a lot of the humour is missed – there’s a lot of it that I think is supposed to be funnier than people actually react to it. But Act 5 was hysterical. It just becomes plain exposition ‘I did this, and I did that, and you need to know for the plot that I also did this’.
I did speak with one of the people from Kneehigh and they said that it was very odd. They had people in the audience with the script, with a copy of the play – their penguin copy – on their laps. They were trying to read it as the play was going on and of course not being able too because they had completely rewritten it. And then one person who was doing that – and it being Knee High they had somebody in the audience – turned around and snarled ‘this is a disgrace’. Oh dear. So that person didn’t have a good time.
On bringing plays and scripts into the theatre – does it put a company off?
Oh god yes, I was at a production at the Old Bush, not the new one, a tiny tiny space. And it was the press night, no it was the night afterwards. The press night had clashed with another press night so a lot of the reviewers actually came that night.
There can only have been about 30 of us, friends, press and others in the whole audience. At least 3 of the press were sitting on the front row had the script to the play in their hands. And they bought it and were reading along to it. I mean it was a new play, a new production and surely watching it should have been the point.
It’s the critics. They are essentially kind of signalling that the production is neither here nor there. All they are really interested in is what the text says, so they are reviewing almost as a piece of literature rather than the play itself. They see the production as merely a transmission mechanism rather than anything that has its own independent, artistic and creative life. If you are going to look at it like that then you really are better off just getting a copy of the text. Because there’s no choice then.
Right – we’d better let you get back to it. Thanks so much for chatting with us.

Chris Nickson Exclusive Short Story – Family

Christmas Short Story
Chris Nickson
Leeds, December 1889
It was still dark when she finished the baking, and bitter outside the kitchen. She washed the flour from her hands, walked through the yard and unlocked gate that led to Roundhay Road. The draymen would arrive soon enough, the sharp sound of hooves as the horses stopped outside the Victoria. She peeked out into the street. The air was winter-heavy and wet with soot.
It was early but there were already men out walking, on their way to jobs in the boot factories and tanneries, the mills and breweries. The gas lamps offered a faint glow. She turned and caught the silhouette of someone crouched on the doorstep of the pub.
Someone small. A boy.
“Waiting for something, luv?” Annabelle Atkinson asked as she crossed her arms. “We’ll not be open for two hours yet.”
“I’m just sitting,” the lad answered. She could hear the cold in his voice. As she came closer, she was that his face was grubby and he was only wearing a thin shirt and a pair of ragged trousers that left his calves bare, his shoes were held together withpieces of  string. He wasn’t local, she was certain of that. Annabelle knew everyone around Sheepscar, each man, woman and child. “No law agin it, is there?” he asked.
“Not if you want to stay there,” she told him. “Warmer inside, though. The oven’s going. Cup of tea. Maybe even breakfast if you’re not too cheeky.”
He was torn, it was plain on his face. He was thin as a stick and didn’t look as if he’d had a full meal in days. She didn’t say anything more, deliberately turning away to stare back up the road towards the endless streets of back-to-back houses and factories that lined the way out to Harehills. December. It would be a good while yet before it was light. As light as it ever got when the air was filled with fog and smoke.
When she looked again he was there, standing close, expectant and wary.
“You’re not having me on, missus?”
“No, luv, in you go.” She watched him run through the yard and into the kitchen. By the time she entered he was already standing by the oven, hands outstretched, soaking in the heat. She didn’t have any bairns of her own. Her husband had been older, then he’d died and she’d taken over running the pub. However it had happened, she’d never caught. Now she was courting again, a man called Tom Harper, a copper of all things, and set to wed next year if she could ever persuade him to pop the question.
She cut two doorsteps of bread, buttered them thickly and placed them on the table in front of him. Before he could grab one she took hold of his tiny wrist and said,
“You’re not eating with those filthy hands. Get them under the tap. Your face, too. We’re not short on soap.”
He returned, skin scrubbed and glowing, grabbing the food before she could say anything more. Annabelle brewed tea, one cup for herself, another for him, milky, with plenty of sugar.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Henry, missus,” he answered with his mouth full.
“You can call me Annabelle. Where are you from? I’ve not seen you around before.”
“Me and me da just moved here two day back. We was living in Morley, then me mam and me sister got ill and died and me da started drinking and lost his job so we had to leave.” The words came out in a rush. “He thought we might do better up here.”
She smiled softly. The lad couldn’t be more than eight. But what had happened to him was no more than had happened in so many families.
“We’d best get you home then, Henry. Your da’ll be worried. Get some food in you and I’ll walk you back.”
“He din’t wake up yesterday, missus.” He said the words flatly.
“What do you mean, luv?”
“He’d had a few drinks the night before so I thought he were asleep. I knew he’d belt me if I tried to wake him up, so I left. When I got back the door were locked and he din’t answer. I don’t know anyone round here so I din’t know where to go.”
“Right,” she said after a minute. “You tell me where you live, Henry and I’ll go and see your Da.” Emma the maid came into the kitchen, raising her eyebrows at the sight of the child. “Can you make him something hot?” Annabelle asked. “Bacon and eggs or summat. Poor little sod’s perishing. And see he gets a bath after. I’m off to see his Da.”
“Are you posh, missus?” Henry asked, looking at the servant in awe.
“No, luv,” Annabelle laughed. “I’m not.”
Armenia Grove ended in a big stone wall at the back of the dyeworks. A little further along, Gipton beck ran along past the school, down to the mill pond. Number six was the same as its neighbours, all blackened brick and rotting woodwork, the front door opening as the turned the handle. Henry and his father had the upstairs room at the front, the boy had told her. Locked, just he’d said. She knocked but there was no reply.
Back on the street, Annabelle caught a glimpse of Bert Hardwick and shouted him over before he could duck out of sight.
“There’s a door I need opening,” she said.
He gave her a sheepish glance. “I don’t do that no more. I’m over at the brick works now. It’s steady, like.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to take owt, you daft ‘apeth. Just work the lock for me. Or do you want me to tell your Annie about seeing you with Betsy Ainsworth the other night?”
It only took him a few seconds, working with the tip of his pocket knife. Before she could enter, he’d vanished, boots hammering down the stairs. Men, she thought. They were all bloody useless.
Rags covered the window, blocking out the first light. But she could still see the shape on the floor, huddled under a threadbare blanket. Annabelle spoke his name but he didn’t stir. She reached out to touch his cheek then recoiled with a gasp as soon as her fingers felt his cold skin.
Quietly, she left the house.
Dan the barman was emptying the spittoons and polishing the tables. She asked him to find the beat bobby and take him to the house on Armenia Grove.
“He’ll know what to do.”
She brightened her expression and walked through to the kitchen. Henry was sitting in front of the oven, wearing nothing more than a large towel. Emma had stoked up the fire and washed his clothes; they were strung up on the wooden rack, steaming as they dried.
“You look better all cleaned up,” she told him. “Right handsome.”
“Did you find my Da, missus?”
“I did.” She stood by the chair and took hold of his hand. “What’s his Christian name?”
“Edward,” the boy answered. “But everyone calls him Ted.” Worry flashed across his eyes. “Why, missus?”
She gazed at him for a moment.
“I don’t know how to tell you, Henry, so I’ll just do it straight. Your father’s dead. It looks like he passed away in his sleep. I’m sorry.”
His grip tightened.
“But…” he began, then the words failed him. He began to cry and she cradled him close, rocking him softly until the tears turned to slow hiccoughs.
“Tom, you’ve got to help him.”
He’d arrived after work, close to eight on a dreary evening, exhausted and dirty. He’d ended up chasing a pickpocket out to Marsh Lane, finally bringing him down in the mud that passed for road there. She’d kept a plate warm in the oven for him, the way she always did, hoping he’d visit on the way back to his lodgings.
“Where is he now?” Inspector Harper asked.
“Fast asleep.” She smoothed the silk gown and with a satisfied sigh, let down her hair so it fanned over her shoulders. The mutter of voices came from the bar downstairs. “Poor little lamb’s all cried out. I finally got him to tell me that his mother’s sister lives in Morley. She’s Temperance, so after his ma died, she wouldn’t have anything to do with his father because he was a drinker. What do you think? Maybe she’d take him in.”
“Maybe. What’s her name?”
“Molly Wild.”
“I’ll get in touch with the station down there. Someone will let her know. I can’t promise anything. What about the father?”
“The undertaker has him. Burial tomorrow up at Beckett Street.”
He shook his head.
“You’re paying?”
“Someone has to,” she pointed out. “Come on, Tom. I couldn’t let the boy’s father go to a pauper’s grave, could I?”
“No,” he answered slowly. “I suppose you couldn’t.”
“It’s only money. I have the brass for that.”
Two days passed before the woman arrived. Annabelle had set Henry to work, washing glasses and helping with small tasks in the kitchen. He was an eager little worker, humming as he did whatever he was told. Only when the memories caught up with him would his face crumple and the tears begin. She fed him well and tucked him into the spare bed every night, watching from the doorway until he was asleep.
“There’s a woman outside wanting to talk to you,” Sad Andrew told her as he entered the Victoria. It was a little after ten in the morning, the fog thick as twilight.
“Tell her to come in, then,” she said. “I’m right here.”
“She won’t come into a public house.” He mimicked a prim voice and Annabelle sighed, drying her raw hands on an old cloth before pulling a shawl around her shoulders and pasting a smile on her face.
A horse and cart stood at the curb, driven by a man with hunched shoulders and a defeated expression. The woman had climbed down, glancing at the pub with a critical eye. Her bonnet was black, her gown a plain charcoal grey, button boots peeking from the hem.
“You must be Mrs.Wild.”
“I am,” she replied with a sniff.
“I’m Mrs. Atkinson.” The woman’s gaze moved to Annabelle’s hand, no ring on the third finger. “I’m a widow.”
“I see.” Her tone was disapproving. “The police came,” she said as if it was the most humiliating thing that could have happened. “They said Henry’s here and that his father’s dead.”
“That’s right. Do you want to see him?”
The woman stepped back as if she’d been slapped.
“I would never set foot on licensed premises.”
“Then I’m glad not everyone’s like you,” Annabelle said, smiling to take the sting from her words. “I’d be out of business in a week.”
“Was it the drink that killed my sister’s husband?”
“I don’t know, luv. All I did was take the boy in and see that his father was buried. But now you’re here, I’m sure Henry will be glad to have a home with you.”
“We already have five children.”
“Then you’ll hardly notice another.” She tried to make her voice light.
“We have good, God-fearing children.”
“You’ll love Henry. He’s a wonderful little boy.” She paused for a heartbeat. “And he’s flesh and blood to you. Your sister’s boy.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me something, luv,” Annabelle said. “You strike me as someone who likes to live by the Bible.”
“Of course we do.” Mrs. Wild lifted her head.
“Then what does it say inre about looking after those in need?”
“Don’t you go quoting that to me!” the woman bristled. “I’ll not have that from someone who runs a place like this.”
“What about someone who took your nephew in when he had nowhere else to go and arranged his father’s burial?” It didn’t matter who the woman was or what Annabelle needed from her. No one was going to speak to her that way. “Or doesn’t that count because I own a pub?”
The man on the cart turned.
“Just bring the lad out, missus.” He glared at his wife. “Don’t worry, we’ll look after him proper, won’t we, Molly? Like you said, he’s family.”

She stood on the doorstep of the Victoria, watching them drive away until they vanished into the fog. Henry had clung to her, not wanting to leave, crying once again as his aunt looked on, hawk-faced.

But it was for the best, she told herself. They were family.
* * * * *

Sharing Stories Podcast

Leeds Book Club will be participating in the Arts and Minds Network‘s new project on raising awareness of mental health issues. 

LBC is joined this week by Tom of @ArtsMindsLeeds to discuss #SharingStories.

Podcast – Interview with Ross Young

LeedsBookClub is delighted to welcome Ross Young to the LBC Podcast.

Ross is an English author based in Egypt, currently spending most of his time in the fictional afterlife world of Gloomwood.

We discuss Dead Heads, Ross writing techniques and the slippery slidey world of self publication.

LANGUAGE – well…I’m hosting so usual warnings apply!

SPOILERS – mostly just hints to entice you to read Dead Heads!

If you’d prefer to listen on your mobile device, click HERE! The second in the Gloomwood series – Get Ted Dead – will be out soon…
* * * * *

Check out our review of Dead Heads HERE

Visit the Gloomwood website HERE

Stalk…Chat with Ross on twitter HERE. He’s very friendly. 

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