“The heart of Leeds should expect to suffer again.”
UK Environment Agency, 27 December 2015
Each house an island in roiling water where the streets should be – we’ve been seeing, from town after town in the North, these biblical images of floods. Last time I was in Leeds, oddly enough, it rained and rained, though not nearly like this. A disappointing trip that was, with so much that had changed too much, and then the rain. I took rueful photos that surprisingly turned out not too badly – the light at least was propitious, the colours saturated (in both senses of the word), the scenarios nicely quirky. It was nearly forty years earlier that the city had entered my heart, and my heart still catches when I hear now that its centre is under water. Looking now, too, at these photos, which still please me, I thought back over all those years and wondered: would things have been different if I’d had this back then to fall back on, this unfailing pleasure and need and obscure satisfaction in making pictures and making word-pictures, this sense of beauty, surprise, composition, irony? And faced with this week’s unbeautiful pictures of flooded streets, shops and houses threatened by the rising water, I remembered how threatened, how all at sea, I used often to feel all those years ago in Leeds, although I really liked living there, and was shocked at first that my thoughts were of this, my own history with the city, and not of people whose lives had been turned upside down by the floods, or of wider and urgent questions of why and of what can we do. And yet, our connections are complex and on many levels. While exposing the travesty of recent climate talks, the Tory cuts in funding for flood defences, the crying need for more trees and less concrete, don’t we also need to expose our own feelings and motivations, how we hate or love this place, my place, my life, my past, my present, to reclaim a sense of home and self as something wider and less purely immediate than the nuclear family and the tiny world behind our own front doors? Isn’t it all one, the turning both inwards and outwards, the personal and the political? This street in the TV news footage that touches me so, that is somehow familiar even under water: wasn’t it here that, a lifetime ago, I ran crying and calling your name?