Leeds 2023: Cute Kids And Sleeping Giants
Liz Ryan reflects on #TheAwakening, the opening event of Leeds Year Of Culture 2023
One night in early January, a giant head appeared in the sky above the affluent Leeds suburb of Headingley.
In other places, at other times, this might have sparked a War Of The Worlds-style exodus, as alarmed citizens took to their cars in flight. But not in pragmatic Leeds. “Reckon summat’s on at t’Stadium,” was the general verdict. And if Martians had landed, or any other kind of extra-terrestrial force, the locals of this youthful, post-industrial city, which boasts five universities and a thriving financial and legal sector, would merely have enquired after their pronouns before trying to sell them a current account upgrade.
The locals were right. The disembodied spectre appeared as part of final rehearsals for the opening ceremony of Leeds 2023, a year-long celebration to highlight the cultural offer of a vibrant Northern city which outside Yorkshire remains linked in the British public’s mind mostly with dour 19th-century muck and brass.
Liverpool has The Beatles. ‘Madchester’ built confidently on the post-punk legacy of Joy Division to create an entire Hacienda-based youth movement. But Leeds has always been reticent about its cultural achievements. The world’s first moving images? They were shot not in Los Angeles or Paris but in a Roundhay back garden and on Leeds Bridge in 1888. The Who’s seminal Live At Leeds album, often cited by rock critics as the best live album of all time? Recorded at Leeds University Refectory in 1970. Europe’s oldest West Indian Carnival Parade? Here too, in 1967.
There’s also a legacy of Victorian gothic and classical buildings which includes the Town Hall (home of the Leeds International Piano Competition), the Grand Theatre (where the world-class Opera North is based), the glitzy shopping arcades of the Frank Matcham-designed Victoria Quarter, Kirkgate Market (birthplace of Marks & Spencer’s) and the magnificently rotund Corn Exchange.
There would be even more of this architectural inheritance still in place if it were not for the hellish Leeds one-way traffic system. Striking fear into the hearts of stout men, it reduces women to tears (I have actually seen this - the drivers pulled up and sobbing by the kerbside) and causes some out-of-towners to swear they will never set foot in the city again.
All credit then to Mark, my companion for the evening’s adventure, that we tackled this notorious, petrol-driven Acheron with barely a mis-step. Mark is a decades-old Selby friend whose generous offer to drive me was, I discovered later, motivated by the vain hope that someone would introduce him to sports presenter Gabby Logan.
Neither of us had previously been to Headingley Stadium, the home of Leeds Rhinos Rugby League club. The medium-sized ground is situated close to the much more famous Yorkshire Cricket Club — and now, following a racism scandal, the supposedly posher cricket venue is plastered in apologetically ‘inclusive’ slogans as it tries to make amends for being so out of step with attitudes in the rest of Headingley.
The stadium experience was a new thing for me — almost all my live music experiences have taken place in intimate dives like the now-vanished Duchess of York on Vicar Lane, where Nirvana once played. And even after the event — especially after the event — I remain puzzled about why someone would wish to hand over a sizeable sum to watch a famous person looking tiny on a distant stage.
If it’s something to do with the atmosphere of a big event in a big venue then, at first, The Awakening misfired. On a chill, drizzly January night the audience, dressed for warmth rather than glamour, was still filing in as BBC Radio Leeds presenter Rima Ahmed, nattily dressed in giant platform boots and a flourescent Islamic headscarf, gamely tried to rally the crowd to a single point of attention. The opening acts, which included an ageing Utah Saint and a local gospel choir, also suffered from this, and as things settled down it became apparent that many ticket holders had stayed home.
The problem, perhaps, was that the tickets were free. Instead of handing over their cash, Leeds residents were asked to submit an artwork they had created, and were then further whittled down by ballot. Now, there are many reasons why this is a lovely idea. But inclusive — on the 1970s Blue Peter principle of “Ask your parents to save their wine corks,” — it is not. Submitting an artwork requires time, energy, confidence, materials and a space of your own where it doesn’t matter if you make a mess.
If you do have the cultural resources to submit an artwork, getting a free ticket is nice. But is the chance to listen to a familiar line-up — from the lugubrious Poet Laureate Simon Armitage to a short set by pop queen Corinne Bailey Rae — really going to survive the prospect of an evening spent in freezing January rain? I know Yorkshire people and if, on the other hand, they’d been forced to lay out £60 a ticket in advance — with the promise of a hog roast and dancing till midnight thrown in — then an ice bomb cyclone wouldn’t have put them off.
For me, at least, things hit a nadir when the glamorous Logan, daughter of legendary Cardiff City and Leeds United midfielder Terry Yorath and Chair of LEEDS 2023, took to the stage. This cultural event suddenly went all sporty as she introduced two successful local athletes — Jamie Jones-Buchanan MBE (Leeds 2023 Trustee) and Kadeena Cox OBE (Paralympian). Both, against the drizzle and a less than perfect sound system — made inspiring speeches. “Dare to dream…. whiffle waffle… don’t give up… breaugh… whoosh… believe in yourself…” We all know how it goes and very admirable it is too. But this exhausted coach potato (my Mum was admitted to the Acute Stroke Unit on Boxing Day), currently stuggling to find the time to do her thing between working a full-time job and increasing care responsibilities, wished a curse on both of them.
But then things looked up. A brief on-screen cameo by hard-faced drag queen Davina De Campo (whose short, bitter rant about past political “betrayals” seemed notably at odds with the ra-ra spirit of the rest of the evening) was followed by a delightful reworking of that old Chumbawamba hit Tubthumping. “I get knocked down, but I get up again, You’re never gonna keep me down,” goes this paean to Northern grit and the dangers of — in the face of not much social encouragement — abandoning your agency to meaningless hedonism. Former Chumbawamba frontman Dunstan Bruce led an ensemble which included the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, conducted by Garry Walker, for some reason wearing a kilt. It was bizarre, but genuinely uplifting and I do hope it will form part of Opera North’s permanent repertoire.
Other good things followed. Manchester rock guitarist Aziz Ibrahim repurposed his composition Lahore To Longsight as Lahore To Leeds. This became the score for an elaborate dance routine, Leeds On Wheels, directed by Lucy Hind. It featured 50 people on wheels including 30 roller skaters, plus cyclists, skateboarders and local people with additional needs. On the wet runway this was a terrific, though hair-raising, spectacle which kept me on the edge of my seat in case a wheelchair-bound participant overshot and ended up in the audience.
Another rousing setpiece was the Kaiser Chiefs crowdpleaser I Predict A Riot. None of the actual Kaiser Chiefs being available (why?), the honour of delivering this second Leeds chart classic — a clear-eyed description of the edgy squalor of a Northern working class night out (cf the classic play Bouncers by John Godber) — fell to a bunch of eight-to-11-year-olds. The Harehills-based Solar Jets are the youngest rock band in the UK, and they were as cute as buttons, dominating the stadium with their joyful charisma. This seagued into a triumphant timpani version featuring more than 100 dancers of Leeds and Leeds Carnival — a thing I never thought I’d see.
Then Opera North tenor Mykhailo Malafii belted out Nessun Dorma to the by-now receptive stadium crowd with huge enjoyment and the air of a man ticking something off his bucketlist.
It was all great fun. But the music and high energy dance routines, which genuinely sparked enthusiasm in the audience, were interspersed with spoken-word pieces which were all too clearly written to fulfil a brief. Admirable professionalism, perhaps, but awkwardly ‘bigging up Leeds’ — we’re not mouthy Mancunians and it really goes against the local grain — is somehow not as impressive as mining the Leeds canon for existing gems. This medium-sized city has always punched above its weight with regard to the arts — it just needs a rebrand to let the rest of the world know about it.
And the giant video clips, featuring ordinary Leeds folk talking about what their creative activities meant to them, also interrupted the flow. “It’s like Children In Need,” said Mark uncharitably, putting his finger on what was ever so slightly patronising about this event. Too many boxes being ticked. Too many worthy — and sometimes contradictory — bases being covered.
Yet, despite all this, I was quite taken with the “L double E D S wot wot” refrain that rapper Testament and producer Denmarc made the backbone of their contribution. I thought at first this was a Leeds United football chant — if it isn’t, it should be — but it turns out it’s a line taken from a song by DJ Q and MC Bonez. (See, I do my research.)
The penultimate segment, an excrutiating conversation between George Webster, a CBBC presenter with Down’s Syndrome and his father, went on forever and was, like the speeches of the athletes, largely incomprehensible at our end of the stand. I’m not sure what it was all about, and whether it was meant to be funny, but George’s oft-repeated refrain of “Thanks, Dad,” became increasingly sinister as the interview wore on, and delivered the unfortunate impression that the poor chap was being coached.
But at least he wasn’t inviting me to live my best life. At least I think he wasn’t. It was difficult to tell what was going on.
But then, after a competent set by Corinne Bailey Rae, a giant screen clip showed the Sleeping Giant rising from the Dock and taking to the skies, amid lots of fireworks. This got everybody cheering and brandishing the light globes we’d been issued with at our seats.
(Mark mistakenly took his light globe home, then noticed it had a serial number and panicked in case the Light Globe Police knocked on his door. It has now been safely returned.)
Was it all worth it? Actually, I’m a fan of arts-led economic regeneration and the relatively modest £5.7m allegedly spent by Leeds City Council on staging this event (and a contribution of £20m for the year-long arts festival) doesn’t compare with the zillions spent on, say, a Commonwealth Games.
Yet the opening ceremony still managed to be bloody impressive. And only Leeds — I mean, really, seriously, only Leeds — when faced with a Brexit knockback for their European City of Culture bid, would say: “Fuck you, after all this hard work we’re going to do it anyway.”
That is Yorkshire bloody-mindedness at its very best.
The Awakening, opening event of Leeds Year Of Culture 2023 on Jan 7, was directed by Kully Thiarai and Alan Lane. More details about the upcoming, city-wide programme can be found here.
The ' icebomb ' comment had me laughing out loud...