Mel Davies on Harehills

Mel Davies tells us about his childhood journeys through Harehills and the painting it has inspired...

September 3rd, 2020

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Harehills by Mel Davies

1965… My Saturday mornings invariably involved a trip to the old swimming baths in Holbeck. Ritual humiliation, followed by a cup of Vimto in summer and Bovril in winter and a packet of crisps with a blue twist of salt, clutching wet trunks in a damp towel and praying that you hadn’t caught a verruca.

I still don’t know why my Father chose to go Holbeck Baths when there was a ritzy new Pool at Harrogate, which was much nearer and had a vending machine that did Spangles and Caramac’s.  He probably hankered after the slipper baths of his youth and he seemed to know many of the old guys who dog paddled past us with a damp senior service still tucked in the sides of their mouths. Plus, we could kill two birds with one stone and drop in on “Our  Marry” on the way back. Auntie Marry had her sights set on a dormer bungalow in Cookridge and a silver tea pot, but at the time, she lived in Harehills and her tea pot was still stainless steel, even if it did have a teak handle.

I didn’t mind visiting so much because it was a nice break from feeling travel sick. I couldn’t go more than forty yards in our lime green mini, without wanting Dad to pull over, even after being was dosed with tablets called Sea Legs which made me feel even sicker because I thought the pills were called Seal Eggs. So I was always ready for a bit of fresh air.

Harehills was a different world back then. They called their picture house a Gaiety Kinema and it had the most glorious statues of  lying down ladies with their “buzzums” out over the doorway. There was also a bakery with a lovely gold painted sign that said Turog, which made me think that it was  run by a Viking.

In my memory, Harehills was made up of rows and rows of smoke blackened brick terraces. The better ones had teeny tiny gardens big enough to hold a three wheeled, coach built pram, that housed a cat and its family of kittens precariously balanced over the pool of water that had gathered in the bottom, or a cronky motorbike covered in tarpaulin. The gardens were bordered by equally sooty and wayward privet hedges. Here and there were gaps in the houses, like missing teeth in a set of dentures. Dad said it was where bombs had dropped, but it was just as likely to have been demolition and re-development. You couldn’t always trust anything my Dad said. I’d already come a cropper because he’d told us he’d been a fighter pilot in the war and everyone had wanted to meet him at parents evening, after I’d had my composition about “My Family” read out in class.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like to sleep in that bedroom with the yellow galleon wallpaper, when the outside wall had disappeared. The remnants of the bedroom open to view like some dreadful dolls house, visible to everyone who passed by. My Dad would say “Look at the state of those curtains, Mrs Dickinson will be turning in her grave.”

The fact that she had avoided any bombs and was living with their Leslie, in a through by light, in Burmantofts, always had us roaring.

Gangs of tough looking kids scaled the rubble piles, throwing half bricks at each other, or setting off small fires and running off laughing uproariously and dragging pushchairs with younger brothers or sisters behind them. Safe in our lime green mini, (nought to sixty in 25 minutes), we were eager to see what they were allowed to get up to.

We knew summer was ending and it would be back to Bovril after our swim, when the areas of abandonment turned pink, with the flowers of Rosebay Willow Herb. A plant of change. They are always amongst the first plants to re-colonise a disturbed site, and the sight of their florid colour always reminds me that we are at a turning point in the year, and it seems that in no time, we’ll be on Winter’s doorstep.

Mel Davies.

Harehills is available to buy in the Gallery for £1800 or £180 a month.

Find out more about Mel’s exhibition here.  

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