For this week’s blog we have a sneak peek of the work of Max Farrar, and his exploration of Chapeltown. Join Max for his talk “Where is Chapeltown, and what does it do?” on Saturday 7th June, 2.30pm at Leeds Central Library.
Chapeltown doesn’t appear on any map, old or current, in the place where you think it is. I started trying to really understand Chapeltown in 1972. By 1992 I began to think I might be able to write something. In 1999 I completed the PhD thesis I’d sort-of started in 1972. With an additional chapter it appeared as a book in 2002. It sunk like a stone.
My friend Caryl Phillips, the internationally renowned writer and Yale English Literature professor who grew up in Leeds, loved my book, and he offered to write an essay about it to the London Review of Books. The LRB were always asking him to contribute, he told me. Don’t be silly, LRB said, why would anyone be interested in a little part of a northern city?
I’d lived in or near Chapeltown from 1970 to 1999. I’d been fascinated from day one (as a Sociology undergraduate at Leeds University). The book offers a particular type of understanding, one that is flavoured both by my politics and the demands of a PhD thesis. By the early 1990s I needed a proper job and Leeds Poly was kind enough to take me on as a lecturer, so I thought I ought to get on with the PhD I’d dropped out of (at Leeds Uni) in 1974.
I asked Zygmunt Bauman, who remembered me as a drop-out, if he’d supervise the thesis. Don’t be silly, he said, PhDs aren’t the best way to think. He said he’d only begun to really think when he had retired from being a Professor of Sociology. But I felt the qualification might help me get a pension, so I went ahead.
The book offers a deeply historical account of how Chapeltown has been made, combined with a new way of thinking sociologically about ‘community’. It plays with the fact that there are no map references to Chapeltown (the nearest we get is the area we now think of as Chapel Allerton) in order to suggest that it is a social space infused with multiple meanings, imaginaries, people and relationships, forged by successive populations making their new lives.
Initially (1870-1920) that space was created by the emerging middle class of Leeds; then by the Eastern European Jewish refugees who were beginning to prosper (1920-60); then by the Christian Eastern Europeans escaping the Soviet yoke (1945); then by the Caribbean migrants fleeing post-Imperial penury (1960s); then by the South Asians also seeking work and security in the late 60s and 70s. Throughout the period of Commonwealth settlement, lots of white people lived there too, and they too played an important part in making the neighbourhood.
Its sociology of community argues that the realist account of community – based on geography, relationships and goals – only takes us a short way into understanding Chapeltown. It’s more useful to see Chapeltown as the location in which social movements, largely driven by people of African descent, have organised themselves in pursuit of a social imaginary they call ‘community’. ‘Community’, in my account, becomes a proxy for people’s yearning for social justice, equality, dignity, respect and warm, humane social relationships. The sub-title of the book is ‘Paradise in the Making’.
In my Big Bookend talk I’m going to push these thoughts a little further. What Chapeltown does, I’m going to suggest, is stand in for a much wider set of longings, and fears, and questions held by people of all national origins and classes across the whole of Leeds. For the people who actually live there, of course, their own longings, fears and questions are shaped by material reality – mainly, their low income – and I’ll try and say something about that too.