Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Yellow flowers

I am remembering with horror an incident at the premier of my film last Friday when the (female) mayor of the borough (whom I'd been speaking to earlier in the evening) came over to congratulate me after seeing the show. Unfortunately I'd only been introduced to her as "the mayor" and as a result, had no idea of a) her name or b) how to formally address a mayor.

"Alright, Misses?" I said. Like some kind of insane cheeky Cockney. Calling people "Misses" was something I picked up from Shaheen Baig when I used to cast films with her.

"Did you just call me Misses?" Said the mayor?

"Gosh, I'm sorry," I replied, "I assume I should have called you Lady Mayoress."

"Ah no!" she said "Lady Mayoress" would be how you would have addressed my wife if I were a man..."

"So what would I call your husband?" I asked.

"Dead!" she said, with a twinkle. "But otherwise, he'd be my consort."

And out of embarrassment I launched into a monologue about the Clintons, wondering if Bill Clinton would become the "First Man" if Hillary were elected as president. Fortunately I stopped myself from asking what her lover would be known as if she were a lesbian. She plainly already thought she was speaking to an imbecile! 

In my embarrassment, I never thought to ask how tradition dictates that we greet a female mayor. Lady Mayor? Mrs Mayor? Shirley?!

Answers on a postcard, please...

I breakfasted in a little greasy spoon near the market. I've yet to find a cafe in Leeds where I can find a poached egg or somewhere I can sit and write whilst slowly sinking cups of tea. Cafes in Leeds seem to be about the practical aspect of eating rather than relaxing... Or pretending to be a screenwriter.

I spent the morning at the library in the Leeds Armouries museum, looking through an enormous file of material on the Barnbow munitions factory, which proved hugely useful. I think research is always more enjoyable when you already know a fair amount about what you're reading. Very soon I reckon, I'll be an expert! 

I called my Mum, who's actually in York, and discovered that they've already run the piece about the musical in the Yorkshire Post. I can't for the life of me find a copy, but I've already had a couple of emails about it, so someone must be reading! 

From Central Leeds, I took the York train to Crossgates and walked a few miles to the site of the munitions factory on Barnbow Common to meet another local historian called Doug.

The walk was incredibly pleasant and took me right out into the countryside and down a little lane. I stopped for a while outside a kennels, listening to a dog howling what seemed to be the tune to Mission Impossible. The wind was rustling the trees and periodically a train heading to York would sound its horn to indicate it was passing through a nearby level crossing. It was all rather bleak and lonely in a hugely atmospheric way.

It started to rain just as Doug got out of his car, and so our walk around the old factory site was soggy to say the least! 

It's quite an amazing place, however. The factory occupied some 300 acres of land, which has now been returned to nature. Periodically we'd come across half a wall, or a piece of shattered concrete, and Doug would say, "that's where the canteens used to be" or "the single gage train track followed the line of that little brook over there." We'd find the odd twist of ancient barbed wire wrapped around a tree and here and there the evidence of some kind of pavement or earth work.  As we walked, it struck me that there would probably be little difference between this site and what's left of the trenches in Flanders. Nature will always win whatever wars we decide to wage.

The most intriguing and perhaps upsetting part of our walk was visiting the site of the room where 38 women were killed when a shell exploded. Filling room 42 has taken on an almost a mythical status with people who know about Barnbow. A local housing estate, for example, has roads named after the women who were killed, and yet today, the place where they all died is merely scrubland; entirely unmarked and almost inaccessible. I'm not sure I picked up any specific atmosphere there - the entire place feels rather eerie if you ask me - but what struck me were the yellow wild flowers everywhere. I didn't even know what half of them were, but there were lots of different types of flower and all were yellow. Yellow as far as the eye could see. 

And why should this strike me as unusual? Well, the women who died in that room were known as the canaries. All were badly jaundiced as a result of TNT poisoning and their faces were bright yellow. Maybe it's just a coincidence. Maybe the ground itself is still laced with TNT, which I'm told is a yellow colour and that has somehow attracted yellow flowers. Or maybe, just maybe, this is mother nature's way of honouring those brave women  who did so much for their country. 
 


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