Monday, 14 January 2013

A Vision of Future Leeds from 1900

Leeds Beatified is the intriguing title of a publication from the Yorkshire Collection in Special Collections (University of Leeds). I discovered the catalogue entry purely by chance after searching for books about H.G. Wells, since the subtitle reads, ‘with apologies to G.H. Wells [sic] for the use of his time machine’. The anonymous author of the book is named only as ‘a disciple’, which, along with the title, carries the suggestion of the writer being somehow connected with the Church. Alternatively, this could perhaps be a disciple of Wells, who was latterly very critical of the Catholic Church and whose general views on religion were ambivalent. The tone of what follows certainly aligns itself more with developments in science than religion, but the beatification of Leeds (initially misread by me as ‘beautified’) is nevertheless an interesting idea.

So what were the author’s hopes for Leeds, a year into the 20th Century? Since we’re also at the start of a new year, this struck me as an appropriate topic. However, in the Leeds of the story, our first-person narrator has the benefit of a time machine so (after crossing the familiar territory of Headingley Lane and Woodhouse Moore), he very quickly finds himself transported to the year 1930. As one might expect, developments in Leeds are not so extreme at first. Perhaps the most notable event is the inauguration of decimal coinage. Anxious to know more of the future, our narrator hurries on to 1951, arriving in Roundhay at the height of Midsummer. In search of information, he ventures to the offices of the Leeds Mercury (in fact, the real Leeds Mercury had merged with the Yorkshire Post by 1939) to find out what’s been happening in Leeds for the last half century. By this point, the arcades are lit with electricity, and the newspaper helpfully has its own reading room and a librarian to point out issues of interest. It’s from the paper we learn that, in 1912 Manchester and Liverpool had broken away from the Victoria University and left the Yorkshire College derelict. Subsequently the University of Yorkshire was opened. The founding of the University of Leeds actually took place in 1904 so the author’s projection that the counties (or cities) would be interested in forming their own Universities isn’t completely wide of the mark. However, some of the other predictions are less accurate, albeit amusing, and in a few cases possibly wishful thinking. These include:

• A book on Etherspheres (?) is published (by a man from Leeds), demonstrating that the ultimate atoms, must necessarily be 12-sided figures.

• All the back-to-back houses collapse after an earthquake in 1938, triggered by Mt. Vesuvius.

• Old factory chimneys are pulled down and air pollution laws passed sometime after 1902. Although ventilating towers are still needed, any designs require the approval of the Art Committee of the Council.

The most interesting events occur when our traveller reaches the year 1990, arriving in Sheffield to what is the most overtly science fictional scenario in the story. His discovery of the mysterious School of Musical Fragrance is followed by the revelation that the offices of the Yorkshire Post and the Leeds Mercury have been shut down. He finds out from the local ‘boots’ that from 1960 the circulation of newspapers gradually ceased throughout the country, to be replaced by telegraph machines, furnished in every house, on which all news is printed continuously day and night.

This early notion of a system which is very like the Internet is among the most exciting and plausible of the author’s predictions. But the mystery still remains as to who he or she is. The fact that all the events take place in and around Leeds would suggest a local resident. Indeed, just as the traveller begins to read of other historical world events, he realises he must return to 1900 and is ‘constrained to be content with Yorkshire’. So, taking full advantage of this slightly awkward narrative device, he returns home and leaves us guessing as to the state of the world beyond Leeds.

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