The notes in the park that got me through lockdown.
Me setting out for one of my walks across the city.
This is a not a story about my own art during lockdown. It’s about someone else’s. And here’s the thing. I have no idea who they are.
At the start of the year I started to make weekly trips to a different area of Leeds. As with a lot of things during those strange times, it was as much about the journey as the final destination. A protected weekly ritual on one of my ‘free’ days, when I wasn’t at work and the to-do list was firmly, symbolically shut in a drawer in our makeshift home office.
Craving the outdoors and my own space, I always made the journey on foot. It was a 7 mile round trip, which took me just over two hours.
My walk took me from Burley to Chapel Allerton. There was a lot of uphill, but as I meandered through various parts of the neighbourhoods - the cricket ground, the shops in Headingley, the Hyde Park Ridge, Meanwood Road, up Sugarwell Hill - I listened to podcasts or just let my mind wander. I remembered walking back from nights out, starry eyed and giddy, or scrambling along the paths with friends, or eating apple turnovers with my dad as a child.
The cold, frosty mornings were the best - when everything crunched underfoot and my nose went numb. I pulled down my woolly hat and just kept walking.
And so began a ritual within a ritual. My route took my through Potternewton Park, where I knew this place best as the heart of the West Indian Carnival. In the summer, sound systems pumping heavy dub, kids running around with helium balloons and the smell of smoky jerk chicken. There was none of that now. The buzz of carnival replaced with a quiet tranquillity. Mums pushing prams, an old guy in traditional Indian dress doing a slow jog up and down the windy paths.
And that’s where I stumbled across it. The anonymous art. Pinned to one of the parks noticeboards, conspicuous in its plainness, was a handwritten note on a piece of paper.
At a first glance it was fairly intimate and personal, as though it could be an excerpt from a diary, and possibly something I shouldn’t be reading. But it was pinned up. The intention was clear. ‘Read me’, it seemed to say, ‘that’s why I’m here’. So I did.
The first note...
I sort of forgot about it after that first day, as the rest of my busy week took over. But as with many creative things that make a quiet impact, it crept back into my consciousness and the next week I came to the same noticeboard in the park, to see if it was still there.
There was a note again, but this time a different one. Still in the same scripty handwriting. A follow on from the first.
And so it dawned on me. This person was writing a story and sharing the instalments. With complete strangers, out in the open. The story itself was well crafted and emotional, about love, heartbreak and motherhood. Themes I could understand and connect with, for all the obvious reasons and perhaps some not so obvious ones too.
From then on I made it my mission to give myself longer on my walk, to have time to read and digest the notes on the noticeboard in the park. Each time I walked away I thought about who wrote them. Were they old or young? Did they sneak out in the middle of the night to pin them up? I imagined a woman, surrounded by cats and cheese plants, keeping the collection of notes stacked on a desk somewhere. Each week she sat with her mug of tea, pen and notepad in front of her, scrambling in her mind for the next piece of the puzzle. Then sneaking out under the cover of darkness, blowing out the cold and feeling pleased with herself.
Emerging from lockdown... the shoots started to appear
Now I’m sure sharing stories like this isn’t a new thing. In fact, I’m sure leaving parts of stories anonymously for strangers to find has been done quite a few times over, all over the world. But there was something about this, at that moment, for me, which made such an impact. Lockdown was hard for all of us in different ways. But this simple gesture represented a connection I couldn’t have anticipated.
My walks put me gently back in touch with people, a community and a city I’d missed.
And this handwritten story became a critical extension of this. Not only were people still there, but they were still making, thinking and finding their own creative outlets.
One day I visited the park to find no note. The board was blank. It was sad, and I stood for a moment or two looking at the worn wood. I’ll never know what happened next in the story. And a few weeks after that my life moved on too, and the weekly walks came to a natural end.
So this is my way of saying thank you to the person, the anonymous author of the notes, for reminding me about the simple strength of people’s creativity. I like to think that perhaps the person writing them had emerged from their own lockdown too, and that’s why they stopped. Perhaps they’re still writing the notes, stacking them up, and one day they will be a book. I really hope so.