Author writes How Leeds Changed the World

It's an ambitious plan to chronicle the story of a city and how it altered the path of civilisation.

Rod McPhee found out...

Mick McCann is Leeds born and bred and adores his city, so it was ironic that he was inspired to write an encyclopaedia about his home while holidaying in Spain.

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"I had a bit of time to kill so I decided to have a look at the local guide books," he recalls. "And what I found from reading them all was that they essentially contained the same information repeated over and

over again.

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"It was slightly tinkered with here and there but you could hardly tell

the difference. And what was particularly strange was that we were in

Granada, which is an amazing city.

"But none of the books really contained any particularly interesting facts like, I later discovered, it had played a major part in the development of flamenco dancing, for example."

This may sound like a peculiar epiphany but it was one which really set McCann thinking.

When he returned to his home in Armley he perused a number of Leeds guide books and found that most of them were essentially reproductions of each other.

Furthermore, he also found that they didn't contain any really interesting information, nothing dumbfounding.

"A lot of them contained stuff which most people – whether they live in Leeds or not – might know about already, which seemed a bit of a shame to me.

"So that got me thinking that there must be countless nuggets and gems out there which make us special."

For the next 18 months he buried himself in books and websites searching for said gems and nuggets.

What he found was that, while very few facts were completely unknown, some had hardly gained any exposure over the years, despite being

incredibly important.

Accumulatively he believed them so important that he decided to name his A to Z, How Leeds Changed the World.

Released last month, it has gained a very positive response, entering the sales top ten at the Leeds branch of Waterstones.

McCann believes the key to its warm welcome is its honesty.

"I wouldn't pretend that everything in there is brand new information," he says. "Because nothing is new in essence, but it's the degree to which it is explored that counts.

"For example, in the 18th Century a famous philosopher called David Hartley moved to Armley when he was 11 years old and grew up to become an important contributor to thinking on the theory of evolution.

"But not much is widely known about him, you know, everyone knows about Alan Bennett and Harvey Nichols and all that, but here was someone who made a difference to the world but has never really gained a profile for it.

"I had to study him in detail as well. What information I could find on him I found was wrong and I ended up exchanging numerous emails with an American academic who'd written a paper on Hartley just to get it right."

He is also honest about gaps in his knowledge and the fact that he takes a rather personal view on the information.

McCann said: "From reading I found that a lot of writers and academics tend to phrase their work in such a way that it actually covers up the fact that they have gaps in their knowledge. Either that or they're reluctant to say: 'There is some evidence of this being true but we can't definitively prove it right or wrong either way.'

"Whereas I've tended to take something as being true unless someone can definitively prove differently.

"For example, Jimmy Savile insists it was he who staged the world's first discotheque in Leeds in 1943 when he used a microphone and twin turntable decks at a venue.

And until someone can show that he is wrong then that's his story – and I'm sticking to it."

But amid his research McCann strived not to be too biased (even if his love of Leeds shines through).

An apparent case is Leeds scientist Joseph Priestley who allegedly discovered oxygen, but through his work McCann discovered that that honour probably goes to a Swedish man who pipped Priestley to the post.

Above anything else it appears to be the people – individual characters – which intrigue the author.

They gain the largest entries, and credit for changing the world seems to rest largely on the shoulders of these unsung giants.

McCann was amazed that the bank of writers and academics who had charted Leeds's history had strange ideas about what did and didn't constitute interesting facts and interesting people.

Many of those people not focused upon in any detail are detailed here in this unique encyclopaedia.

Also documented are the humorous facts which have probably slipped everyone's memories, like the accent revolt of 1996. This was the curious tale of travellers using Leeds bus station who were incensed by recorded information played to passengers because it was relayed by a man with crisp received pronunciation. Somehow the locals felt they were being lectured, rather than informed.

McCann said: "I think the overall picture of a place is about more than just facts, it's about stories and it's about individuals and their achievements.

"Which is part of the reason why I wouldn't necessarily call this a definitive history of Leeds because I haven't included a lot of the stuff which has been written extensively about before.

"If I did that then I'd just be repeating what other people have written over and over – and then I'd be right back in Granada again."

How Leeds Changed the World is out now, published by Armley Press. Available online and in bookshops priced 9.99.

THE very first scheduled passenger flight took place in Leeds courtesy of aviation pioneer Robert Blackburn.

Born in Kirkstall in 1885, in 1914 he launched the service from Roundhay Park to Bradford every half an hour.

He would regularly test planes at Soldier's' Field in Roundhay and after launching his inter-city service in West Yorkshire went on to operate passenger flights to London and Amsterdam once the First World War had ceased.

Blackburn was a true forefather of international aviation and a devoted experimenter who put his own neck on the line to test planes.

In 1909 he built one of the first working British planes and a year later he flew it for about a minute before it came hurtling to the ground.

It was only through sheer luck that he wasn't killed or seriously injured, but thanks to the fearless devotion of the likes of Blackburn the course of aviation was altered forever.

"The overall picture of a place is about more than just facts, it's about stories and it's about individuals and their achievements."

It's an ambitious plan to chronicle the story of a city and how it altered the path of civilisation. Rod McPhee found out more

SOME of the world's most iconic buildings are standing because of a Leeds man.

Edmund Happold, later Professor Sir Edmund Happold, was a structural and civil engineer who

studied at Leeds University where his father, Frank Happold, was Professor of Biochemistry.

Ted, as he was known to many,

worked on the construction of international landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

While various legendary architects are credited with the overall vision it was down to Happold and his colleagues to execute them.

He set up engineering giant Buro Happold who are behind more recent icons like the Millennium Dome and the Sage Music Centre in Gateshead.

The company now employs 1,600 staff in 30 offices around the globe.

LIFESAVER: Heart surgeon Marian Ion Ionescu

LEEDS BORN AND BRED: Author Mick McCann at his home in Armley

Fearless Devotion: Aviation pioneer Blackburn

SYDNEY's ICON: The opera house that Ted built


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