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  • Writer's pictureBob McBurney

A Lasting Moment’ and memories of the Corner Cafe

Updated: Oct 10, 2019

In 2009, Leeds City Council produced a wonderful book called ‘A Lasting Moment’. It featured photographs of Leeds by a French photographer, Marc Ribaud.

In 1954, the magazine Picture Post had sent Marc and a journalist, Gordon Watkins, to Leeds for a month. The resulting article appeared in Picture Post in June of that year. It seems that all was then forgotten until Marc’s negatives, which were thought to have been lost, were rediscovered nearly 50 years later. Then, in 2004, Marc returned to Leeds in order to revisit and re-photograph those places which had featured in his 1954 essay. The result was an exhibition, held in Leeds, which featured both sets of photographs, side-by-side. The exhibition was supported by this beautiful book.

I borrowed this book from a friend a couple of months ago. I had not seen it before and immediately I loved it. The cover picture alone ‘sold’ it to me. A black-and-white photograph of two small boys on some stone steps in a doorway, sitting in what looks to be something like a large cardboard box with the front cut out. For me, the emotional ‘pull’ of this photograph is enormous. (If you are familiar with the work of Glaswegian painter Joan Eardley you will know that she would have loved it).

The more I looked at the book, the more I realised that I wanted to do a similar photographic essay about Leeds. Not Leeds in an encyclopaedic way, but Leeds in a personal way; places and people and things which have mattered to me. It would be nice to observe the 50 year gap as established by Marc Ribaud, but in 2054 I will be 115 years old, so I thought I’d better get on with it straight away!

When I was a young man, I had a roving brief as a feature photographer for the Manchester Guardian. This involved me driving around the area (I lived in Baildon), trying to find an interesting or decorative photograph for the Monday edition of the paper. Occasionally I would have commissions during the week and for a short time they tried to turn me into a sports photographer. My problem in this area was fitting names to pictures. The couple of times that I photographed Leeds United were okay, but I really came unstuck when photographing an international hockey match between a Dutch team and an English team at Ilkley. Though I say it myself, a superb photograph was much affected by its caption, which read ‘An English defender challenges a Dutch attacker in an international men’s hockey match at Ben Rhydding’.

With this early embarrassment in mind I decided that now I would like to work with a freelance writer/journalist. I didn’t know who might be interested and so, seeking advice, I asked James Nash (friend and poet) if he could suggest anyone who I might approach. I was surprised and delighted when he said that he had been working on a poetry project about ‘The Leeds’ that he loved and that possibly we might work together.

Realising that this was a great idea (even though I would have to write my own captions) we discussed how we might do this, how it could work. It seemed unlikely that we would find enough time together to work in the way that I had originally envisaged, so we decided that we would work in parallel. James would send drafts of poems to me; I would send pictures to him. At times we would go places together or our paths would cross. Mostly we would work independently. Hopefully, it will be like two voices singing the same song in harmony.

We are underway. As the saying goes it’s still ‘early days’ and we don’t know how or when we will complete the project. Of course it will be a book, if I close my eyes I can see it now!

Though he doesn’t know it yet, one of the people that I must photograph is Karim, the proprietor of the Corner Café on Burley Road. The original Corner Café - which we always called the Corner Caff - was an end terrace on Buslingthorpe Lane behind the Skinner’s Arms public house. It was run by Karim’s father. 40 years ago my partner and I were regular customers.

As I recall, one entered the premises through a doorway into a small yard, followed by an open door to the left which allowed you to see into the kitchen where a couple of cheerful chefs would shout ‘hello’ as you passed. The seating area, which would have been the original living room of this small property, was straight ahead. The room was simply furnished with a few tables and chairs and a counter at one end from behind which Karim’s father ran the business. The food was great, prices were low and generally the customers were young and student’ish, or older people trying to ‘get by’, of which I was one.

One late evening we were eating our meal - there were probably no more than four other customers - when the door opened and a huge, drunk and wild looking Irish man filled the doorway. Suddenly the small room felt smaller. Conversation stopped.

At the time there were gangs of Irish labourers who used to drink in the Skinner’s Arms, and I guessed he had come from there.

Without moving from the door he demanded food & drink, particularly drink.

We froze. Two young boys sitting near the door looked as if they were going to hide under the table.

Karim’s father was not a big man, he was older and possibly slightly portly. I prayed that he would attempt to defuse the situation. Not a bit of it.

‘Get out of my restaurant immediately. ‘

My heart sank; the situation was very frightening.

‘I want effing food and some effing drink’, the words delivered with force.

Quite unbowed and with nothing to sustain him other than his sense of entitlement and his personal dignity, Karim’s father moved forward.

‘Get out of my restaurant, you will eat nothing here.’

We waited for the explosion.

‘I will break every effing window in this effing place.’

‘If you do, I will call the police. Now get out!’

After a heated exchange, amazingly, the big man turned and left. Karim’s father returned to his place behind the counter; we all breathed a sigh of relief and gradually life returned to normal. And then the door opened and he was back. Once again, everything stopped.

He was very drunk but he had a prepared announcement which he delivered to us all.

‘I wouldn’t eat in this effing place if you effing paid me.’

He turned to leave and then stopped. His parting shot.

‘Even my effing brother Patrick wouldn’t eat in this effing place.’

Then he left.

Years passed. Gradually, we began to eat in Karim’s restaurant on Burley Road, which was a lot closer to where we lived. One night we were there when Karim’s father came in.

‘Where have you been? You haven’t been eating in my restaurant!’

I was embarrassed and tried to make an excuse. I mumbled something about not eating out very much and not having much money.

He hadn’t lost his directness of speech and he wasn’t going to let us off lightly.

‘If you can’t afford my prices you must both be in a very bad place.’

To which there was no answer. I was ashamed. Properly so.

In a feeble effort to regain lost ground I said something like ‘You must be very proud of Karim and what he’s achieved with this restaurant’. He replied rather beautifully. ‘Yes. I am. I’ve been proud of him since the day that he was born’.

Read more about my morning recording poetry with James Nash via his 'Latest News' section on his website, here:

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