I felt fear, and it made me want to live” – Allie, Sheffield.
I awake at the youth hostel in Edale still elated and exhausted from the previous night. I clambered into bed early and manage to get a full eight hours sleep for the first time in quite a while. In the Hope valley there is no phone or internet coverage, and the isolation of the peaks is compounded by my inability to reach any of my loved ones. There’s a certain joy in the freedom to be had in being so far removed from the world.
I get up and start talking with one of my dorm-mates, Nat, a retired man from Florida. He’s been coming to England for the last six years on a regular basis, visiting both countryside and towns. I ask him what draws him here, and he tells me it’s the architecture and the history. In coming here he feels that he is learning more about his country’s own history. Though he’s careful to point out other European influences, he argues that it is in the language, religion and origins of the early settler populations that the secret of the riddle of America is to be found.
It is overcast and grey, and as I leave the hostel rain is falling. This English summer has so far not disappointed even the most pessimistic of expectations! The fog obscures the view of Mam Tor, a great hill that links Sheffield to Castleton, and which I scaled most of in desperation the previous night. Nearby here is Blue John Cavern and the Devil’s Arse, perhaps the best possible name for a cave. It’s the largest cave in Britain, and though guidebooks will call it ‘Peak Cavern’, its local name comes from the farty sounds heard in the cave when flood water is draining away.
A tour of these sights, alongside the stone circles like Arbor Low, and the pretty towns I passed through yesterday, would all make for a wonderful hiking adventure. They are the living remainders of a landscape and set of human cultures that once existed and were extraordinarily different to ours, living lives where on the one, a certain kind of poverty was the rule but, on the other, having a religious and symbolic worldview a good deal more sophisticated than today’s agnostic and narcissistic consumer cultures. Lead, alongside pretty coloured minerals like Blue John and Fluorspar used to be mined here, but today the hill is subsiding rapidly and the road is increasingly unpassable, as I also found out.
The road takes me to Hope, a pretty and very friendly little town where local people spark up conversation with me on the street. One retired man tells me about his love of long distant cycling and gives me a superb tip I’ll share shortly. Another in a post office takes great pains to ensure I properly package up all the books, notebooks, and other now useless items to send back home. I have phone coverage again, and pull over in a bus shelter to catch up with things. Nearby I hear an elderly woman with dementia wander up and down the street in a confused and agitated state. I’m a little concerned but I realise her husband is nearby. The loneliness and overburdened feeling of obligation to care for a loved one whose disability has totally transformed them is extremely painful. I hear the sadness and exhaustion in his voice.
I follow a road out towards Sheffield which takes me up a steep hill. I am quickly at my limits and pull over. My partner calls unexpectedly, and the reassurances and pleasure of hearing home brings out the blues. It’s a little hard to pull myself together, but I’m excited to see Sheffield. I follow the old gent’s tip along a quiet side-road which takes me through Bamford village and up to a set of gorgeous dams that appear in the heart of the valley. He’d told me that the Second World War ‘Dambusters’ had practised their bouncing bombs technique here in this pretty and quiet spot. Today I watch engineers with clipboards check the archaic-looking pump room, and a pair of fishermen struggling to stand up straight in the windswept waters.
The route becomes a little easier after a while. I skirt down a hill, passing through the verdant Rivulin Valley and eventually into Loxley, a suburb of Sheffield. A lady who I ask for directions ends our chat with ‘a’right luv?’ and I realise that I have reached my second home.
I love the north.
I love it not as a southerner revelling in its clichés, whippets and flat caps, inscrutable accents and rambunctious sincerity, but because a lot of my family are from Leeds, and for most of my life I’ve been visiting that city several times a year. As a kid I supported Leeds United, a daft decision which no doubt impacted my eventual frustration with football. There’s a lot to be said about Leeds, and I will cover it later, but the accents and manners here are familiar and friendly. I sense it in Sheffield.
I’m a little nervous admitting this though. There’s a myth of the northerner too that’s often held in the south, and sometimes willingly played up by people here too.
One is that all northerners are working-class. That northern cities are all largely very poor and down-at-heel, but that people look after each other. There is the myth of the flat cap and the pint of mild, of Dad pigeon-fancying in a tiny coop squashed into a squalid Victorian back-to-back, of the whippet as pet, of frankness as the rule. Oo ay? Of course, within every cliché is a kernel of truth.
Allie is my host in Sheffield, and she introduces some of these problems very persuasively when I mention to her about my plans to visit former collieries involved in the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5. She tells me about an English artist called Jeremy Deller who she has many problems with. Deller is most known for reconstructing the Battle of Orgreave of 19 June 1984, where picketing miners were badly beaten and attacked by a huge number of marauding policemen in the fields outside Sheffield. Deller used miners involved in the battle to act as policemen and miners.
Allie makes a very good point about all this, which strikes a chord with a conversation I had with another person a few days back whose face I can’t recall.
People from the south tend to assume that everything south of the Midlands is England, or just as often, Britain. The clichés of Englishness tend to refer to a way of life that didn’t exist very often outside the Home Counties. Everywhere else is somewhere other and odd. Allie tells me about her accent. She says it’s the voice of a middle-class Sheffielder, and discusses the subtlely different class cultures in the north. I tell her that in London she would just sound like a northerner. Her accent would indicate automatically that she was probably from a working-class background. It’s an effect of this south-eastern English domination of the rest of the country and its culture. Standard English is of the south-east. All accents, even cockney or estuary Kent or Essex accents, are regional aberrations.
When Deller comes to the north, argues Allie, he presumes to have found a special culture to celebrate and cherish. But it relies on this presumption I’m describing, that in the south-east there is no culture, it is already England. Whilst working-class cultures of London, Kent and Essex are omitted or called chavvy, the north is reinforced as this unique region of working-class solidarity. The events of the Miner’s Strike of course indicate quite a different narrative.
So not long after I reach Sheffield I’m issued with a warning, and one I will share. The north is either romanticised or made out to be uniformly grim. It is neither, and it is both. With Sheffield we will need to scratch a little deeper.
I am leaping ahead though. After arriving into Loxley I weave round into Hillsborough, a largely white British suburb of Sheffield full of bakeries and caffs, bustling shops, and a former barracks now turned over to the purposes of retail. I pass a casino, a funfair, and all manner of odd shops. I ask a young mother, Becky, what she makes of the area. She loves it here, she tells me. She came to university here from York where she met her partner, from Kettering. They both fell for the town and for each other. They’ve just bought a house near the Rivulin Valley and plan to stay. I get the impression that people are happy here.
I reach my first point of call, Hillsborough stadium. I am here to pay tribute and explain the story of the 96 Liverpool fans who died here on 15 April 1989, after being crushed in the Leppings Lane terrace of the Hillsborough stadium. Information about what exactly happened here, and the devastating police cover-up and smearing of the dead, is still hard to come by. I ask one man near the ground where the memorial plaque is and he has no idea. It takes another to tell me, and he explains that there are two, and points where. But in terms of information, people are still unsure.
I am fortunately aided by Matt Bolton, who has carried out some excellent new research into these events for his Master’s degree which he shares with me by email. Matt is about to start a PhD in the same research centre as me, and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in these events to seek him out and make contact. His work is new and very carefully researched, and deserves to be published by a forward-thinking magazine or press.
Liverpool were playing Nottingham in semi-final of the FA Cup that day. Due to a poor distribution of turnstiles around the ground, plus a lack of filtering before, a great crowd of Liverpool fans started to build up. Police saw that there was a crush forming before kick-off, and opened a large exit gate. But this led to another pen that was fenced off at the side and front. 2,000 fans piled into this pen and were quickly trapped in what Matt rightly calls a ‘vice’. Police initially ignored cries for help, thinking it was a pitch invasion, or indifferent.
Eddie Spearritt, one Liverpool fan, attended the match with his 14 year old son:
‘I was screaming, I literally mean screaming. Adam [his son] at this time had fainted and my actual words were, “My lovely son is dying, and I begged him [the police officer] to help and he didn’t do anything. He just stood there looking at me.’
Families all asked: how could police see what was happening and not act? There were only three ambulances at pitch, and only 14 of the 96 dead made it to hospital. Despite an initial judicial report by Lord Taylor finding in August 1989 that the police were at fault, media reports blamed drunken fans for stealing money from the dying, fighting with police and breaking down the exit gate. These rumours originated with the police in a covert black propaganda campaign whose extent still hasn’t been revealed. The South Yorkshire Police have a great deal to answer for.
It’s hard to imagine what a pen would have been like today, when football grounds are now filled with seats and match tickets cost more than the opera. Clubs began to build cages and metal fencing into terraces from the 1970s onwards, in response to growing football violence and reports of hooliganisms. The popular press often vilified football fans in class-specific terms, talking about fans as animals, needing to be caged in. An editorial from Sunday Times after the Bradford 1985 fire at Valley Park, a preventable accident which killed 56 fans, described football as: ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up’.
I am deeply moved by the new memorial just by the entrance to the ground. Nearby on a roundabout is a small headstone that was erected by relatives just after the disaster, before permission and construction was possible for the new one. You’ll never walk alone. The campaign for full justice continues.
I follow the tram tracks into the two centre, which quickly impresses me. There are some beautiful and grand civic buildings here, and many pedestrianized streets which give Sheffield a metropolitan and somewhat European feel to it. Though the town centre has its fair share of malls and British Town Centre shops, there are also lots of independent stores here and good pubs. I reach the S1 artspace on Trafalgar Street, where I meet Allie and see her studio. We take my beat-up bike to a local bike shop then head out to a great Chinese café, where we eat and talk about northerness, Sheffield and cycling.
All my traumatic experiences of the last couple of days quickly start to make sense when I begin speaking with – at last! – another cyclist. Like me, Allie only recently discovered the joys of cycling about a year ago. After the stresses of completing a PhD, and the precariousness of being a practising artist, she found that mountain biking gave her one place where she could learn to encounter and conquer her fear.
‘The fear was really transformative. … All the things that used to terrify me, I now find exhilarating.’
But how does that happen? In those moments where going down a certain hill or set of obstacles seemed too dangerous or impossible, her partner Greg would encourage her to push herself. The bike can handle it, but it’s the human mind that creates its own ‘mind forg’d manacles’ that prevent free action. It used to be terrifying, but in coming face-to-face with her fears and overcoming them, Allie discovered a powerful way to face the less intense but more draining uncertainties of being a young person trying to make a living in two very competitive and driven worlds.
I’d agree. In those dark nights and testy encounters so far on this trip, and in those moments where I’ve nearly broken down and been ready to give in, I’ve had to pull myself together and discover the inner strength to continue. Once you realise you have this strength, you won’t forget it. With cycling, no one else can help you get there but yourself. It all relies on you. It gifts an intense autonomy and freedom.
Sheffield has been particularly romanticised among the British Left, and perhaps with good reason. It’s a city built on steel manufacturing, and today things like stainless steel and crucible steel, things appearing in so many everyday objects, were once found and forged in this cheerful and proud town. It has a long history of industrial activism, with suffragettes and socialists being active in these parts. I’m told that the Wicker Arches viaduct on the eastern ring-road of the town once saw an almighty battle where anti-fascists beat back a march by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, though I can’t find any source online to back this up, I’d love to hear from a local historian who may have more information.
It also has an importance in queer history. Whilst gay cottaging and cruising were repressed in London, out in the provinces police tended to turn a blind eye, and Sheffield was one place where gay men were relatively free to meet. During the 1980s it had a particularly socialist city government, like Liverpool and London, and it is this government which remains a point of romanticism and controversy. The ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ as it was nicknamed was a remarkably rebellious place, and had an autonomy that city councils today might only dream (or fear) of. It built countless council flats, reduced all its bus fares to such low rates that children could travel for tuppence, and declared itself a nuclear free, demilitarised zone. It made a peace treaty with a town in Soviet Ukraine, and flying the red flag over its city hall on Mayday.
Sounds quite heroic, right? That’s been the historical impression. But I hear of other stories which make this flattering portrait a little greyer. Employment in the steelworks began to dry up in the 1980s, and few alternative forms of employment were found. It’s worth noting that Sheffield produces more steel today than at any other time – the issue is not deindustrialisation, but creating a society and an economy where people do not depend on full-time work to survive. Heroin became big in the city, and was ravaging the lives of young people by the 1990s. The pride of the people’s republic became also a short-sighted, self-centred insularity. Large stores weren’t able to set up shop in the town centre, and few attractions were built. This may seem a blessing – it means that today Sheffield has its own unique character. But it reflects a failure to adapt to new forms of employment, albeit deeply flawed. No new industries were created, but nor were the conditions set for a service economy. The town felt grim, as people describe to me, and nostalgia for it today is something that occurs more with outsiders than those who were there. Sheffield felt itself the underdog.
This seems to express itself in the popular music coming out of the city round this time. Cabaret Voltaire’s repetitive song No Escape captures this ambivalence:
‘Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide
I can’t kill this pain inside.
What can I do when your love’s gone?
All I can do is just live on.
No escape, no escape, no escape.’
The ‘Cabs’ took the sound of American groups like Suicide and the Velvet Underground, and this song is indeed a Cover of 1960s psychedelic band The Seeds. But in the idiom of the Cabs it takes on a much more gritty desperation, and even features a now slightly comic video of the band playing unplugged somewhere in the Peak District. Other bands like Def Leppard, The Human League, Heaven 17, the Thompson Twins or the Artic Monkeys have each taken a kind of sound developed elsewhere and re-purposed it to express either a frustration or desire for escape that seems to mark out the music. In a band like Pulp it finds its clearest expression, of a kind of bookish working-class pride and frustration that refuses to apologise for what it was, and is.
It is fitting then that perhaps the most powerful BBC drama I’ve ever encountered, Threads, was made in 1980s Sheffield. It’s an evidence-based dramatization of a Soviet nuclear strike on the town, and the gradual catastrophic effects it has on people here. It is unflinchingly brutal and deeply saddening, and very powerful. Though it serves as a time-capsule of the cultures of Sheffield, its everyday markets and run-down centre, of getting on with things, it’s also a powerful argument for why nuclear weapons pose the greatest threat to our way of life.
One lasting reminder of the city’s left-wing past is the Park Hill estate, towering above the train station to the north. I leave Allie and decide to venture on my own.
It’s a traumatised place. Built between 1957 and 61, it was intended a progressive city in the sky, providing families previously living in overcrowded and squalid slum back-to-backs with access to electricity, gas, baths and toilets, and clean and airy places to live for the first time. It was a remarkable leap in quality of life.
The estate is huge and takes the shape of a snake, but walking to it and through it, one has the impression of reaching an inaccessible and off-putting colony off the poor, barricaded within thick blocks that focus all attention on each other, in a form of mutual surveillance and insularity that makes both insider and outsider uncomfortable. There were once walkways wide enough for milk floats to pass, and people have been quoted saying what a good community it was.
As I reach here today, almost every flat is boarded up with pieces of shitty timber or metal barricades. I see pigeons circling around higher balconies, passing through broken windows. Most of the walkways have today been barricaded up too, but I follow up one, where I find perhaps the only group of people still living on the estate.
I meet a young family: a local lad with his Canadian or American partner, and two or three bright kids skidding about nearby. His mother still has a flat here, and is waiting for the council to move her elsewhere. She tells me that the place is rubbish, and then shuts her door. One of the children starts pounding on the door, ‘it’s not rubbish!’ I talk to the couple afterwards. ‘I don’t know what’s going on’, they tell me. He grew up here. He tells me that drugs used to be really big problem. It was a violent place. He looks like he’s in his mid-20s but it’s hard to say, as he’s prematurely aged and looks unwell. I ask him why he thought it was like that, but he doesn’t volunteer a reason.
He points to the derelict blocks around us. ‘Look, they’re crumbling already’. The buildings here are listed but it seems that there’s no intention to protect them. I ask them what they think of the Victorian terraces in the distance, much older than this estate. They laugh.
‘There’s nothing here. All the people have gone, it’s all gone.’
His Canadian or American partner likes the architecture. ‘It’s like no place else’, she tells me. They tell me about the refurbishments being made to one of the blocks on the furthest edge. I ask if the residents here will get moved back into the refurbished flats? ‘No, ha ha. They just get moved to other estates where they’ll cause trouble!’ I ask them why they think it became a bad place, but we don’t come up with any lasting agreements. I suggest that the flats weren’t maintained, that low pay and a lack of skills training for the unemployed without skills became cycles of poverty. He gives me a cross between a nod and a shrug, and I feel his uncertainty and sadness. I leave the family there, gazing from the walkway into the distance, preoccupied but not unfriendly, answering an obvious outsider’s annoying questions.
Wandering about, the estate feels like it’s been decapitated. So empty, such a waste, it makes me angry and sad, like visiting the site of a massacre. The estate feels like a large prison. The effect is again exile, a leper colony, built by left-wing architects with deeply middle class fear of contagion from the poor.
I walk round through overgrown grasses and pass the one part of Park Hill that has been regenerated by the property company Urban Splash. The refurbished block does look appealing, clad in stronger colours and materials and with greater windows allowing light. But these are luxury developments and have little intention of meeting the community or housing needs of the people who have lost their homes for yuppie developments like this. I ask a young woman and her son what they think of the area.
‘It’s alright round here. It’s nice. … They’re doing it up for em’. The problem is that they’re not doing it up for the old residents. Once the poor were localised and crammed into rookeries and slums, then they were shipped to 1960s modernist poverty colonies. Today they are moved out to the distant suburbs, to bungalow council estates next to nowhere. Poverty remains out of sight, out of mind.
I head back into the town, where I bump into a homeless guy. Since I turned 27 I decided to give myself a new rule: give people a chance. What this actually means is a rule to always give a reasonable amount of spare change to any beggar or homeless person I pass, and to buy a copy of the Big Issue even when I already have one. It’s an attempt to counteract a toughness and meanness that had started to build up in me towards the outside world. An attempt to beat pessimism with a strategically-applied optimism. It’s an attempt to take on the values and outlook of a world that does not yet exist but that I hope to see in my lifetime.
So I meet and start talking to Wayne, who tells me about his poetry. He recites a verse from heart about dying but having no place in ground or in this world. He once deliberately overdosed on insulin in neck after argument with his ex, and tells me about his former drug addiction. When he ‘died’, he saw the other side, and he tells me it was all blue.
‘When we die, we either go up or we go down. That’s it.’
‘You seem like a good man’, he tells me, and he invites me round to his place, which has the odd name of ‘Hendon chickens’, to read his poetry. He knows most people passing it seems, and is more perceptive than I will ever be, holding a conversation about mortality whilst spotting and persuading a young lad for a cigarette and light. He charms him with a conversation about Rotherham and football so that both leave amicably. ‘It’s a good place, a lovely place’, Sheffield, an opinion everyone gives me. He tells me about Bermondsey and about seeing two UFOs (‘I weren’t on drugs!’) We agree to meet up again on the other side.
I head into a Wetherspoons to absorb some conversation and take notes. Accents are different and I start to here the ‘t’t’ sound of the Yorkshire accent. ‘Pint t’t abb’t please’. I ask the barman what it’s like working here? After dealing with an unreasonable customer, he gives me a wry but pained smile and says ‘try to imagine it’.
In the street I talk to Yusef, a young student from the Channel Islands. He also loves it here. ‘People back at home think it’s very northern’, and tend to go to Winchester or Southampton for university. ‘It’s a small town but feels like a city’. He’s happy here. There are a fair number of homeless people here. I meet another outside a supermarket, carrying a dazed expression and a melancholy dog. His hands are swollen and he obviously has learning difficulties, as well as some obvious alcohol/drug problem. ‘Just want somewhere warm to sleep’.
Inside the supermarket, the cashier tells me about going to the local college, and his plans to go into dentistry. Why, I wonder? ‘For the money, so I can retire at 30!’ One needs passions beyond just work too. He tells me about racing cars, and his hopes to start training this month. I can’t help but feel that these passions and ambitions are socialised status symbols, and that something is still missing. But that’s the journey of being young, finding yourself. I give some cookies to the guy outside. As I leave him, I’m reminded of the gargantuan void of self-worth among many homeless people, the hidden shame and misery of their lives. It is the most wretched, vulnerable and lonely of existences. Give what you can to these people but, moreover, offer some emotional warmth, like a smile, slap on shoulder, a handshake. Money and food they can just about get, but dignity’s harder to come by.
I head back to the artspace to do a little writing, then head out to the Rutland Arms to meet another mate, Nick, who has kindly offered to let me stay in his flat in Wakefield the next evening. I get a phone call from my family. I miss them a lot, and I get distracted whilst talking and find myself quickly lost. Luckily Allie spots me in the street and pulls me into the pub, where we get talking with Nick about these same issues of class and northernness, and the secrets of Sheffield.
We’ve got a common experience too. Each of us is working under conditions of relative stress and uncertainty in the modern university, trying in our own ways to produce new research and secure a stable job somehow. The impact of the university on Sheffield, as opposed to the surrounding south Yorkshire towns, will be striking. The city is vibrant and diverse, full of young people, particularly Chinese students, as I also came across in Nottingham. The city has been enriched by these cultures, the enthusiasms and the livelihoods these students have brought. Many often set up businesses after graduating, or buy homes, like the young mum I met when I arrived. Their impact goes far beyond ‘Impact’ or money brought in. The benefit of universities to civic life in this country is enormous and profound. Just compare it to a town which does not have one.
We end up our day talking about middle class northernness. It’s a curious discussion, because it goes against what southerners really think about the place. It seems like something Cultural Studies and Sociology really failed to consider, and which perhaps contributed to the marginalisation from the late 1980s onwards. One effect of allowing council-house tenants to buy their own homes was a shift in mindset, something Thatcher correctly anticipated would create a more Conservative-minded person. It was ex-union man John Prescott who announced in 1997 that ‘we’re all middle class now’, and it’s a sentiment that many more in the north feel than would seem the case. There have been so many studies of disorder, social problems and resistance and very little about the kinds of lower middle-class ‘ordinariness’ that one sees in the photos of Martin Parr. Cultural Studies academics still can’t tell us much about how most of us would like to live, or the class we think we belong to.
Allie had said earlier that ‘the history of the middle class northerner is a story not often told’, and she mentions Michael Palin, the artist Victor Burgin, and the experimentalism of the old Sheffield art college which has now been absorbed into the university. ‘Art cannot be accountable’, and it’s a fine defiant statement that relates to Sheffield as a whole. I’ve really enjoyed being here.
It’s time to leave the boozer, and Allie’s dad gives us a lift back to suburban Bradway in Nick Clegg’s Hallam constituency. It’s a 1970s suburban development, and reflects the contradictory discussions we’ve been having. Many of the middle-class residents here have hailed from working-class backgrounds, some sons of miners who were able to move into a new social class through opportunities for training into engineering and business which aren’t possible to the same degree today. Some now vote Conservative, and the area is, for the time being, Liberal. Nick Clegg may well lose his seat here, as he should do. The fate of Sheffield is more bright, sincere, and well worth following.