City 38: Sheffield


Sheffield Gothic

Sheffield, the first of my Yorkshire City Walks, is only 70 miles from Lichfield. It is easily reached, roadworks permitting, by following the A38 and the M1 vaguely northwards. Here parking isn’t much of a problem either. The river that runs through it, and  which gives it its name, is the River Sheaf and, although the home of steel and cutlery, is leafy too with over 250 parks, woodlands and gardens to sooth the souls of working men and women.

Part 1

I’ve been here before but, as with many cities I have visited, I have precious few associations. The most notable visit was with my friend Tim Boyle to visit friends of his prior to walking the White Peak, the gateway to the Pennine Way so beloved of Wainwright. That was circa 2010 and I remember staying over with friends of Tim’s then partner, now wife, in a terraced house where I found and read W.G. Sebald’s classic, the Rings of Saturn. During our time in the city we visited allotments and a park where there were ornamental fountains and an Anglo Indian Wedding was in progress. I recall with pleasure the vibrant and beautiful colours of those suits and saris and  how at ease everyone was. It was a creamy English dream of a day, and it pointed the way to multicultural detente, bourne of love, marriage and, nature willing, children to seal that particular act of union.

Soaking up  the sun and deeply  inhaling the air, I enjoyed the day glo houses up on the hills, the recently installed trams, the Big Wheel (which made me nauseous)  and, beyond that, the delights of the White Peak. Our host was friendly but very plain speaking. What she didn’t like or found fault with you’d get to know quick smart, and you knew that trust, if it came at all, was slow to arrive.. Yet I liked her. You knew where you stood with her and, for all that you were in the south of the county, almost on the  edge, you were in Yorkshire, the county of James Herriot and Geoffry Boycott; where cricket was the religion and the dales were  full of sheep whose fleeces fed the billion pound wool trade that still thrives, to a lesser extent,to this day. 

Whilst Sheffield is in South Yorkshire and, despite the fact that the Luftwaffe gave it quite the shellacking in December 1940, I would consider it Northern Light. Not that they can’t hold their own in Sheffield, they clearly can, it’s just I get no sense of threat being there. There is space and light in abundance and, since the death of the steel trade in the 1970s and 80s, no smoking stacks trouble this skyline. But it's always good to get a second opinion so I page 

Haber the Oracle, Tour Guide Supremo and resident rent-a-gob.  

I call him and, after nine rings he picks up. ‘What do you know about Sheffield?,’ I ask. Quick as a flash he replies, ‘it has the strongest hand-pulled beer in the world and this can be purchased in a pub called the Frog and Parrot. Suffice it to say, he has been there and drunk the deadly brew. ‘It’s like drinking treacle’, he says through gritted teeth as though remembering something traumatic. That was in 1988. ‘What else?’ I press. ‘It's hilly. I remember walking up the hills three sheets to the wind and by the time I got to the top of the hill I was sober again. Well half sober,’ he adds. ‘Mike was at Uni there but he didnt work,  just boozed, It was an era of booze,’ Haber mumbles, his narrative tailing off before changing direction entirely like a crazed weathercock on a church steeple.  For all that he likes the city he considers it a bit schizo. “Why”? I ask, in my folly, always looking for reason in his every utterance. 

 ‘Well, up the hill from the Uni, on the west side, the middle classes live and on the East side, where things have fallen apart, you find the drinking classes.’ 

‘Oh,’ says I. Not exactly PC but certainly succinct. He recalls the  Peak District as being on this side and that a former/possibly current Drooper, Ian Holloway, Artist Director of Royal Veterinary College lives or lived. I have no recollection of Holloway, which irritates the Haber.

‘You know him, he’s tall and has blond hair in a Yorkshire sort of way. His Mrs is Spanish and he’s quite artsy.’ 

There’s a pause before he says, ‘You have met him.’

I do not refute this and Haber’s weathercock mind whirls and settles on football.

‘There are two footie clubs, Sheffield City, the Blades who city people support, and then there’s Wednesday, the Owls,  who the rural and suburban sorts support. Their ground is called Hillsborough. Wednesday has a massive ground which is why cup semi finals are held there. ’

Of course! And this leads my horse to water, to drink. Hillsborough and the tragedy that unfolded there on April 15 1989 rocked, shocked and enraged the nation. I knew about it because the Pogues 4th album, Peace and Love was dedicated to those who had lost their lives there; I’d just never connected the city to the Ground. It was here that 94 people, latterly 97, were crushed to death as the Police looked on unwilling to help, disbelieving and unresponsive to the cries of those literally being crushed to death . The Game was being played between Liverpool and Notts Forest and even now the case continues to cast a shadow, many shadows in fact. The Sun Newspaper accused the Scouse Faithful of riffling the bodies of the dead which is why, to this day, no one on Merseyside  reads the Sun. The Taylor Report of 1990 found the South Yorkshire Police at fault but also asserted that there were no grounds or evidence for prosecution of ‘any individuals or institutions. ’Not the result the people wanted to hear. For that they had to wait for a second inquest which saw Chief Constable David Crompton suspended and six people charged with an array of offences including manslaughter, misconduct and perverting the course of justice. As well as the Police, the Media were lambasted for their distortions and lies which led to eventual apologies 23 years after the fact but as one family member of the dead opined, it was too little, too late.

Quite the story and, as I was to discover, one of many gory stories which continue to resonate in the cities where they unfolded to this day.

‘Anything else?’ I prompt. 

Haber considers.

‘It’s a good place for a curry. You know you’re in the north because of the colour of the stone. It’s Edinburgh grey and probably quarried locally. On the outskirts of the city are towns like Barnsley and Rotherham which take you back into the stone age. They are the kind of place  you can a buy 9 seater vans, for cash.’

Having spoken, the Oracle rings off leaving me stimulated and considerably better informed. 

Part 2

I met my guide for the tour on the corner of a street. I have a postcode and street names and that is all. Oh and I have a name, Matt Collins. Matt lives in Sheffield and was referred to me by my friend Dominic Shaw, who I walked Nottingham with. How Dom met or knows Matt I don’t know and I don’t need to know. The introduction is the only thing that matters. 

Parking just down the road from Hillsborough I head into town and am delighted to find that Matt is there waiting for me. He is a very personable chap with a thick Sheffield accent and knows every street and back alley of his home city. I ask him what he does and he tells me he works with the homeless and that it is his job to check up on where folk are sleeping and whether they need help. ‘The main thing you need to know about homeless people is that most of the time they just want to be left alone. So much of their lives is just about day to day survival, about staying warm and dealing with hassle from other folk, be they other homeless people, police, busy-body officials or narky kids. A bad encounter with any one of them can make their lives a misery.’

I can empathise with that. Working with kids who were traditionally called Special Needs (and are now called additional needs) the bad encounter was the thing you most wanted to avoid. It was about being vigilant and looking out for the signs of an impending emotional storm,  it was also about knowing when to speak and when to listen. Attending a transcultural training day in Belgrade for a therapeutic discipline called psychodrama, I learned of an important concept to assist with helping people you encountered or had been tasked with working with. It was introduced to me by my hostDoctor Zorin, and it was called Optimal Distance. Zorin, who worked as a therapist with people who had been tortured in the wars in former Yugoslavia explained, ‘you have to be just close enough to help someone Stuart. Too far away and you cannot reach them, too close and you get dragged down into the entrails of their chaos when things go bad.’

I think that the Good Doctor was not just referring to physical proximity but emotional and mental proximity also. The idea that these entities exist as imagined or conceptual spaces was something new to me and it took a while for the concept to come into focus but, in the years since my discussions with Zorin, I have found the notion of Optimal Distance of greater and greater importance.

From the outset it was  clear that Matt has this down to a fine art. Furthermore he has evolved a way of being in the street where he can just blend in or stand out as the situation demands. He is quite simply a brilliant photographer and, in the years subsequent to the walk, I still  find myself marvelling at his style and ingenuity over and over again. He doesn’t use a fancy camera, just his phone but what he achieves… is greatness. His work is a great blend of portraits and landscapes,some with filters and often in black and white. They have a grain and a grittiness that I associate with the 1970s but there is also tenderness, humour and compassion behind his eyes. He loves  photographing graffiti and, in Sheffield, he is spoiled for choice, as it is a graffiti city.

Watching him walk and talk with people throughout the city I come to understand that photography gives him the perfect cover. It gives him the best excuse to be wherever he is because he is creating art. He gets to know what’s going on and to see what’s new. In recent years I have come to see the most relevant news to me is that which relates to my friends and family, lovers and loved ones. Anything else is kind of background. Matt is like that. He is very engaged with his city and strong in his beliefs. He believes passionately, for instance,  in the legalisation of marijuana as much for medical reasons as for personal enjoyment.   

I respect that and I respect him. He clearly knows who he is and is centred within himself. Throughout the course of our time together he doesn’t talk much, it’s more like he shows me things and, instead of being fixated on dates  or street names, or opinions, I just for once with the flow, and see the world and the city through his eyes.

At some point it is as if we leave the world of everyday middle class respectability and head down into the underworld. Along the way I do as Matt does and snap what interests or fascinates me. We move together but we are in our own separate worlds. I get this a lot with photographers when they are working, and in a way they are always working, looking to extract the essence of the image as it presents itself... Their world comprises moments of stolen, irretrievable time and its knowing, along with Heraclitus, that you cannot cross the same river twice.   This refers not just to the River Sheaf but any river. You have to capture what crosses your path in that perfect instant because often things don’t hang around.

The Underworld is a Gothic world of urban decay, of broken, rusted machines and crumbling walls. It is old warehouses and industrial units, it’s smashed windows  and bottles but most of all it is a maze. Thankfully, Matt knows his way through this winding labyrinth and using  a rough map he knows approximately where the people he is charged with overseeing will be. A sharp tang of urine or the ashes of a fire can be giveaways, a heap of rags may just be a heap of rags or it could be someone’s bed. When homeless people pop-up he nods or waves or has a quick word as the situation demands. In this, as with the camera, he is quite the artist.

  At some point we emerge blinking into the sunlight and I’ve no real idea how far we’ve come or how much time has passed.. Matt leads me up a hill and through a gap in a shredded fence. We’re crossing a stretch of weed dotted  waste ground when the Police show up to check us out. Matt waves and they wave back and drive on. Clearly, in his official capacity, he is known to them.

The sloping ground underfoot gives way to runs of beige concrete and dense trees and the higher up we go the more of the multi coloured city is revealed. On the flat cap, level top I realise that we are now on one, if not the highest point of the city. 

‘What is this place?’ I ask Matt.

‘The Ski village. It's shut now but the homeless come here a lot coz no one else does. Cool innit?’

It is indeed and I’m blown away. A little digging reveals that the complex, situated in Parkwood Springs, was open until it was destroyed by fire in 2012. It opened in 1988 which was a good year for me, what with passing my GCSEs and going to the best  Scout Camp ever, the International Friendship Camp, where we  met a group of Norwegian Scouts who  are still friends with us 30 years on.   

I find it ironic that it was fire that destroyed the Main Building of the Ski Centre. Whilst the first was accidental, the subsequent fires definitely were not, with at least 50 arson attacks occurring by August 2016. I wonder why the complex should have been such a target. Was it to do with its remoteness, the fact that it was perceived as being part of a private, elitist, middle-class activity, open to the ‘withs’ but very much closed to the ‘withouts’, or something else. 

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps not. It's only the homeless who come here now or gangs of kids to smoke and drink and maybe set more fires. But I like it. It has a dystopian sci-fi feel to it. There’s a campaign to rebuild  it, with the search on for investors but I’m  ambivalent

I quite like the ruin.  

Part 3

A few months later I roll back into town, once more on the trail of the Gothic. This time it’s more to do with the arts than walking. My friend, Ma Mather, has pushed me into attending a conference at Sheffield Uni, with the grandiose title Reimagining the Gothic. Initially indifferent , I submitted a typically outlandish brief and was surprised when we were both invited to attend. My only issue related to what we should put on display. 

I did what I always do and tried to reinvent the wheel but it wasn’t necessary. There was unfinished business to attend to from my time at Wolverhampton University. I revisited a project from 2008 that I did for my MA in Drama and Performance. The brief was to design and build a stage set for the staging of an 11 page masterpiece by American writer, Charlotte Gilman Perkins. The piece, called the Yellow Wallpaper was completed in 1899 and had a fin-de-siecle vibe with gothic seasoning., Dave Timms and Stuart Sadley helped me build the set.

It was like a cross section through a submarine and utilised collage, Masonic regalia, Egyptian Architecture, images of English Country Houses, dark lofts, dank abandoned rooms, haunted cellars  and lashings of yellow wallpaper to make its presence felt. I liked the piece then as I like it now and I remember feeling really let down by Wolverhampton University which had promised us use of the rooms in Wolverhampton Library but that, as with so much else that was pledged, did not materialise. 

 My main issue was  bridging the seven year gap between the devising of the work in 2008 and its subsequent restaging in 2015. How could  I present it? What  could  I do differently this time? I had a hunch and so traipsed round to visit Alan Rowe, musician, web designer and whatever else he felt like being on any given Sunday. He has been my friend and partner in crime for nigh on thirty years and for the last few years we have made films and produced dramas under the banner of Goodrow Productions. Presented with my conundrum, Al suggests we make a film and so we sketch out a rough plan. On Tuesday,  I’m back and using his dining table as our studio and the remnants of my 2008 model for inspiration we shoot some new footage which Al edits together from shots of Tim Boyle’s Gothic Lichfield Mansion to be found on the outskirts of the city just off the London Road.

It’s a little rough around the edges but it seems to work. From conception to shooting, from Sunday to Tuesday is just two days. By Wednesday he’s edited it. By Thursday we’ve done the voiceovers. (His is the male voice, the female voice being supplied by Rachel Duncan, or Raquelle as I call her. She is, as ever, breath-taking.) By Friday the sound track has been added. Being busy Al works quickly but as always to the highest level of his ability. He’s brilliant that way. He tinkers with the film and the finished version arrives as we do in Sheffield. Oh the joys of modern technology and friendship. The day is a success… full of great people with big ideas, all of whom are given time and space to outline their ideas and display their artistic brilliance. Yes, Sheffield is  not just a city with two football teams, it’s a creative space with a community, a little decay and plenty of great graffiti. It has hills and it has  the Arctic Monkeys who would do any city proud. To me Sheffield has been both a  joy and an acceleration and  Ma and I travel back to Tamworth with a renewed sense of excitement about the possibilities open to us on our creative journeys. 

Photos by Matt Collins 2015

Photos by Matt Collins 2015

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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