The Cut | Brian Lewis

Monday 19 August, 6.45am.  I wake, dress, go downstairs, switch the kettle on, put the recycling bin out, switch the kettle on, retrieve the empty recycling bin, switch the kettle on again.  After a few seconds, I realise that nothing is happening in the wires.  I notice that the cooker’s digital display is blank, the fridge silent, the lights unresponsive.  Upstairs is no better.  I make for the cellar with its fuses and meters.  None of the switches have tripped; none of the circuits have been broken.  I spend a further 20 minutes resetting the trip switches and checking the appliances.  Then I go outside.  Some of the shops and businesses on the north side of my street are trying to open up, but can’t raise their electric shutters.  The car park of the medical centre remains closed; two members of staff are posted at the entrance, gesturing at the traffic that slows and piles at the stuck barrier.  As far as I can tell, the south side of the street is unaffected, strips of light showing through curtains and grilles, the morning pulling itself together.  Soon, the road is thick with cars, vans, trams and buses, waiting to fill the city; the lane widening to the east, its north and south broken apart.

Owlerton 1

Owlerton (facing south-west)

My half of the street lost its power shortly after midnight, and will not recover until 3am the following day.  I spend the morning fussing and tidying, occasionally visiting the street to see if any news might be had from it.  Nobody seems to have much information about what has happened, or what is being done to fix it – someone suggests that a repair has gone awry, someone else hints that the engineering work on the tram lines is to blame – but the people I speak to are handling it well, and doing what they can for themselves and others.  I make myself lunch, fuss some more, then fish half-a-dozen empty margarine tubs from the back of a kitchen cupboard, stuff them into a rucksack and leave the house.  I follow the traffic east to where four roads meet, most of the cars taking a right turn for the city centre, walk north-east from the intersection along a link road, then reach the trunk road, a two-mile split along the seam of north-west Sheffield.

I’d crossed from Hillsborough to Owlerton, or the remains of Owlerton.  When Penistone Road was rebuilt as a dual carriageway in the 1980s, many of the pubs and terraces on the Owlerton side were demolished; some businesses have survived (notably, the Bassett’s sweet factory and Hillfoot Steel), some have become established (a new leisure centre, and a self-storage facility modelled on similar lines), while others have been revived (Owlerton Stadium, built in 1929, refurbished in the 1990s, and now home to speedway, greyhound racing and stock car racing).  While the carriageway imposed (or exacerbated) a sense of division, of separateness, the cut wasn’t clean; Owlerton Evangelical Church is on the Hillsborough side, while the new Hillsborough College lies firmly within the district of Owlerton.  Of course, how a territory is identified (and delineated) often affects how we identify with that territory.  Many people travel to Owlerton for work, study and recreation; however, in the year or so that I’ve been living in the Hillsborough area, I’ve yet to hear anyone declare themselves (or anyone else) to be from Owlerton.

Crossing the trunk road from west to east, from Bradfield Road to Livesey Street, I feel the closeness of Hillsborough – its familiarity, its density – slipping away, and step into a landscape that is both uncluttered and impenetrable.  The eye is drawn, at first, to the distant pulse of a casino’s signage, then to the distance itself, occupied by a 500ft square ground-level car park filling the space between Penistone Road and the greyhound track; unmarked, flat, empty.  I cut across the distance and onto the road, the gates and raised girdle of Owlerton Stadium to my left, Hillsborough Fencing and Hillsborough College to my right.  Even with a high wall on one side and a four-storey institute dominating the other, the sense of spareness and scale is acute, uncommon.  I move on, beyond Hillsborough College and its slow, thinning trails of people and cars, towards the substation that holds the ground – and most of the sky – between the college and the River Don.

The college and the substation meet on a corner.  There is a weak join, a torn fence, through which blackberry bushes are growing.  By the locked gates of the substation I stop, uncouple my rucksack from my back, and take out a margarine tub.  I lean into one of the bushes and start on the easy pickings.  This was something I used to do with my father and my brothers, late August, a boy among the clumps; then years passed, seasons without fruit; then the allotment, kept by my father since the 1970s, to which I was recalled in his last weeks, the two of us working there, that afternoon, his strength rationed, his breath shortened.  We left with twelve kilos of blackberries, their taste beyond him.  All that is miles south.

East of the substation, east of the river, the light goes, the level ground runs out; a bridge yields to a climb, the murk and tangle of Wardsend cemetery, its broken, sloping stones repeating in the shade, the higher ground parted by the tracks of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, weekly freight still passing over the sunken line.  Another bridge, another climb, a second tier of wire and steel rising to meet the path, pylons stringing out beyond the viaduct, birds threading between them, the gradient easing, the trail breaking up, the ridge opening out.  Here is the plain, pausing the land before the slant into Scraith Wood and Shirecliffe, pulling me back towards a Sheffield that crams to the horizon.  I retrace my steps and the city loses its layers, its spread, cropping to Owlerton, the wires running out of the frame.

Owlerton 2 (edit)

Owlerton (facing east)

The flood of 2007 broke the link between Wardsend and Owlerton; Wardsend Bridge, an 18th century stone crossing providing access to the cemetery, was wrecked and then washed away by the Don on 25 June.  I walk over its replacement, bearing left as the bridge levels to road, the pavement canopied with blackberry branches, their fruit suspended half a metre above eye level.  I am thinking of how this landscape opened up to me in the months after the flood and in the weeks after my father’s death.  Matthew Clegg had started work on his Edgelands sequence earlier in the summer: a series of fifty-six short poems (adapted from the classical Japanese tanka form) based on the daily walks that he was taking through Hillsborough and its neighbouring districts.  Every week or so, a draft of this work would reach me in my office in Swindon.  I would print the draft and take it with me on my lunch break, savouring its precision and surprise, the unexpected and frequently apposite connections between the world of the poem and the world through which I was moving.  At this time, I’d had little direct contact with North Sheffield: what I knew of Loxley, Wadsley and Birley Edge was what Clegg had carried from those places, five-line ruminations that would, as they accrued, distil the personal, the local and the universal to remarkable effect.  A walk along the ridge gives us this vision of Owlerton:

The stink of drains, burning tar.
He climbs above it, surveys
His city – the flooded dog track
And casino, out of bounds, now,
Like her house, bed, scented pillow.

A few years after completing work on Edgelands, Clegg revisited some of its terrain in his sequence Chinese Lanterns, an exploration of the contemporary Hillsborough landscape through the resurrected personae of the 8th century Chinese poets Li Po and Tu Fu.  Whether alone or in implied dialogue, their voices (and those of Confucius and Lao Tzu) are the focal pull of the sequence, as it shifts from reflective trance to trance-walk, dole office to dew-soaked hammock; abruptly relocated from other places, other times, they close in on and alert us to the dislocations of present-day Sheffield.  Often, the dislocations of the street are the means by which we see the landscape anew, the sudden jumps and starts that lift our eyes to the ‘liquorice clouds / steaming above the Bassett’s factory’.

At the end of 2012, Clegg presented me with a manuscript comprising Edgelands, Chinese Lanterns, and a further sequence, Fugue, parts of which also reached into North Sheffield.  West North East would be his first full-length collection, and the first hardback book that I would publish through Longbarrow Press.  We’d taken our time to get to this point.  An earlier book-length manuscript, The Power-line, had been painstakingly refined over a five-year period, the two of us slowly nudging it towards publication.  It was Clegg who took the courageous – and inspired – decision to withdraw the older book and commit to West North East, which retained only nine of the poems intended for The Power-line.  Neither of us had any contractual obligations to the other.  It wasn’t duty, or loyalty, that set the new book on its course.  It was conviction: his, and mine.  Over the following months, I sometimes questioned whether my skills were equal to the task of making the book (I’d spent several years creating limited runs of pamphlets and other hand-made publications, but had never prepared industry-standard files for external printers, nor entrusted them with producing books); yet the necessity of the book was never in question.  I was determined to bring the poems into the world.  They are, I think, poems forged in and of the world, exposed to its pressures and conflicts; they also offer us a hard-won beauty, a delight in the evanescent, and discovery at every turn.

We’re heading for the spot where the road cuts
over the river. We can wait a long time
and often go unrewarded, but it’s
worth it for the off-chance of seeing him
slow-step the ebb and flow with such grace.
My kid is going to know what a heron is.

I recross Penistone Road and find Hillsborough caught in the last shift of dusk, streaks of orange and pink in the sky above Cash Converters, my half of the street still unlit and silent.  I count four large holes in the pavements along Bradfield Road and Holme Lane, two more than the previous afternoon; one is fenced with red and white plastic barriers, another is being filled in, and a further two have workmen in them.  I step into my house and stack the six kilos of blackberries on the kitchen worktop, telling myself to put them in the freezer when the power returns.  I go to bed.  I am woken at 3am by the lights in the attic.  I go through the house switching off things that have switched themselves on and switching on things that have switched themselves off.  I shower and, at 5am, go out into the street.  The workmen who were digging the first of the holes sixteen hours earlier are now securing the last of them.  I can’t tell, from their faces, whether this is the start of a new shift, or the end of the old shift.  Without a word, they rig the last barrier and climb into the van, the exhaust stuttering, clouding, then gone.

Matthew Clegg’s West North East is out now from Longbarrow Press.  Click here to listen to audio podcasts, read extracts and essays, and to order the book.  Listen to Matthew Clegg reading the West North East poem ‘A Letter from Tu Fu’ (set in and above Owlerton) below:

One Comment on “The Cut | Brian Lewis”

  1. Rob says:

    This is a vivid soliloquy, Brian. It also reminds me, inevitably now, of Heaney’s exploration of his own territory – in particular, the River Moyulla, and its function as boundary; and his discussion of boundaries – and marching – in general.

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