Lockdown Walks #5 | Brian Lewis

Day twenty-seven. 3.30pm. A clear blue cloudless day, which means that nearby yards and gardens are in use, which means music through open windows, which means that I can’t think clearly. Tish tish tish tish tish tish tish tish. It’s no use sitting at my desk so I resolve to go out even though I don’t particularly want to go out. I stand back from the desk, at which I have achieved nothing, and attempt to tie the laces of one shoe while balancing on the other foot. This takes longer than it should and longer than it would have taken if I had tied the laces while sitting down. After a few more minutes I find my house keys under a drift of receipts and I pocket the keys and go downstairs. Outside the light is turning the street to dust. I turn right, looking down the length of Holme Lane as it faces Malin Bridge. There is more dust, at the corners of each terrace, in the sills and the steps. There are weeds, at the junctions of drainpipes and pavements, in gullies and in grates. There is wind everywhere. I cross from Loxley New Road to Loxley Road and see the turning for Wisewood Lane, I have never walked on Wisewood Lane, I think, this is the day for it, at least I will be able to say that I went for a walk on Wisewood Lane. As I turn onto Wisewood Lane I am no longer certain that I have not walked on Wisewood Lane. I pause to contemplate the church on my right, I have seen it before, from a distance, it is disagreeable, it has to do with the proportions. I dislike the brickwork and I dislike the cross. An information board tells me that it is Saint Polycarp’s Church. I don’t remember a Saint Polycarp. I walk up Wisewood Lane, not knowing if I know it or not. Did I come this way that night I was supposed to meet Rob, I think, we’d agreed to meet in a pub somewhere around here, he’d given me directions, it was dark, I couldn’t find anything, I ended up almost back at my house, eventually I called him, we did meet, I was half an hour late. It must have been 2014 or 2015. I continue walking along Wisewood Lane but when I look at the signage at the next bus stop I find that I am on Hallowmoor Road. I don’t suppose it makes much difference, I think, it’s not as though I’m going anywhere. Uphill. Through gaps in the suburb I glimpse other suburbs. I glimpse the suburb of Old Heath in Colchester where a year of my life passed in the early 1990s. The terrain was flat, not hilly, and the terraces were longer, and the gardens were scruffier, but the feeling was the same. I couldn’t find my way out of the estate, I couldn’t find my way to the street at the end of my street. Was it sloth or fear that held me back, or simple incuriosity, I was no wiser at the end of the year. Here is a crossroads, I decide to keep going, Hallowmoor Road to Rural Lane. The Wadsley Jack is just ahead, did I come here once, was this where I met Rob, did I come here with Matt, years before. I pass the main entrance, a green Post-it note gummed to the door, and some rough script, a phone number for deliveries, how does it hold on in this wind. This looks like a turning for the common, Stour Lane, there’s the Rose & Crown at the top, I did come here, though I don’t remember how, I was here with Matt, with Rob, at different times. Here is the path into Loxley Common, I know that I have been here, I would have walked it with Matt, I have no recollection of it. I don’t know what to look for. The path between fields is narrow and I wait at a field gate to allow a family to pass at a distance. I look down at a plastic drainage pipe embedded in the earth. Access Land. The horizon is getting thicker and I see trees up ahead, birch trees, white birch bark. I hear voices of children, parents, dog walkers, runners. I don’t want to be here any more and so I start to look for a way out, turn left, I think, keep turning left. I go further into the wood where the paths run out and find a hollow and another hollow beneath the hollow. The roots of the trees seem to go down and down and in time this becomes a way. I still hear voices but they seem to be coming from somewhere else. I remember why I couldn’t leave Old Heath, why I couldn’t find my way to the street at the end of my street, because I knew it didn’t lead anywhere, because I knew I would have to turn back after ten minutes, because I couldn’t walk out of my life. The voices have stopped and the light has fallen away and it is just me and the hollows and the shadows. Then a chainsaw or a mower starting up and the lines of the land coming back, a tumbledown drystone wall, wooden telegraph poles, the end of a lane.

Day twenty-eight. 6.40pm. Nothing has changed in weeks. As I pass Hallam Glass & Glazing I realise this isn’t altogether or even partly true, there has been change, the resurfacing of the main road over several nights, the frequency of the garden waste collections, the flowers that still flower at Hillsborough Place. The weather and the light. Sometimes it seems that it is only the weather and the light that change. Clear and dry with moderate wind. The windows of Gee Vee Travel are still patterned with green and orange posters advertising early spring excursions to Llandudno and Sidmouth that didn’t happen. I don’t think I know anyone who books with Gee Vee Travel but I know that someone must have been looking forward to getting on a coach with them. Now everyone is left behind. I pass the weir and look back at the weir, the river is losing speed, losing power. I count one person waiting for a tram to the city. I am finding it hard to see the street afresh. There is cool evening light at the shopping precinct, there is no-one else on the stairway to Morrisons, I descend to the entrance unnoticed. The list comes out and I try to get the disappointment over with. I am surprised to find spaghetti, at the back of a dark shelf, and what might be peas. I have not been listening to the sounds from the overhead speakers but it is now the turn of Simply Red, it is hard to ignore, it is a special sort of pestering. It is like an advertisement for prophylactics at the end of a funeral service. It is the staff I feel for, having to put up with this, and I am back on the floor at the Co-op, in Old Town, in Swindon, in 1988, stacking fruit and vegetables in the fruit and vegetable department for £1.72 per hour. I signed up for the early short shifts, 6.45am to 8.15am, as the manager would not be around to see me arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early, and also the muzak had not been switched on. I also worked Saturdays, a long shift with the muzak, instrumental cover versions of Dire Straits and Spandau Ballet, sometimes at the wrong speed. We hatched a plan to break into the control room and destroy the cassettes but none of us could work out where the control room was. Often I would volunteer for car park duties which involved collecting trollies that had strayed to or beyond the edges of the car park. Often I would hide at the edges of the car park. Often I would fail to collect any trollies. I worked there part-time for almost two years and never quite grasped what it was that was expected of me. The lettuces would rot under the display lights and the manager, Norman, would instruct me to remove the outer leaves and put the diminished lettuces back on display. This would go on until there was no lettuce left. Every Saturday an elderly lady by the name of Mrs Rogers would appear, and with gentle but artful persistence she would tell the story of the decayed vegetables in her bag that she had purchased a week or two previously, it was the same story every week, she somehow made it new for us each time, we would prepare a bag of fresh replacement vegetables and label it FREE and direct her to the exit. I couldn’t work out how the store made any money or why it took up so much space.

Day twenty-nine. 3.15pm. Yesterday it occurred to me that no-one had bought a book in over a week, and then someone did buy a book, someone on the other side of Sheffield. This is welcome for many reasons, not least of which is that it provides me with the opportunity for a walk. It is also an opportunity to reflect on my failings as a publisher. I package the book and put it in my rucksack, along with a map and some water. I open the front door and step into the street and narrow my eyes against blinding dry dust. I make this three days of wind and I don’t know how many days of no rain. When I try to walk in it the pressure is so great that I wonder if it is the weather, this new weather, that is emptying the streets. I reach the weir and turn the corner and somehow walking south-east is simpler, it is not so effortful, I keep walking and soon forget that I am walking. There is music in the overhead tram wires that I have not heard before. There is no one to share it with. I won’t remember a note of it. I pass the Hillsborough Hotel, which is not in Hillsborough, and notice that most of the white sans serif letters and numerals have fallen off the side of the pub, this must have happened in the last few weeks, when no one was looking. It occurs to me that it is almost 14 years since the founding or the launch of Longbarrow Press, I’m never quite sure which, or perhaps neither, but the first event took place on 27 April 2006. It was also the first poetry event I had attempted to host, no, I am forgetting an evening at the Lescar, that didn’t go well either, but people were very kind, people are always very kind, it was autumn 2001, we had booked the back room for an evening with Andrew Hirst and Brian Lewis. I had decided to present new material which I hadn’t yet written and by the time I arrived at the venue I had been awake for 35 hours. There were about 15 people in the audience. Andy and I took turns to hide from them until the event was due to start. The room was very dark and the stage was very bright. I stepped onto the stage and shuffled to the microphone and stuttered a few words of welcome and a beer glass on a narrow ledge at the entrance to the room was dislodged by a passing bar worker and it shattered where it fell. I paused the introduction and stood on the stage in silence as the bar worker left the room to find a dustpan and brush. A few minutes later the bar worker returned, with a dustpan and brush, and knelt to the floor, and began to sweep the glass shards into the dustpan, very carefully, very slowly. No-one spoke. After ten minutes the bar worker left again and I attempted to introduce the event, and Andy, and lastly myself. I don’t remember how the readings went. What I do remember is someone in the audience likening Andy to a bald Hitler and the closing minutes of the event being sabotaged by an Elvis impersonator who very much wanted to use the stage to read his own work. We eventually reached a compromise whereby we agreed that he could use the stage after we had left the room. The big Tesco on Infirmary Road has introduced a one-way system inside the store, I discover this as I walk through the car park, it must be very complicated as two stewards in tabards are having to explain it at great length and volume to each customer as they move through the queue. I cut across the unnamed park that lies between Tesco and the Ponderosa and aim for the subway at Netherthorpe Road. I come out on the other side and take the short flight of steps that leads to the student flats off Upper Allen Street. There are construction or maintenance workers hauling cables out of a van and strips of flame retardant sheeting hanging from the sides of the buildings like sterile dressings. I wonder why I have taken this route and then I remember where it leads. I cross Broad Lane to St George’s Terrace, almost without looking, there is next to nothing coming off the roundabouts. The university district is left and right and front and centre. One day this will be a city-state and Sheffield will collapse into the suburbs. Always the hunger for space, every so often the map is redrawn, the university expands in every direction. Today its machinery is suspended and the only people I see, pausing or passing, are utility workers or taxi drivers. I walk down Regent Street, between the Innovation Centre and the School of Health, and turn left onto Pitt Street. At the end of the street I stop and take several steps back and look up at the pub. It is smaller than I remember, I think that I must think that every time. Through the decorative glass and the curtains I can see that the lights are lit on the ground floor, though it is mid-afternoon, and the pub is closed. I look up at the first-floor windows. This is where Longbarrow Press was launched, on 27 April 2006, in the upstairs room of The Red Deer. We had taken some time to get to this point, it would have been late 2004 or early 2005 when the thought of setting up a press occurred to us, Andy and me, I have his letters in a box somewhere, one half of the correspondence. Neither of us really knew what this would entail. Andy had some ideas, and I had access to a network of laser printers and copiers in the office where I worked, this became a secret life, a double life. I spent around 18 months experimenting with materials that I didn’t quite understand, textured paper that didn’t hold the print, glue that warped card, yards of hessian fabric that wouldn’t fold properly, and photocopies of photographs and copies of the copies. The prototypes were rubbish and I didn’t know why. This is what happens when you try to teach yourself and have nothing to teach from, it would be years before I grasped kerning and ligatures and the rest. By early 2006 we had two titles that we felt were ready: The Frome Sampler, a boxed edition of postcards with poems by Andy and photographs by me, and Nobody Sonnets, a hessian wallet containing poems by Matthew Clegg and etchings by Andy. We booked the room for the launch and I drafted some copy for publicity and Andy designed a flyer for the event. I’m not sure what happened next. I had set some time aside for the production of The Frome Sampler, it was a difficult object, the hinged box was built up through layers of board and paper and glue, if the elements were even slightly misaligned the object failed and had to be abandoned. It seemed easier to make the postcards first and return to the boxes later. There was also the matter of the Nobody Sonnets and the hessian wallets. The launch was on a Thursday and I was still behind with production on the Tuesday evening. The following morning I got up at 3am to resume work on the postcards and the wallets and at 9am I phoned in sick to the office. This will buy me time, I thought, I can make ten boxes in time for the launch, that should be enough. Later that afternoon I began to sort and trim the materials required for the boxes. By the evening I was ready to make the first one. After several hours, working through the night, the layers were flat and the glue had dried on the hinge. I laid the postcards inside the box. The recess was too shallow and the lid wouldn’t close properly. It was 3am. I calculated that if I kept going and worked flat out I could make perhaps three boxes before leaving at midday to catch my train to Sheffield. This wasn’t ideal but at least it was something. I kept going and worked flat out. Shortly before midday I gathered the postcards and the prints and the hessian wallets and the other materials and left to catch my train. The train journey from Swindon to Sheffield was three or four hours and I settled in at a table seat and got the unfinished materials out and set about them with craft knife and ruler and glue. The train pulled into Sheffield and I disembarked with a muddle of bags and made my way to Andy’s house, we had arranged to meet there before the launch, we would review our plans for the event, fine-tune our introductions, relax in each other’s company. I knocked at the back door and entered through the kitchen. We said hello, I don’t think we sat down, I think we stood there in the kitchen. ‘How many copies of the Nobody Sonnets do we have for tonight?’ he asked. ‘Ten or eleven’, I replied. ‘OK. How many copies of The Frome Sampler?’ ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of postcards’, I said, ‘they’ll look really nice on display at the back of the room.’ ‘But how many boxes have you finished?’ ‘One.’ ‘One?’ ‘One.’ We set off for The Red Deer shortly after 6pm. The walk took around 20 minutes but seemed to take much longer. The silences were worse than the attempts at conversation. We arrived at the pub an hour before the event was due to start and made our way to the upstairs room. The room was creaky and poky and wonky and the opportunities for displaying even small objects were limited. There was a varnished mantelpiece above the fireplace and we decided that this would be a good spot, we could exhibit our wares at a decent height, such wares as we had. We carefully propped one of the precious hand-made hessian editions of the Nobody Sonnets at a slight angle between the mantelpiece and the wall, took a few steps back, then watched as it slipped into a gap between the fireplace and the mantelpiece. I kneeled to the base of the fitting to see if there was any way of prising it open and retrieving the edition but there wasn’t. Shortly after 7pm a few people wandered in. By 7.30pm the room was full. I introduced the event, it was not a good introduction, it was an introduction given by a man who had been awake for over 35 hours, with no experience of public speaking, backing into a corner, the angle formed by perfectionism and amateurishness. Here is our first publication which you can’t buy or touch. The readings were good. Andy’s set was entirely untouched by the day’s troubles and it lifted me out of the hole I’d fallen into. This is why we’re here, I remember thinking. I hadn’t heard Matt read for several years, perhaps since the late 1990s. It was mesmerising. I wondered if it was a fluke, if I was making too much of it in my sleep-deprived state, but almost every reading of his that I’ve caught since then has been outstanding. I wondered what his secret was. Eventually I worked out what it was, the secret, it was hard work and preparation, it was craft, it was care, it was the art of creating a space for a performance, a space that could absorb chance interventions, whether good or bad, without dither, arrogance, ingratiation or flash. I didn’t understand this at the time, of course. We won and lost an audience that night, or I did, it took years to build it up again. Andy came close to walking away that day, and he did walk away, amicably, some months later, it was difficult to run the press with so many miles between us. I decided to keep going until I could work out what the lesson was. I was less and less troubled by failure but I was growing tired of leaving things unfinished. The wind is dying down. I walk up to the door of The Red Deer. Someone has taped a note to it, instructions for deliveries, someone must be taking things in.

Day thirty. 4.30pm. ‘I’m going for a walk’, I say to Emma, she is exhausted from a day of Zoom meetings and tutorials, the voices throttling with the bandwidth, the faces freezing and unfreezing and never quite catching up with themselves. A friend emailed me to suggest that I use Zoom for Longbarrow readings but I don’t want to make hostage videos. Also I would have to tidy my desk. I unlock the front door and step out of the house. There is the wind, again, and there is more traffic than I had expected, and how would I know, when did I last leave the house at 4.30pm, when did the post office last keep regular hours. I should have kept a traffic census, these last few weeks, it would tell its own story. At Hillsborough Place I slow down for the tulips, they have lasted well, they are going now, they have gone as far as they can go. I hit the junction at speed, sprint past the distanced queue at Wilko and run clear of Lloyds Bank, the road forks at Regent Court and the light shows through Owlerton. Within each walk we carry the idea of another walk. I try to remember the first time I came here. It was late 1995, I had just moved to Sheffield, I was living in Walkley, I couldn’t settle, I left the house and walked without direction for half an hour, it was dark and I didn’t know where I was. I was out of my depth. I forgot about Owlerton and Hillsborough until Matt moved here ten years later and I found the place again, first through Matt’s poems, and then through our walks in the wake of the poems. And then Matt left the area and I moved in. There is a queue of traffic on Owlerton Green. I can’t hear anything from Swann-Morton (Penn Works) or Swann-Morton (Cobb Works). The electronic billboard next to the parish church is broadcasting a rainbow that is based on the rainbows that have been appearing in windows, the text reads #heroes, the colours of Owlerton Stadium outspread behind the billboard, red yellow green blue. There is another queue of traffic leaving Livesey Street. I pass the casino car park and take a long look at a dozen white and orange traffic cones stacked next to the little yellow booth in front of Napoleons. I used to yearn for a yellow booth, a chair and a few books, the car park my horizon. The present shrinks to a small blind spot. The substation straight ahead. Are the power lines louder today, louder than the last time I visited, that time I couldn’t hear them for trying. This landscape has often stood in for other landscapes, landscapes that I couldn’t get to, so much so that I often forget that it also stands for itself. I cross the Don and take the first steps into the cemetery. There is darkness briefly and light as the path meets the railway bridge, there is more light uphill. I think of Emma when I am on these winding slopes, I think of our walks here and our walks anywhere, she rescued me, and the press, by reminding me that there was a life beyond it, by showing me a life beyond it. A red admiral on the stony path and blackbirds in and out of the bushes. This is one edge of Shirecliffe, toughened by a line of concrete drums a few metres from the drop, looking out over Wadsley, Owlerton, Hillsborough, the parks, the Wednesday ground, Mondelez Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I sit on one of the concrete drums and dangle my legs over the side. I think of yesterday, I couldn’t look at the city, the landlocked city. It could only show me its past. It is easier to view it from here, to imagine it not as it was, but as it might be. A lone runner on the path behind me. A bird that I can only picture through its song. A low, sustained note from a factory below, like a foghorn, the white steam in suspension.

 

Sheffield, 19–22 April 2020.

Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; all hardback titles are post-free in the UK, and deliveries to Sheffield addresses are made on foot. Orders are prepared, packaged and posted in accordance with recommended hand hygiene and other preventive measures. Click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.

This is the final instalment of ‘Lockdown Walks’. The first instalment can be found here; you can read the second, third and fourth instalments here, here, and here. Photographs taken in Owlerton, north Sheffield, 22 April 2020.

 


3 Comments on “Lockdown Walks #5 | Brian Lewis”

  1. Lyn East says:

    We have thoroughly enjoyed these thought provoking words. I really hope you will put them in a book, as these times are something we will look back on and wonder about how the world changed.

  2. kp says:

    I’ve read them too with great pleasure, and some wry laughs along with you. Thanks for your honesty, self awareness and descriptions of what you see and feel.


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