Local Distribution | Brian LewisPosted: October 11, 2020
‘Lines That Echo’, Rachel Smith
At the corner of Bank Street and Scargill Croft the wheeled luggage stops moving. It takes a moment for the arm to grasp this, stretching and jerking. I scan the pavement for obstructions. It is difficult, I cannot bend, I find nothing. The pavement is clean and flat. I tilt forward, the luggage tilts forward, the wheels drag, then turn, I let go, straightening, the trolley slumps back into its bulk. Three strides, stop, repeat. I see the cobbles and the long drop and some bits of Crown Court at the end of the drop and I stop again and look back at where I started, 100 feet to the east.
Always, it is slow, going from door to door. I think back to when I started, the paper round on weekdays and weekends, everyone had a paper then, the first hour picking and marking and building the round, the second hour under the weight of it, a PVC bag and its awkward strap, shifting it from shoulder to shoulder, in and out of closes and crescents. I’d get my stride back at the end, an empty bag in one hand, wondering where the weight had gone. It was £2 on a Sunday, a lot of money then. It still is. The print on the fingers, the black marks on the shoulders.
A few weeks before Christmas, I receive an email from John. John has closed the arts centre he founded 10 years ago and is clearing the building. The books that lined the walls of the café are now surplus to requirements and he wonders if they might be of use to me. I am not sure that they will be of use to me, but I agree to collect them, I apply the terms ‘poetry community’ and ‘redistribution’, I propose dates for collection, I express confidence that a use will be found. I will call round shortly after 2pm on Monday. I will bring a large rucksack and some carrier bags.
Around the time that John was acquiring premises in Sheffield, shortly before the economic crisis of 2008, I was employed in a low-status administrative role in the financial services industry. Unbeknownst to my colleagues and managers, I was also running a secondary business from under my desk, a small poetry press with a turnover of approximately £23 per annum. The idea for the press had originated in the misuse of office equipment a few years earlier. As the building never seemed to close, and the printers and copiers were unmonitored after business hours, I began to design and make little pamphlets on the machines, a pocket library in a filing cabinet.
It is shortly after 2pm on Monday. I am staring through the gridded sash of a Georgian terrace, there is John, no, he turns away, I am tapping and waving. After a minute the noises and gestures scratch through his side of the glass and he lets me in. The central gallery space is bare apart from some drifts and heaps in the middle. I take a few steps towards them and see that they are books, bagged and boxed, skewed and listing. I start to add them up, perhaps 250 in all, excluding magazines, the little magazines. Where’s your car, asks John. You won’t be able to manage all these.
The sessions with the copiers were late, irregular, there were toner spills and paper jams, sheets in the wrong order. A stack of clean print and a heap of discard. After clearing the printers and worktops and tables it would be 10pm, 11pm, midnight. Some of the scrap would be left for recycling and the rest I took away. On the way home, passing through the commercial districts, I would post the surplus pages through the doors of solicitors, hairdressers, building societies, estate agents, travel agents, a sonnet, canto or haiku for every tile and mat, the loose leaves behind me, slowly running down the discard, shedding paper through the night.
You won’t be able to manage. Why don’t you take some now, and come back for the rest. He means well. It’s fine, I say. I have brought a large rucksack and some carrier bags. I have also borrowed my partner’s suitcase, into which I am stuffing boxes of various sizes and a few of the larger books, not all of it is poetry, the collection also includes works by Leo Tolstoy and Peter Stringfellow. The suitcase will not close. I remove the Stringfellow and a cricket memoir and it zips shut. As John looks on, I cram the remainder into my rucksack and four carrier bags, two for each hand.
It is personal, the thought of choosing a book, the act of buying a book. When I receive orders for books that I have published, I consult a map to see if the address lies within a walking distance, and if it does, I walk the book to its purchaser. Then I walk back. This is how I think with the city, this is the Sheffield that I piece together from wrong turns and blind bends, from Wadsley to Woodseats, Walkley to Wincobank. One by one, the books find their way to their new readers, another Sheffield in their wake. Always, it is slow, always, it is slower than I think.
The rucksack is solid and straining at the buckles. I can’t hoist it onto my back, so I squat, slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, then rise to my feet, setting my spine against the frame. Something isn’t right. I gather all four carrier bags in my right hand, grasp the suitcase handle with my left, and try to make all this appear normal, reasonable, viable. John looks on, restating his concerns, I could call you a cab, let me call you a cab. The suitcase drags, one wheel good, one wheel bad. It’s fine. I haul everything through the narrow exit and the door closes for the last time.
The first time I set foot in Bank Street Arts was sometime in the autumn of 2008, I think, there was something happening, an exhibition or a reading, the centre hadn’t been open for long, it was hard to find and when you did find it you couldn’t be sure if anyone would come to the door. Over the next few years, each part of the building came into use, the uses often changing, artists’ studios, public galleries, a café, residencies, readings, performances, book fairs. It didn’t always run smoothly, but it was an outlet, a community, a space of making. Now it has closed, without a word it has closed.
I take three steps with the rucksack, suitcase and carrier bags, enough to put myself out of sight and earshot of John, and slump against a wall. This is a mistake. One of the carrier bags is swollen with Magmas and Rialtos and something called I Bought a Mountain. The handle is weak. I lift it onto the top of the upright suitcase and twist the plastic grips around the metal rod, making a loose knot, the bag will be supported by the suitcase at rest and in motion. Well done, I think to myself. I regather and rebuckle, and carefully tilt the suitcase handle. Seconds later, the bag falls off.
The spaces of the city are always coming into use, or falling out of use. Or so it seems. I think of Bank Street Arts, and I think of Bloc, CADS, Cupola, DINA, Furnace Park, the Nichols Building, 7 Garden Street, the new work made possible by and in those spaces, what did we do without them, what will we do when they’re gone. The links are broken, the histories wiped. It must be acknowledged, there must be a record. The spaces of the city did not appear or disappear by themselves, they did not find or lose their mark on the map without a fight. It was not for nothing.
I reattach the bag to the suitcase and tilt everything forward. Three strides, stop, repeat. Sometimes it is the suitcase that stops moving and sometimes it is me. After 10 minutes I reach the junction of Bank Street and Queen Street, the main road divided by New Street to the north, Figtree Lane to the south. The light is going. I squint at Figtree Lane, little more than a ginnel, it winds around the cathedral and into the city centre. I could take a tram from there, I think. Then I see the cobbles and the slope. No. Also, the tram is an extra 70p from the centre, think of that.
The bookshops, anyone could walk into the city bookshops, it was never clear how they kept going, and then they were gone. Alan Hill Books, Rare and Racy, the left-wing store on Surrey Street, the idea of them always seemed more solid than the shelved stock, yet only the stock survives, somewhere, still, it must survive somewhere. Someone knows where it is. Every now and then you’d call in and see the new acquisitions near the counter, boxed or unboxed, a complete run, someone’s collection, you knew that you were seeing the best of the libraries, you wouldn’t see them as they were, at the end, before they were broken up.
My palms burn. I see the sign of the Three Cranes, half-lit, a few feet above me. There is someone in the doorway, slouching, smoking. One of the plastic bags is losing the internal reinforcement from its handle, in a few moments it will be useless. I quicken my pace, I do not want to fall apart under the sign of the Three Cranes, let me sort this out. I make it to the corner of Queen Street and Northchurch Street. Mail Boxes Inc, no, Mail Boxes Etc. Some builders are staring from a scaffolded building. They are not laughing or pointing. After a minute they go back to their work.
When I was very small I founded a library. The library comprised six books that I no longer had a use for and six books that I claimed to have written or was going to write. I circulated the list among a handful of friends and invited them to subscribe to the library. No-one joined. The list went missing and I lost the books I hadn’t written. I didn’t want to write a book, I wanted to see the books lined up with my name on the spine, Brian Lewis, Brian Lewis, Brian Lewis. I wanted the mobile library to come and take them and for people to write in them.
It is 500 feet from Mail Boxes Etc to the end of Queen Street. With 250 books and the little magazines, it takes 15 minutes, half of this stoppage. At the turning for West Bar I stop again and remove some of the larger books from a Sainsbury’s carrier bag and stuff them into the suitcase. The suitcase will not close. I try again, the suitcase closes, then opens in a different place. My shoulders ache. I shuffle everything to the pedestrian crossing and press the button. A black cab slows for a roundabout, its roof sign lit up. I am saving the books, I think, but for whom, for what?
I reach the second pedestrian crossing, linked to the first by an island of white rails, I am moving with difficulty, the traffic impatient. I follow the National Emergency Services Museum round the corner and into what is not yet Gibraltar Street. The pavements are deteriorating. I put my body behind the deadweight of the suitcase, push not pull, the wheels seize and I pile into the frame. It is embarrassing. I try to remind myself that poetry has value, I pass Yorkshire Decorators Centre, Shakespeares, no, The Shakespeare. I stop at a builder’s skip to adjust my rucksack. I fall back and the drawstring opens. The books have had enough.
I have had enough. I drag the rucksack and the suitcase and the carrier bags along the last few yards of Gibraltar Street and cast them down at the edge of a mini car park. I prop myself against a wall with the hand that doesn’t hurt. There is frost on the pavement, there are books on the pavement, two or three paperbacks tipped from the carriers. One of them is The Bus to Hope by Brian Lewis. The cover depicts the author lurking behind a Henry Moore figure, his big laughing face framed by the arm and torso of the bronze, the parkland receding. I flick the pages and wince.
Then I pick up The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene. The title, embossed and gilded, is laid within a vertical pink slit, the slit offset with midnight blue trims. The gilt is fading. The cover tells us that Robert Greene is the author of the International Bestseller The 48 Laws of Power. I open the book. It is badly designed on cheap stock. It employs six typefaces and advocates cruelty. It is heavily underlined and circled throughout, in black pen, the thin paper scored in agreement. One of the highlighted passages contains the word ‘stategy’. There are 500 pages of this. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
I don’t know what to do. My hands are not working properly and the tram stop is another quarter of a mile. I stare at the carrier bags and their broken handles. It occurs to me that I could leave them here, in the mini car park, among the weeds and nettles. I could find my way back to them tomorrow. They will be safe here for the night. I hoist the rucksack onto my shoulders, I have nothing with which to hoist it, I fall over and right myself, then slowly set off with the suitcase, the library in hand, another on my back, slipping in and out of alignment.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the DW Cities: Sheffield anthology, edited by Emma Bolland (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019). The contributors to DW Cities: Sheffield are: Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Daniel Eltringham, Tim Etchells, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Linda Kemp, Sharon Kivland, Joanne Lee, Elise Legal, Brian Lewis, A. B. G. Murray, and Rachel Smith. You can buy the book here: https://www.dostoyevskywannabe.com/cities/sheffield
Click here to read ‘On Cities, Solidarity, Loss, and Hope’, Emma Bolland‘s account of the second launch of the DW Cities: Sheffield anthology.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. His publications include East Wind (Gordian Projects, 2016), an account of a walk across the Holderness peninsula, and White Thorns (Gordian Projects, 2017), based on a series of walks through the Isle of Axholme.