One-Way Mirror | Brian LewisPosted: October 15, 2022
26 March 2021. 3.45pm. Everything is as it was. Nothing is what it was. I leave Fargate and turn left onto Leopold Street, the road splits in two, one lane points to Pinstone Street, the other leads to Barker’s Pool. Some years ago, when there was money in the town, a series of secondary signs appeared on streets near the ring road, directing motorists, passengers and pedestrians to the Heart of the City. I wasn’t living in Sheffield when the signs went up and I couldn’t work out if the Heart of the City was a place or an idea of a place, the council’s idea, a developer’s idea, how will I find it, how will I know it. There are no maps of the Heart. The signs are still visible and they still don’t tell me where I need to go. Perhaps this is the Heart, or part of it, Leopold Street is a pulmonary vein, Barker’s Pool is the left atrium. City Hall and the war memorial in one chamber, the town hall and the Peace Gardens in the other, which are the valves, which are the ventricles. I cannot draw a heart from memory. I think of my first heart, in a volume of the Merit Students Encyclopedia, it was made of transparent colour plates, a diagram built up in layers. The heart was divided into two or more sheets and the parts were labelled in small black text. I learned how to take it apart and put it back together. It was a simple matter of turning the pages. I am walking into Pinstone Street, I have Barker’s Pool on my right, the narrow neck, a glimpse of dear dead Patisserie Valerie. I don’t see City Hall, set back from the thoroughfare, the sloping steps, the great portico. The memorial is straight ahead, holding the centre. I see the bare flagpole, a white ship’s mast, aground in the empty plaza. To the south, at the edge of eyeshot, the block facade of John Lewis. A few days ago, the Partnership announced that eight of its department stores would shut permanently, including this one. There is a history to the premises. It started out as Cole Brothers, at the eastern edge of Fargate, in 1847, before moving to Barker’s Pool in 1963. The brand was retired in 2002 and the name of John Lewis, who had bought out the store during the Second World War, appeared on the building. The overhaul was part of the initial plan for the Heart of the City, at the turn of the century, which saw a number of shops and businesses working in partnership with the city council and an urban regeneration company. The council continued to work closely with the store, and bought the lease in September 2020, as part of a new, long-term deal in which John Lewis would reinvest the proceeds of the buyout in the store’s redevelopment. Six months later it closed. It was already closed, of course, the store was non-essential, but now it will not reopen. It is a verdict on the city. There is much commentary online. No-one saw it coming. No-one, now, will get to say goodbye. Everyone has a Cole Brothers story or a John Lewis story. The stories are not so much about retail as they are about time, how it is marked and measured, what it means to make something last. I count the visits that my mother made to Sheffield in recent years, there would always be an afternoon in the city, there would always be an hour in John Lewis. The unspoken purpose of the hour in John Lewis was to slow things almost to a standstill. The movement between floors was by way of escalators and the movement across floors happened imperceptibly. There were purchases, instinctive or considered, but these were incidental. The hour would not seem like an hour. There was an enrichment, not of wealth or status, an enrichment of time, the civic life. It was common ground on private land. It was sustained by public memory and it sustained public memory. It is possible to think that this is everything but it is never enough. Even for the heart.
3.50pm. The city used to be a place for thinking things through. It still is, in a way, the thoughts don’t always go where you want them to go. The storefronts were part of a stimulus, a movement in the mind, taking it all in, the print on the glass sheets, always something else reflected, the displays changing with the seasons. You don’t see it at the time. I am southbound on Pinstone Street, I have the Peace Gardens on my left. I pass Barclays Bank, then Leeds Building Society, then an unnamed ginnel, a vacant unit, another vacant unit. Phoneway, Phix, the Park Hill Shop, all gone, all empty, the windows papered or whitewashed. When I have passed the fifth vacant unit I decide that it is deliberate, it must be, it doesn’t happen by accident. There has to be a plan. The sixth unit is also vacant. The doors, windows and panels are brightened with vinyls that spell out the word S h e f f i e l d across the length of the premises, a grid of flat colours, broken up and baffled by inset photographs, crowd scenes, cycle races, the Q-park car park. A single end panel offers a clean, condensed, text-only version, Heart of the City II, white glyphs in a pink field. It’s been like this for some time, a year, two years. It used to be a branch of Somerfield, then a Co-op, then a temporary outlet for WH Smith during the closure and refurbishment of their Fargate shop. The storefront doesn’t tell me what has happened or what will happen next. Here is the Maplin that used to be a Maplin. The branded white fascia has been replaced with a blank white fascia, the windows are a gallery for the work of Sheffield Care Leavers Union and Sheffield Children In Care Council, two poems framed against a paintsplash backdrop, anonymously and collectively authored, one poem is addressed to society, the other is a praise song for the city. The next unit is shuttered and graffitied. Jones the Bootmaker used to be just here, or perhaps here, I used to buy my shoes there, the same shoes every time, I wore them until they fell apart, I no longer have the shoes, I still have the carrier bags. The Co-op bank is still a Co-op bank, there seem to be more banks than ever, or is it that there are fewer shops, the money has to go somewhere, the branch fills out the corner of the terrace and breaks its fall. I turn left to avoid a red and white barricade that marks both a road closure and a footpath closure. The block plastic barrier gives way to a porous steel barrier and I am funnelled into a mixed-use cycle and pedestrian lane that used to be half of a road. The boundary with the remaining half is marked with black planters and concrete kerbstones. There are no cyclists in the mixed-use lane and most of the pedestrians are using the older pavement that serves the storefronts on the left. I look ahead, past the shops and the people, to where the half-road halves again, the fenced-off surface absorbed by the development on the right, new scaffold and concrete and steel in the sky, twin Euromix mortar silos stationed at the gates. I remember very little of what was there before, takeaways, then pop-ups, then student art displays, then nothing. I can’t put a name to any of it now. The fencing yields to printed hoarding, stock images of aerial views, blue-sky views, the views to come. The mixed-use lane widens and the spread is checked by more black planters, spaced across the width of the lane, measuring and managing flow. I am always surprised to see Midcity House at the edge of The Moor, a shabby white liner, adrift in all this new space. The ground floor retail units are in permanent shadow, the glass tagged in thick black marker, it is hard for light to pass through. The upper levels are offices, what is the occupancy now, half full, nearly nil, nil. There is, or was, a small side entrance with a reception. David Blunkett’s constituency office was on the second floor. I interviewed him there in 2012, that isn’t quite true, Amanda initiated the meeting, it was for a project. She led the interview while I operated the audio recorder. The interview had to do with old space, I remember that, the 1970s and 1980s, the industries in decline, the city in decline, his early years as a councillor and then council leader. Amanda coaxed him further back, to the 1950s, to Wardsend Cemetery, he had known it in boyhood, I don’t know how Amanda knew this. He shared his recollections, the difficulty of navigating the cemetery, the atmosphere, the apprehensions. The project moved on and the interview was never used. It’s still in my house somewhere, unnamed but dated, a 100MB WAV file on a Maplin memory card.
3.55pm. Midcity House had a mirror, an identical block at the top of The Moor, facing it across the carriageway and crossings of Furnival Gate. As the buildings grew older they became more and more unlike each other and I ceased to think of them as twins. The block on The Moor had a canopy for pedestrians, as did its double, a useful shelter in inclement weather. When at last the block stood empty the canopy was secured with panels, taking half the pavement with it, a common passage lost to the building’s footprint. The panels were used to advertise the city’s ideas of itself. The block was eventually demolished in 2018 or 2019 and replaced with a H&M store, of roughly similar proportions to the former building, more angular, perhaps, a large portrait-format electronic advertising screen set in a recess above the storefront, it is currently displaying a Deliveroo feature, declaring their support for the NHS, it has a heart, a rainbow, a Deliveroo logo, a secondary message soliciting donations. I stop reading before it vanishes from the screen. I drift in a diagonal towards Debenhams, left to right, an open space interrupted by steel planters, steel bollards, concrete blocks. The concrete blocks are an afterthought to the design, the defensive design, an unmanned, floating checkpoint made visible by a decrease in footfall. Debenhams closed in early January, everything closed in early January, everything that wasn’t essential, but Debenhams was halfway through closing for good. No-one seems to know if it will open again. There are displays in the windows, apparently unchanged since the year’s end, 40% off, STORE CLOSING, and THIS STORE ONLY, but all the stores are closing, it was announced in December. There was sadness, or a show of sadness, and little surprise. I visited the store a week or two after the announcement. I took the escalator to the lower ground floor and I paced about until I found a pack of cotton rich socks, five shades of grey, size 9-12, 30% off. I joined a short, socially distanced queue, and presented the socks at the till. I thought that I should express a sentiment at the end of the transaction, sorry, good luck, but nothing came to mind, nothing that seemed right, so I said thank you to the assistant, and I meant it, and I tried to look as though I meant it, and sound as though I meant it. I followed the one-way system to the side exit and I knew that I would never again set foot in the store. Debenhams was not a site of reverie or epiphany. Many of the departments had collapsed into franchises or concessions and it was harder and harder to find a way through the levels. Often it was heavy going. But it was not useless. Good, affordable kitchenware, well-made umbrellas and wallets, and socks, simple, unpretentious socks. A decent cafe. The makeup counter was another world. There is no way back to it. A spell is broken. The shops brought back from the brink of death, we can’t bear to see them go, we can’t find the words to say goodbye. The shops brought back from the dead, we thought that we missed them, we thought that it would be good to see them again. We let them die a second death, a worse death, having mourned them once. I walk down The Moor, half-closed cafes in the middle of the thoroughfare, The Light ahead, to my right, the escalator and its unresting ascent, Boots, Lloyds, Bodycare. I hurry past Sainsburys, I slow down for Atkinsons, the last of the city’s department stores, except perhaps TK Maxx, if you can call that a department store. Atkinsons has been trading since the 19th century and its origins, like its clientele, are bound up with Cole Brothers. I was a latecomer, I didn’t set foot in the place until 2012, it was somewhere that I could take my mother, it reminded us of McIlroys, an independent department store in Swindon that sold cotton reels and curtains and carpets. It had a grand staircase. McIlroys closed at the end of the century, due, it was said, to competition from Debenhams. Atkinsons is still open, or rather, it is not closing, not as far as anyone knows. I last visited the store on the day of my last visit to Debenhams, it was quiet, it was Christmas but it was not Christmas, the store has many elderly customers, I thought, they will not want to put themselves at risk, even so. I bought toothpaste and socks. Since the John Lewis store closure was announced, there have been exhortations to shop at Atkinsons, to support Atkinsons, to save Atkinsons. I won’t save Atkinsons with purchases of toiletries once a month and socks once a year. What will we remember, how it started, how it ended, what will we remember from the times in between.
‘One-Way Mirror’ is an excerpt from a work-in-progress that draws on an afternoon’s walk around the city of Sheffield. The preceding excerpt, titled ‘Last Collection’, can be found here.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press.