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; 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.
Day twenty-two. 6.45pm. I can’t think of anything to add to the shopping list and so I stop, for a moment, I listen to the birdsong just beyond the window. It is quiet again. I think my way back to the morning song and the sound that followed, I couldn’t place it, I thought it was the bins at first, there was no engine, no movement, only the sound of the road being scraped. Then men. Men shouting over the noise they had made. This can’t last forever, I thought, and it’s true, nothing can last forever. They were gone by 8.30am. I’d woken two hours earlier, I’d woken from a dream, this is the dream, the dream was me waking to find that my life was two percent smaller than when I had gone to sleep and it would no longer fit properly. It wasn’t meant to be written down. I pick up the shopping list and tuck it inside my wallet. Then I shoulder my rucksack and leave the house. I am leaving the house to get things for the house, things that will help us to stay in the house, things that will make us feel safe in the house. I pass a Wetherspoons that used to be a public baths and cross the road to a shopping precinct that used to be an army barracks. The barracks was redeveloped in the 1980s but the shape of it is still clear and there are little red and green plaques on the stone walls that explain what the stone walls were built for. If I stop outside Osteoporosis 2000 I can read of how it used to be a military hospital. Then I forget. The parade ground is now a car park but I tell myself that I can still see the parade ground underneath. There is only so far you can go in any direction. I reach the steps and start my descent to Morrisons, the upper levels disappear from view, it is harder to see the footprint. I walk around and through the modified entrance and pass a vinyl policeman stuck to the window of the entrance and a security guard to the side of the entrance. I wait at a distance as the man in front of me picks up a basket, I move forward, I pick up a basket from a different pile. I forget where the things are and end up with the magazines, I don’t touch them, the aspirational magazines. We can dream a future, we can turn to the past, we can be anywhere but the present. The things that I am after are at the far end of the store. I go through the list and find nothing that is on the list. Apart from sponge scourers. The aisles seem tighter than before. A man inches forward, another man inches back, we make ourselves smaller to survive.
Day twenty-three. 7.05am. The men came again last night. They were here at 11pm, I saw them through the window as I was settling the house, their vans parked on the south side of the road. The sound didn’t disturb me, light industrial tones do not disturb me, it’s a comfort, a dull wash of grey noise. When I step into the street I expect to see a new road but nothing has changed. The machinery has gone. A patch of dust, some dented signs. I look up the road, past Travis Perkins, and I think I see the section they have been working on, it stops just short of the dentist, the pinkish grey surface, a night’s work. I turn back and cross the road and head towards the garage. It is bright and warm but most of the street is still in shadow. The shadows are cast from the tall south terraces and reach almost to the north terraces, the street is a Victorian street, what were my first impressions. I remember trying to find out when my house was built as I was moving in. I remember finding something from the 1860s, a plan or a census, it might have been a little later, a little earlier. James Murgatroyd the bootmaker lived here for several decades, an ironmonger lived in the house next door, a confectioner lived in the other house next door, though perhaps not at the same time. I pass the Hallam Veterinary Centre. In one of the shadows I find 10p which I pick up and put in my pocket. I wait for a tram to round the corner and I cross the road and then I cross the intersection. The cashpoint at Lloyds Bank has been smashed in, the glass and the plexiglass, the pieces have been swept from the pavement. Two lengths of black tape are stretched across the terminal to make an X. When I get to the garage forecourt I take a few moments to navigate the newspaper stand as some of the newspapers are back to front and I don’t recognise them. I go inside to pay for the newspaper, the cashier and I exchange our usual greetings, I turn to go, she says something as I leave, I don’t quite catch what it is, I pretend to hear, I pretend to understand, it might be nothing.
Day twenty-four. 10.25am. I hear birdsong from the upstairs rear windows and I know that if I step into the garden it will be gone. I go downstairs and into the kitchen and stop to listen where I stand, at the rear kitchen doors, I do nothing but listen, even so it is gone. It is not that the birds have gone, it is not that the birds are not there. It’s the air shifting, I think, it can’t carry as much. I don’t know what I mean by this and so I let the thought go. I step into the garden and hear what sounds like a light aircraft and take several more steps into the garden and look up at the sky and at the end of the sky there is a light aircraft. It is going into the south with a banner stretched behind it. The morning is cloudless, bright blue overhead, the sun’s glare hits the banner’s length, it is a blank space, all I read there is light. The aircraft dips below the terraces and the sound dies out. I try to remember why I came downstairs, it seems obvious now, the birdsong at my window can only be heard from my window. I go back upstairs. What else do I hear from my window, the traffic at the front of the house, quieter in the last month, the neighbours in their yards and gardens, hanging out washing, taking in washing, the dogs in the streets, near and far. I am at my desk as I think this over and I turn to a book in which I find sound maps of the Outer Hebrides compiled by Cathy Lane. The sketches record some of the acts of listening, individual and collective, that have taken place throughout the islands in the time that she has spent there, the sounds are plotted from memory. I think I am looking at South Uist. I read the map anticlockwise, Corncrake 2006, Substation Hum 2008, Generator Hum 2006. I try to visualise an audio map of the terrace, the sounds I have accumulated at my desk, some of them suspended for weeks (the extractor chimney of the Chinese takeaway, the building work at the former hairdresser’s, people on their way home from the pub), some of them amplified (the voices of neighbours at a near distance, the vibration from the defective drain cover on the main road), some of them lost. I have to stop and think about this. I don’t even know my own street. I go downstairs. I go outside. I am going to the garage for the second time today, there were no newspapers earlier, perhaps there will be newspapers now, somehow I don’t think so. I stop at the derelict site where the end terrace used to be. The rear of the property is in bad shape, the stone, the brick, the slates. All that remains of the front and the middle are a steel beam and the first few courses of the side walls. The site has been like this since the 1980s. It used to be a cafe. It was burnt down for the insurance, but the insurance never paid out, because it was burnt down for the insurance. My next-door neighbour told me this. She told me other things about the site but I wasn’t listening properly. When I moved in seven or eight years ago the plot was defended by something like chipboard, in six or seven sections, all different sizes, motley and grey. A few years later the makeshift fence was replaced with heavier wooden panels, the owner had them painted orange, this soon became a canvas for local graffiti artists, the panels were repainted after a few months, the graffiti returned within weeks. The other thing about the site was that there was a tree, or several trees, that had taken root in the cellar, it was something to see when it was in leaf. In February the wooden fence was removed and the tree or trees were cut down and the site was secured with corrugated steel panels. All the work took place within a day, there was a large team, there seemed to be some urgency. What are you doing, I wanted to say, look at yourselves. I don’t know where the birds are now but they’re around here somewhere.
Day twenty-five. 6.45pm. The corridor in which I store the bins is overflowing with miscellaneous plastics that cannot be collected by the kerbside recycling service teams so I gather the miscellaneous plastics into a large plastic holdall that was originally the single-use packaging for a double duvet. There’s a recycling site at the back of Morrisons that accepts miscellaneous plastics. I will go there, then I will go to Morrisons, I have earned this. I manoeuvre the holdall over several thresholds and into the street. I lock the door, cross the road, and attempt to relax into a stride. It is still light, it is too light, it has been getting lighter since the late afternoon. Although there are very few people around I am feeling slightly embarrassed, no, ill at ease, the stage before embarrassment. The holdall is transparent and it is full of rubbish. I cross to the entrance of the shopping precinct and shift the holdall from hand to hand. I read the text of the red and green plaque on the stone turret that used to mark a boundary of the barracks and now marks a boundary of a retail complex. The plaque is titled TURRET AND WALL and offers a condensed history of the site and its uses. I am perplexed by a sentence that reads in its entirety THE ARMY LEFT IN 1930 AND WAS THEN OCCUPIED BY BURDALL’S CHEMISTS. There’s not much more to the plaque. As I pass through the precinct, I notice another red and green plaque on a stone wall, it is titled THE HOSPITAL. I start to read it and then realise that the text below the title is identical to that which appeared on the previous plaque. The precinct is covered with what I assume is a thermoplastic roof, a polycarbonate roof, I could be wrong or half wrong. The roof doesn’t quite fit and other features have been added to compensate for this. I look up at the anti-pigeon nets and anti-pigeon spikes. Then I leave the precinct and start to cross the upper level of the supermarket car park. The recycling site is left then left again, behind the petrol station and the main delivery yard, there are no signs or markings for the recycling site. I arrive at the recycling site and set down the plastic holdall and take bunches of miscellaneous plastics in my hands and stuff them into a large green recycling bin. When I have finished I notice other miscellaneous plastics at the foot of the recycling bin and I gather these in bunches and stuff them in the bin. Is it repetition that wears us down, I think. I look out beyond the bins and glimpse a section of the Don valley as it leaves Owlerton and crosses into Neepsend. The slopes of the valley are pegged by pylons. It seems that they have nestled there forever. When I was very small I would name each pylon that we passed on the motorway from the back seat of my parents’ car and count them in my head. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. I felt that the pylons belonged to me, if only because no-one else seemed to want them. I was always so happy to see them.
Day twenty-six. 7.30am. The house is cold and the pavement is cold. There is a cloud that sometimes comes, off-white, thick, and low, it has come today, it flattens everything, it drains the streets of shadow, depth, and distance. I used to live for days like this. I used to set out early with a camera and photograph the crispness of the buildings under taut blank skies. I still have the photographs somewhere but I couldn’t say with any certainty where or when most of them were taken. It was part of what I was then. The street is very still, small sounds die without echo, houses are drawn tight and close. Some of the houses could do with some work, I think, my own house included. My father would know what to do. My father would have known what to do. I could go on like this, correcting myself, to think that I would know what my father would think, to think that I would know what my father would know. He never saw this street. He was five years gone when I moved here. I’d stopped taking photographs by then. I pass the Hillsborough Pharmacy and the facade of the Tramways Medical Centre. It is easy to imagine him here, stepping back to read the brickwork of the former depot, piecing it all together, how it was built, when it was built. I don’t have his knowledge, though, I don’t have his eye. I don’t know what he would have made of this street. It is no consolation to make an image of someone, to project a set of values onto that image, to see yourself reflected in that image. It is no good. The sky presses down on Cash Converters and its flat barbed roof. When things come back, they come back to me indirectly, I am often thinking of something else. I am thinking of a walk in central London, it was March or April 2007, a Sunday, a beautiful warm spring day. I remember walking from Paddington railway station to Kensington Gardens, I remember walking through the gardens, I remember thinking back to the thoughts that passed through me on the train, that the walk would be nice, that the walk would do me good, I remember walking out of the gardens, I remember walking on to Exhibition Road, to Onslow Square and Sydney Street, I remember that there was blossom on the street trees. I remember meeting my mother at the main entrance of the Royal Brompton Hospital. I remember taking the lift with my mother to the ward that my father was on. I remember that my father was asleep and that we talked quietly until he came round. I remember leaving the ward with my mother and eating with her in the hospital canteen. I remember walking her back to her lodgings and then walking myself back to Paddington. I remember the call that came two or three days later, a Tuesday or a Wednesday, it was the afternoon, I was in the office, I was at my desk, it was my mother, calling from the Brompton, the results were back, the tests, the biopsy, they had done what they could, but there was nothing more that they could do, nothing more that anyone could do. I remember that the call came to an end and I left my desk and left the office and walked down three flights of stairs to the street. The office complex was adjacent to the bus station and I took a moment to find a wall that I could lean against without anyone seeing me and I leant there for several minutes. Then I went back to the office and returned to my desk. A few minutes later I took a call from a financial adviser who was querying a delay to a commission payment of £30. I handled the query to the best of my ability, no, that’s not true, I handled the query in a perfunctory manner. It wasn’t until later that I thought of the calls that my mother had had to make, alone, that day, to my brothers, to other family members, starting from nothing, then dialling the number. It wasn’t until later that I thought of her, sitting with my father as they waited for the results, everything changing in seconds, having to leave my father on the ward, finding her way back to her lodgings. It wasn’t until later that I thought of the things she said after she brought my father home, how my father had listened to what the consultant had to say, what had happened, what would happen, and that he had thanked him, that he shook his hand and he thanked him, for everything that he had done. He knew what work was. He knew that the consultant had done his best. He knew what that meant. The thought is never far from me now. I pass the garden at Hillsborough Place and glance up at the cherry blossom tree. The branches are greening and the cherry blossom is gone. I look again and see the petals still clinging to the inmost and furthest branches, there are too many to count, little clusters and sprays. I don’t have a camera with me so I try to remember them as they are.
Sheffield, 14–18 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; click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
Day fifteen. 6.30pm. The road outside my house has been resurfaced overnight, or half of it has, the nearside lane. The material is light in colour, pinkish grey diluted, and is loose at the edges. The maintenance crew have left traffic cones at intervals along the terraces. They woke me up at 3am for this. I cross the road so that I am facing the oncoming traffic, there isn’t much but it is steady. Everyone is driving into the sun. At the gates to the flats above The Cake Shop and The Sugar Craft School someone has forgotten the code. They stop, step back, try again. I stand on the Walkley Lane bridge and make several attempts to photograph the weir in the evening light but the brickwork looks drab and the river looks drab. Above me, above the side door of Pizza & Co, a woman leans out of a second-floor window to make a telephone call. Everything seems so far away. I start walking to Morrisons and am suddenly anxious about shopping. I should have prepared, I think, but how do you prepare. What if the rules have changed. I arrive at the modified entrance, there is no one before or behind me, the security guard rocks on his heels. I make for the tinned tomatoes aisle. There are empty cardboard trays with the imprints of tinned tomatoes but no tins. This is reassuring, I don’t know why, no one likes to miss out. Imagine a person, imagine travelling to meet that person, imagine meeting that person. Imagine you are that person.
Day sixteen. 7.05am. I manoeuvre an empty green bin over the front steps, through the narrows of the house, and set it to rest on the gravel. Two weeks ago the garden waste collection was suspended. This week it has been reinstated. I don’t see the Veolia lorry arrive, but I hear it as it leaves, and then I hear the tram, is this the second one today, the vibrations as it passes, tremors in the kitchen, the house feels brittle. I leave the house again and set off towards the garage on Bradfield Road. The road maintenance crew reappeared at 11pm last night, I saw them through the window, their machinery parked beneath an ordinary moon. It is hard to know if the work is finished, again there is loose material, on the road, on the pavement, is this the cause of the vibrations. It doesn’t look right to me but what would I know. I wait for the traffic to clear at Hillsborough Corner, this is unusual, waiting for traffic to clear. Wilko has raised its shutters and set its plant displays on the pavement and it is not yet 7.30am. At the pedestrian crossing that links Wilko to British Heart Foundation there are two men up stepladders, one on each side of the road, cleaning or servicing or repairing the traffic lights. As I near the crossing I notice that they are Amey contractors. It should feel good to know that there are people maintaining the infrastructure, at all hours, but I don’t feel good. One of the men sprays a signal with a long-handled hose. The work draws attention to itself. I pick up a newspaper at the garage forecourt and shoulder the door of the kiosk. A plastic shield has been installed at the counter, there are little vents in the shield, it is still possible to have a conversation. The cashier is not wearing gloves. Perhaps there is spray behind the counter. Perhaps there isn’t. Think about everywhere you’ve been in the past month, everyone you’ve seen.
Day seventeen. 2.45pm. I have amassed an extraordinary quantity of carrier bags since 1993, albeit very few in recent years, and approximately one-tenth of this archive now lies scattered on the kitchen floor. I opened the archive in a search for three carrier bags with their handles intact. After several minutes, I select a Sainsbury’s bag and a Lakeland bag and a bag on which the branding is now illegible. I return the other carrier bags to a kitchen cupboard, there is some difficulty in closing the door, I mash the bags down with my tiny fist. The three carrier bags are stuffed into a rucksack and the rucksack is shouldered across my back. I leave the house, not for the first time today, I paid an unsuccessful visit to the garage at 7am, there were no papers, that’s not true, there were papers, they were the wrong papers, someone must have got to them. I am having to go further and I am coming back with less. At Hillsborough Place two men in orange overalls crouch at the open doors of a green telecommunications cabinet, there is some distance between them, it is hard to judge from here. At the tram stop a woman asks another woman if she is waiting and the second woman says no. I dislike shopping in daylight. It interferes with the rhythm of the day, perhaps it doesn’t matter now, the days have no rhythm. I reach the back of the Morrisons queue. It builds slowly and moves quickly. A man in khaki takes a trolley, he shakes his head, a grown man in short trousers, scowling, demanding that we take him seriously. I am waved inside, there is nothing new in the nothing, no flour pasta yeast spaghetti icing sugar risotto rice peeled plum tomatoes. Fifteen minutes later I set down my basket at the self-service counter. ‘Unchained Melody’ starts up in the overhead speakers, the Righteous Brothers version, it’s a nice enough song, a bit overdone. Hunger, touch. Then the behavioural announcement comes on, again, I think, that’s twice at least today, all I hear is the tone, waiting for it to end, the odd word slips through, distance, time.
Day eighteen. 7.15am. I have been doing jobs, little household tasks, for an hour or so. There is a point at which this ceases to be useful and it is necessary to leave the house. I set off towards the garage. The sky is always different even if the street is the same. This morning’s sky is soft white cloud stretched from end to end, the first few patches of eggshell blue, this will change, slowly or quickly, it will change when I’m not looking. It is Good Friday. I am thinking of another Good Friday, four years back, Easter was earlier then. I had come to the end of three weeks of uninterrupted work, not all of it satisfactory, three weeks shrunk to a screen. I got up at 4am and travelled to North Lincolnshire to start my walk at Ealand, because it had a train station, because it sounded like ‘island’, because I knew nothing about it. The train pulled in to the station shortly after 7am and I disembarked and walked up a lane and tried to work out where the village boundary was. I decided to make it the war memorial, enclosed by metal railings, orphaned by the ruin of the New Trent Inn, still marking the junction, a stone cross, plastic poppies. This is the village, I thought, and I walked into the village, it was still early, the lane was quiet. I looked at the windows of the houses as I passed, not through the windows, but at the windows, I saw printed posters facing out, advertisements of Easter services, the body nailed up, copies of the cross, colours fading under glass.
In every window
a crucifixion, the same
the pane, the numbered stations
dividing each reflection.
I never took to religion, or it never took to me, it didn’t add up, perhaps it was something to do with the way that the stories were handed down. In a village the size of Ealand it’s different, the scale is different, and it’s still going on. I got to the end of New Trent Street and stood in front of the Primitive Hall, the cross taken down, the nails left in the stonework. Then I walked on for another quarter mile and turned east at Outgate and glimpsed for the first time the wind farm at Keadby, the sun rising behind it, and it was all I wanted then, the village at my back, the track and the telegraph wires ahead, to walk toward the white thorns that crowned the lit horizon. I am thinking of this as I cross the garage forecourt and take a newspaper from the newspaper stand and pay for the newspaper and leave the garage. I look at the road, what is there, a slow-moving ambulance, a delivery van. A blankness until I reach the corner and the sound of maintenance, two men putting in a shift at the tram tracks, the power switching on and off.
Day nineteen. 12.45pm. I finish packaging the orders and put the orders in a rucksack with a map and some water. Someone in Crookes has ordered a book, this is a walk of one mile, someone in Totley has ordered two books, this is a walk of seven miles. I could post the books to Totley but the post is taking longer to get through and there are bank holidays in the way and I think that I need a walk of seven miles. I try not to think of it as a walk of fourteen miles, which it is, I try not to think about the walk back. I say goodbye to Emma and two minutes later I am at the weir. A man shuffles past with three large Heron Foods bags. Another man leans into the bridge, looking down at the weir, an open bread bag at his elbow, he is feeding the ducks or is he feeding the pigeons. I push uphill. Already I am finding it hard to be in the moment, any of the moments, nothing stands out, the broken glass on Stony Walk is only broken glass. It is warm, a little muggy, it is windy. I climb the steep and narrow ginnel from Walkley Bank Road to Walkley Road, I avoid the handrail, I avoid touching things that others might touch or might have touched. There are updates in the windows of every shop on South Road. The updates are not news, they were not news when they were printed, they are saying we remember you, please remember us. In the grounds of St Mary’s a clutch of red tulips. I turn right onto Springvale Road, upward to Crookes, I pass the streets where my friends used to live, I see strangers in their gardens, they have gone to the furthest limits of their houses. I find the first address and take out the package and knock and retreat to the street. A friendly person answers the door and we wave our acknowledgements across the gap. I continue uphill and reach the main street in Crookes, which is just called Crookes, imagine the confusion, and head south, everything else lies south of here, south or south-west. I know where I am going, Westbourne Road, Brocco Bank, Ecclesall Road, Ecclesall Road South, to Whirlow, Dore, and Totley, to the edge of the city, half a mile from the Derbyshire border. I know where I am going and I let my thoughts slide. I pass The Old Grindstone, I took my parents there in 1995, I had just moved to Sheffield, I didn’t know where else to take them. I pass Matt and Ruth’s old flat on Lawson Road, I used to hide there in 2012, it was the spring, I had moved back to Sheffield after thirteen years away, I was thinking that I’d made a mistake, moving back was not the mistake, the mistake was in me, I couldn’t explain it, I couldn’t get anything done, the things that I meant to get done. The Botanical Gardens is open, people wait their turn at the entrance, after you, no, after you. Endcliffe Park is open. I don’t see a way to close it, it is vast and porous. I hid there too, in summer 2012, a night walk through the Porter Valley, a night walk is a sort of hiding. I turn onto Ecclesall Road. That was how I ended the year, with a night walk, starting in Hull, a city I’d not visited since 1994, ending at Spurn Point, the mouth of the Humber. It was difficult, I remember that, I had a bad cold, the weather was foul, I was weak at the start and got weaker through the night. The path was barely a path. It hadn’t been walked since the summer, so it seemed, shin-deep grass on the embankment, sodden boots, slow, heavy steps. The moon came and went and I set my head against the wind and rain and then the sky cleared and I lifted my head to the moon above Sunk Island. I was scared. I was not scared of anything that might happen that night, of illness or injury or death, none of these things seemed likely. It was something else. I didn’t try to find the words for it at the time and now I can’t. There were no referents. I knew where I was going but I didn’t know where I was. The bright moon and the dark plain. It felt like something I wouldn’t come back from. I don’t mean that I thought that I would come back with something missing. But that I had cut myself off. That I didn’t know what I was going back to. That something was affecting my sense of scale. I cross the junction at Psalter Lane, where Ecclesall Road becomes Ecclesall Road South, three black O2 cabinets on the corner, are those fans whirring inside, the heat of them, the noise. I think of the last time I walked out here, I was delivering books, it was the fourth of January, there was illness in the family, the walk was a distraction. It was difficult to get the rounds done before dark. This is the thing, you go for a walk and your thoughts slide back, you take in less and less. I think I smell a barbecue and then I look up Brincliffe Edge Road and see a fire engine at the top. I walk a mile of Ecclesall Road South and then another mile. I measure the miles with thoughts of school, I almost never think of school, what went wrong. It was nobody’s fault. I just couldn’t envisage a future for myself, how to make a life, what would I do. The houses get bigger as the city gets smaller. How do you end up in a house like that, I think. The pavement runs out at Whirlow and I cross the road to where the pavement starts over then step back into the road to avoid three joggers and the air they leave behind. I pass a gated development with ENDYMION profiled on the gates and I laugh. I glimpse the edge of Dore Moor before turning onto Limb Lane, this is where we walked with Rob Hindle, the bus set us down just here, or close to here, a walk from Dore Moor to the heart of the city, the 70th anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz, it was the twelfth of December. Rob had written a sequence that reimagined the flight path of the Luftwaffe, that cold, clear, moonlit night, 1940, the city silenced, shut down. We were walking this route, walking back into the city, walking back through the poem. There was snow on the ground. The walk began in daylight and ended in darkness. So much of the city has been razed or rebuilt since then, The Moor, Arundel Gate, Fitzalan Square. I try to keep my mind on Dore, I see a brace of rabbits at the edge of a wood, here is the village, white blossom in the trees, burnt-out daffodils on the lawns, forget-me-nots in the vergeside. The road to Totley rises and falls. On Baslow Road a bus whips up dust and I close my eyes to the particulates. I stop to read an information board, it tells a story of Totley, that it was part of Derbyshire until 1935, it tells a story of G.H.B. Ward, founder of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers. Engraved in the board is a quote, attributed to him, ‘the man who was never lost never went very far’. Yes, I think, until I start to think about it. I find the second and last address. I take out the package and knock and retreat to the driveway. A woman answers the door, she asks me about my journey, she thanks me for making the journey. We say goodbye, I hope you enjoy the books, I say, I will, she says. One of the books is The Footing, in which Rob’s Blitz sequence appears. It’s the last poem in the anthology. As I start back up the road the last lines come back to me:
Geese crowd the Wash, silver flats
full of their clamouring. Shadows ripple
over them, rows of crosses, another,
Day twenty. 4pm. A friend has ordered a book, Meridian by Nancy Gaffield. Good, I think, and he only lives up the road, a few streets away. I dress the book in light packaging and remind myself of the address. I ask Emma if she would like to join me, she says yes, we rummage through a pile of shoes and gloves and make our way out of the house. Soft grey skies, it is quiet for an afternoon, it is quieter than yesterday. We turn right, then right again, into Beechwood Road and its distant slopes. We notice an elderly man on the pavement ahead and step into the road. ‘Good morning’, Emma calls out, then catches herself, we all laugh, we share a joke. Post meridiem. Emma is taking note of the houses that we pass and is suggesting improvements that could be made to our house. Her suggestions are good and insightful but I am useless at DIY and fearful of change and Emma senses this in my silence. We laugh, we smile, it is a longstanding joke. We turn right onto Portsea Road, where the gradient levels out, then left onto Findon Street. I find the address and knock on the front door, I leave the package on a boundary wall, we both take several steps back. After a minute or two Paul appears from the back door. It is good to see him. The last delivery I made here was ten days ago, his supply of Marmite had expired and he was unable to source any jars in Sheffield, I found a jar in Morrisons and took it round to him. He reimbursed me with coins soaked in vinegar. We talk for some minutes, Paul and Emma and me, how are we managing, are we getting any work done, what will happen, what is possible. A few people pass by on the other side of the street. We talk a little more and then say goodbye, Paul goes back into his house, we turn back for our house. The windows on the streets have so much colour in them, the little posters, it is commonplace now, we don’t talk of it, we hardly notice it.
Day twenty-one. 7.15am.
A two-tone hopscotch
on the pavement of my street —
twenty-one scuffed squares.
Think of a number,
remember all this colour —
pathways after rain.
Sheffield, 7–13 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; click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
Day eight. 11.30am. I’ve stopped noticing. Somewhere ahead are the cars I’ve stopped counting. I count the book orders as they trickle in, not to lose track, another visit to the Post Office. I see the queues up and down Middlewood Road and it is clear that one of them is for the Halifax, another is for B&M, another is for Eve’s Fruit Stores, it is not clear which is which, however, you’d have to ask, the starts and the ends look the same. I wait at the door of the Post Office. I think about Sheffield’s flood maps and cholera maps, this was part of how I came to build a knowledge of a city in which I wasn’t born, in which I hadn’t lived, at a distance, first, then intimately. I think of the new maps that the people here are making, of the pharmacy, the grocer, the supermarket. How to navigate a shop. How to stand on a pavement. I squint at the door of the Post Office, there is no queue after all, I put my face to the glass and the door is opened from the other side. On the way home I make a detour via Hillsborough Place. Two neighbours are talking across the length of their street, they are discussing a shopping itinerary. ‘I’ll try my best, Shirley’. I stop at the modular planters that I stopped at yesterday. The tulips that I thought were losing their colour are not losing their colour, this is their colour.
Day nine. 7.05pm. I make an attempt at the washing-up then remember the thing I was trying to remember which is that there is no milk for the morning. The shops are opening later and closing early. I abandon the dishes and leave the pans to soak. I find the shopping list, a scrap torn from an envelope, some of the items were scribbled on it ten days ago, others have been added and crossed out and reinstated. I stuff the list in my pocket and leave the house. It’s still light. There are a few cars, they race up and down Holme Lane without slowing, there are one or two people, the one ahead of me is a man, the one who passes me is a man. The street doesn’t seem safe and it’s hard to say why. At Hillsborough Interchange there are no buses in the bays and no-one is waiting. I descend the steps to Morrisons where the entrance has been reconfigured with plastic barriers, this has been in place for a few days now, everyone accepts it. There are no staff to manage the queue because there is no queue and so I walk inside. I make three tours of the aisles, decelerating orbits, the things that are not on the shelves are not on the shelves, the things that are on my list will remain on the list. The people with trollies are moving with purpose. I am distracted by a packet of remaindered cheese scones, I stare at the packet, not quite taking it in. Cyndi Lauper is in the overhead speakers. I have an affection for the tune, always it surprises me, to hear it, to think of it. If you fall I will catch you I will be waiting. After a minute or so I lose my place in the song. When I go to the checkouts I find that half them have been taken offline, alternate terminals only, this is to help with distancing. It’s hard to know what the staff are thinking. I pack a few loose bananas into my bag and turn for the exit, keeping six paces behind the customer in front, you can relax now, he says to his phone, it’s the same for everyone.
Day ten. 7.30am. Every day there is a new rainbow. Today it is a double rainbow in an upstairs window, halfway along Holme Lane, two sheets of A4, one above the other. I am walking to the garage for a newspaper. All the traffic is going the other way, then the lights change at the tram terminus and the eastbound lane catches up with me. A slow flare, is it familiar, the red and yellow markings of a maintenance vehicle. I cross Hillsborough Corner and stop to read a poster in the window of Wilko explaining why it is open. Someone calls my name. I turn and see no-one, then turn again, it is Matthew Clegg, Ruth Palmer, they are framed in the entrance of the Hillsborough Exchange. We stand around and chat. Everyone feels out of place. I say that I am going to the garage. Matt and Ruth are going the same way, so we walk together and separately, this is awkward, we say. I see you’re writing a blog, Matt says, yes, I say, I’m running out of ideas though. We stop at the garage and Matt and Ruth say goodbye, where are you going now, I say, Iceland, they say. I stare at the newspaper display stand, half of the papers are missing, the other half are the Daily Mail or likenesses of the Daily Mail. I turn back, I will call in at the Hillsborough Exchange, I think. I try the doors and they open but everything is closed and the arcade is empty. There is 1950s rock and roll in the speaker system, it is unusually loud, there are no bodies to absorb it. I turn back to the doors, can I still get out, will someone be along later.
Day eleven. 11.50am. I have been up since 6am, which is normal, and lack energy and focus, which is not. I have lost all the thoughts and tasks that were not written down. Among the tasks that I did write down was the parcelling of books, this has taken up most of the morning, cardboard and Sellotape and Pritt Stick. I shake off the trimmings and go to the Post Office with the day’s orders. On Haden Street a man scales a ladder to a first-floor window and cleans the glass with a cloth. It is overcast, the light is soft and grey, the air is still. I turn into the next street and adjust my course, stepping into the road, making way for returning shoppers. Here is a man, a heavy bag in each hand, he looks done in. It’s all the waiting. At B&M Stores the queue has changed direction, stretching back to, and overlapping with, the Post Office queue. There is some confusion. Everyone in the queue stares back at the queue. I find my place in the Post Office queue, which is very short, and try not to look pleased with myself, what’s the word, smug. Some people are getting used to this, some are not. Some of us think we know better. A counter becomes free and I move toward it, hesitantly, not wanting to take up too much of the distance. On Tuesday the staff were wearing masks without gloves and today they are wearing gloves without masks. ‘This is a Large Letter’, I say, ‘and so are these.’ The parcels are labelled with postage and placed in a sack. I leave via a gap in the B&M queue and walk back the same way that I came. On Haden Street the man with the ladder has moved to the house next door, he is in his element, it is hard to tell if he is starting or finishing. The people here will have clean windows to look out of. Is it important, though, is it essential. What is essential, who is essential.
Day twelve. 12.50pm. I have several errands that I have been saving up, a round trip, a few miles of deliveries and deposits. I pack a rucksack with a map and some water and the things to hand over. What will it be like in the city, I think, will the city still be there. On Langsett Road I realise that I have not been this far east in almost three weeks. The Bamforth Street tram stop is just ahead. The trams were cut in half, then half again, then half again, the frequency dropping from 12 minutes to 20 minutes and finally an hourly service. A blue tram passes on the other side of the road, it is bound for Halfway, I count six passengers on board. The Masons Arms is secured and alarmed. I see people in the street, here and there, in ones and twos. Some of them are walking in the road, the traffic is light, is this for avoidance. Everything is moving very slowly. At The Wellington it hits hard, the things I didn’t do, the things that can’t be done. I think of all the things I will do when this is over and I know I won’t do any of them. I cross the roundabout to Shalesmoor and see the vulnerable premises that have been boarded up, which makes them look more vulnerable, and the message STAY HOME ESSENTIAL JOURNEYS ONLY on the electronic message sign above the eastbound lane. I can unpick the birdsong from the old furnace sites, and here is the Nichols Building, now a furniture depot, the furniture is FURTINTURE on the printed canvas. Every third car seems to be a police car or an ambulance. Is it that there are more emergency vehicles on the road or is it that there are fewer non-emergency vehicles on the road or. A second roundabout at West Bar, there used to be a town gate around here, then uphill, Silver Street, Paradise Street. I sometimes stand in Paradise Square and listen for the hum that rises from somewhere near Scotland Street or Solly Street. It tells me that I’m in the city. I don’t hear it today. I climb past the cathedral and around Church Street and into Fargate. I feel inside my fleece pocket for the cheque that Emma has asked me to pay in at Santander, it is there, the cheque, the bank card. The Santander website says that the Fargate branch is open until 2pm today. I draw level with the doors of the bank. It is closed until Monday. I shuffle over to a cashpoint, there is an option for deposits, it gladdens the heart. The machine sucks the card from my fingers and invites me to feed the cheque into a slot. I feed the cheque into the slot, the slot flashes green, a mechanism behind the slot whirrs and clicks and catches. There is a pause of several seconds. A message on the screen advises me that the cheque deposit has not been successful and that the cheque will be returned to me. The mechanism whirrs and clicks and catches, the green light flashes, then stops flashing. The cheque is not returned. After a minute the screen defaults to the transaction menu. After another minute I leave. Everything on Fargate is closed, no, that’s not true, Marks and Spencer is open, Poundland is open. There are no cars at Castle Square and just one or two stationary buses, engines off, stopped at their stops. The city is simpler without traffic. I follow the tram lines, High Street, Commercial Street, breaking off at Ponds Forge, scaling the steps to Park Square, an elevated junction where three lines intersect. I turn right at the intersection, as if I were bound for Halfway, as if I were a tram. I pause at the rear entrance of the railway station, there is no one going in or coming out, I step towards the Departures board, it looks like a full schedule, trains in all directions, all the services on time. I back out of the entrance and lean over a concrete wall and search the platforms below but I don’t see anyone. The steps to the amphitheatre and South Street are closed so I take the long, low path to Clay Wood Bank. The path climbs gently, then sharply as it meets the bank, there is another path into Clay Wood, steep and winding. A woman is picking flowers at the metal bike barriers, she waits for me to pass, I wait for her to pass. All this green ascending. The last time I was here was three years ago, a poetry walk, led by Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green, there were twenty of us, climbing the city from Lady’s Bridge, this was our last stop, Angelina reading at the foot of the Cholera Monument, Pete with their back to the city. Today there is no one but me and a woman, sitting on a bench, looking out towards Highfield and Nether Edge. I make a slow half-circuit of the monument, leaving the woman to her view, her moment. The interpretation board has gone but the plaque at the foot of the monument is intact. It tells me that the deaths from the 1832 cholera epidemic totalled 402, that the bodies are buried nearby, that the monument was raised a few years later. A light, fresh breeze ripples the air. I scan the skyline, its clutter, the SHU buildings, the car parks, the upscale lofts, a few suspended cranes, a city holding its breath. I step back from the edge and take the path for Clay Wood, I think it is the path, there are several paths criss-crossing the grounds. After a few minutes I am out of the woods and on Granville Road. I could not plot a clear route to my first delivery and this will be slow, I think, I have a Sheffield A-Z in my hand. Norfolk Heritage Park is closed. I turn south along Donnington Road where several cars are trying to reverse out of their driveways. I stop to look at a utility cover embedded in the pavement, it reads POST OFFICE TELEPHONES and is in good repair. The cemetery is somewhere on my left. At the junction of St Aidan’s Road and St Aidan’s Way I find a motionless bee. I crouch to the pavement and set my rucksack down. The only thing I have for it is water, I take out the bottle and pour half an inch into the cap, then carefully empty the cap on the asphalt. ‘Is it a dead bee?’ calls a woman from a house on St Aidan’s Way, she is standing on the threshold of her doorway, a small child just behind her. I look down at the bee, it is stirring slightly and making for the water, I look back at the woman. ‘It might be OK’, I say, ‘I’ve given it some water.’ ‘Bless you’, she says, and goes back inside. There is nothing more that I can do for the bee, I try to keep the thought of it close as I climb Brimmesfield Drive and Northern Avenue. An hour before I set out, I received a message from a friend, the message asked if I could deliver a book to a friend in Arbourthorne, I said yes, here I am at what I think is the house of the friend. I know nothing about the friend other than that he is a climber and has been self-isolating. I knock on the door, then take several steps back, I am wearing gloves. The friend answers the door and I hand the book over. The book is Rock as Gloss by Mark Goodwin and I mention that the poet is a climber and that the jacket artwork is by Paul Evans who is also a climber and do you know Paul. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘I know him very well.’ We say goodbye and I turn back up the road. A few doors down a radio blares from a garden, it is ‘Fast Car’, Tracy Chapman, the song is interrupted by a commercial. The map tells me to head south then west along East Bank Road. It is downhill now, there is not much to see, on the brick facade of the Lotus House someone has painted the greeting HAPPY 40TH JOEY. I nearly miss the turning for Daresbury Road, I take it, although I feel that I am turning back on myself, at the bottom I turn right onto Gleadless Road, I try to keep the navigation in my head. The sun comes out on the descent into Heeley. There are dandelions and what might be speedwell on the verges and in the gardens. There are rainbows in the windows. On the metal railings of Heeley Parish Church a canvas banner declares HOPE IN OUR VILLAGES TOWNS AND CITIES. I am always surprised to see The Sheaf View from any direction and here it is now, at the foot of the hill, empty kegs stacked up like silver ballast. Somewhere near the former Primitive Methodist Chapel a telephone is ringing, it is a landline, it sounds old, it seems to be coming from Thermax or Prosol. A train crosses the railway bridge, three carriages, two of them empty. I pass under the bridge and try to work out my second delivery, it isn’t far, Abbeydale Road near London Road. I cut through an alley and into a side street. I take out the parcel and check the address and cross into Abbeydale Road and there is the house. I knock on the door and another door opens and we say hello and I hold the parcel out at arm’s length and leave. That was easy, I think. On London Road I see a police car at low speed, a few minutes later I see another, I realise it the same police car, it is a patrol. I reach the bottom of The Moor and think that I will pay a visit to Sainsbury’s. There is a queue but I am half of it, we both look to the security guard, the security guard waves us in. Inside the floor is measured out in black and yellow hazard tape. I reach the chilled aisle and see Andy. ‘Andy’, I say, I have not seen him in over a year. I keep my feet behind the black and yellow tape. I ask him how things are and he asks me how things are. ‘Fine’, I say, ‘people are still buying books.’ ‘Well, there’s not much else for them to do’, he replies. I suppose not, I think to myself.
Day thirteen. 2.45pm. I have set myself an hour for today’s deliveries to run concurrently with today’s exercise. I leave the house and cross the road. The business post is piling up on the floor of the Holme Fish Bar. I adjust my step to avoid what I think is broken glass on the pavement, I look again, it is not broken glass, it is cherry blossom blown from the cherry blossom tree. I cross the river Loxley at Walkley Lane and look down at the weir, the section that collapsed in last November’s floods is still unrepaired, brickwork and debris clumped in the shallows. I start uphill. After several weeks of Sundays this doesn’t feel like a Sunday. It is all stopping and starting uphill, Stony Walk to Parsonage Street, Walkley Road to Heavygate Road. At the junction of Heavygate Road and Northfield Road someone has chalked the name HENRY. I turn into a cul de sac, it is also uphill, the top of the road seems distant from the bottom. I reach into my bag with a gloved hand and take out the jar of damson gin that Emma has made. Last Sunday morning I found a jar of yeast on my doorstop, it was from Jo and Chris, they knew we were running low. I leave the gin on the doorstep, knock, and take several steps back. Chris answers the door and we speak at length and at a distance. I stand in the street, behind the garden wall, my head alone is visible. He mentions his colleagues, how the illness has touched each of them in turn, we talk back and forth, of contingencies, compromises. We say our goodbyes. I turn onto Northfield Road and stop and sit at the bus stop and take out a postcard and start to write on it. I am writing to a friend who lives nearby and who has not left her flat for some time. I try to say something about the street that I’m on, what is happening. A man on the pavement is talking with a woman on a second-floor balcony. At the edge of the Bole Hills someone has launched a kite, there it goes, in and out of view. A few minutes pass and I become aware of a sound, a rhythm, it is regular, close, it must have been there all along. The bus stop is ticking. I stand up and walk around the bus stop, there are no devices, no mechanisms. I leave the bus stop and walk to the flats. The postcard seems flimsy and all that it says. Outside the flats a week’s washing hung out, drying in the communal court.
Day fourteen. 9.10am. A light rain overnight, the last traces on the pavement, in patches and puddles that the sun hasn’t got to. I am walking to Santander to sort out Saturday’s bungled cheque deposit on behalf of Emma. It wasn’t my fault, it was the machine’s fault, but I feel responsible. On Langsett Road, sunlight hits the asphalt and the tram tracks, it is blinding, the light is unbroken by traffic. There are new flags at the Hillsborough Hand Car Wash. I don’t think the flags mean anything, they are there to lend height and prominence to the forecourt, it has always lacked a canopy. It occurs to me that this would be a good time to hide in the grounds of the car wash as it is not in use. Why would I do that, though, why am I thinking like this. I try to think of something else instead. I am thinking of last year’s walks in Holderness and Lincolnshire and how the maps led me to believe that I would meet very few people on the rural and estuarine paths and how the maps were correct. It is another thing to encounter an absence of people where the people should be. A woman tries the door of Dibco Tools, which I often misread as Disco Tools, she can’t get in. On any other Monday this would be any other Monday. I turn into Gibraltar Street, there is a delivery at the door of Yorkshire Decorators Centre, a pallet of paint. Every other door is closed. I pass the cathedral just before the clock starts counting to ten and by the time I reach Fargate the tower is silent. At Santander there is a queue, an uneven curve, it tails off into the precinct. I expected a queue and so I start writing a postcard to my mother. Dear Mum, we’re fine, I hope you are too. I finish the postcard, someone in the queue is talking to someone else in the queue, they are talking about the town hall, they are saying that the flag is at half mast. I turn around and look up and it is true. None of us know what this means. I reach the front of the queue and the gloved and masked clerk asks me what I want. I explain that my partner’s cheque is stuck in the machine and that it was the machine’s fault. I then pass a sheet of paper to the clerk, these are her account details, I say, and these are her contact details. The clerk goes inside and does something to the machine and returns a minute later with the cheque. ‘We’ll get this paid in today’, he says. I thank him and leave the queue. There must be a post box around here, I think, there must be a collection today.
Sheffield, 31 March–6 April 2020.
Day one. 6.45am. It will be good to be out, I think. I am delivering a book to a friend on Roscoe Bank, a friend who has not left the house for several days. I lock the door and turn into the street, a man is walking on the other side, shuffling and staring, I don’t meet his gaze. The traffic is thin. I cross the road, then another road, there is nothing coming. I reach the banks of the Rivelin, I start to run, I am not a good runner. I sprint, then stroll. I reach the park. I pass a dog walker, a water play area, a shut cafe. The playground is unlocked and the heat from the soft rubber surfaces drifts through the gate. I pass the allotments and another dog walker. I cross a stone bridge over the Rivelin and climb the steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank. Uninterrupted birdsong. I am taking care not to touch handrails, gateposts, stiles or fenceposts. I reach the friend’s house and post the book through the door. Milk on the step, two pints, blue top. It is good to see deliveries. I leave and start back down the slopes and steps, there are a few more walkers now, one person one dog, also a young family, two adults two children, we nod from a distance. There are a few more cars on the road. It is 7.30am, a road sweeper passes slowly, brushing the kerb, a haze in its wake. In the display window of Towsure the question STAYING HOME THIS EASTER? I wait for the cars to pass and cross the street to my house.
Day two. 2.40pm. Someone in Stannington has ordered a copy of The Footing so I decide to walk it over, a round trip of six miles, a new route. I have the pavement to myself. I think about the intervals between vehicles, there are long, regular gaps. White car, white car, white van, white car. There is work going on at the river, I can hear it, Rivelin Cutlery, Slater Sheet Metal Ltd. I pause at the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley, the water rust-red with iron deposits. As I enter the valley park I meet a friend who is pushing a child in a stroller. We talk at a distance and he mentions the sale of his parents’ house yesterday, how the conveyancing documents had to be witnessed through glass, then signed at a stretch, the pen making contact with paper, but not the hand. The trees filter light and trap heat. The playground is locked and deserted, no it isn’t, there is a muscular man using the frame of a child’s swing as a pull-up bar, his actions are practised and calm. The gyms are closed, I understand that, but this doesn’t seem right. At the banks of the river some people are forgetting how to behave. Walking feels strained. I climb the same steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank that I climbed yesterday, then start to lose what I’ve learned, the road dips and I stop to check the map. I pass Liberty Hill and continue west, the road seems busy for a back lane, the cars don’t slow. None of the fields are at rest. There is machinery everywhere, starting or stopping. I pluck a blue flower from a stone bank, is it a forget-me-not, a blue flower with a yellow centre. At The Rivelin pub the WHATS ON board is wiped clean. I turn through Tofts Lane and find the steep footpath to Stannington. An electric fence divides the footpath from an uneven field. The field climbs with the footpath, the fence makes sparks in the heat, it is rhythmic, one two three four pause, then it is constant, like a dripping tap. I labour uphill, it grows faint, then stops. The path opens into a long, narrow field and I glimpse the western edge of Stannington above it. This is the first poem in The Footing, I think, a ‘high scrape / of heather and bracken’, I have stepped into it. I walk the length of another field and into Nethergate. The address is around here, there are gaps between houses and house numbers, I walk the crescent and back, I start again, I start to understand the crescent, I find the address. The person who ordered the book is at her window, she is painting her porch frame, we talk at a distance, she asks me about the route I took. After a few minutes I leave and she goes back to her work. I slip into the long field and watch the city breathe out and fall back.
Day three. 8.10am. I have run out of bananas and things so I leave the house in search of them. I turn east along Holme Lane and cross the road, diagonally to the chip shop, there is a notice in the window, handwritten on chip paper, DUE TO CORONA CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE STAY SAFE. I pass more commercial premises, there are notices in almost all the windows, penned or printed. The 81 bus idles in its bay with three people on board. The windows of the tram stop barbers are boarded up, there is no message, there is no need. Usually, at this hour, Langsett Road can’t be crossed without signals, I count three vehicles heading into town, car ambulance car. There are great soundless gaps between people. I take the steps to The Parade, the local shopping centre, most of the units will not be opening today, I descend the steps on the other side, to Morrisons, the main entrance and lower car park, there is a queue, it winds around the side of the former barracks, I can’t see the end. After a few minutes I join the queue, a few feet from the secondary entrance, which is closed. The queue is largely made out of gaps, some of the gaps have trolleys in them, this helps to preserve the distance. Every few minutes we shuffle forward. The mood is relaxed but there is little conversation. This feels normal, expected, inevitable. As I near the head of the queue I see that people are being counted by the staff on the doors. One out, one in. Several people leave in close succession, some with trollies, some with bags, sanguine, defeated, absent. A man gives a thumbs up to no-one in particular. I am waved through and I grab a basket. I make for the mozzarella, there is no mozzarella, I go to where the oats should be, there are no oats, I repeat this for yeast, olives, tinned tomatoes, where have all the sweeties gone. There is no flour, obviously, I will never see flour again. There is floury residue on the flour shelf and I consider scraping it together to make a small biscuit. ‘You’re Beautiful’ is jammed in the overhead speakers, this stops after a while, it is followed by late-period Cliff Richard. My basket is empty. I go to the grocery section, there is much fruit, I take some bananas, apples, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. There is no queue for the self-service checkout and no-one is standing on the social distancing floor stickers. I leave the store to meet a queue as long as the one that I left and the tower clock striking nine.
Day four. 11.30am. People in Ormskirk and Leicester have ordered some books so I spend the morning fiddling with cardboard and sellotape until I am satisfied with the geometrically correct packages. ‘I’m going to the Post Office’, I call to Emma. I go downstairs and enter the kitchen, I forget why I have entered the kitchen, I am going to the Post Office, I leave the kitchen, then leave the house. The roads are quiet, the pavement less so. The Post Office is three streets away and two of these streets are side streets. I start to sprint across Taplin Road, I almost nearly don’t quite see the car in my path, I stop myself in time, I am getting unused to traffic. I turn left into Middlewood Road. The banks are closed, the estate agents are closed, most of the shops are closed. The people on the pavement make the street look busy, there is no hurry, there is nowhere for them to go. I cross Middlewood Road and reach the doors of the Post Office. A poster taped to the glass states that entry is restricted to a maximum of two persons at any one time. A second poster states that opening hours are 9am – 1pm until further notice. Warily, I try the door, a member of staff beckons me with a nod, I step forward, I am the only customer. The air is heavy and flat. I put my parcels on the scale and try to complete my half of the transaction with minimal contact. I thank the staff, awkwardly, and leave. I cross the road to my local newsagent. My local newsagent is shuttered and taped to the shutters is a note that reads WE HAVE TAKEN THE DECISION TO PROTECT OUR HEALTH AND YOURS STAY SAFE ALAN KEVIN + FAMILY ALL STOCK HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM PREMISES. I cross back and pass B&M Stores, where an unsmiling man is stationed at the door, a small queue winding down to the street. I pass Eve’s Fruit Store, it is busy inside and out, an elderly woman glares at a nectarine. After a few minutes I am at the forecourt of the Jet Petrol Station on Bradfield Road. I take a newspaper from a display stand and go inside to pay. At the kiosk there is a conversation between a builder and the cashier, the aisle is narrow, I don’t know where to stand. The cashier signals to me and I move forward and pay. I step back and the builder and the cashier resume their conversation. I hear only the builder’s side, it seems that he is talking about his boss, this has not been a short conversation, he is summing up now. This is about the size of it, he says, this is what the boss is saying, in effect, he is saying I’ll stay safe at home while you go out and earn me money.
Day five. 2.30pm. Another book order, it is from Crosspool, a few miles south-west of here. I consult a map and consider possible routes and decide to walk out via Rivelin Valley Road. There are other routes, possibly easier, probably quicker, but I am liable to misremember them and stall at a junction, over and over, consulting a map. The traffic is light on Rivelin Valley Road. The pavement is made out of mulch, so it seems, leaves and twigs from tall trees that stand at regular intervals. Some of the trees still have handmade SAVE ME banners tethered to their trunks. The campaign is over, the banners are the memory of the trees that didn’t make it. Here is Hagg Hill and its bastard gradient. There is no pavement on either side of the road so I sidestep into a narrow verge to avoid the cars on their descent. I see a bridleway to my right and I take it, it is like a holloway, a sunken track with canopy cover, part of a network, branching west, supporting the allotments that terrace the hillside. The bridleway winds uphill, parallel to the road, I stop every few minutes to take in a different view of the suburbs below. Stannington rises and falls. I pass the alpaca farm with its alpacas and turn right along Back Lane where I find another mesh of allotments, everyone is here, it seems, bent over their plots, in little sheds and bowers, people come and go, distantly, singly. I find the address, there is no need to knock, the door opens and I step back, then I hand over the book. We talk briefly and wish each other well. I think I will take a different route home, I can work it out from here, I can pop into ASDA and pick up a few things. I follow a bend in the road then a bend in a bridleway and I am skirting the lower slopes of Crookes Cemetery. The bridleway is crowded, there are pinch points, a few of us pausing or slowing to maintain distance and flow. I see the pastel backs of Stannington View Road and the colours drip into the park like lollies. I turn into Mulehouse Road and draw level with the houses. Some of the residents are having a go at DIY and gardening, a woman is moving plant pots around her patio. The next street is silent, a bank holiday without the people. I enter Northfield Road, a Co-op on the other side, next to the Co-op a Sainsbury’s. There are distanced queues of roughly similar lengths outside both supermarkets. I stand at the back of the Co-op queue. It seems very dark inside. After 10 minutes I reach the front of the queue and after another 2 minutes a masked assistant unlocks the door and nods at me. I scan both sides of the first aisle, then the second, there are only six people in the shop, it is easy to maintain distance. The labels on the shelf tell me what I would find on the shelf if there was anything left on the shelf. There are two tins of Spam and no tinned fish. I give up, I leave with nothing, I don’t look back at the Sainsbury’s. It’s all downhill now, Northfield Road to Heavygate Road, South Road to Walkley Road. I think of calling in to see Chris and Jo, on the off-chance, then I remember that I can’t. I take a right down Highton Street and pass the house I used to live in, 25 years ago, it is in better shape than when I left it. There are plants in the windows and a new front door. In 1996 or 1997 a comet visited the sky above Walkley, was it Hyakutake or Hale–Bopp, it sat a few metres above the hedgerow. It was a good thing, to find it there in the evening, bright and indifferent, one of the few good things to return to. At the bottom of Highton Street there are thirty people queueing for ASDA. I calculate that it will take 30 minutes to get inside, I walk on. On the corner of South Road and Walkley Road I see a floral scarf wound tight around the loose wiring of a small mid-terrace. Was it lost, snagged, has someone tied it there? Is it supposed to be a sign, is it meant for someone?
Day six. 7.10am or 8.10am. Some of the clocks have gone forward without me and some of them have stayed where they are. I remove the large clock from the kitchen wall, wind it on by an hour, then replace it with difficulty. I punch the keypad on my battered phone and scroll through the dark display. The time is set for ten minutes ahead, or ten minutes fast, I do this because I am always ten minutes late. I walk out of my front door and look up and down the street. I think I hear an engine nearby but there is no movement on the road. I go back into the house for my camera and step back into the street. When I am sure that there is nothing coming I take the first photograph, facing north-east, towards Owlerton, then the second, facing west, towards Malin Bridge. Still no cars. The temperature has dropped again, perhaps three or four degrees, I see one or two flecks of something in the air. I leave the camera in the house and walk to the garage on Bradfield Road. There are no cars on the forecourt and there does not appear to be anyone inside the shop. I take a newspaper from the display stand, then use my elbow and shoulder to ease the shop door open. The cashier and I have a brief exchange, take care, I say, more than once, it is feeble in the mouth. I pass Lloyds Bank, then Wilko, then notice that the display area on the side of The Shakey that normally advertises drinks promotions has been replaced with a hand-drawn sign that reads MASSIVE THANKS TO THE NHS AND EMERGENCY SERVICES AND ALL KEY WORKERS FROM TEAM SHAKEY. I have never set foot in The Shakey but I have a long-standing admiration for the work ethic of their staff. I cross to Holme Lane, then cross to the south side, where most of the houses are. These are my neighbours who I’ve never met. In a ground-floor window the message STAY IN EVERYONE PLEASE AND NO ONE WILL GET THE VIRUS THANK YOU NHS FOR ALL THE HARD WORK EVERYONE KEEP SMILING in a child’s sloping script. In another ground-floor window I see THANKS ♥️ NHS across two sheets of lined A4. In a third window the glass is filled with THANK YOU NHS with the NHS at the centre of a heart and the heart centred in a field of hearts. It’s white acrylic craft paint, I think, they’ve done a good job, they wanted it to be remembered.
Day seven. 7.10am. It is black bin day. All the black bins are out in the street. I watch them from the window, then go down to the kitchen. When at last I leave the house, I find that the formations have been broken up, the bins are standing this way and that. I hear the wake of the Veolia lorry as it slows into Malin Bridge. I turn left, towards Owlerton, the traffic moving freely, no tailbacks at the junction. I pass the green space at Hillsborough Place, twelve metres by twenty metres, grass, shrubs, raised beds, three or four mature trees, large, irregular stones marking a boundary with the pavement, and, on the corner, half a dozen modular planters, black plastic, ex-municipal. The planters were formerly stationed across the road, between a bus stop and a Wetherspoons, nothing seemed to last there. The white and yellow daffodils are doing well, the tulips are letting go of their colour. There is a man I often see at work in this garden. He might live in the house next door and this may or may not be his garden. It is not a dog-walking green or a fenced-off park, it is maintained for itself, the visual amenity. The cherry blossom is still holding on to the cherry blossom tree. I cross Hillsborough corner into Bradfield Road, past Wilko, Lloyds Bank, the Jet garage, pausing at Star Upholstery, a sheet of A4 in the window, SHOP CLOSE BY ORDER OF PRIME MINISTER. I had not before now noticed the shop signage peeling out like dry transfer lettering. I pass a man, another man, then another, they all give me the same look, like I am going the wrong way. At Swann-Morton (Penn Works) a man in an orange gilet is talking with a man in a burgundy smock, there is a delivery in progress, everyone is keeping their distance. I cross over to Swann-Morton (Cobb Works) then cross the dual carriageway and into Owlerton. The lights are out at Napoleons and the casino car park is almost empty. A cement mixer rolls into Livesey Street, its drum rotating, turning right at Hillsborough Fencing. I stop to photograph the surviving sections of a mural that used to run the length of this road, along the outer wall of the speedway and greyhound stadium, twelve or more two-tone tableaux, spraypaint on brick and metal, scenes from local history, the Great Flood, the Bassetts factory, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show. The mural runs out before it can turn the corner. The hum of the substation is quieter than I remember, I can barely hear it above the birdsong, am I listening too hard. All the while a trickle of cars toward Mondelez, a split site criss-crossing the River Don, it is business as usual, the rolling shifts, all in one, Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I stand on the bridge and stare down the length of the river. On the eastern bank I glimpse the outlying vehicles of the travellers’ camp that appeared on Club Mill Lane last summer. The footpath to Herries Road is closed and the graffitied gates of Cooper Car Spares are closed. The line of the river is a vanishing point into the south. I take the steps into Wardsend Cemetery, then the steep sloping path, it is overcast and early but the cemetery is filled with light. I come out of the trees and cross a railway bridge, the Stocksbridge line, a single track that cuts the cemetery in two. There is nowhere to go but up, steps hacked into the hillside, stopping every minute, the horizon in no particular order, the storage sheds, the breakers yard, the college and the casino, Hillsborough Park and the Wednesday ground, white smoke, dark water, last year’s leaves still clinging to the branches.
Sheffield, 24–30 March 2020.
Saturday 19 December, 1.05pm. I was born two weeks late. I don’t remember this, of course, it is not the sort of thing that you remember, yet I remember being told this, the first time I was told this. I have been late ever since. School, paper rounds, every job I ever had. Some years ago I resolved to correct this by setting my watch 13 minutes fast. The trick doesn’t work, it has never worked, the brain does the maths. I am still 13 minutes late for everything. I am late now, as I climb Walkley Lane, past the dead winter deck of La Plata Social Club, past R A Leggett Newsagents and its dark display, past Walkley Food & Wine, once Keliz off licence and convenience store, then Pops off licence and convenience store, then it closed, there was a rethink, a smart, aspirational refurbishment, tasteful grey tones and a minimal typeface, Walkley Wine, it seemed all set to go, but it never opened, it got stuck, now it is Walkley Food & Wine, in red and white, the main signage, yet still the grey frontage of Walkley Wine, WW on the small projecting corner sign. On a wall panel headed OPENING TIME the hours of the days. TUE is TEU. I was going to call at Fay’s with a card, this was going to be my first stop, I have to skip it, I will come back, it is local. I turn left up the hill and onto Walkley Road. It is mild. I felt it as I left the house, the first wave, it is too mild for December. All the lights strung up in windows and gardens seem out of place and out of season. I turn back uphill, a right turn on Freedom Road, I almost don’t see the household recycling site, it diminishes every few months. The bottle banks have gone. A complaint from a neighbour, perhaps, that would do it, the sound of breaking glass. Uphill, still, I remember the house number but not the house, here it is, not where I expected. I follow the path round and knock on the kitchen door. I hear Ruth’s voice, then a scramble for keys, I step back, she appears, then goes away, she returns with Matt. We spend a few minutes catching up. I seem to be apologising for various things, for the unscheduled visit, for missing a project deadline, for the little time that I am spending on their doorstep. We exchange gifts and good wishes. Uphill, the same hill, left onto South Road, the house that used to be a post office, the house that used to be a pub. All the pubs in Walkley seemed to disappear within the space of a few years, one by one, they were picked off by property developers. The only pub left standing was The Rose House. I went there once, with Andy, and Matt, we didn’t stay long. It is still here. Beeches is still here, now incorporating a post office, Gerry’s Bakery is still here. I take a right at Fir Street, this should lead me to Chris’s house, I said I’d be there at 1.30pm. It is 1.35pm. I tell myself that I will make time, I will make up the time. I scramble up the hill and turn left at the brickwork of the long-disused public convenience at the junction with Heavygate Road and scramble up another hill to my right and there is Chris, in the doorway of his house, the door wide open. It is 1.40pm. My breath is heavy so I take an extra step back. We talk of the days ahead, of Christmas, of plans rewritten, scaled back, abandoned. Chris is between appointments and so I leave him and turn back down the hill, the incline is sharp and I nearly slip on a clump of wet leaves stuck to the cobbled slope. I wonder how many walks I have taken along Northfield Road this year, errands, deliveries, collections, so many of them have led me to or through Crookes. At the turning for Cobden View Road I pass the site of a community garden torn up by developers, this happened without notice, the loss is still protested in graffiti on the hoardings. The shops seem to be thriving, there are short pavement queues here and there, then I remember that there is almost no-one inside the shops. Everyone is waiting their turn. I step into the road to avoid the pavement queues, the shops thin out and the queues recede. The Ball is still encouraging its patrons to book ahead for Christmas meals. It has been closed for weeks, all the pubs have been closed for weeks, the signs have been left up to show how it could have been. And here is Noah’s Ark, which has not been spared, and here is the Old Grindstone, always changing hands, I took my parents here in 1995, I was new to the city and I didn’t know where else to take them, I’ve not been back since. And here is the junction, the downward slope, the last of Crookes and its mile-long spine.
2.05pm. Every road leads down. Short, long, steep, curving. I take the turning that I always take, the turning for Taptonville Road, a long street, a long perspective that widens on the descent. There is a cottage on the nearside corner that I often stop or slow for, at the edge of what might have been spacious grounds, a large estate. I imagine it as a lodge, a gatehouse, I imagine its pent snugness. A wreath on the door. The pavements and gutters are thick with leaf-litter. The trees are not street trees, they are confined to private gardens, the trunks lean into the light and the branches overhang. I stray into the road, the traffic is light, intermittent. I pass Broomhill Community Library and the clinic that dealt with my dental emergency in late January. I don’t know what I expected from an emergency dentist, I hadn’t visited a dentist in more than 20 years, this was the reason for the dental emergency. It was much like any other dental appointment except that it was 9.30am on a Sunday and the atmosphere in the waiting room seemed heavier than usual. Two of the people in the waiting room were a couple, it was his appointment, she had been urging him for months, he wouldn’t make time, and now look at him. He seemed disinclined to speak, and I was disinclined to speak, as my mouth was numb with anaesthetic, so she spoke, and I nodded. As she spoke she knitted little blue gonks, they had a purpose, she did tell me, I don’t remember what it was. She said that he was a haulier and that for months he had been trying to manage the pain with anti-inflammatories. Sixty-hour weeks driving lorries on Nurofen Plus. She spoke of his shyness, this surprised me, the tenderness in her voice. I can never remember how to cross Fulwood Road so I wait until the cars have stopped and run. When I turn into Glossop Road, its glass-fronted boutiques and parlours opaque and indeterminate, I think about the soft industries, the small businesses, that there is still a demand for touch, the personal touch, in a time without touch. I can’t see how it can work, it doesn’t seem viable, it is a question of scale. I turn right onto Westbourne Road. At the first house on the left a group of five or six people stand around the open boot of a black Land Cruiser. There are gift bags on the ground and in the boot and it appears that some sort of exchange is taking place. I keep to the left, the pavement is narrow, it is studded with small black bollards that inhibit parking. The road curves and drops and widens and it is all downhill south. I think that the detached, regular houses on the right must have been part of a scheme, the contrast with the properties opposite is sharp, they are larger, the houses on the left, set back in dark gardens, screened by stone walls and hedgerows. Absently, I explore the back of my mouth with the tip of my tongue, until it finds a molar’s socket, empty since March. I come out at Brocco Bank and glimpse the western edge of the botanical gardens while hurrying past the roads for Endcliffe that have Endcliffe in their names. I think that I have passed the botanical gardens at least a dozen times this year, not once passing through them, it was not on the itinerary, and now the year has gone. I look up at the clock tower of St Augustine’s and wonder why the time is 13 minutes out and then realise that it isn’t. At the foot of Brocco Bank I step slowly around small clusters of pedestrians and pedestrian infrastructure. I forget to look out for the Porter Brook, flowing west to east, as it slips below me and behind me.
2.25pm. There used to be a toll gate at Hunter’s Bar. Today it is a roundabout with four exits, and, it seems, it is still customary to pay your way into or out of the area. Everything is moving slowly. I can’t tell if the lines ahead of me are queues for the shops or queues to get past the queues for the shops. Half a dozen people are waiting to be let into Sheffield Makers, they are patient and courteous, the shop has a system in place. I can’t see inside so I make a sketch of crafted decorations, handmade jewellery and recycled accessories and hold it in my mind for the few seconds that it takes for me to turn the corner into Sharrow Vale Road. There are queues in threes and fours at the artisanal takeaways, the deli, the cafe. Things are brought to the open doors, no-one goes in, no-one goes out. I cross the road but I don’t quite leave it, I stick to the broken white lines of the parking bays to avoid the pinch points on the pavement. I see groups of three and six and seven near the galleries and framing shops. The gatherings seem casual, close, uninhibited. I try to shut down the judgements before they start. I try to turn the judgements on myself. I start to turn south onto Cowlishaw Road, the long, low buildings of the Pine Works, it all sinks as I move up the slope, the Lescar is somewhere at the back, I can’t see it from here. It is always further off in my mind. There are blue and black bins spilling over the terrace boundaries and onto the pavement. It’s a Saturday, it isn’t a bin day, still I expect to see lorries. It is bin day somewhere. The road levels out at the intersection with Psalter Lane and I come to a halt at the pedestrian crossing. As I wait for the lights to change I take out a sheet of paper from the breast pocket of my fleece. The sheet is folded into eighths, half of them blank, half of them filled with small black script, some of the script is struck through. I take out a black Bic biro from the left pocket of my trousers and start to add something to one of the eighths but then think better of it and strike it out. The lights change. I cross into Kingfield Road, straight and long and secure, and let go of the thoughts I had thought my way through. At the end of Kingfield Road I turn right at the intersection and come out on Kingfield Road. I take off my rucksack and take out the map and try to work out where I have gone wrong. After a minute or so I realise that I have not gone wrong, I am meant to be on Kingfield Road and this is a continuation of Kingfield Road, although it bears little resemblance to the first Kingfield Road and is pointing in another direction. I don’t know who decides these things. Ahead of me, on the descent, a people carrier slowly reverses from a driveway to the street. There are people in the car and people on the pavement. I cross the road, a similar scene two doors down, I take myself into the gutter. A few of the large, detached houses are having work done to make them larger, skips and portakabins skewing the pathways and the driveways. A female blackbird at the edge of the gravel. A sudden sharp pain in my right temple. It will pass, I think, it is usual on these walks, it is expected, it passes. I look up and find that I am finished with Kingfield Road. I recognise the street opposite without knowing its name. It isn’t part of the route but I need to know more. The street sign tells me that Meadow Bank Avenue is a private road, that parking is for residents only, that there are speed ramps, that the road is slow. The road has prominent features, two fixtures at the top that mark it from the highway, stone gateposts without a gate. I can’t tell where it ends. The road is unadopted, there are others like it around here, there may or may not be a right of way.
2.50pm. I turn from Meadow Bank Avenue and realise that I am no longer running late as I no longer have a schedule. No one is expecting me. The signs of The Union remind me to turn left onto Machon Bank Road, the pub name is spelt out in capitals at the side, title case on the corner. It seems lonely. I walk alongside it for a few seconds, someone still cares, a smart, seasonal window display, someone has taken the trouble. The road drops, the roofs are staggered on the descent. Most of the properties are terraced, thin stone fronts, there is some divergence from this, you see this on Sheffield hill streets, subsidence, voids, some of the older houses will have had to be taken down. A few upstairs windows are open. I think of the heat and the heat escaping. Although I no longer have a schedule I still have deliveries to make, I won’t knock, the deliveries are silent. Machon Bank Road turns into Machon Bank Road. I don’t take out the map because I remember what happened with Kingfield Road and Kingfield Road, the road is the same yet not the same, I trust myself to follow this. I pass a postman stepping up to a house with a bay window and a red front door. This is not his first round of the day, I don’t know this for certain, it’s not as though I can ask him. The plain white backs of cards pressed against the glass. I am sending and receiving more cards this year, not all of them have got through, some are at the mail centres, some will be out for delivery. We want people to know that we are thinking of them. That we haven’t forgotten them. The houses give way to a Sainsbury’s Local and a Sainsbury’s Local car park. There are cards that I don’t send, I don’t have the addresses, I don’t know where the people are. There are cards that I don’t send because the people are no longer among us. I am thinking of them but the thoughts have nowhere to go. Machon Bank Road ends in a crossroads, Sheldon Road ahead, Moncrieffe Road to the left, Nether Edge Road to the right. I take a right. The small businesses are lined up opposite, Bombshell, a hairdresser, Edge, a dentist, Zeds, a grocer. The last shop on the block is Cafe #9. I came here with Rob Hindle ten years ago, there were eight of us, we had been walking for a few hours, we had been stopping on frozen ground and listening to the long wake of the Sheffield Blitz. This was a scheduled stop. Rob’s sequence, premiered in snowy woods and fields on the 70th anniversary of the Luftwaffe’s first bombing raid, drew on his earlier walks through the south-western edges of the city, and on the city archives: the contemporary reports, the eyewitness accounts, the testimonies. We heard more from these voices as the city drew closer, extracts from the memoirs of survivors, inventories of damage and loss. It is harder to imagine today. It is 10 years further off, it is 10 degrees warmer, and the gaps in the city have been filled in. I am still thinking about the closed cafe when I reach the closed pub, the Byron House, where I stop to see where I am on the map. After a short interval I hear raised voices from the pub, no, I hear one voice, there is a second interval. Here is the turning. I went through the addresses in my address book earlier and found that I hadn’t updated it in years. Or is it that I add addresses but do not take them away. I have six addresses for a friend who moved house six times in six years. I couldn’t bring myself to cross the old ones out. Or strike through the addresses of people who have died. Here is the house. It is a friend, not a close friend, but a friend whose year has ended in difficulty. It is a small thing and I don’t know if it will help but I have written a card. There are warm white lights in the window, there is someone at home. I hear the card land in the hallway and I turn back down the road.
3.10pm. I grew up without rivers. There were lakes, and a canal that didn’t work any more, but nothing flowed. Years later, I learned of the River Ray, a tributary of the Thames that passes to the west of my hometown. It runs in a northerly direction from Wroughton, on my father’s side, through Rodbourne, on my maternal grandparents’ side, to a mile east of Purton, on my mother’s grandmother’s side. I have glimpsed it only once or twice in adulthood and have never tried to follow it. It is a faint and minor constellation at 1:1 scale, an idea of navigation that is not for navigation, a pattern that I can read on the map but not on the ground. This is in my mind as I reach the top of Nether Edge Road and try to work out a way down. If I cut through the wood I might end up in the allotments, the terraced slope of Brincliffe Edge, I might lose the outline. I take a sharp right turn onto Archer Road that doubles back on the descent, the Scouts at the end of one driveway, a car park at the end of another, before levelling out at the junction with Edgedale Road and straightening to the east. The street is not familiar. I must have cut through Edgedale Road before, terraces to the north, semis to the south, nothing stands out apart from the sheltered or self-contained housing development, set back from the road in layered greenery, that stands out because it has been designed not to stand out. Although the street is not familiar, I remember how it ends, the junction with Abbeydale Road, the shops in both directions, the pedestrian crossing to the right. The signal is halfway to green and I step into the road. There is very little traffic, are the lights automatic, how do they know. I remember this, too, a left onto Langdale Road, it is short, the road that I need is at the bottom of this road. No right turns for vehicles, left at the corrugated autocentre, the same flagpole, a different flag. It used to be a chequered racing flag and now it is a union flag, or half of a union flag. The other half is missing, worn away by wind, nothing more than wind. I pass the autocentre and am at the end of Rydal Road and here, below the white railings, is the river. I turn right onto Little London Road and walk against the river which means that I am walking into the south. After a hundred feet the road and the river cram under a railway bridge and the pavement thins to almost nothing, I straighten my back and quicken my step, I am listening for oncoming traffic as the stonework darkens. On the other side I take a moment to look at the river before it turns away from the road. I have lived in the city for long enough to know that this is the Sheaf, the dark river, its course obscured by culverts or industry. It is hard to follow, it is never far from the railway, it is glimpsed in passing. I don’t know if anyone else calls it the dark river. Perhaps the Don is the dark river. Perhaps it’s the Porter, which meets the Sheaf underground, beneath the railway station. I started to think of the Sheaf as the dark river when Andy and I used to walk alongside it at night, the short stretch via Halfords and the car wash and the trading estate, under the railway bridge and over the footbridge, we’d end up at the Sheaf View, we’d walk back the same way. I remember the exposed bed and moonlight glinting off metal debris. I tried to record Andy reading some poems there, it wasn’t successful, he turned his back to the Edirol, still reading the poem, we tried again, voices and footsteps beneath the iron footbridge, we tried again, a southbound train overhead. I wanted to come back at 3am and record the poems but it didn’t happen. I turn from Little London Road to Aukley Road, a sharp fork uphill, I can’t quite remember how to get to Chesterfield Road from here. The hill is lightly wooded to my left and I see the shape of a hairpin at the top and I follow it into an unnamed road with a white rail running down the middle. At the end of the rail is Chesterfield Road. On the other side of the carriageway another white rail marks the foot of a steep, narrow passage, a short cut to Cliffefield Road. I climb the steps halfway and stop to take in the city below and find that I am out of shape. The next delivery is somewhere off this road, it is J.R. Carpenter’s This is a Picture of Wind, the order came through yesterday. The customer is going away for a few days, will it be delivered by Monday, of course, I reply, I will make sure of it.
3.30pm. I can’t even post something through a letterbox without asking myself if it might have been done better, the angle, the length of the drop, what to do when meeting resistance from brushes and springs. I let it go and I find the lane that leads from the corner of Cliffefield Road to a southwestern edge of Meersbrook Park. I know nothing about the park and I have never set foot in it. I enter under leafless winter canopy, not too heavy, the trees help with orientation, they are part of the design, the extended line, space enough to make sense of the branching paths. The path to my left is for the walled garden. I take the path straight ahead, a view of the park as it opens out from the hill, there are other paths criss-crossing the green slopes. I see people, sitting, strolling, singly or in pairs, children at a distance. A great sweep on the descent. I take a satsuma from my rucksack and peel and eat it as I walk. The descent is shorter than I’d expected. I leave the park through an open gate, I face the street, the streets leading off. I don’t know which side of the park I am on so I slip the rucksack from my shoulder and take out the map. I turn to page 133 and find that I am north-west when I should be north-east. I take a right and then tell myself to take another right on reaching the end of the first right, right right, Brook Road to Meersbrook Park Road. It is quiet. I pass a small white camper van, decorated with stickers or stencils, open the door and you’re home. A left onto Cross Park Road, a large detached property on the corner, an outbuilding that I mistake for a house. Something isn’t right, the windows whited out, is it done with, is it derelict, it doesn’t take long for a building to come apart. At the end of Cross Park Road I stop to look for Suzannah and Will’s card and then I look around for Suzannah and Will’s house. The street looks much the same as when I last visited except that it is in Christmas colours. It will be dark soon, I don’t have to read the sky, it only takes a few minutes. I post the card without fuss and turn right at the gate and right at the end of the street. Towards the bottom of the hill the terrace starts to break up, a flat-roofed, single-storey Unit 17 wedged between 63 and 69 Valley Road, number 67 is missing, it ends with Mastercast Fire Surrounds and a courtyard out back that I can’t make out. Ceiling Rose’s, Coving Plain & Ornate, DaDo Rail. I don’t know why I bother. A vast and empty car park and a nondescript building with numerous small windows, it all belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is explained in a transparent panel attached to the car park gatepost. As I pass the Meersbrook Enterprise Centre, a range of modern office and business units from 200 sq ft to 2,000 sq ft, I am reminded of the financial advisers for whom I used to provide remote administrative services, many of them working out of buildings like this. The letters of authority, signed by their clients, photocopied or faxed or emailed, to be actioned with urgency. When the letters had been processed I would store them in a box and then the box would be sent to an off-site archive. All of my work from those years has been destroyed, long since, in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. Bag supplies, roofing supplies, hand tools. The buildings get smaller and fewer and the numbers run out at the corner.
3.45pm. Valley Road meets Chesterfield Road at an obtuse angle, this isn’t obvious at the time, it’s only there when you look back. There is a large Lidl opposite with ground level parking and I wonder what was there before. You could ask that question anywhere. I used to ask it of myself as I walked the streets that I’d known for decades, I’d turn a corner and see a new hotel or a new showroom, what had it taken the place of, what had we lost, where did it go. Sometimes it would come to me, days or weeks later, there used to be a garage there, an old post office. As I take a right turn I glance at the wall that divides the far pavement from the Lidl car park. A section of the old wall has been integrated into the new wall, there is no plaque, no date, no foundation stone. It is hard to let go. I head north. Many of the businesses on this side of the road are closed, or appear to be closed, some are still trading, discreetly, warily. I am overtaken by a man who makes for the doorway of a coffee shop, he catches the eye of the proprietor, a transaction ensues, wordless and familiar. A grocer, a takeaway, a long-dead bakery. As I near the end of the block I pause at the windows of Rails, a store for model railway enthusiasts, also Dinky, Meccano, Scalextric, etc. It is spread over several units with matching panels of hand-painted signage above the shopfronts. A handful of customers are inside, at the counters, at the displays, at a distance. I am almost moved to join them but I don’t because it is not part of my world. It was part of my father’s world, I imagine him there, taking his time, a smile or a half-smile on his face. Some years after he died, my mother said that he had very few toys as a child, the late 1930s, the 1940s, and so he collected Matchbox cars later in life, Models of Yesteryear, they filled the little corners of the house he had built, the high shelves above the bookcase, the recesses in the attic. It had never occurred to me. It wasn’t nostalgia for a time that he had lost, or a time before his own time, but a space that he made for a time that he had never had. I cross the junction with Albert Road and notice the railway bridge opposite, the trains are running parallel, the Sheaf must be on the other side of the tracks. Chesterfield Road is now London Road though it still feels like Chesterfield Road. I pass The Red Lion, which is grey, and then, a minute or so later, The White Lion, which is green and black. A few more lights in the distance. Next to The White Lion is Ponsford, a furniture showroom, and Ponsford, a furniture showroom, and Ponsford, a furniture showroom, infinite recursion in black and white. The scale is not apparent from the south and the end is not the end. The terrace runs out but Ponsford runs on, via a covered walkway that lifts the business over Well Road, linking the second floor of the older premises to a new purpose-built showroom with parking at the rear. I have never bought any furniture in my life, apart from a secondhand desk which cost £20 in 1999, and which I still use today. A low bridge ahead, the railway turning right, the Sheaf following, running under light traffic on London Road, overtaking the mainline at Greyspace Flooring, meeting and parting in the blind spots of the city.
4.00pm. This is the eastern edge of the antique district, or the dead centre of the carpet district, or the outskirts of the fabric district. I can’t see any antique shops or carpet shops or fabric shops from here but the patterns were printed in my mind, some years ago, and I can’t edit them. I know that the patterns weren’t set down straight and that I could walk around for an hour without finding any carpets. I know that I could set off in any direction and be proved wrong. I know that the constellations will fall apart when I’m not looking. Here is an antique shop, the doors are closed and windowless, the paintwork a shade redder than the neighbouring Machine Mart. It is not clear if the antique shop is still trading in general antiques, the signs on the window glass encourage this idea. A newer sign, nailed to the brickwork above the shopfront, states that it is militaria, nothing more, JUST MILITARY in a military stencil typeface. There’s no point in arguing with a military stencil typeface. There is a lot of London Road to get through. Just ahead are the turnings for Queens Road and Wolseley Road, everything widens at the intersection, everything stops, the queueing traffic and the mounted lights. I am on the wrong side of London Road and I have to use three Pelican or Puffin crossings to get myself back on track. When I cross the last set of lights I am rewarded with the display window of GULL’S FABRICS, you see, I was right, I am always half right. Tool hire, a mini market, Asline Road branching off, to the E-Bike shop and the U-Mix Centre. London Road veers left. I pass Hearth and Home and Baitul Mukarram Jame Masjid mosque and then I realise that I should have taken Asline Road for the next delivery, the last delivery. It doesn’t matter, I can find my way back. Everything branches east. Royal Apartments at the corner, closed curtains, open windows, is the heating stuck, are the windows stuck. The light is starting to go and the landmark buildings come into their own. Highfield Trinity Church is first, stone stacks, the local vastness. I glimpse a similarly-sized ex-church opposite, set back on Highfield Place, skylights where the slates were. At Highfield Library, another Victorian corner building, I stop to read the words chiselled into the portico: THAT THERE SHOULD ONE MAN DIE IGNORANT WHO HAD CAPACITY FOR KNOWLEDGE, THIS I CALL A TRAGEDY, WERE IT TO HAPPEN MORE THAN TWENTY TIMES IN THE MINUTE, AS BY SOME COMPUTATIONS IT DOES. I cross the junction with St Barnabas Road to a furniture centre, which is called Furniture Centre, then cross to the west side of London Road to the half-open shops, Erbil Barber, Amigos Mexican Kitchen, closed or closing shops looking back from the other side, Jay Jay’s Army Surplus, Foam & Upholstery Supplies. On the corner with Grosvenor Square I nearly miss the window I was looking for because it’s not on the itinerary. I thought that it was done for when I passed it in late April, and again in late June, and it looks done for now, but it isn’t, not yet, not today. It’s a single unit, tucked between Chikoo’s Peri Peri and Treatz Dessert Parlour, SHEFFIELD TRANSPORT MODELS in the upper half of the sign, initial caps and petite caps, Model Railways & Transport Books centred in the lower half, dark blue text in an off-white field. The small display at the front of the window is gone. I try to remember how it looked in June, the remains of a tableau, a partial layout, one track, one tree, a few bushes, a church half-buried in sand. A paper background of hills, forests, lakes, the scenery bleached pale blue by sunlight. There is nothing in its place. I know that the shop is not done for because the man who stood behind the counter in April and June, sorting through paperwork, perhaps, or fulfilling online orders, is here today, in similar clothes, in a similar attitude. I step aside from the window as I don’t want him to see me looking in. The light is on inside the shop, it doesn’t reach much further than the counter, but I can make out the titles of the books and magazines stacked up behind the glass door. Waterways in Europe, Dictionary of Rail and Steam, The RAILWAY magazine. I see myself flicking through the books, not for the books themselves, but for the postcards, notes, and letters that might be tucked inside, accidentally, incidentally, or intentionally, then forgotten, unseen, unread, the letters to the future.
4.10pm. As a child, I would faint, now and then. It happened in school assemblies, scout parades, I didn’t make it out of the cubs, it wasn’t for me. The first time it happened, I was at a loss, the adults were at a loss, what happened, is he OK, is he going to be OK. I wasn’t hurt. The floor was hard but there wasn’t far to fall. I wanted to know how long I had been out. A few minutes, someone said. It became useful, for getting out of things, assemblies, parades, standing in silence for what seemed like hours, marking time. The uniforms were always too tight, the collars and the ties, it happened for a reason, it wasn’t a bluff, they would say that I changed colour in the last few moments. It’s also true that I didn’t want to be there. It was hard to fall in line. The last time it happened, I was at a temporary blood donation centre, this was a few decades later. I’d just given blood, but it wasn’t the blood, that part had gone well, I was resting, I decided it was time to leave, I gathered my things and stood up and I fell into a faint, a dead faint. I wanted to know how long I had been out. A few minutes, someone said. You should sit down and wait here, there’s tea and biscuits on the table. I’d tried to walk before I could stand. I keep going, north along London Road, towards The Moor, towards town, then stop, I am forgetting the delivery, the last delivery. I turn back at Clarke Square and cross to the junction with Alderson Road, there is a pharmacy on the corner, there are yellow metal signs, weighted down with sandbags, COVID Testing Centre in black with black arrows. The arrows are pointing south-east, the road is the same. I need to be south-east then north-east then east. The test site isn’t far, a minute or less, I hear the generator as the traffic falls back. I see the white tents and the white portakabins. The test site is in a car park, it is a walk-through centre, there is no parking in the car park. There are metal barriers, concrete blocks, traffic cones. The layout is similar to the walk-through centre that Emma and I visited in October, in Burngreave, a few miles to the north-east. Emma had made the appointments just a few hours before we set off. We didn’t know how long it would take on foot so we left as soon as we could and walked for an hour or two in steady drizzle and arrived half an hour early. No-one was going in or coming out. It was a few moments before we realised that the site was open but no-one was using it. A supervisor scanned our QR codes and another supervisor beckoned us into a portakabin. It didn’t seem to matter that we were half an hour early. We sat in our partitioned spaces and familiarised ourselves with the steps in the booklet and then we put ourselves through the procedure. The supervisor was on hand throughout, tactful, discreet, attentive. We put the swabs in the vials and the vials in the zip-lock bags and the zip-lock bags in the biohazard bags and then handed over the biohazard bags to another supervisor before leaving the site. Then we walked home. It rained on and off. I can’t remember what we talked about, were we anxious, relieved, reflective. Neither of us kept a record. I turn left onto Woodhead Road, terraces on one side, long low windowless walls on the other. I see the Copthorne Hotel in the middle distance and the Railway Hotel in the near distance. I’ve never set foot in the Railway Hotel, it’s opposite the United ground so I think of it as a match pub, United Fans Only. It must let people in at other times but I have never seen the doors open. When I pass the Railway the Copthorne comes back into view. I look left along Bramall Lane, losing the focus as the Copthorne meets the stadium, I think of the time when Andy and I were walking back from town. It was late, past midnight, a taxi pulled up in front of us, and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry got out of the back. Andy stepped over and embraced him like a long-lost cousin, though we had only seen him an hour before, onstage, at Plug. There was no hesitation in the embrace and I admired that. Funny. To think of Scratch at the Copthorne. To think of embracing anyone now. I look right and left and there is nothing coming so I cross straight into Cherry Street and look out at the empty Blades car park. I haven’t been here in two years or more. This is where so much of it started, this is where we sat and talked, mostly it was Andy who did the talking, I listened, I went away and came back with sketches, we worked on them together. This is why I can never throw anything away. It is dusk. It was always dusk. The poems were shaped at dusk, they were spoken at dusk. All the poems come back at once in his voice. The ginnel gate is unlocked, someone has nailed a mailbox to the slats, that wasn’t there the last time I was here. I could have sent letters. There are differences at the back, I can’t say for sure, a fence or a wall has come down or gone up. There is a light in the kitchen. I knock, and wait, then knock again. No sound, no shadow. Perhaps he’s gone to the off-licence. Perhaps he’s editing his photographs, the headphones on, a roll-up on the go. The letterbox is smaller than I remember but the parcel will get through. I wait until I hear it make contact with the kitchen floor. The chequered linoleum. Not here. Anywhere. Bills stacking up. A year in arrears.
Sheffield, 19 December 2020.
‘Second Delivery’ is a ‘winter postscript’ to Lockdown Walks, a series of posts that appeared on the Longbarrow Blog during April 2020; you can read the fifth instalment here.
Welcome to the Longbarrow Press weblog. Essays, articles, reviews and other writings will be posted here by editor and publisher Brian Lewis, Longbarrow Press poets, and other Longbarrow Press contributors and collaborators. For more information about Longbarrow Press, please visit our website.
A full index of Longbarrow Blog posts, listed and linked by author name, appears below (further essays by Longbarrow Press poets can be found here)
‘Second Glance at ‘Deaf School’’ (September 2020)
‘A Democracy of Words: Reintroducing Poetry to its Natural Environment’ (February 2020)
‘The Outside Inside: Some Notes on Creative Practice’ (July 2018)
‘‘Don’t think it couldn’t be you’: Peter Reading, Homelessness and Affect’ (February 2017)
‘Writing and the Autodidact’ (November 2016)
‘Fugue, Shimmer, Pulse and Fuse: Musical Principles in ‘Trig Points’’ (November 2015)
‘‘Feeding the Dead is Necessary’: on constructing ‘The Navigators’’ (April 2015)
‘‘The Great Truth’: i.m. Philip Levine’ (March 2015)
‘‘Radged and Nithered’: A Vernacular Sensibility’ (February 2015)
‘Meeting and Melting: On Discovering Derek Walcott’ (July 2014)
‘‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’: A Yin and Yang of Poetics’ (May 2014)
‘Not Daffodils’ (April 2014)
‘Streams and Nodes’ (February 2014)
‘The A-bomb of adrenaline’ (December 2013)
‘Ground Sense’ (November 2013)
‘Design and Direction: Fugue’ (August 2013)
‘The Dream House’ (June 2013)
‘Under your rough gob is concern’ (June 2012)
‘Reading ‘Illuminations” (February 2012)
‘About the Human Voice’ (March 2017)
‘Late for the Sky’ (March 2016)
‘Lip-syncing to Roy Orbison’ (September 2015)
‘I Am the Resurrection’ (April 2015)
‘Hotel California’ (January 2015)
‘Pied Beauty’ (December 2013)
‘All the Leaves Are Brown’ (October 2013)
‘31 Songs‘ (June 2013)
‘Body of Dark: on writing The European Eel‘ (July 2021)
‘Walking, observing, listening’ (November 2020)
‘Meridian: The Last Step’ (August 2019)
‘Meridian: The First Cut’ (March 2019)
‘All At Once’ (October 2021)
‘Oak & Stone (a spring, 2021)’ (April 2021)
‘Gather, East Leicestershire, February 2021’ (February 2021)
‘Reach, at year’s end 2020’ (January 2021)
‘Reach, a Bradgate Oddity’ (June 2020)
‘The Flattening & Covering Wave’ (May 2020)
‘Keep on Searching’ (March 2020)
‘If You Go Up To Higger Today’ (September 2019)
‘Touching the Gleam’ (May 2019)
‘Seven Forms Through’ (November 2018)
‘Depending Angles’ (August 2018)
‘Matter’ (March 2018)
‘A Corner & A Carried Line’ (September 2017)
‘Flight of Being’ (July 2017)
‘Age of Sh All’ (May 2017)
‘An Alphabets’-Lattice’ (February 2017)
‘Along a Line’ (August 2016)
‘Circumspect & Circumflex‘ (February 2015)
‘Wrong & Right’ (November 2014)
‘Key Ping Ba(p)la(n)ce’ (August 2014)
‘A Piece of my Mind’ (March 2013)
‘An End of An Affair’ (April 2012)
‘In Domicile: Against the Fallacy of Exoticism’ (December 2020)
‘In Praise of the Ordinary’ (April 2016)
‘Space Junk: Photography, Consumerism & the Void’ (October 2015)
‘On Liminal Spaces: 3. Winter Hare at Alport: A Theory of Disappearance’ (July 2015)
‘On Liminal Spaces: 2. Meditation on Carl Wark’ (March 2015)
‘On Liminal Spaces: 1. Reflections on Impracticality‘ (February 2015)
‘Out on the End of an Event’ (January 2014)
‘My Island Home’ (July 2013)
‘The Long Goodbye: Refrains and Variations in Little Piece of Harm‘ (April 2021)
‘A City’s Designs: Rhyme and Structure in Little Piece of Harm‘ (March 2021)
‘Story Arcs and Safety Nets: Plotting Little Piece of Harm‘ (March 2021)
‘Wheest, Wheest’ (November 2017)
‘The Trick’ (July 2017)
‘The Lure’ (March 2017)
‘The Rooms of the House’ (January 2017)
‘The Skin We Live In’ (May 2015)
‘The Shepherds of Corby Glen’ (October 2014)
‘The New, New, New Poetry: A Consumer’s Guide’ (July 2014)
‘Two Worlds, One Field’ (May 2014)
‘Drawing on Walls: The Making of Death and the Gallant‘ (November 2013)
‘The Idea of Walsingham’ (July 2012)
‘How to read ‘Howl’?’ (March 2012)
‘Direction of Travel’ (May 2022)
‘Last Collection’ (December 2021)
‘Second Delivery’ (January 2021)
‘Local Distribution’ (October 2020)
‘The Haul’ (August 2020)
‘Lockdown Walks #5’ (April 2020)
‘Lockdown Walks #4’ (April 2020)
‘Lockdown Walks #3’ (April 2020)
‘Lockdown Walks #2’ (April 2020)
‘Lockdown Walks’ (April 2020)
‘Rain, Steam and Speed: on J.R. Carpenter’s ‘The Gathering Cloud’’ (May 2018)
‘Open to the Sky’ (February 2018)
‘Night Walk #1: Owlerton’ (January 2018)
‘Mirror Image’ (October 2017)
‘Parallel Lines’ (June 2017)
‘Ground Work’ (April 2017)
‘The Marketplace’ (December 2016)
‘Black Square’ (October 2016)
‘White Point’ (September 2016)
‘The Outbuilding’ (July 2016)
‘Field Systems’ (June 2016)
‘Self-build’ (February 2016)
‘Dead Ends’ (January 2016)
‘The House of Numbers’ (December 2015)
‘The Hide’ (September 2015)
‘One-sided walls: revisiting The Frome Primer‘ (June 2015)
‘Haunts’ (December 2014)
‘The Dance of Death’ (September 2014)
‘The pace of The Footing’ (June 2014)
‘The Sandpit’ (March 2014)
‘The Cut’ (September 2013)
‘Motion Studies’ (July 2013)
‘Gifts Received’ (April 2013)
‘Dead Letters: W S Graham and elegy’ (February 2013)
‘Sea Change’ (January 2012)
‘Small is Beautiful: On Philip Rowland’s ‘Something Other Than Other’‘ (January 2017)
‘Memoirs of Memoirs: the Real Leningrad Sinologist’ (May 2013)
‘A Statement on Poetry’ (March 2013)
‘Traces of the Middle Ages’ (November 2012)
‘My Top Five Strange Poetry Readings’ (May 2012)
‘Welcome to Sunny East Berlin’ (February 2012)
On 16 May 2022, I posted the first in a series of unnumbered, threaded Tweets, a series that I’d intended as a short, reflective summary of several hours spent staring out of train windows. Four days and 84 Tweets later, the series reached its end, more drift than thread.
The following piece is based on the thread of 16 May and gathers almost all the constituent Tweets, with some revisions throughout, in the order in which they first appeared. Each unit is of Tweetable length (280 characters or fewer).
On Saturday 14 May, I travelled to Kent for a performance of Wealden by Nancy Gaffield and The Drift. The first stages of the journey, from Sheffield to Ashford, were by rail. The final leg of the journey, from Ashford to the village of Fairfield, was made on foot.
The journey began at 4.45am when I left the house and started walking to Sheffield railway station with a rucksack full of books. The train was scheduled to depart at 5.30am. The walk to the station usually takes around 55 minutes. This is how every journey begins.
My solution to the scheduling problem was to run 100 yards, then walk 200 yards, until I had made up the time difference, which was somewhere east of West Bar. Fall back, push forward, fall back, push forward. I arrived at the railway station at 5.26am and raced to platform 8.
The 5.30 service to London St Pancras stretched out along the length of the platform. I looked for Coach M. The long train was actually two short trains stapled together with no gangway connection. Coach G, Coach K, Coach D, the letters out of sequence. At 5.28am I found Coach M.
The carriage was quiet, almost empty, one or two passengers settling in. The tannoy glitched and fizzed and the train manager announced that the service would be diverted and delayed due to a broken-down train between Chesterfield and Derby. The long slow slide into the south.
The staff are doing their best, I thought, half the network is falling apart. The train departed Chesterfield on time and then stopped and started and stopped in a series of landscapes that I didn’t recognise and couldn’t place. I slumped forward and fretted about my connections.
I slumped back and fretted about the difficulties ongoing since March, a sense that the joints of my work were broken, or that I had simply lost touch, a fault in the head, or the heart, and seeing no way to start, no way to finish. The train pulled into Derby 31 minutes late.
In less than an hour, the arrival time at St Pancras had been revised from 7.36 to 8.00 to 8.10. I would not now make the connection for Ashford. I hadn’t thought that delay might also be momentum, but it’s there, I can see it, running in reverse. It is not of my own making.
I thought that I should do some work so I picked up a customer query arising from the deterioration in postal services between the UK and Germany since the abolition of VAT exemption on low-value goods in 2021. A package, mailed on 27 April, had still not reached its destination.
I checked another email and then another and realised that there was very little that I could do about either of them. I looked out of the window and stared at a field in what I supposed was now Leicestershire, a field that I should have been staring at 33 minutes earlier.
We were passing through a data mesh, a map that was updating in real time, almost in real time, setting us forward or back to the nearest minute, the status frozen then refreshed. 6.50am. Another field. Mist in the hollows, caught in the early light.
I am thinking of Wednesday’s readings at The Fat Cat, the first Longbarrow event to happen indoors, in person, in company, since October 2019. The audience was neither small nor large. The room had ventilation and an unforced sense of connection. Pete read first, then Alistair.
The poems – Hemisphere, Essay on Spam – touched on the role of emerging technologies in shaping our experience and understanding of the world, from mapping to mailshots, screens to satellites, and what it means to compete for resources when the most valued resource is attention.
I was in a room with people I hadn’t seen for years and we were all listening to the same thing at the same time. At the end of the evening it occurred to me that the only electrical appliance we’d utilised for the event was Emma’s adjustable desk lamp.
I don’t dislike technology. We’ve used laptops, projectors, PA systems, portable stereos, phones and dictaphones in our events. At the very least, it adds another layer to a performance. It also introduces the possibility that something might go wrong. Disruption, delay.
For the online launch of Hemisphere, Pete created a Google Earth folder with the places of the poem, and screen-shared the transitions between these places as one extract cued into the next. With each transition, the software or the signal would lag by a few seconds.
It didn’t seem to affect the reception of the work. We had to wait, all of us, we had to wait for the technology to catch up with the poem. I don’t know if this is what Pete had intended but it made sense. Leicester, this is Leicester, the next stop is Market Harborough.
I gathered up my train tickets and got out of my seat and walked through the carriages in the opposite direction to the direction of travel, which is not natural, and stopped at the threshold of the first class carriage, and raised my tickets to get the conductor’s attention.
The conductor left the carriage and met me in the vestibule. ‘I’m supposed to be on the 8.10 from St Pancras to Ashford’, I said, and left the sentence unfinished. He took the ticket from my hand and took a Sharpie from his pocket and started to write on the back of the ticket.
He was diligent, and slow, we both knew that a thick-tipped pen was not the best implement for the job. After a minute he was done. He handed the ticket back to me and said, ‘Any problems, show them this’. I thanked him and walked back to my carriage, moving as the train moved.
I sat in my seat and examined the ticket on which the ink was still drying. There were four lines of text. The first two lines explained that the delay was the fault of EMR. The third line was a code that I couldn’t decipher. The fourth line had a signature and a service number.
The train stopped at Market Harborough and left a minute later. The delay had stabilised at 40 minutes. I tilted my face towards the window and closed my eyes, light flickering over the lids, is this Northamptonshire, have I ever set foot in it, should I look out or let it go by.
A few people got on at Kettering. After a minute the train set off. Behind me, a hammering at the carriage door and a low moan, I couldn’t see who was making the sounds, his English was limited but his predicament was plain. ‘Door not open.’ The conductor turned and walked back.
The conductor asked the passenger what the matter was. He was supposed to change trains at Kettering for an onward service to Luton, where he was due to catch a flight later that morning. But the door hadn’t opened, and now he was stuck on a train running non-stop to London.
It wasn’t clear why the door hadn’t opened. Where the fault was. Mechanical or electrical or manual. The conductor spent a few minutes with the man, writing out a new itinerary, change at St Pancras for Luton, you won’t need to buy another ticket, you can still catch your flight.
He took it all in and left the carriage. The conductor had done what he could and the man seemed reassured by the guidance but I still felt bad for him as we accelerated through Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, how many stations, how many miles between them.
Belgravia, London, 22 years ago. I am sitting in the reception of a fourth-floor office a few blocks from Victoria station. It is a Tuesday, warm, bright, a little after 9am. I am called into a small interview room. I walk through the door and wait to be invited to sit down.
I am being interviewed for the role of Conference Producer. This is the culmination of several months of posting out CVs printed on a Canon StarWriter 30 in an attempt to get a job in the Creative and Marketing Sector before it is too late. I am 27. It is already too late.
It is a panel interview, conducted by two people, they introduce themselves and then ask the first question. I am unable to answer the first question, or the second question, as the stammer which I thought I had left behind in adolescence has decided to sit in on the interview.
Somewhere around the fourth or fifth question I manage to bring the stammer under control, with a technique I learned at the age of 14, but the interviewers have lost interest in the words before they are out, and so have I. There are no more questions.
I leave the interview room and leave the building. I feel useless, so I walk around Westminster, looking for a place where I can donate blood, then realise that it doesn’t work like that. I walk around in my suit for another 10 hours. At 11.30pm I catch the last train to Swindon.
At 00.15 the train pulls into Didcot and by the time it pulls away I am asleep. I wake up 20 minutes later as the service is leaving Swindon. There are no good options. I could spend the night at the next station, which is Chippenham, or try to walk home, 20 miles without a map.
I disembark at Chippenham and rapidly confirm what I already knew which is that there are no more trains to Swindon tonight. I consider hitching but I don’t know where to start from. After 10 minutes I walk to the taxi rank and enquire about the fare to Swindon. It is £40.
I agree, because I don’t know what else to do, and get in the taxi, and pass the journey thinking about money, money that I didn’t have, spent in pursuit of a career that I didn’t want. It might have been worse, I think, I might have got the job. Years adrift in the same place.
The train passed under a road bridge and then another and the rails switched and locked and I knew that St Pancras was winding us in. I shouldered my rucksack and counted my tickets and I thought of the man at Kettering, he had his work cut out, would he make his flight.
8.19am. A standstill and a long pause. The door panel lit up and I pressed it twice and stepped down to the platform and walked through the open ticket barriers and past a roped-off concourse, a queue without a line, two hundred people waiting to board the train we had just left.
They would be late too. Our delay was their delay. I could see it in their eyes. They knew. I squeezed onto the escalator and spent the descent trying to remember where the Southeastern platforms were and when I stepped off at ground level I realised that I didn’t know.
I turned left and kept walking until I met the first set of ticket barriers and scanned the destination board overhead and drew a blank on Ashford. This was Thameslink, not Southeastern, Brighton, not Dover. The ticket office gave me directions, second left, up the escalator.
I stepped off the escalator and turned right for the platforms, numbered 11-13, the 8.37 boarding at platform 12, calling at Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International, Ashford International, Folkestone West, Folkestone Central, Dover Priory. I walked to the end and got on.
8.30am. I sat down and took from my rucksack a bottle of water and Emma’s iPad Mini, a first-generation model, released in 2012, now discontinued, unsupported, obsolete. I signed into the iPad and opened Gmail and messaged Emma to let her know where I was and that I loved her.
The message hung in Drafts, picked out in red, I stared at it for perhaps a minute then realised that I hadn’t connected the iPad to the onboard wi-fi. I ticked the Terms and Conditions box without reading the Terms and Conditions and the email completed its transition to Sent.
I continued to stare at the screen as the train left the station. My seat was facing away from the direction of travel, I knew that I would see nothing of where we were going, only a little of where we’d been, it seemed appropriate, somehow, to be hauled backwards into Kent.
The train was clean and fast and new and in no time at all we had stopped at Stratford. I understood something of how we had got here, one part north to four parts east, but what came next was a blank. I had walked both banks of the estuary and now I couldn’t put them together.
I didn’t know which side of the river we were on, had we crossed under the Thames at Greenwich, would we be passing through Rainham or Erith. Would it make any difference if I knew. The Apple Maps app would take an age to load on the iPad and we would be somewhere else by then.
The window misted and blurred and as it cleared I saw my features gliding into wire and glass and aluminium. If Ebbsfleet International was actually Ebbsfleet then we were two miles south of Swanscombe Marshes, designated as a SSSI in 2021, and the intended site of a theme park.
Swanscombe Marshes is one of just two places in the UK where the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider is found. A corridor that links Dartford to Gravesend, its grassland, scrub, wetlands, grazing marsh and saltmarsh are habitats for rare plants and breeding birds.
The London Resort application was withdrawn earlier this year, citing various factors, including the classification of Tilbury as a Freeport, the SSSI designation, and the need to re-engage the local community. The company plans to submit a revised application later in 2022.
Opposition to the theme park and resort, led by Buglife, Save Swanscombe Peninsula, and others, remains firm. The campaigns are not over. It must have been 2002 when I last walked out there, Stone to Northfleet, the jetties, buoys and radar station, so much that I didn’t see.
So much that I didn’t remember. The wire and glass and aluminium were swept up and replaced with parcels of development land, some opened, some labelled. I miss Kent, even as I’m going through it, I miss the idea of Kent, my idea of Kent, scrawled on the back of an envelope.
Seventeen years ago, slogging cross-country to Hythe, trouble with the MOD, the camps and ranges, then overnight on the coast, it was still winter, rain, wind and a black bin liner, more trouble in Lydd, and the last 10 miles with a split boot. That’s another story, an old story.
I still had the map that I used then, OS Landranger 189, reprinted with minor changes 2004. I took it out of the rucksack, it was the map of today’s walk, Ashford to Fairfield, a walk I had not taken before. It was not the journey of Wealden. It was a journey towards Wealden.
Wealden is a semi-improvised work in three sections, corresponding to the woodland, wetland and shingle of High Weald, Romney Marsh and Dungeness. The poems developed from Nancy Gaffield’s walks in this landscape, a landscape defined by change, uncertainty, and loss.
The music, created by Amelia Fletcher, Darren Pilcher, and Rob Pursey, was also embedded in the landscape, at times literally, with Darren using bracken and shingle as the basis for his sound loops. The piece would not be permanent but would change with each performance.
Wealden was performed twice in 2019, and recorded in March 2020, shortly before lockdown. A CD and a pamphlet were published by Longbarrow Press later that year. Today’s performance, in a 13th century church at the edge of the marsh, would be the first in almost three years.
We seemed to be nearing Ashford. I looked again at the map and realised that I had only the faintest sense of where the sound mirrors were, somewhere between Dungeness and Lydd, so I thought, or further north, further east, there was nothing in the legend, no symbol, no text.
Sound mirrors were developed in the late 1920s as an early warning system for enemy aircraft. A number of these concrete dishes were built along the east coast, but were never used, due to the invention of radar in 1932. The experiment was abandoned and the dishes left to rot.
The mirrors near Lydd are among those still standing today. While obsolete, they are not useless. They appear in the third section of Nancy’s poem (‘marooned on a man-made isle’) and in a photograph taken by Rob that resurfaced on the cover of the Wealden CD.
I don’t know if the mirrors were built too late, or too soon, or if they were always out of time. The early radar team acknowledged the contribution of the 1920s experiment to systems planning: linking stations, plotting movements, measuring distance, direction, speed.
9.10am. I folded the map and put it back in the rucksack, along with the other things I’d taken out, the water, the snacks, the iPad mini. We were getting in on time, or a few minutes ahead of time, our arrival in Ashford seemed to take the train manager by surprise.
I knew that I wouldn’t remember Ashford when I walked out of the station. I’d measured the distance to Fairfield with a ruler, a walk of twelve inches, ten miles, I knew that I would not be walking the length of a ruler. I knew that I could have taken another train to Appledore.
Appledore station was two miles across the marsh from Fairfield. It was arguable that my motive for slogging from Ashford with several kilos of books on my back was to save £5 in train fare but also I wanted to walk towards the horizon of Wealden without ever quite arriving.
I wanted to walk the work back into the landscape that it was made of and from and for. There would be a gathering and a short talk at Fairfield Church at 4pm, followed by a collective walk across the marshes to Brookland Church, where the performance would take place around 7pm.
This end of this thread is not a walk. We’d never get there. Imagine the walk for yourself. The wrong turns, the unscheduled stops, the miles ahead. Here is the route on Google Maps. It is approximate, see how the line stops dead at the military canal, then starts over again.
Here are some photos from Fairfield and Brookland, taken with Emma’s obsolete iPad Mini.
2.46pm. Brack Lane, looking towards St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
2.51pm. Dry ditch, Fairfield.
2.53pm. Dry ditch, Fairfield.
2.54pm. St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
3.29pm. St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, facing south-east, towards Lydd.
4.04pm. Altar, St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
4.15pm. Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey of The Drift narrating the histories of Romney Marsh, St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
4.41pm. Procession from St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, to Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
4.42pm. Procession from St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, to Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
6.51pm. Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
7.46pm. Nancy Gaffield (out of shot) and The Drift performing ‘Wealden’, Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
7.47pm. Nancy Gaffield and The Drift performing ‘Wealden’, Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
Click here to read ‘Walking, observing, listening’ – a wide-ranging interview in which Nancy Gaffield and The Drift reflect on the making of Wealden – on the Longbarrow Blog. You can read a further interview with Amelia and Rob of The Drift (conducted by Glenn Francis Griffith) here.
Back in the early 2000s I was commissioned to write a performance piece for Signposts, Sheffield’s one-time Literature Development Agency. I created a sequence of poems for two voices entitled ‘Beyond the City’. One character is a widower who is marking the anniversary of the death of his wife by returning to favoured Peak District haunts; the other speaker is a young woman (Jenny) who, after coming to terms with a failed relationship, is about to leave Sheffield to teach English abroad. The parallel narratives take place over a twenty-four hour period: we follow the two individuals as they negotiate the city and its outer edges on foot, by car, bus and aeroplane. The poem ends with Jenny peering out of an aircraft’s window as the city disappears from view.
On reflection, I can see that my current project, Little Piece of Harm, draws on a number of tropes from ‘Beyond the City’, giving the current project impetus, structure and focus. How far I repeat myself as a writer is something that preoccupies me, not wanting to live in a creative cul-de-sac – but I understand I have a ‘trove’ of themes that I knowingly keep dipping into. In the short term, this clustering of motifs acts as a positive organising principle: after all, poetry books hang together better if they are threaded through with recurring or overlapping ideas and images. The worry for any poet is if you keep writing the same kind of poem, or repeat the same mannerisms and verbal tics in work over and over again.
Little Piece of Harm takes place over the course of an afternoon, evening and into the morning of the next day. In the first half of the sequence, Pete, the narrator, traipses along roads and over fields partly in reaction to the town centre being in lockdown. He then gets a taxi back toward the industrial, eastern quarter of Sheffield. Consequently, Pete walks back into the city centre and catches a bus home just after dawn. All along, our narrator meets people who have things to say about the pivotal event of the day: the shooting of a policeman. In between talking to these citizens, he has time to reflect on the fact his wife has moved back home to Toronto taking Finn, their son, with her.
I have often written about men who are troubled by their circumstances, usually because they have lost or forfeited loving relationships. In ‘Beyond the City’ Joseph is mourning the loss of his wife. In the prison poems I wrote after spending a year as a writer-in-residence at HMP Nottingham, men often reflect on the absence of women or consider ways they can connect with partners who are ‘over the wall’. In another narrative-driven poem, ‘Every Time We Met’, the main character, Ed, reestablishes contact with Greg, an old associate, so he can see Leigh again (Greg’s wife) who he had a longstanding affair with. This lack of companionship is a theme that undeniably percolates through my work. I attribute this focus to putting different kinds of masculinity under pressure, exploring its vulnerabilities, and I think I use the absence of a partner as a wider interrogation of the idea of ‘home’ too. I’ve focused for many years on notions of what constitutes the idea of home for a wide range of people. In Little Piece of Harm this equation is further complicated by the fact that Pete is missing his wife and son. One of the things I ask myself in this sequence, which I haven’t done before at length in a fictional form, is what it means to be a parent, or perhaps more fundamentally, what it means to be a good parent and citizen.
Sheffield is a central character in both ‘Beyond the City’ and Little Piece of Harm. I know this is something I keep returning to, the city’s environs. It is a creative itch that I’ve been scratching for over twenty years now. I was asked recently about Little Piece of Harm leaning on particular Sheffield references (place names in particular) and the role of the local/parochial in poetry. Part of my reply focused on the concept of believability and that I needed some level of specificity to help me conjure the world I was writing about. I also said how much I admired the work of the Yorkshire poet Stanley Cook, who explored less fashionable areas of Sheffield (and South Yorkshire) in a range of his poems from the second half of the twentieth century.
I was particularly pleased that, although they are not mentioned by name, I stitch two rivers into the fabric of this new sequence: the Rivelin, and the Don. The Rivelin rolls into Sheffield from the west of the city; the Don flows southwards toward the centre of town, then bends eastwards toward the flatlands of East Yorkshire. Pete and Niamh cross the Rivelin when they pass over ‘Hollins Bridge’ in the poem ‘Someone Else’s Child’. Pete follows the Don (via the Five Weirs Walk) back into the city when he gets dropped off by the taxi driver near Meadowhall shopping centre later on in the work. For what it’s worth, I could trace Pete’s entire journey over the afternoon and evening of the narrative if you gave me an OS map of the city. That kind of specificity helped me write the pieces. More importantly, one of the reasons why I return to and focus on particular locales in Sheffield is that the majority of the characters are tied or bound to the city by deeply ingrained memories. The sequence oscillates between the here and now (about eighteen hours of time in present tense) and memories that tail back years. The city is a palimpsest that provides texture and depth to individuals’ comprehension of place, and to the overall narrative of their lives. My characters’ ‘views’ are configured, metaphorically speaking, by the patterns of house lights across the hillside, and the street lamps that thread the midnight plain.
I’ve written extensively about the Don before in the sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ (2005). I said I would never write about prison again after writing a long poem called ‘Sentences’ about a poet and his relationship with a drug dealer on remand, but in ‘The Window’s Dam’ George talks about his experiences of teaching a particularly infamous con painting when he was just out of college. I think, in practical terms, I drew on whatever I could to write this extended sequence – narratives I had considered before in other contexts and settings, and new material, new preoccupations. If I was to trawl the deep waters of influence, thinking about what shaped my choices and designs here, I would have to say that the image of the lone figure criss-crossing the city must derive, in part, from a very old fixation on Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s perpetual motion machine. Mixed in with this must be the impact that Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Immram’ had on me when I first read it as a teenage boy: his piece employs the vocabulary and motifs of hard-boiled detective fiction to depict a quest narrative. This was one of the first poems I read that made me consider how contemporary poetry could be playful with form, diction and narrative.
As much as I would like to show you my clean ‘workings out’, the various answers to questions about influence and causation are scrunched up on my desk or crumpled in the waste-paper basket. I suppose what I hope for is that in revisiting themes and ideas I can tap into creative variations rather than circle toward blunt repetition. ‘Beyond the City’ is in so many ways a different creature from Little Piece of Harm, but it is also a trial run for my latest sequence of poems, with just a seventeen-year gap in between. Now that this project has been put to bed, I’m going to move on and write something completely fresh, contrasting, brand new – or, perhaps more realistically, something new and familiar to me at the same time.
Images by Emma Bolland.