The confessions of a virtual tourist, or how and why I wrote ‘Hemisphere’ | Pete GreenPosted: November 20, 2021 Filed under: Pete Green Leave a comment
Nothing is quite absolute and whether
you’re seeking or fleeing, all roads lead
home. Move far enough in one direction,
landfall always rolls around again like
There are no roads between the 25 settlements of Nunavut and no roads connecting Nunavut to other places. If you want to go there, or if you’re there already and you want to travel from place to place within the territory, you’ll need to fly or sail.
Quite often I wonder about ‘isolated’ places – what it’s like to live in them, how their seclusion might feed into the way their people think and feel. So when I learned about the lack of transport to and within Nunavut, I was intrigued. The words There are no roads to Nunavut suggested themselves as the promising first line of a poem.
I wrote a few lines more and then stopped. How can you write about Nunavut if you’ve never been there? For that matter, how can you even go there if you suffer from anxiety about flying or sailing? What if you can’t afford a ticket, or you can’t get away because of your family or your job?
I thought about all the literature of place that I’d enjoyed reading over recent years. So much of this stuff was based on leisurely visits to places like Alaska, Greenland or Canada. Places that would be impossible for someone like me to reach. Even Scandinavia, Ireland, and the Hebrides seemed to belong to another world, which was closed off to me.
This writing was made possible by talent but also by a favourable alignment of the stars. The authors’ domestic, professional, financial and psychological circumstances all fell into sync, allowing them to travel far enough and long enough to confer credibility on the text.
Much of this work is wonderful, and my life would be diminished without it. But when any body of literature is produced by an unrepresentative social subset there will be consequences. It’s bound to be limited in perspective. And it’s likely to have an excluding effect, as people outside that subset look in and feel there’s no place for them there.
An excellent recent anthology of memoir-based place writing is Ground Work, edited by the admirable Tim Dee.  One chapter describes a cottage in a picturesque and remote part of Karelia, a region spanning the present-day border of Finland and Russia. The author, a professor at a British university, explains that “as a family, we have often spent our summers here”.
Even while I continued to enjoy the writing, as a reader from a working-class background something inside me braced and tipped at this point. Triggers like this were essentially the reason why, as a young person, I lost any sense of a potential place for me in the literary world and gave up writing poetry for 20 years.
Class is far from the only component of identity where barriers emerge – in place writing, as in society. In his introduction to Ground Work Dee laments that he “failed to find anything other than white contributors”. Jessica J Lee, editor of The Willowherb Review – a journal dedicated to diversifying the social composition of nature writing – reflects:
It’s… a bit of a chicken and egg problem. If writers of colour in particular don’t see themselves reflected in publishing, writers considering entering the field might not pursue it. With nature writing, I think, that’s a particularly acute problem. Because it’s not just the publishing barrier; it’s the nature barrier, the fact that communities of colour don’t see themselves represented in natural spaces or in environmental movements. We have such low numbers statistically of people of colour visiting national parks, which compounds the issue. 
The poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie goes a step further in sketching out a recognisable stereotype of the place writer:
…when a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads [to Scotland], with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! 
Place writing has issues, then, with the social composition of its authorship, and there are good reasons to try and address these. Meanwhile, if you’re a place writer and your circumstances mean Nunavut is out of reach, what are your options? One is to shift the focus and follow the old dictum of writing about what you know.
Kevin Boniface’s Round About Town  is a diary of observations made by the author while on his delivery rounds as a postal worker in small-town Yorkshire. His human tableaux are neatly sketched, but the real art lies in the author’s restraint. The scenes are sometimes charming, often absurd, occasionally dysfunctional, and Boniface leaves you to decide which is which.
For another example, Gareth E Rees’s Car Park Life  is a sort of post-psychogeographical survey of, as the title suggests, car parks up and down Britain. You can’t quite tell where his self-deprecation ends and the serious stuff of social observation and history begins – which can be a bit disorientating but is completely apposite.
Both of these are engaging reads, representing place writing at its most vital and relevant. But I’d already written about what I knew. My first pamphlet of poetry, Sheffield Almanac,  is an extended study of the place I’m more familiar with than any other. Its observations came from several years of walking Sheffield’s hills and rivers, sitting on buses and in pubs, absorbing the voices and currents of the city.
And while Sheffield has the M1 and the A57, there are no roads to Nunavut. This continued to fascinate me (in the old sense of the word, which implies a certain helplessness and compulsion). I wanted to write about Nunavut. And I didn’t know how, because I had never visited the place and quite possibly never would.
Then I remembered the most beautiful book in my house – the Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky  – and its devastating subtitle “Fifty islands I have not visited and never will”.
In her preface Schalansky writes of growing up in totalitarian East Germany, where Olympic athletes were the only citizens allowed to leave the country. Inspired by a nature documentary about the Galapagos Islands, she reaches for an atlas. Her finger crosses the Atlantic to South America and traces the coastline around Tierra del Fuego, before her mother points out the short cut of the Panama Canal: “And thus I undertook my first voyage round the world.”
Schalansky goes on to characterise the appeal of isolated locations and explore the deeply nuanced nature of both the making and the reading of maps. For the extreme islomaniac, compelled to obsess over places like St Kilda and Tristan da Cunha, reading an atlas is a transaction predicated on a desire which can never be fulfilled. And if its end is impossible then this frustrated desire becomes an end in itself:
This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired. Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.
Entries in the Atlas of Remote Islands comprise historical anecdotes which may be fact, fiction or a bit of both – but to dwell on the issue of veracity, Schalanksy says, would be to miss the point.
All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.
Here was my lightbulb moment. What if I returned to my Nunavut poem having taken a leaf from Schalansky’s book? What if I continued to write about the place, but in a new way, which would acknowledge that I’d never been there?
There was no need, I realised, to write as if I regularly hang out in downtown Iqaluit and hope nobody would notice that I was faking it. Instead I would embrace and even foreground the fact that my knowledge of Nunavut was second-hand. Rather than ancient and rare texts, I would transform and appropriate material from Wikipedia, YouTube and Google Earth. I would acknowledge that these sources might be unreliable, and make it part of the poem.
Over time my poem would acquire a protagonist who was journeying westwards around the northern hemisphere. Beginning in the Outer Hebrides, he would sail to Iceland and Greenland, travel on to Canada and Siberia, and return to Europe via the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The narrative would go into detail about the landscapes and people he would encounter. It would refer occasionally to the limiting circumstances of his life back at home. And it would suggest, in one or two places, that the entire trip was necessarily imagined or virtual.
Hemisphere is available now as a short book published by Longbarrow Press. It won’t rectify all that is unrepresentative and skewed about the perspectives of place writing. But among its several concerns is an invitation to consider who is allowed to write about places. Consider this invitation extended to you.
 Jonathan Cape, 2018
 ‘Fresh Voices in Nature Writing’, interview with Five Books
 ‘A Lone Enraptured Male’, London Review of Books vol. 30 no. 5, 6 March 2008
 Uniformbooks, 2018
 Influx Press, 2019
 Longbarrow Press, 2017
 Penguin, 2010
Illustrations by Abi Goodman.
Hemisphere is published by Longbarrow Press as a 48-page ‘short book’, with illustrations by artist Abi Goodman. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below. Click here to read the first section of Hemisphere.
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The provincial sublime: transcendence and the post-industrial | Pete GreenPosted: June 26, 2019 Filed under: Pete Green 2 Comments
What does the word sublime mean to you? For many, it connotes the grandeur of certain natural landscapes – rugged, mountainous vistas with the potential to inspire awe, and perhaps a sort of departure from the everyday. We inherit this understanding from the Romantics, for whom magnificent scenery offers a kind of transformative power which heightens the poet’s perception.
This power typically reveals connections between the poet, the natural world, human society, and sometimes a deity or immanent creative force. These connections are often profound and esoteric, and inaccessible except through this kind of sublime revelation. When the poet comes to mediate this experience into verse, their tone is typically one of wonder, their language ‘elevated’ far above the everyday.
In Wordsworth’s case the kind of scenery that offers an experience of the sublime is found in the Cumberland fells. Other Romantic poets look further afield – Shelley, for example, to Mont Blanc in the Alps.
This experience of the sublime might have been a long way removed from the everyday lives of most people in Wordsworth’s time. But this was at least a time when those lives were largely connected quite intimately with the natural environment. After two hundred years of urbanisation in the developed world, we find ourselves profoundly estranged from that natural environment and the Romantic sublime is less accessible to most of us than ever.
True, we can take walks in the countryside. We can visit the Lake District or (if we can afford it) the Alps. On those occasions when we are permitted to ‘connect with nature’, though, our potential experience of the Romantic sublime has been pre-empted by visual media. We’ve seen those places a thousand times in photographs, film and television. We can never perceive those landscapes in the same way as our forebears in the era before mass communication.
As a reader or a writer of poetry in 2019, then, you might be tempted to discard any notion of the sublime as an experience of place. Instead I would suggest looking somewhere different.
Wordsworth’s contemporary John Clare was born into the agricultural labouring classes and spent his life in the pleasant but unspectacular landscape of rural Northamptonshire. He found glimpses of the sublime not in majestic scenery but in the smaller details: the motion of a robin, or the sounds of thawing ice and snow.
Clare demonstrates how the sublime might be reconfigured in terms of both scale and location – from the grandiose to the humble, and from the notable to the obscure. In doing this he offers us some cues towards an understanding of how we might find a kind of transcendence in poetry (and perhaps other art forms) today.
When I come across this characteristic in new poetry, I think of it as a sort of ‘provincial sublime’. It’s typically located in scenes that are ostensibly mundane or inconsequential, often marginal in some sense, often where the natural and the built environment interact. They are obscure places. They may embody some kind of social, economic or environmental dysfunction. A sort of transcendence is attained in these locations through a particular gaze, which might narrow down to those small details or expand outward into an imagined or remembered wider landscape.
If you are watching a Boeing Dreamliner taking off from Heathrow for Singapore, there is no Romantic sublime to be encountered in the humdrum periphery of west London. But you might think about the hundreds of passengers on board, and conjure some riff on the grand sweep of humanity. You might consider the many intertwined processes – technical, industrial, financial, political and personal – that have combined to lift and propel this 250-tonne mass of glass, kerosene, titanium, and human flesh and bone over your head. You might reflect that these processes can also move backwards, and when Concorde served the route the same journey could have been made 40 years ago in half the time.
Or you might focus on the gentle swaying of the rosebay willowherb at the airport fence below.
Here are two poems, with very different tones but some similarities of form, which seem to me to relate to this notion of the provincial sublime. The first is from Natalie Burdett.
you’re blossoming new curves. A warm glow skims
them, ribbons out across your city roofs
from Selfridges’ bright aluminium discs
to flick around the library’s gold hoops.
At night a colder, more fluorescent sheen
accentuates your skyline’s harder-edged
old towers. Polished steel casts well-built beams
of light which flash back from wet tarmac beds.
Inside the markets people claim a space.
Chermoula chicken couscous in deep bowls
steams up the glass; revives, illuminates
the dust-grey faces, highlights natural tones.
Outside, down low where nothing shines at all,
a sycamore seed sprouts against a wall. 
Burdett’s Birmingham is a scene not of decline and dysfunction but of renewal. The distinctive “new curves” of the library and the Selfridges building are both 21st-century additions to the landscape. Although the expansive, rooftop-roaming gaze of the first two stanzas narrows down to a human level in the third, the celebratory tone remains, and the focus remains on the built environment rather than the natural. Neither prepare the reader for the quietly astonishing final couplet.
And that, in fact, is the point. The understated power of this closure derives precisely from its reversal of expectations. The richness and gleam of the regenerated cityscape, together with the convention of the sonnet form, invite the reader to anticipate an even grander, further-reaching finale. But the gaze becomes narrower still and, in a wonderfully surprising twist, shifts abruptly from the built environment to the tiny interloping organism from the natural world.
The bathos here is profound enough to prompt a reappraisal of what has gone before. Is the city’s much-heralded revamp somehow all in vain? Will human endeavour forever be overtaken by the natural environment that preceded it? Regeneration has been practised by urban planners only in the few decades of the post-industrial era – but nature has been doing it for countless millennia.
Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Open to the Sky’ is rooted not in a city but an unnamed location, recognisably neither urban nor rural. There is no sign here of any form of regeneration, just glimpses of an inaccessible otherness.
Open to the Sky
England – my England – amounts to this:
a Hull-bound train stalling by a landfill;
gulls and crows scatter from the rubbish
and delay evolves into total standstill.
This is no more than I deserve, no less.
If I ever dream, the place is unable
to deliver. The big guy opposite
sucks on his Coke, bites deep in his burger.
He unwraps The Matrix DVD box set.
His balding fleece is endorsed by NASA.
We live on what we find. Like crows. Like gulls.
The sun ebbs and the landfill loses colour.
Lacking anything else, two teenage girls
take photo after photo of each other. 
If western society in the 20th century was characterised by social and technological advances in tandem, then perhaps the defining feature of the 21st is the way technology has continued to race ahead while social and perhaps cultural progress – like the train in Clegg’s poem – has stalled. Advances in technology are no longer driven predominantly by the need to solve a problem or improve society: some items and services seem to be developed and marketed simply because they can be.
It’s this disconnect between possibility and reality – “If I ever dream, the place is unable//to deliver” – that defines ‘Open to the Sky’ and sets its tone of matter-of-fact desolation. The girls’ cameraphone and the mention of NASA remind us what miracles can be achieved by human ingenuity, but the concept of space exploration makes for a sharply ironic contrast with this rickety, paralysed locomotive and the predicament of its stranded passengers.
In the end, while the adjacent landfill stands replete with rubbish, the stalled train comes to emblematise another kind of waste. Instead of merely salvaging scraps, how much more could all these passengers be doing now, had a functional railway already taken them to their destination, or a functional society delivered on their dreams? The image of the girls photographing each other just for something to do is not a reversal, in the style of Burdett’s closing couplet, but is equally arresting, even as it completes the sense of malaise. Outside of war poetry, it’s perhaps as complete and devastating a symbol of futility as you will ever find.
If we insist upon the notion of sublime that developed two centuries ago, in an utterly different world, then we’ll not find it in the poetry being written today in Yorkshire or Birmingham, or any other post-industrial setting. If, on the other hand, we understand the sublime to be defined by a sort of transcendence from one’s immediate surroundings – rather than necessarily by beautiful or majestic settings, and a tone of great wonder – then it is there for our taking.
‘Birmingham’ toys delightfully with our expectations, skipping adeptly between scales and scopes, and snatches us away from human vanity to point out the timeless endurance of nature. ‘Open to the Sky’ hints at a magnificence or redemption that is insurmountably elsewhere, offering a bitterly ironic kind of transcendence. In their different ways, in similar forms, both poems represent a model of the sublime that is perfectly attuned to our times.
 From the pamphlet Urban Drift (smith|doorstop, 2018).
 The “dust-grey faces” of the market people here reprise the “sleep-stupid faces” of factory workers in another study of the second city, by Louis MacNeice, dating from the 1930s and also entitled ‘Birmingham’.
 From the collection West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013).
 When cameraphones first became available, owners typically lacked ideas for their everyday use. For the technology to acquire a widely perceived purpose, a culture shift was also necessary; this followed later, when social media lifted some of the stigma around narcissism, as seen in the normalisation of the selfie.
 Regular users of Northern Rail, which serves the Hull region, will need no reminder that its fleet still comprises many obsolete Pacer units, built in the mid-1980s with an anticipated lifespan of 20 years.
Images by Pete Green. An earlier version of this essay was presented at Modern Nature, a two-day symposium (organised by The University of Sheffield) at The Hepworth, Wakefield, 25-26 April 2019.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. An earlier essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Pete Green and Anders Hanson lead a walk through Sheffield’s Kelham Island district on Wednesday 3 July (as part of From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism, a programme of exhibitions and free events). Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Model City | Pete GreenPosted: May 14, 2017 Filed under: Pete Green Leave a comment
In a post-industrial age, the character and distinctiveness of England’s cities and regions is much diminished. Places whose identities were once informed by their key economic activity – textiles in Lancashire, say, or the railways in Derby and Crewe – scrabble around in the remains to build an updated sense of self which might reconcile their unique industrial history with their new reliance on employment in the far more generic settings of call centres and distribution hubs.
The degree to which cities retain a distinctive culture and feel can vary, though. Many Sheffielders believe theirs succeeds more than most. The automation of processes means steel production no longer provides much in the way of local employment – and globalisation means the wealth it generates mostly leaves the city without touching the sides – but steel continues to be made here. Most people living in Sheffield today have no link to the industry, but are sharply aware of its past significance. The ‘Steel City’ nickname is still used widely.
Sheffield also hosts a vibrant grassroots arts and crafts scene. Buildings where steel from local foundries was once worked into cutlery and tools now provide cheap, central sites for independent galleries and studios. To some extent the city’s economy has diversified into creative and digital industries. It has also received a boost from the arrival of a substantially expanded student population, many of whom arrive in Sheffield from other countries, China in particular.
Last year an initiative was declared jointly by the city’s council and universities with local groups representing business and culture, supported by Arts Council and lottery funding:
In 2016 Sheffield celebrates a Year of Making, an opportunity to foreground all forms of making in the city and region – from advanced manufacturing, specialist steels, forged products, cutting tools, flanges, bearings and blades to award winning theatre, international art and design, ground-breaking research and world class talent.
The Year of Making 2016 celebrates our past, present and future as a city of makers and promotes a world city with an international reputation for excellence and innovation.
It’s fair to say that ‘making’, in its various forms, comprises a significant aspect of whatever distinctive identity Sheffield might profess today. The passage quoted above demonstrates that in formulating a version of that identity, rather than erase or replace the heavy industry of yesterday, the Year of Making initiative consciously sought to accommodate steelmaking – in both its present and past forms – alongside cultural and academic ‘products’ such as theatre and research.
So central, in fact, is the idea of ‘making’ to this version of Sheffield that its narratives commonly redeploy the verb ‘to make’ as an intransitive rather than a transitive verb. A transitive verb has an object: I’m singing a song, you’re making a fork. An intransitive verb has none: I’m singing, you’re making. In this version of Sheffield verb matters more than noun. The act of manufacturing is more significant than the (grammatical or manufactured) object. What you’re making has become less important than the fact that you’re making it.
Perhaps it’s a kind of cultural fetishisation to impute greater value to a manufacturing process than to its product.
Among other intentions, my poem Sheffield Almanac invites the reader to reflect on some of the assumptions that underlie the ‘City of Makers’ narrative.
One assumption is that it is economically useful. Comparison with other cities might suggest otherwise. A 2016 study compares Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield by the percentage of jobs in manufacturing and in high value services, and by average wages and tax yield per job. Of those five major northern cities, Sheffield has the greatest proportion of jobs in manufacturing and the smallest in high value services. Of those five major northern cities Sheffield also has the lowest average weekly wage, and the smallest tax yield per job.
So, how does this explain Sheffield being left behind? Well, a big manufacturing sector is not a great thing for the economy of a developed world city. Technology means that factories don’t generate the jobs they once did; competitive pressure from factories all over the world mean that many of the jobs which do exist are unlikely to be particularly well-paid… The most economically successful cities tend to have smaller manufacturing bases, but much larger knowledge-based service industries. On that measure, Manchester and Leeds are clearly way out ahead.
The ‘making’ narrative, though, as we’ve seen, incorporates more than just the traditional manufacturing sector taken into account by the CityMetric analysis. It may be that the agenda to present ‘making’ as a whole, comprising the processes of the factory alongside cultural, creative and academic activity, succeeds in creating a ‘brand’ which makes Sheffield a more attractive place to visit or set up a business.
Or perhaps what we might lose in GDP from Sheffield’s obdurate adherence to a ‘making’ economy, we might gain in other, less tangible benefits. It feels good to be part of a city with an identity. I enjoy the fact that my adopted home has an industrial heritage that it’s proud of. And lots of galleries, festivals of zines and documentary film, and DIY gigs in repurposed steel workshops. And it makes a lot of very good ale. I like being able to walk through the city and see where all these things go on. If I moved to Leeds or Manchester, there’d be considerably more jobs I could apply for, but I’m not sure I’d find a civic identity I could buy into quite so readily (and we can be certain I wouldn’t if I moved to the south).
You can view this version of Sheffield by visiting the city’s Millennium Galleries (a venue managed by Museums Sheffield, one of the partners in the Year of Making project). Among the superbly curated exhibition rooms, one celebrates the history of the cutlery industry and the small-scale artisan steelmaking that goes on today. Another has recently highlighted various other local products, from propeller blades to craft beer. A beautifully produced Year of Making film depicts the processes in a Sheffield potato crisp factory and its contented employees.
The gallery’s shop sells an excellent range of locally produced art and craft items, stationery, books, toys, shoulder bags, greetings cards, preserves, and pretty things for the house. It also sells bottles of Henderson’s Relish.
Henderson’s Relish is a bit like Worcestershire sauce (you’re not supposed to say that, but it is). It’s made in Sheffield, and you see it everywhere you go in Sheffield. But it’s not widely available outside the city. This exclusivity has elevated the product from a condiment to an icon of civic pride – or a metonym for Sheffield’s distinctiveness.
There are Henderson’s recipe books, T-shirts, badges and art prints. ‘Limited edition’ bottles are sometimes produced, replacing the standard design with the colours of the two local professional football clubs. The University of Sheffield recently announced that it will generously preserve a disused former Henderson’s factory, which sits among many of its other buildings, by turning it into a pub.
Perhaps it’s another kind of fetishisation to value the cultural significance of a condiment above what it tastes like on your pie and peas.
Some of the art and craft items on sale around the city depict local landmarks. These have included the Park Hill estate – a famous brutalist block of former council housing, whose ongoing redevelopment by Urban Splash is regularly denounced as an act of gentrification. They have included the cooling towers of the former Blackburn Meadows power station alongside the M1, which were demolished in 2008 despite a campaign to retain them as some kind of monument or venue for arts and culture.
Sometimes the makers will create art using elements of Sheffield dialect and accent. On the wall of a pub near my home there’s a periodic table of Sheffield dialect. This is not a wealthy part of town, nor is it deprived, and the pub is populated largely by people who either already have a degree or are in the process of acquiring one. It’s not a place where I’ve ever heard people say thee and tha, or reyt mardy, except in a knowing, affected way.
As we walk past the periodic table of Sheffield dialect we look at it and smile. We have taken the speech patterns of Sheffield’s working class as a raw material from which to manufacture a pleasing cultural commodity for middle-class consumption. We’ve done it with fondness and the best of intentions. But that’s what we’ve done.
I wonder sometimes whether the tendency to frame Henderson’s on your wall rather than splash it on your dinner plate isn’t found disproportionately more among white-collar incomers to the city and less among working-class native Sheffielders. I wonder whether we respond with more zeal than is necessary to ‘iconic’ condiments and council estates because we are anxious for acceptance in our adopted home. I wonder whether the version of the city that’s predicated on the new ‘making’ narrative isn’t fundamentally a sort of middle-class meta-Sheffield.
That might be overstating it. It’s not just the better-off who are proud of Sheffield or who believe it’s different from (and better than) other places. Violent disorder occurred in many English towns and cities under both the Thatcher and Cameron governments; both times, Sheffield was the only large settlement unaffected by rioting. One explanation put forward was civic pride. I don’t know how grounded that is in reality, but I do remember one hashtag trending locally during those nights of unrest in August 2011: #SteelCityNotStealCity.
If Sheffield differs from the rest of England in its social divisions, though, it does so only because they are sharper here than elsewhere. Broadly speaking, areas in the city’s south and west are healthier, wealthier and more educated than areas in its north and east. The various related indices of deprivation and quality of life follow the pattern: infrastructure, property values, life expectancy, and the incidence of crime and road traffic accidents.
As with other large cities, areas of severe poverty developed in the 1970s and 1980s after job losses in a key industry. But Sheffield’s unique landscape has also played a role in its social division.
The topography of the Lower Don Valley was particularly suitable for industrial development, and 19th century housing to accommodate the workforce was located in the area. In contrast, the higher ground to the west was settled by the factory owners – upwind of the pollution from the factories. In the twentieth century this polarisation was exacerbated by the concentration of council housing to the east. Sheffield is one of the most polarised cities in Britain, with the more affluent neighbourhoods to the west and the poorer to the east. The National Park to the west of the city precluded the development of dormitory suburbs as are found near many other cities: there was little middle class flight to leafier places.
[A Tale of Two Cities: The Sheffield Project]
Perhaps the gains made from the city’s new-look ‘making’ economy don’t share out evenly. Perhaps both the economic and cultural benefits accrue disproportionately to a comparatively privileged sector of the city’s population.
Either way, there is more than one version of Sheffield. The version you’ll see in Fulwood is radically different from the version you’ll see in Upperthorpe, and the version you’ll see in Crookes varies dramatically from the one you’ll encounter in Tinsley (where, despite already lethally bad air quality, a new Ikea is being built, not far from the site of those demolished cooling towers).
Not all these versions of Sheffield are equally visible. And their co-existence is not without tensions. In the 2016 referendum, while Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle voted to remain in the European Union, Sheffield narrowly voted to leave. As we saw during the riots, overlooked communities express frustration through self-destructive behaviour. But this doesn’t always mean smashing shopfronts and torching cars.
It’s not that working-class voices are never heard. At Weston Park Museum a film about Park Hill features former residents sharing their memories. But none seem to diverge from the view that Park Hill was an excellent place to live (and implicitly, perhaps, that the revamp is worth the cost). As with the happy workers in the crisp factory film, working-class voices are heard – but only as incorporated into the de facto official version of Sheffield.
None of this, of course, is to imply that initiatives like the Year of Making shouldn’t happen or that the intentions behind them are anything other than noble. We’re lucky to have Sheffield Museums: the job they do is outstanding, and all the more so given the huge funding cuts they’ve suffered.
Nor do I seek to suggest that I’m not complicit in any processes of appropriation or commodification, if that’s what they are. When a designer created beautiful Park Hill-themed artwork for my band’s first single, I gave my enthusiastic approval. When a petition was got up to save the cooling towers, I signed it, while sitting comfortably at home on the other side of Sheffield. A poem is not a manifesto. I’m not here to say Something Must Be Done; still less, that I’ll do it, or that I even know what. My purposes here, and in the Sheffield Almanac, are simply observation and an invitation to reflect.
And even in pursuing those limited aims I could have it all wrong. Once the Henderson’s Arms pub has opened on campus, and you’re in there having a drink, listen out for the accents around the room. If you hear any actual working-class people, tell me right away. I’ll come over, acknowledge my mistakes, and buy you a two-thirds of artisan cappuccino porter.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac appeared from Longbarrow Press in 2017. The pamphlet is currently sold out: you can read an extract from the poem here.
Pete Green’s latest publication is Hemisphere (Longbarrow Press, 2021), the story of an impossible journey, told in verse, which circumnavigates the politics of interaction between people, places and poetry. On a chaotic round trip from the Hebrides across the north Atlantic, Canada, Alaska and Siberia, the poem invites reflection on government and nationality, geography, language and ‘post-truth’, fertility, decay, and imagination. Hemisphere is published as a 48-page ‘short book’, with illustrations by artist Abi Goodman; you can order the book here.