The provincial sublime: transcendence and the post-industrial | Pete Green

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.

 

Birmingham,

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. [1]

 

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,[2] 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. [3]

 

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.

 

[1] From the pamphlet Urban Drift (smith|doorstop, 2018).

[2] 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’.

[3] From the collection West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013).

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

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Model City | Pete Green

Retail display, Millennium Galleries, Sheffield (Pete Green)

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.

[Sheffield City of Makers]

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.

Branded display, central Sheffield (Pete Green)

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.

[CityMetric]

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).

Retail display, Weston Park Museum, Sheffield (Pete Green)

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.

Retail display, Millennium Galleries, Sheffield (Pete Green)

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.

Retail display, Millennium Galleries, Sheffield (Pete Green)

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 is out now from Longbarrow Press. You can order the pamphlet by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below:

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