Book Review: The Book of Sheffield
Twenty-five years ago, Sheffield was mine. I watched its football, I drank its beer, and when I’d finished, I climbed its hills and headed for home, constantly turning to take in the view. Because in Sheffield there was always a hill. There was always a view.
But my version of Sheffield is now a quarter of a century old, dulled by time’s patina in a way that the city’s knives and forks never are. Since my train pulled out of Midland Station, the place has shapeshifted, mutated – spawning craft beer trails and communities in buildings I knew only as relics of an industry long dead.
It’s easy to treat your own story as definitive, the version to which all others defer. But The Book of Sheffield – the latest in Comma Press’s series of city-based fiction anthologies – offers ten reasons to resist that notion, ten reminders that those bruise-coloured terraces and millstone-grit villas house Sheffielders for whom the city means many different things.
In her introduction as editor, Catherine Taylor sketches in the city we learnt about at school – the one built from Orwell quotes and little mesters, from confluent rivers and smokeless zones – and it’s tempting to wonder which of these classroom clichés the assembled writers will choose as fuel for their own narrative furnace. But what follows are stories that largely wriggle free of the city’s received wisdoms, conjuring a variety of Sheffields that are as gloriously true as the one that exists in my head. Or yours.
As with my Sheffield narrative, several of these stories are glimpsed in the mind’s rear-view mirror, written by authors who once lived in the city but have since moved away.
Margaret Drabble evokes the melancholic pull of memory and loss in The Avenue, with a narrator who returns to the street where she grew up. She’s an elderly actress whose most pleasurable professional moments, and perhaps her bitterest experience, took place on the Crucible Theatre’s stage.
“She had watched Sheffield change dramatically,” writes Drabble, “as it rose from the ashes of its bomb sites and reached for the skies with cheese graters and egg boxes and wedding cakes” – a reference to the nicknames of modern buildings that, for the immediate post-war generation, utterly altered the city’s face.
Philip Hensher’s story, Visiting the Radicals, takes place inside one such edifice – the once loathed, now widely loved, concrete cliff face known as Park Hill flats. For Hensher, who grew up in the 70s and 80s, the flats never represented a new Sheffield. For him – and me – it was as if they had always existed, although for the teenage revolutionary at the heart of Hensher’s story, they conceal a side of the city that’s been hiding just out of sight.
Stories and experiences can lie hidden for all kinds of reasons, and Désirée Reynolds – not an occupant of Sheffield’s past, but of its current generation – digs for a life whose history was deliberately concealed. In Born on Sunday, Silent, she leads an enquiring spirit called Kai Akosua Mansah on a search for lost truths but finds that even Sheffield’s own archives don’t necessarily reveal the full tale.
“Looking for Sheffield’s past was not easy,” she writes. “The things that get left out tell a story all of their own.”
Writers including Helen Mort, Naomi Frisby and Karl Riordan tell stories flavoured by today’s Sheffield – the city that now embraces its brutalism and its special place at the south of the north – while Gregory Norminton dips into the near future, presenting a haunted city whose inherently gentle nature might struggle to survive the turbulence to come.
For me though, the most extraordinary story comes at the end of the book, with Tim Etchells’ malfunctioning future-past fairy tale, Long Fainting/Try Saving Again. Ostensibly a story about Martha and her daughter Gina – who “probably by accident but possibly on purpose uploaded herself to internet and disappeared from her bedroom b4 tea time” – this is a Sheffield that exists outside of history, a corrupted copy of the city I lived in, a land of skewed heritage, technology and pubs.
It’s a seductive vision, and deliriously inventive, but is it the realest Sheffield in this book?
That, as we know, doesn’t matter. Because in a city of valleys, a city of hills, there’s always another view to take in.
The Book of Sheffield is edited by Catherine Taylor and published by Comma Press. Its authors are Margaret Drabble, Tim Etchells, Naomi Frisby, Philip Hensher, Helen Mort, Geoff Nicholson, Gregory Norminton, Johnny Pitts, Désirée Reynolds and Karl Riordan.
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