When the opportunity to interview Catherine Taylor, author of The Stirrings: A Memoir in Northern Time, popped into Northern Soul’s inbox, my editor gave me first refusal. She may suspect that I’m vying for the title of Sheffield Correspondent, but, of course, I had to take it.
Taylor’s memoir of growing up in Sheffield from the late 70s to the early 90s spans seismic events for the author and the Steel City. I inhaled the book, pausing only to compose myself when it moved me to tears or to check Google – there’s a lot of history you’ll want to know more about. So, I felt a little dazed after the whistle-stop tour of various cataclysmic events during those decades, a time of major upheaval and unrest for the place I’ve called home for nearly 20 years.
As the interview begins, I warn Taylor that I’m in danger of making this entire piece about my beloved Sheffield, so I start by asking about the process of writing memoir, as this is another subject I find endlessly fascinating. I’ve read a number of brilliant memoirs, often wondering how people decide it’s the right time to write one. Do they reach a certain critical distance and know they have the right perspective on events? Or perhaps it’s an insuppressible desire to get it all down on paper before it becomes overwhelming?
“I think the first point you made is the right one,” says Taylor. “I think it’s about perspective. That distance of years is very, very important in writing about very personal matters. I would say that the book is very much me, but it’s also not me because, of course, I’m now a very different person. But I also recognise that person and my friends and family certainly recognise that person very clearly. Time doesn’t necessarily heal wounds, but it does give you a particular perspective on the past. Also, I wanted to write things before I forgot them, particularly about my father, because I don’t really have that many memories of him left.”
When it comes to memoir, I reckon I’d be held back by fear of causing offence. Taylor addresses this point head-on.
“I have to be really frank, my parents are dead now and I don’t think I would have written this book if they’d been alive. My father would have been really angry about it. My mother would not necessarily have wanted me to write the book, but I think she probably would not have been surprised by it.”
I’m curious to know how the book has been received by friends and family who were around at the time. “They knew I was writing the book, but I didn’t show anybody anything until it was published,” says Taylor. “My sister, who still lives in Sheffield, has been very positive and very supportive of it. I know that one of my brothers has read it and loves it. The other one hasn’t, I don’t think, read it. But that’s the choice. Nobody asks you to write a memoir about yourself, which also obviously will include aspects of your family life. I have grown-up nieces and nephews now, so they’ve all read it too. It’s very interesting getting the next generation’s perspective on their family’s history.”
Despite finances being stretched at times, Taylor’s upbringing was rich in cultural capital thanks to her mother’s dogged determination to open a bookshop and keep it afloat, come hell or high water. I want to know more about her mother, who grew up in New Zealand and moved to Sheffield with her young family before opening a bookshop which became central to the city’s literary scene.
“The New Zealand part of my family is definitely something that I want to write about and explore more, either through memoir or maybe a novel.” Taylor was incredibly close to her mother, admitting in her book that she clung to her desperately after her father left, fearful of losing another parent.
For me, the most compelling thread of the book is the unfolding story of this separation and the shockwaves it sent through the following years. Not only did it resonate deeply on a personal level, Taylor picked the apposite fragments of fractured memories to convey the trauma. I suggest that she, as the youngest, might have experienced this event differently to her older siblings, two of whom had already moved away. By the age of 12, she was the only child left at home living in the aftermath of the separation.
“Absolutely,” she agrees. “My sister said to me when she finished the book that she realised how different our lives were growing up, how different our family experiences were. I was right at the end, and she’s actually a different generation to me.”
There’s a lot of pain in the book and, as Taylor says, a lot happened to her in a very short space of time. I suspect it must have been painful to write, but I also wonder if the process was cathartic. It must be daunting to dredge through the past, haul up the important pieces, and set about bringing them together in a way that tells your story. Could it be a form of processing things that needed to be dealt with?
“I would say that I felt an enormous sense of relief once the book was published. I was dreading it.”
She wrote most of her book during the second lockdown, and it was an intense experience. “I was not just writing about the past, but immersing myself in it. I would watch television programmes I’d watched as a child on YouTube, I would read books I’d read as a child. I would go through old letters and photographs because, of course, growing up in the analogue era, I had this kind of time capsule at my disposal.”
Taylor was “really, really anxious” about the book before it came out. Nevertheless, the response to her book has been amazing, and the sense of relief at publication is coupled with the joy of seeing her book take on its own existence, separate from her.
It’s fair to say that joy is in short supply throughout this memoir. Malevolent forces lurk in the background and the reader is acutely aware that the undercurrent of threat is constantly at risk of spilling over into violence and destruction. Of course, the traumatic life events of the author play a part in this, but the grim unease that haunts the pages reflects the time and place in which it is set. Once thriving communities are struggling, cut adrift by the closure of coal and steel industries. The world is on the brink of nuclear war. A serial killer is stalking Yorkshire, committing horrifically violent crimes without check thanks to the ineptitude of the police investigation and the prevailing attitude towards women, particularly sex workers.
The Battle of Orgreave, the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, and the Hillsborough Disaster are all examples of local events that, over the years, resulted in national headlines – reported through a lens of callous disregard for human life and outrageous lies. The police and the press were not to be trusted, and neither was the Government. It’s easy to forget how imminent the threat of a nuclear apocalypse felt, too.
In 1984, Taylor had a part as an extra in Threads, Barry Hines’ devastating masterpiece depicting a nuclear attack in Sheffield. She also travelled to join the women’s movement at Greenham Common, a series of camps established to protest nuclear weapons at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire.
All of the above would be enough to shake anyone’s sense of security, even without the personal events that Taylor dealt with, so it’s no wonder that a bleak anxiety pervades the narrative, conveyed perfectly in its first scene where the young Taylor is dared to run through a dark, drizzly Sheffield cemetery and finds herself running in the opposite direction, back home.
I’m interested to know what she makes of Sheffield today. While Taylor has family in the city, she lives in London. Does it still feel like home?
“Oh, it’s definitely got that pull. I think the place that forms you is something that you never get away from, whether you’ve had a positive or a negative experience of it. And a lot of my experiences, like most young people, were very mixed. But that is my city, it’s my home city.”
Food, food, food
Taylor loves the fact that Sheffield is now a “foodie paradise” – something, she says, it absolutely was not when she was growing up. This is, she believes, a great example of how places can reinvent themselves. “I want Sheffield to thrive and I think it’s really important that it does.”
There have been some fantastic changes, she says, which is “why I very deliberately wrote about things like the Botanical Gardens, which were just pretty ruined when I was a child. And it’s amazing to see what’s happened with the General Cemetery now, for example. But the city centre was still thriving when I was a teenager in the 80s. Fargate was the shopping destination, Chapel Walk, all of that…I saw this rapid economic decline, which happened so quickly. It’s really important to think about that huge, proud tradition of Sheffield, which goes back from the fourth to the 14th century of making small tools and cutlery and then how quickly, in the 70s, it all just kind of got buried in such a short space of time. The collapse of the steel industry, the miners’ strike. That legacy is still there.”
We circle back to the theme of protest and how Sheffield (aka the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire) is central to the history of workers’ rights. The title of the book, The Stirrings, is in part a reference to the Sheffield Outrages – a series of protests for workers’ rights that led to the formation of the Trades Union Congress. “That history of protest is perhaps not so widely known in terms of Sheffield specifically as a city, but the Save Sheffield Trees campaign a few years ago brought it back to me and that was very much the spirit of the city that I remember.”
When Taylor started writing her book, it seemed as though the world she was writing about was “very much in the past”. But, as she went on, current events resonated so deeply that it brought home just how relevant the past is today, in particular with “this endless misogyny and violence towards women, the clamping down of reproductive rights, Roe versus Wade being overturned in the US”.
She continues: “The police corruption we touched upon earlier…it’s quite extraordinary to look back and think how cyclical everything is and how things progress, and now we’re having this terrible backlash against progressiveness.” She wants the younger generation to read her book, in part for that reason. “It’s not a nostalgia trip,” she says firmly.
I agree wholeheartedly that Taylor’s book is pertinent to our world. Read it, youngsters, and check out the seminal feminist and social texts you’ll find referenced throughout. However old you are, in fact. Here I am, hurtling towards middle age (already there, depending on your definition), noting down titles from the back of this book to broaden my mind. Books are in Taylor’s blood, and I’m sure this one will inspire others to pick up more of them.
All images courtesy of The Orion Publishing Group