3 May 2014


Ghost City

The Hillsborough disaster, which twenty-five years on is still big news as relatives and friends strive to prise truths from the mailed fist of authority, was a turning point in the history of football, and of Sheffield.

The 96 ghosts created on the afternoon of April 15th, 1989 saw the end of football terraces, the concrete steps where men in flat caps would clutch mugs of OXO or Bovril after a lunchtime in the pub.  But also they became part of the mist that shrouded the change in Sheffield from city of heavy industry, to a city of indeterminate purpose.

Once upon a time arriving at Sheffield Midland Station (once Pond Street, and now Sheffield Station) meant stepping into steel air, with the odour of burnt scrap metal from Attercliffe mingling with the sweet fragrance of malt liquor from the breweries by the Don, which signalled the heat and thirst of mill-work.  On rare Sundays, when winds blustered down from the Pennines to scour the valleys between Sheffield's seven hills, the air would seem fresh, though the shut-down fortnight in August would also clear the light.  Otherwise, day and night, open hearth furnaces burned, in some cases with wires thicker than thighs pulsing and switching to the massive surges of electric heat, in others stoked with coke and pumping out dusty smoke through slender brick chimneys spiring up into the clouds.  Mills rolled, sparking and rumbling like manic giant mangles; forges hissed and thumped, their flywheels spinning and clicking, their operators starched with sweat; railway engines clanked and screeched, pulling and shunting backwards and forwards on works' sidelines.  In a thousand smaller workshops, steel was heated, stretched, thinned, beaten, moulded, wrought and finished in a din of clinking anvils, whirring belts and clattering machinery. 

In the grey mornings, feeling grey, my skin grey, my thoughts grey, I would board a bus and clamber to the upper deck, where similarly grey men in white cotton neck scarves and flat caps coughed in the bitter fug of Park Drive smoke, our snap bags on our laps, our uniform indicative of our employment at one of the many works in Attercliffe or Tinsley.

For a period (which marked me out from most in that mine was not a life sentence) I was an upset-forge furnaceman for Brown Bayley Steels, a member of BISAKTA (British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association) sweating eight (sometimes sixteen) hours a day to produce blanks for axle rods, sometimes for domestic cars, sometimes for combine harvesters, sometimes for railway engines.  The shed I worked in was floored with steel plates, uneven and slippery in places; overhead giant gantry cranes would trundle up and down the bays with great bundles of shiny steel rods, or occasionally they would sway with huge rolls of raw steel, orange red hot at one end, sparking and scaling as they passed.  Dante would have recognised the scene as his Inferno, the damned toiling at hellish tasks to a universal cacophony of trip hammers, drop forges (including one which dropped 1,000 tons), the rapidly repeated whumphs of eight upset forges, the clanking of chains and the zinging of rotary sanders burring the ends of rough cut rods.

At tea break some of us would fill a six pint kettle with water and a quarter pound of tea and place it on top of a 1,000 degree furnace.  In minutes it would boil and we would stir in a pound of sugar and a pint of milk.  When we broke to go to the canteen we would eat bread and dripping, eggs, bacon, sausage, tomatoes and beans, sprinkled liberally with sauces and washed down with a pint of milk and a mug of tea.  I remember a discussion about health issues: that isn't good for you; that furs your arteries, etc, until eighteen stone Roy Hattersley, an expert forge-man, pronounced that, There's only one thing that's bad for 'ee, and t'doctors won't tell 'ee what it is, and that's work!

When we punched our cards at home-time, we would stop for a drink near the bus stop.  In the evenings, dry and stiff with salt, I would ask for two pints at the bar, and would drink the first before the second was pulled.

It was an education.  In fact it was a privilege to share for a while the lives and work of those men, and women.  Some, like a set of guys from Pakistan, worked permanent twelve hour night shifts, saving money to send home to support families with a hope that one day they might be brought over to live here.  Others, like Sam, my fat and breathless forge-man, came and went as regularly as a worker bee, doing what he did in order that honey was there for the young.  Then others, older and parked in light duty lay-bys, were held together by pins and plates having fallen prey to industrial accidents in their pursuit of an honest living in perilous surroundings. 

But all that has gone.  I returned to the site of Brown Bayley Steels in the 1980s and it had evaporated entirely; all that was there were storage units and offices, car parks and soulless blank buildings dressed with weeds and wire (this was then buried under the Don Valley Stadium, itself now a ghost).  The steel has almost all gone, with, I believe, only one special steel producer left in the area.  The cutlery producers, who also made razors, clippers, skates and scissors, have disappeared, presumably to China or cheaper climes.

And with it has gone the Castle Market, a tower block that once overflowed with vegetables, fish and meat, cheeses, fruit and life, drawing folk in from all parts of the city and beyond.  I remember the woman who sold winkles, clams, shrimps and whelks.  In her handbag she kept the shells of the only left-handed whelks she had come across in her long life as a stall-holder; five left handed whelks in a lifetime, and so interested and proud!

It is a city of ghosts.  The ghosts of Hillsborough, the ghosts of the steel industry, and the ghosts of long gone friends and memories.  I was there, visiting my brother at the university, the night that Hendrix died, and immediately, as if by spontaneous ghostly hand, the legend Hendrix Lives! appeared scrawled on walls.  I was there the night that Nixon resigned, though this made less impression on me at the time.  And the house I lived in at that time, in a room I had painted green, brown and black, was a kerb crawl from the spot where later Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, would be apprehended by the Yorkshire Police.

Recently, after many years, I returned to the city.  As I stepped out from the railway station into Sheaf Square, not only was the air rancid with commerce rather than industry but I was confronted with the towers of Sheffield Hallam University, a construct that had once squatted on its haunches as Sheffield Polytechnic. On Park Hill to the other side, stand the renovated flats, once known as San Quentin, but given Grade II listing in 1998, and famous for the Clare Middleton I love you will u marry me graffiti.  

Signs of demolition and reconstruction were everywhere.  The Castle Market building stood empty and for sale.  The West Bar Police Station where we had learnt of my grandfather's death is now a museum of emergency service vehicles.  While a brand new tram system dings its way up West Street, the old tram shed by the Don has become the Kelham Island Museum, displaying machinery that once drove the industries, and trades that put Sheffield on the map.  The Don itself, never a great river at this stage, slips quietly past ruined mills and litter-strewn car parks as if it is ashamed of itself, and seeks a hole in which to die.  The pub at the top of Lambert Street, where my brother lived for a time, is now a cheap hostel, while not far down the road the once elegant Queen's Hotel is derelict.

My friend Lindsay, himself a graduate of the University and a friend since those intellectual days, introduces  himself to the Porter in the Arts Tower, and we are welcome to step into the perpetual lift and ascend to the eighteenth floor.  

Looking down the city is spread out, not so much like a patient etherised upon the table, but as a corpse exposed for a post mortem.  There below is a row of three Victorian houses, where once I stayed, constrained by cold to eschew the outside toilet in favour of a night-time wee in a potty, except that the middle house, the one I stayed in, had been bulldozed, violently erased, leaving tattered edges to the neighbouring roofs.  

And there below, to the north side, is the Star and Garter, preferred haunt of the dons, including Lindsay's late great professor William Empson, author not only of The Seven Types of Ambiguity, but also of an episode of emesis over the bar of the aforementioned hostelry (though, as John Haffenden notes in his biography: Appalled onlookers were nonetheless favourably impressed by the way he made up for his gross behaviour with elaborate and winning courtesy).  In parenthesis I believe that one of Professor Empson's more memorable lectures consisted of him coming onto the stage, standing there for a while leafing through a text, and then saying, Well, after all, what can you say about King Lear? and walking off.

As we descend in the lift I am reminded of another distinguished member of the staff who is now but a ghost.  Joe Warrington taught philosophy, who I had met through mutual friends.  I recall meeting him in his office on the seventh floor one day, when he offered me a whisky from the bottle in his desk drawer.  Having nothing else pressing to do he invited me back to his home to listen to Louis Armstrong, for whom he had a passionate enthusiasm.  On the way we stopped at his local off licence to buy some bottles.  The lady shopkeeper politely reminded Joe that the last time he had passed by he had written her a cheque, but sadly this had bounced.  Oh, don't worry about that!  Joe smiled winningly,  I'll just write you another one!

Joe, and other members of the university fraternity, used to frequent a pub called The Raven,  of which now no trace remains, its site occupied by a glass and concrete edifice with little discernable purpose.  However, to my delight, I find that a favourite haunt of mine in those distant days is still there, even though John, my friend and owner at the time, has now retired, and it is being run by his brother.  This is Rare and Racy, a shop which specialises in buying and selling books and records. 

I enter, to the faint scent of joss and the music of John Coltrane, and I feel I am dreaming - this was how it was; wall to wall books and stacks of records, even now largely vinyl LPs.  The only real difference (apart from the shop sign) is that the front rooms of the first floor are also stacked with books, and the walls are covered with framed prints of local interest.  For me, this is a treasure trove, and I can hardly believe it is still in business.

But moving on, my last port of call is the Cathedral.  As Cathedrals go it is not the grandest, nor the most highly decorated, but it stands in a pleasant space, with some attractive Georgian buildings around.  One morning, many years ago, I remember wandering here at about the same time of year.  A number of homeless people were stretched out on the ground beside the ancient walls.  

Then, as now, the cherry trees were in blossom, and the sleeping figures were delicately decorated with fallen petals.  It is an image that has stayed in my mind, one that stands for a certain kind of peace.  As I stand under the very same trees, with their flowers softly falling, I see the ghosts of those sleeping forms upon the ground, I see the ghosts of friends, and I see a ghostly image of my own youth, drifting through the fallen flowers.

Paradoxically, the spectres remain.  Ghosts are elusive things: you see them; you don't.  My brother and I had learned of our grandfather's death by finding a note slipped under his door in Lambert Street when we came back from a weekend on the moors; Please come to West Bar Police Station.....  A day or two later, at three a.m. I woke with a start, my curtain billowing in a chill breeze on a very still, warm night.  Immediately I sensed that my grandad's spirit, not knowing where I had been in Yorkshire, had come to say goodbye.

In Sheffield, the familiar faces have gone; the steelworks have gone; the pubs, with their pianos and juke boxes have gone, or at least changed irrevocably (though the Kelham Island Tavern, which was The White Hart, a Stones' pub, is still a fine establishment, and the nearby Fat Cat, which was a Wards' pub, is also a survivor); the terraces (both at Hillsborough and Bramall Lane, where I spent Saturday afternoons clutching Styrofoam cups of OXO,  aching for a pee); the thick atmosphere of heavy industry has dispersed, and only a thin mist of vocational degrees and snooker remains.  Even the laudable Kelham Island Museum only represents a flickering shadow of what once was.  The cathedral is empty, itself now embalmed in cherry petals.

The clouds, which have been gathering all day, well up and cry.  Splashes of dirty water spot the pavement, and we hurry to the station.  A young man with a can of happiness waves as we pass.  In my head I hear the voice of Joe Cocker, once a gas-fitter in SheffieldI can stand a little rain.....  and we dive for shelter on the southbound train.

Puddling iron, blending steel;
Turn the fire on to anneal
What you feel about the siren;
Blending steel,
Puddling iron,


Final chorus of William Empson's The Birth of Steel - a masque written for and performed before the Queen when she visited Sheffield and the University

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