I’ve had to think hard about the weather in February and pay close attention to my journal to see what happened. The month started off dreary and damp and grey then brightened up mid-month with clear blue skies. It was a month that failed to assert any impression with its weather. But what was happening in the air was a different matter.
Towards the end of the month Sheffield was engulfed in thick acrid smoke that made the eyes sting and the throat tighten. There was a slightly chemical smell in addition to the scent of burning vegetation. Looking down the Loxley Valley into Sheffield from Wadsley Common the city was veiled in a thick curtain of blue smoke. It was much worse at the top of the valley where it begins its climb over Strines on to Derwent Edge, still within the city boundary.
It happened a day or two before the city introduced its Low Emission Charge, designed to achieve clean air within the zone around the city centre. The irony was not lost on me.
I couldn’t identify where the smoke originated but my experience and nose suggested heather burning on the moors. Several photos taken at that time posted on social media showed extensive burning on the moors around Strines and the Derwent Valley.
A few days after, the smoke was gone, the air crystal clear, and Sheffield sat in all its glory. It was enjoyable to be back out.
I have no idea what laws or byelaws apply to having large land fires, but it seems out of step with the general move towards cleaner air in Sheffield if a deliberate fire within the city boundary is allowed to engulf the city and its inhabitants.
February was a month of significant days. My last work for Trail Magazine appeared, fittingly a three day walk along the gritstone edges overlooking the Derwent Valley, a couple of camps thrown in for good measure and some excellent pub grub. I’ve been writing for the magazine for a long time now, they affectionately call me their Peak District Guru, which tickles friends. It’s a great magazine to work for, well organised, lots of notice for routes, and payment is on the nail. My editor Jenna was superb to work with and gave me a huge amount of support. Writing for the magazine came about after they asked if they could use one of my photos I’d posted on social media, and I cheekily asked if I could write for them. Don’ ask, don’t get, as they say. I must have done 50 plus routes, Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland, and a special feature on Mountain Rescue Search Dogs for which the magazine gave a donation to the organisation. Scout accompanied me on all the walks and managed to get into a least one photo in each article.
Photo courtesy of Coniston Mountain Rescue.
I always celebrate this date. Valentines Day 2012. Somehow, I managed to fall off this rock and bash myself about quite a bit. I’m here today because of the skill and dedication of Coniston Mountain Rescue Team, the crew of the RAF Sea King, the nurses, surgeons, and doctors at Carlisle Hospital. I’m also here because I left a route card with the manager at Holly How YHA, and the spare phone I carried with me that kept me in touch. My gratitude to them all will be everlasting.
But the main event of February is Alison’s birthday. I bought her a thermometer, to go with the kettle I got her for Christmas. The dogs helped Alison with her breakfast on our walk around Longshaw and the gritstone edges that day. This year we will have been together for 23 years and it is no understatement to say that meeting Alison has massively changed my life for the better.
The Long Read
There has been some talk of 15-minute cities, and I find that where we live, Hillsborough, can supply me with all I need. Local produce, recreational space, good coffee, easy access to further afield, library, community gatherings. I can walk anywhere to shops or open countryside, like Wadsley Common, in that time from my door.
I no longer have the habit of visiting Sheffield city centre. In fact, I try and avoid it these days. It’s hard to think of a reason to go in, the last time to shop just before Christmas in the hope of finding something a little different for my partner. Some wrapping paper, a card, and some unusual chocolate from Site Gallery, books and stationery and a chat at La Biblioteka. A walk up Fargate, past the empty shops, the buskers with their amps. Maybe it was the sound bouncing off the walls that made the few people hurry through the space. Unfortunate people were trying to sleep in the doorways, or battling with substances. No one seemed to want to linger. The site of the former Next shop has ground to a halt, a hole surrounded by grim hoardings. I stood looking at the Container Park for a long time trying to work out what it was, how I was supposed to engage with it, how that huge amount of money could be spent on dense black blocks of nothingness surrounded by wire fencing and scaffold poles. A large TV played to no one, the spaces inside empty of people and, so far as I could see, anything for people to spend money on. It looked like an abandoned contractors compound. It wasn’t aspirational.
I went into the city the last Saturday in February to meet a friend I haven’t seen for a long time. I thought I’d look at the old Castle Market site while I was there. It’s another empty space, surrounded by hoardings covered in graffiti, by design or otherwise I could not tell. I built the old market in my mind, placing windows and doorways, the bus stop was the same one the sixty-nine-bus dropped off almost fifty years ago. A half century, almost a lifetime. Something was missing, something was wrong with the image before me now. It wouldn’t come, the thing that was missing.
I started coming to Sheffield just after I left school and began working in the steelworks, £18 a week, £5 board and the rest was mine. The bus, 10p anywhere in South Yorkshire, took me from Rotherham on a tour of Sheffield steel. I sat upstairs by a window, the better to see with. I remember the heat coming from the cooling ingots outside Templeborough melting shop, men wearing green visors and white scarves walking past without flinching, my fingers touching the bus window to feel the warmth. The blackness of Dunford Hadfield steel mills, the fancy works offices at the end of East Hecla Road. Tinsley Wire, Brown Bailey’s up on the left. The shops of Attercliffe, Pierrepoint the grocer who everyone said was the hangman, but wasn’t. Then Firth Brown leading you through to the Wicker and off the bus at Castle Market.
You had to be careful getting off as the pavement was full of people. You had to time your exit to avoid a collision and some sharp words. The first thing that hit you was the smell from the Exchange Brewery, the steam pluming into the sky, laden with the scent of hops. It made children gag, holding their noses. You’d fight your way across the pavement and into the market, getting jostled by women, their shopping bags designed to maim a young lads thigh. The bags held enough food to last till mid-week, carried through town and home on the bus.
I loved everything about the market. The building was angular, with an odd triangular structure at the very top. Inside, floors were dedicated to some product, meat, fish, vegetables, and eggs on the ground floor, clothing and shoes and knitting on another. Tools and stuff you never knew you needed until you saw it, stamp shops, newspaper stalls on another. Each floor had a few cafes where you could get a breakfast all day, meat and two veg, pie, puddings, thick brown tea. The floors were crammed with people, women several deep at the meat and veg stalls paper bags passed over heads full of produce, joints for the Sunday Roast, Smoked Haddock, and kippers for tea, beef stew for midweek. The butchers and grocers shouted out their wares and prices. Saturday boys and girls bringing in boxes of produce, prising a way through the throngs of people. You had to walk sideways, and patiently to reach anywhere, the lanes were that full off people and this was all day on a Saturday, right up until closing at six pm.
Off the bus I’d head through the aluminium doors and make for the fish stalls to stand and eat a saucer of cockles heavy on the pepper and vinegar, then some shrimp, watching people eat and shop, mainly older people, people that dressed all the same. Men in suit jackets, Brylcreamed hair, women in weekend perms and headscarf, thick coats. I’d go upstairs to a cafe where you sat at the counter, yellow Formica, chrome fittings. I liked the look of it, reminded me somehow of America, though I’d only seen it in films. I’d have a bacon sandwich, white sliced bread, brown Daddy’s sauce. Down on the bottom floor I once bought a pair of Ox Blood red Dr Martens from a stall, back then it was the only place you could get them and you had to work your way through work boots, and wellingtons to find a pair the right size. But I loved those boots, loved the feeling of bouncing when I walked. And always a visit to Harringtons. The stall supplied one half of the youth of the region with their distinctive uniform, Levi Staypress trousers, Ben Sherman shirts, Fred Perry short sleeved shirts. And the Harrington Bomber, a thin black zippered jacket with a tartan lining and a stand up collar. I tried to buy one in 2015 and the nearest I could find was one in Debenhams. But it isn’t the same.
Eventually the market would spit me out and I would fight my way to the General Post Office, not for anything other than to see that lovely floor and the long counter with the serving windows and the dark wood and that high ceiling, and the quietness of it all. Across the road in Fitzalan Square were gardens and toilets. You went down steps into a white tiled inner world, where a man in a white coat dallied to make sure things were always spotless. The dark brown doors with the shiny brass handles were to the left. The tall, almost shoulder height urinals to the right, the copper and brass pipes gleaming the name Armitage Shanks imprinted on the mind as there was nowhere else to look.
Just up the road was Walsh’s department store. If you went in the side entrance on High Street, down the few steps and turned left down a few more you were in the delicatessen department. A small world of colourful tins and bottles, anchovy, artichoke, pilchards, Gentleman’s Partum, Dijon mustard, bottles of olives, tins of crab and lobster. A counter held paté, smoked German hams and sausage, Italian salami, Manx kippers, potato salad. The smell was like nothing else in Sheffield, there was nowhere else in Sheffield that you could buy such delicacies. I never bought anything, just walked around and marvelled at all these exotic food in the strange continental packaging.
The place to go for a record was Violet Mays, down the back of the Moor. The shop was narrow and long. Inside was a long, long counter to the right and to the left racks of records, and lines of men, always men, quietly flicking through albums, studying the cover. At the end of the counter sat Violet, I have no idea if that was her real name, if it wasn’t it was a perfect choice. She sat on a high stool, chain smoking, a huge ashtray filled to the depth of an inch at least with the remains of the days, or the weeks, or the months smoking, I never knew. My first visit I bought Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson Lake and Palmer, the first record I ever bought. Trying to widen my music on my next visit I asked for an album by Wishbone Ash. And was refused. You, Violet said, came in and bought Pictures last time, this is not an extension of that type, you need a Yes album. I remember remonstrating, I didn’t know anything about Wishbone Ash, only what I had heard at school. She refused to sell it to me. I went home with a Yes album. It was good. When you became a regular, she’d hand you a record and tell you to take it home and play it, paid for of course. It would be some musician or band you’d never thought of, or heard of. And more often than not you become a fan and buy more of their music from Violet. It’s how I came across John McLaughlin, a lad from Doncaster, and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. If you asked for something and she didn’t have it, she’d tell you to go for a walk round the city for a few hours. When you returned the record would be waiting for you. She never failed.
Going back into town, a prog rocker would find themselves in Sexy Rexy. Where the other half of the city’s youth were catered for. Denim floor to wall, patchouli oil and Jossticks (dad accusing me of being on drugs), leather belts with big buckles, and Afghan sheep skin coats that started to go off after a few weeks and your mum threw in the outhouse when you weren’t in. From there it was the Wimpy at the top of Fargate, waitress service and your food on a plate, and you thinking you were in America.
Back home to Rotherham, the ingots now cooler. Saturday tea of meat and potato pie, chips and gravy, bananas and jam, in custard for pudding. Football results on the telly followed by the Pink Panther cartoon, the Generation Game and then settle down for Kojak and those American influences. It was a full happy day. You were exhausted and exhilarated from pushing through crowds of people, seeing everything there that you could possibly want. Everyone was joined by the thread of steel. No one was better than any other. No one was richer than you were. The pride of the city was in the job you did and the name the city had.
We didn’t know then what we had, that we were at the end of the good days. We didn’t know that the streets would empty, that community was drifting apart as the steel that bound us was thrown on the scrap heap. That we would never become one again. Everything changed on 4th May 1979.
I realised what was missing when I went in on Saturday. It was the people. That’s why I could see the pavements. The people were no longer there.
Alison has continued to venture well beyond the boundary of everyday cooking with her exquisite everyday meals. We add a bit of class to make it an occasion with the David Mellor City Cutlery and the Jars Ceramic Tourron French Glazed stoneware. The highlight of the month for me was this dish. Pad Thai Noodles and Kung Pao Cauliflower. Such wonderful tastes and textures. It is so far removed from the meat and potato pie and chips of childhood; I could never have dreamed of such delights.
I have been immersed in my writing this month, making notes but also working on my project. I’m now on the second draft. The first was typed on the computer, the subsequent drafts are handwritten. I find this slows me down, gives me time to think, there is a connection between brain and hand that isn’t there when I’m hitting a key. It’s as though making the shapes of the word draws the story out of me. My project is a big one, hopefully completed by the end of the year. I’m beginning to pick up traction on the work, spending more time at my desk, the writing taking shape, the components are beginning to fit together more clearly. Its been influenced by events, and that means that what I finish with will be some way from the original.
In my reading I underline anything that takes my interest and then copy that into a notebook. I’m not looking to use it in my work, but it usually sparks off a memory, or gives me another perspective on how to approach some section of writing. I get to learn a lot about how different writers write, how they construct the narrative. They say that to improve as a writer a person should read widely. I think it’s true.
This month I have read Don Delillo (White Noise), Michel Faber (The Courage Consort), James Lovelock (Novacene), Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), Haruki Murakami (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running), Mary Robinson (Gilead), E. M. Foster (Aspects of a Novel), Ian McEwen (The Cement Garden), Tim Dee (the Running Sky), T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land and Other Writings)
I enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. A softly told tale of church and community and family and frailty. It reminded me of A River Runs Through It, landscape, people, narrative curve.
Haruki Murakami and his book on running was a lovely read. I identified so much with what he had to say. Not about the running, but about life, how he and his wife have constructed theirs for happiness.
The book that had most impact was The Running Sky from Tim Dee. It’s a well told story of birdwatching in different and often cold places. And it is inspiring. I’ve started birdwatching because of this. I have no idea what I am looking at, other than a blackbird, sparrow, and robin, maybe a wood pigeon, and a magpie. I really enjoy being out, and with Scout, who the birds don’t seem to mind.
8 responses to “February 2023”
Enjoyed your recollections of Violet May’s shop and her idiosyncratic ways! She was hugely suspicious and if you dared ask to look upstairs more or less frisked you before and after. That’s why she had the tall stoll to keep an eye on everyone. Mind you my brother was always swopping price labels over to get rare singles he wanted reduced, so I guess she was right to be wary. And I still have my vinyl copy of that ELP album (though mine came from Sine Electrical up in Broomhill I think).
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Simon. And a big thank you for your recollections. I miss those shops and people now. Sheffield used to have quite a few originals. And they knew their stuff just like Violet.
I rarely bother with the city centre any more, the deliberate running down and destruction of the market was the last straw for me. Most folk I know potter over to Chesterfield for proper shops and market, including two good record shops! Can I use your Violet story on our blog about Sheffield record shops?
I think the city needs a new focus and be determined to get there. What’s the link to your blog Simon?
the sheffield shops are listed here
and is also duplicated at the Sheffield Music Archive site here
Lovely sites Simon. Yes feel free to use what you want from my blog post about Violets. Just give me the usual nod and link. Thanks for spreading the word.
Your memory of trips into town,the story of every teenager in the late 60’s early seventies, mine catching the 103 Lincolnshire road car bus from the village 17 miles to Scunthorpe. Record Village, Parkers for a Wrangler denim jacket £40 a whole weekend spud picking, still on my old leather bike jacket,sleeves off covered in badges,Large market halls to view the young ladies then studio 5 6 7 cinema before a 7:30 bus home
Thanks Paul, Happy Times a tear in my eye
Thank you Colin. They were good times. Maybe it was the thought of the future we saw ahead of us. Or just the vividness of that Kodachrome age. I wish we had that now. We were lucky to live it.