Matthew Flinders: Sheffield’s heartbeat and soul that forge an identity

Sheffield's riverside areas are much improved since Orwell's day.
Sheffield's riverside areas are much improved since Orwell's day.
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There are some sounds in life that simply cannot be put into words. One of them is the sound I heard this morning as I ran along the canal in that very special part of Sheffield known as Attercliffe.

The sound shook me to my soul and reminded me of George Orwell’s visit to the city in 1936 when he had been shocked by the realities of hard industrial life. For me, however, it was a glorious sound – the heartbeat of the Steel City.

My son, Charlie, is nearly 18 and is named after his paternal grandfather who worked in the railway sheds in Doncaster. Charlie is a tall and strapping young chap; a rugby player (union never league) who those that don’t know him might describe as ‘hard’. Never happy at school, he rejected the pressure to follow the prescribed educational routes – which force so many square pegs into round holes – and found a job in a factory in Attercliffe. It’s a tough manual job making pipework for the mining industry. Lunchtime signals a quick trip to ‘Big Baps’ (a sandwich stop not a brothel), a laugh with the lads and then back to the monotony of repetitive tough labour. The day probably ends with a curious glance towards ‘Sauce’ (a brothel not a sandwich shop) while waiting for the first of the two buses that will carry him home across the city.

Friday, however, is a special day. It’s the day that tradition dictates that work starts early and finishes early to allow a good run into the weekend and it was this tradition that led me to take my early morning run in Attercliffe and to hear the industrial heartbeat.

Never has a living, roaring pulse so nearly blown me off my feet. The foundry hammer, possibly weighing several hundred tons, smashes raw steel into shape. It’s so crude, so beautiful… so loud. And yet the meaning of any sound depends very much on the context in which it is heard and this demands that the reader knows just a little about Attercliffe. What words might capture this area of Sheffield?

Let me think. A cruel answer might suggest ‘rough’, ‘grubby’, ‘deprived’ or ‘depraved’; a kinder answer might proffer terms such as ‘exotic’,’ eclectic’, ‘bohemian’ or ‘colourful’. This is – if we are honest – the area where brothels co-exist with bakeries and snooker halls with snake shops…It is the old industrial heart of this city – part of the East End of the city that so shocked Orwell when he visited eighty years ago. “It seems to me, by daylight, one of the most appalling places I have ever seen,” Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier. “In whichever direction you look you see the same landscape of monstrous chimneys pouring forth smoke which is sometimes black and sometimes of a rosy tint said to be due to sulphur.”

The landscape remains monstrous. The steel mills remain like cavernous caves but are now surrounded by warehouses, scrap metal dealers, scaffolding yards and every kind of tough trade known to man (or woman). Running along the river provides a glimpse into an industrial past and an industrial present that seems to exist almost as a partially hidden, largely unseen afterlife. This is a landscape that Orwell would certainly recognise – the stone walls blackened by smoke, the rubbish-strewn river banks and graffiti-thick walls - but it is also one that has changed. The “shallow river yellow with chemicals” remains shallow but no longer yellow. Chub, dace, gudgeon and perch now rest in its clear watery glides. The thick surface scum that used to dry hard in the summer (forming a temporary bridge for local
kids to dare each other to run across) is a thing of the past. The smell has been replaced by….smiles.

Have I gone too far? Over-romanticising the present through vulgar comparisons with the past?

Let me explain. As I ran along the river this morning not one soul – young or old, man or woman, worker or wanderer – passed me by without a quick smile that recognised my existence. Compare this with the streets of London that I scurry along each week; the world where eyes never meet; existence never acknowledged; or, if so, with a defensive stare or scowl. Travel on the underground with its physical intensity of strangers rammed together – cheek-by-jowl, armpit-in-face – nudging and pushing as they jockey for space in an environment devoid of humanity. Orwell may have thought that Sheffield could ‘justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World’ but I’d choose its smiles and sounds, its blend of both the New World and the Old World, above the scowls of London every day of the week.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. The ‘Road to Wigan Pier 2017’ project is re-tracing George Orwell’s journey and telling stories about life in modern Britain.