City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Sheffield and The North

Written in


Park Hill, mid-redevelopment 2011, Sheffield

The Human League, Designers Republic, David Peace, and accidental and purposeful post-industrial decline; the hard contradictions of Sheffield

Ed. This piece was originally published at on March 11 2009.

Bleak. In a word, bleak.

A cliché about the north, but there’s no smog without blast furnaces. After last week’s circumnavigation of Sydney, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Geneva, Sheffield appears leached of all colour. While Geneva’s browns, greys and blacks had a certain clarity to them, particularly in the crisp blue sky and winter sun of Friday and perhaps elevated by the surrounding Alps on every horizon, England’s unfolding landscape is drab, listless, plain. As the north approaches, emerging through the train window, there’s almost a form of beauty to its unremitting monotony. Almost.

Splinters of trees are merely feathery scratches set against the flat white sky and uneven soggy fields. Forgotten housing blocks and unforgivably dreary Barrett estates sidle up to the edge of town. The near-monochrome palette seems impossible, almost a joke, like “It’s grim up north”, after the fecund southern hemisphere or Geneva’s quiet confidence. Elsewhere, the North of England is full of vibrancy, colour, invention—but not here. At least not immediately.

On a trip up the M18 to Hull, the plains appear crushed under the heavy, overcast skies, distant cooling towers appearing to funnel more clouds upwards, somewhat unnecessarily, the flatland as clearly linked to that of the Netherlands as Norfolk once was, or that of the eastern edge of the South, too (“There is no topography out here, it is uncannily flat, and the sky seems larger, more oppressive”).

That sky is something, also like the UK’s version of the US’s mid-west, reflected in the silver sliver of the river Humber estuary, beginning to surreptitiously emerge from the marsh. 1:1 scale watercolours.

(Later, on the plane on the way back to Australia, I watch Anton Corbjin’s movie Control, about Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Shot in black-and-white, of course, it’s also a cliche of “bleak northern-ness”, albeit here in Macclesfield, Manchester and briefly Belgium.)

Sheffield itself is particularly tough. I find it difficult to write much about Sheffield. It’s too close, perhaps suffering from being the city in which I grew up, and therefore parched of any exoticism. Interestingly, this inherent and more objective lack of exoticism — the plain, common-speaking lack of pretension of the city itself — has bred a peculiar home-grown exoticism in response, several times.

The Ginza’d-up graphics of Designers Republic of course, but mainly in music, where this hardest of hard-man northern cities somehow once offered up Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League, ABC and Pulp, in relatively quick succession. Apparently a classic example of offspring defining themselves in opposition to their parents’ values, these bands and others revelled in their playful androgyny, ersatz glamour, and a music that was primarily synthetic in a city that coveted authenticity above all. (You’ll note I’m being selectively deaf as regards Def Leppard. Warp Records also emerges here, but it could be argued that that music’s cold, hard angular edges are entirely redolent of the city’s cultural and physical terrain.)

(A friend also reminds me of Basil Kirchin’s much earlier Abstractions of the Industrial North too, which is certainly apposite here.)

Owen Hatherley’s recent, brilliant writing on Sheffield band Pulp (part one, part two) invited me to reflect more on the city, and its peculiar relationship with modernity, as well as listen to their pre-really-successful albums for perhaps the first time. This coincidental trip home further spurs me to stop and think a bit. Pulp’s records of this era pored over Sheffield’s landscapes with sharp humour and deep affection, a form of perverted stalking of the city. Hatherley nails all this exactly, delighting in Cocker’s wandering eye for a story, a girl, a brutalist block. Hearing Cocker lasciviously intone the names of various suburbs in ‘Sheffield, Sex City’ is both funny and somewhat unsettling. The places I played football as a kid — “Intake … the Wicker … Catcliffe … Frecheville … Wincobank … Crookes” — have never sounded so dirty. I feel somewhat defiled. Elsewhere, the doomed estates of Park Hill and Kelvin, particularly on ‘Deep Fried in Kelvin’, are reclaimed in a futurist version of the city that only exists on these songs.

Hatherley notes how Pulp believed in Sheffield’s futurism, almost willing it into existence, as a “nostalgia for the future”.

“In a ‘Guide to Sheffield’ that Pulp did for NME in the early 90s there’s mentions both of its role as centre of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, when the red flag famously flew above the town hall … and, more particularly, the city’s failure to become the modernist metropolis that Park Hill, the Miesian Sheffield University, Park Hill’s more disputed successors Hyde Park and Kelvin, and the noted Castle Square ‘hole in the road’, and the ‘peace garden!’ squealed of in ‘Sex City’, all promised. One interview makes it especially clear: ‘”Sheffield’s full of half-arsed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish,” (Pulp’s) Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. “We grew up reading the local paper and seeing ‘Sheffield, city of the future,’ with a map of how it’s going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we’re the only ones who took it seriously…” (“Pulp: Urbanism, sexuality, class, part two”, The Measures Taken)

But the reality of the city was always something else. Now an almost hollow city, cruelly mined of the manufacturing, trade and resources industries that were its raison d’etre, urban regeneration is pretty much the only strategy in town, leaving a centre defined by cafe bars, galleries and retail, and its edges pitted with vacant development sites next to sheds containing Matalan and Wickes. Not much is made here, apparently – again, at least at first glance. Actually, the city’s steel output is still significant — it just employs a fraction of the people if used to. It’s almost as if people think the once-predicted leisure society had actually happened. (It hasn’t.) And there is making going on elsewhere too, actually all over the place. It’s just hidden, opaque, ignored.

Even the landmarks that were attempts to shape that future city are long gone, or remain as skeletons. Park Hill stills sits brooding over the train station, a giant Richard Serra-like slab rendered in concrete, a local Unité d’Habitation, still waiting for its reinvention (I’ve written about Park Hill before.)

(Ed.: Later, some photos I quickly took when I snuck onto the site in 2011, during its eventual redevelopment by Urban Splash and the public purse.)

The underground shopping centre — never, ever a good idea, except perhaps in a Helsinki at -35 or a Hong Kong at +45 — that was colloquially titled, with disarming local pragmatism “The Hole-In-The Road”, was long ago filled in.

That it was dubbed The-Hole-In-The-Road says it all really. Though Sheffield had a stronger sensibility for the future than neighbouring cities such as Manchester (hence the music), Sheffield simply couldn’t support such visions. If you let a sometimes dour local pragmatism get in the way, obscuring the invention, it will. The inflated idea of a future city was effortlessly punctured by simply calling it ‘Ole in’t’Road.

So while it did host a few startling attempts at progressive architecture, schemes erected on the various hills surrounding the city centre, Sheffield simultaneously deflated them with dry wit and candour, as well as the traditional English traits of poor construction and crumbling social infrastructure. That tension probably still leaves Sheffield in stasis, or at least in first gear. Park Hill was more thrusting and ambitious than Manchester’s Hulme Crescents, yet still stands there apparently empty while the latter were pulled down years ago. Meadowhall (or what some call Meadow-hell) is more outlandish than Manchester’s Trafford Centre, despite Manchester’s easy relationship with the glamour of trade, commerce and retail and Sheffield’s lack of same. One of Sheffield’s many hills is still lined with defunct and worthless factory sheds and another by a gigantic and now derelict dry ski slope, infamous for continually catching fire—a ski slope, burning?!

The one truly radical building to emerge since the 1960/70s Sheffield, city of the future is Nigel Coates’s former National Centre for Popular Music, a series of metal-coated drums which now sit awkwardly, over-programmed for a function that was quickly removed, in-between the station, a few new cinemas, and the low-level ruins of the once centrally-located manufacturing businesses. Again, the city wouldn’t have it, the body rejecting this organ, and this optimistic image from the architect’s website can now be cruelly contrasted with their current confused appearance.

(While we’re on popular music, this tense relationship with urban showmanship is almost exemplified in Jarvis Cocker’s attempts to deflate Michael Jackson’s messianic Brits performance in 1996 — a very Sheffield act that, rightly or wrongly.)

In all this, at one level, it’s no different to Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, Glasgow and other great cities of the north. It’s a well-known story: manufacturing, and related trades, swapped out for service and knowledge-based industries. Unlike older European cities, most of these places were only small villages or towns before the industrial revolution rapidly created an entirely new, and highly functional — sometimes mono-functional — urban type. (Sheffield grew tenfold in a century, from 40,000 inhabitants to 400,000 inhabitants, between 1801 and 1901.)

Without complex layers laid down over centuries of diversified use, the messy removal of that core function has left their identity in question, at times almost imperceptible, or ghostly at least . (As I’ve hinted at before, I think we could explore the amorphous forms of these new industries better than we are, making invisible visible, in terms of how they contribute to place and identity. Equally I think we’ll see a return to urban manufacturing — perhaps distributed, rapid-prototyped, informatic, but manufacturing nonetheless. Ditto agriculture. There’s little sign of this on a meaningful scale yet here. Sheffield is not as thoroughly broken is Detroit, clearly, and so is not generating the same level of desperate innovation in that sense—yet it is hardly not-broken, either.)

Arguably, Sheffield is different to those other cities. Although it’s uncomfortable in the spotlight — except in the crass, undignified Full Monty version — the city is nonetheless a central character in the story of the last quarter century in Britain.

As a primary site of the neo-liberal dismantling of organised labour and the manufacturing industry in favour of stimulating the financial services sector — a “regeneration” predicated on property speculation rather than production — Sheffield witnessed a level of violence that almost, as David Peace’s incredible book GB84 makes clear, pushed Britain as close to mass civil insurrection as any point in the preceding four centuries.

While the IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel, the Falklands War, the Wapping disputes and numerous other strikes peppered 1982–1986, the miners’ strike was the crucial act. It could be argued that the current global financial crisis has its seeds planted in those pitched battles at Orgreave, and the associated lower-profile violence of a year-long siege on a way of life. This was Thatcher’s real ‘victory’. With the National Union of Mineworkers headquarters in Sheffield, no other city was so clearly the battleground, and modernisation itself was co-opted, ironically leaving the city without much of a future. It’s all a hazy memory for me — vaguely, some radio reports on BBC Radio Sheffield; the occasional lascivious playground story at school — and one I wasn’t really old enough to comprehend.

So now those memories, false or otherwise, are being replaced with dramatisations, such as Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and GB84. With the adaptation of Peace’s Red Riding series on British television presently, reviewers are noting that:

Yorkshire has failed to produce the same mythologising self-portraits as, say, Liverpool or Manchester. Which is strange considering that over the last 35 years Yorkshire has been a place where many of Britain’s wider public problems have been played out in extremis: labour disputes, the ravaging effects of unemployment and industrial collapse, police corruption, football stadium disasters, rioting, racial and religious conflicts and the growth of the BNP in local politics. [Justin Quirk, The Guardian]

An earlier, gentler version of Sheffield can be glimpsed in the wonderful 1973 documentary ‘All In A Day’, recommended to me by Russell Davies recently. Taking the same form as Walter Ruttmann’s die Symphonie der Grosstadt (now on YouTube and, amazingly) — the city unfolding over a day, across numerous short vignettes — Sheffield is seen still shaped by its original industries.

A worker in the Number 8 Plate Shop undertakes his last day on the job, the relationship between the proud, straightforward “Albert” and the private-schooled, slightly unctious boss is almost a parody of English class relationships. As above, modernity is presented as sharply incongruous, in the awkward gait and frozen rictus of a female model parading what are supposed to be the latest fashions through a cheap restaurant or the brute juxtaposition of a hefty descendent of the legendarily hard-drinking ‘little mesters’ downing a pint in front of a black stripper and the strident thump of Deep Purple. The camera lovingly pans across Park Hill, and then hovers over’t ‘Ole in’t Road. A radio DJ sounds impossibly dated. A Sunblest van crashes through the front room belonging to a couple away on holiday. A policeman bullies a black kid on a bike presumably, well, just because he can.

It’s a thoroughly nostalgic piece now, for sure, but though all this has since turned to dust — or melted into air, perhaps — some long-standing truths are perceptible, about both Sheffield and Britain. It’s quietly thought-provoking. An age-old sense of pride in production is still discernible, even if change is clearly visible on the horizon. A discomfort with modernity, in all its diverse and myriad forms, likewise. And though I’m fascinated by new platforms for urban storytelling, like EveryBlock, it’s a well-crafted old-fashioned form of documentary (as with Ruttmann) that won’t be made today but probably should be.

The documentary occasionally pops up on YouTube; try to track it down. It’s the kind of thing that should be freely available in the public domain.

As for me, I’m very fond of Sheffield, and wish it well. In fact, I wish it more than well. I’m proud of the place, in different ways, despite being so close that it irritates me too, as family does. And really, I don’t actually mind the lack of colour at all. But I do mind the apparent lack of a future.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on March 11 2009.


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