“Where are you from?” is a common enough question when you live in another place. But how to answer meaningfully when you are so far away that die-hard football fans are the only people to have heard of your city? Helen Mort writes in The Book of Sheffield’s opening story: “Someone once said Sheffield was a dirty picture in a golden frame”, which is a poetic way to express concepts I’ve sometimes tried to get across in a clumsier way. The long post-industrial hangover from which the city has only recently emerged. The pockets of beauty and the remnants of uglier times. Even, perhaps, the feeling of not quite belonging when you go back to visit after making it as an actress, alluded to by Margaret Drabble in ‘The Avenue’.
“She had watched Sheffield change dramatically, as it rose from the ashes of its bomb sites and reached for the skies with cheese graters and egg boxes and wedding cakes, and created fountains and arches and winter gardens, and defiantly declared itself a nuclear-free zone.”
Not everyone who needs to manages to, or wants to get away. ‘Like a night out in Sheffield’, employing perfectly judged colloquialisms, captures the tension between student and local; the uncomfortable in-between place inhabited by those who develop a taste for hifalutin things like foreign films.
‘Born on Sunday, Silent’, by Désirée Reynolds, explores the city’s links with the slave trade, a well kept dirty little secret. “We don’t like talking about that. It’s too uncomfortable,” says the librarian in the story. Gregory Norminton tells a story of the refugee who has made his home there, and the son who has been chased away. In ‘The Father Figure’ Geoff Nicholson describes sightings of a dead dad around local landmarks. It’s unsettling and nostalgic. Philip Hensher’s character in ‘Visiting the Radicals’ explores his sexuality against the setting of an infamous housing estate. Naomi Frisby’s ‘The Time is Now’ welds together fantasy elements and gritty realism.
The closing piece is a novel excerpt by Tim Etchells. ‘Long Fainting/Try Saving Again’, subtitled A true story of Endland, is about a girl who uploads herself to the internet. It’s an out-there commentary on the state of the nation using brilliantly resonant turns of phrase.
“It was a hard time for her and fam in general. When the millennium came her Mum passed away while one of her sisters died of nostalgia, another of greed, another of rent arrears, another of syphilis, another of blackmail, another of malnutrition. Her brother had an accident at work and was confined to a wheelbarrow.”
Who knew there was so much talent in the place? I haven’t been so proud since The Full Monty came out.
Any Cop?: This will probably have most appeal for those who have spent time in Sheffield, or those for some reason interested in getting beneath the surface of the post-industrial North, but obviously I think everyone should read it.