Sheffield Almanac is a poem about the city I live in. It’s a sort of extended love song to Sheffield. But it’s not the early sort of love that’s unambiguously besotted. It’s the gnarled and fibrous sort of love with a few chunks taken out of it. Over the years it’s been put under pressure and survived, but there’s no knowing yet whether this will have proved its resilience or fatally weakened it. Amid the fog of war and the ambiguities of ageing, this love is sometimes lost sight of altogether.
In early 2015 I started the business of physically writing up Sheffield Almanac on the computer, choosing phrases, crafting the form. Only when this process was nearly finished did I realise that for much of the preceding decade I’d already been writing Sheffield Almanac in my head. Walking round the city, looking, listening and thinking, I was unwittingly storing up the observations and ideas that would feed into the poem. Giving them form was a process of channelling memory.
The love began on my visits to Sheffield in the early 2000s, knocking off from my job in Birmingham on a Friday evening, legging it to New Street station, suffocating for an hour in a dangerously overcrowded vestibule, meeting mates and queueing for Offbeat at Sheffield Students’ Union, flinging our limbs around a tiny dancefloor in a flurry of hugs and glitter, cadging sleep on a sofa, recovering over a veggie fry-up, record shopping at Forever Changes, shuffling reluctantly at last back onto the train and a life in the midlands that was starting to disintegrate.
Sheffield Almanac’s form, discursive style and shifting focus between personal and political are borrowed from those of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. The lines vary in length but are held together by a rigid rhyme scheme. I think of this form like the string of a kite. You can wind out more string or lengthen the lines to give the kite some scope and play, and pull it back in to tighten up again. Without the rhyme the poem’s focus would tend to blur and drift; without the string the kite would be blown away and lost.
I stayed in Birmingham by default after moving there in the 1990s to study. I found friends there who I’d have laid down my life for, but somehow never developed the same love for the city itself. There was something about the landscape or the culture that failed to engage my sense of belonging. The more I saw of Sheffield, the more it felt like home. I sometimes wondered whether I was overplaying its charm because I was fed up and ready to reboot my life. But people said no, you’re right, it’s not like other cities.
The four chapters of Sheffield Almanac correspond to the seasons of the year. After much umm-ing and ah-ing I opted to begin with the autumn chapter. Over recent decades Sheffield has experienced calamitous losses in its traditional manufacturing industries but grown as a university city. The academic year begins with the autumn chapter. The leaves fall and decay but when the young people come back the city returns to life. I’m a bit sentimental about that and their year-zero brightnesses. I’m exhilarated by that contradiction.
Sheffield is not like other cities because it doesn’t bang on about being the world capital of this or a global centre for that. Because a vacant building or patch of brownfield is allowed to stand and recover itself for a while before the rushing in of capital, which abhors a vacuum. Because there may or may not be seven hills: nobody has got round to working it out properly. Because its physical and social landscapes are not lacerated by a grid of enormous fuck-off motorways. Because everything is understated. Because so much edgeland.
The Almanac is about the differences between Sheffield and other places, and how they cut both ways. Those hills make for many beautiful views but wreak economic havoc when it snows. It’s also about the differences within Sheffield, between the versions of the city perceived by various groups. Students, workers, different social classes. Native Sheffielders and incomers. The poorer north and east of the city and its more comfortable south and west. The remembered and imagined Sheffields we overlay onto the present landscape. And it’s about cities and couples and their pursuit of new purpose and regeneration after the heydays of industry and love.
I read and wrote some poetry in my youth, and then gave up almost entirely on both for at least a couple of decades, because I thought there was no place for the sort of poetry I wanted to read and write. I realised this was wrong in 2014 when I discovered Longbarrow Press through Matthew Clegg’s West North East collection and the anthology The Footing. To my great pride and near disbelief, Sheffield Almanac is published this month by Longbarrow Press.