It’s a fair bet that when someone mentions Sheffield, my ears will prick up and take note. I will wax lyrical about the City for days at a time at the merest mention of Henderson’s Relish, for example. It’s my adopted home town and I love it despite, but mostly because, of all of its contradictions, idiosyncrasies and its unique outlook.
So, a book of poetry entitled ‘Sheffield Almanac’ detailing the contradictions and uniquenesses of the city and its people would seem to be tailor made for me, yes?
Well, yes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Pete Green and I share a time displaced commonality in that we both lived in Grimsby, moved to Sheffield, fell in love with the place and wrote books about it. What has been fascinating during the reading of the Almanac is that lamentations about things visibly changing are things that I don’t necessarily recognise as part of my Sheffield experience. My Sheffield was in the process of being destroyed as Pete was first moving to the Sainted City of Steel. So although I recognise a lot of the broad strokes, some of the finer detail is new to me. It’s loss is still keenly felt.
What remains throughout both of our experiences though, is an underlying ‘bed of Sheffieldness.’ A geographical and psychic ‘artists wash’ that underpins the writing and makes the whole project undeniably Sheffield. The surface may change, but the writing points to more than a mere fascia. It feels like the voice in the poetry is an independent ur-Sheffield; an anthropomorphic manifestation of the spirit of the city; a benevolent sprite telling proud tales of its inhabitants.
What I find particularly magickal is that yes, it does seem to be tailor made for me, but it’s also tailor made for all of Sheffield’s denizens. At once, it describes individual and community experience; a sort of social synecdoche that somehow manages to avoid the traps of patronising its audience. There is some seriously deft writing here that can speak of both individual experience and group psychology at the same time without belittling the experience of either.
When I first read Sheffield Almanac, it troubled me. I had been reading a lot of Allen Ginsberg, particularly ‘Howl’ and I was perhaps seeing similarities that weren’t necessarily there, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Sheffield Almanac was as much of a seismic shrug for a beleaguered northern city as Howl was for a 1950 drug addled New York slum dweller. Both shout out at the experiences of, and injustices to the outsider, or those in the marginals of society – itself quite a trick as the North of England is often seen as a marginal space itself, by virtue of not being near London. Both tell stories of people fighting to have their voices heard in an otherwise chaotic world. Both are affectingly human and speak of the mundane in such a way that the most ordinary of thoughts become revelations; epiphanous.
In detailing the day to day rituals of its inhabitants, and the sigils carved by repeated footfall, Sheffield Almanac becomes almost a Grimoire; a Book of Shadows for living a deep, spiritual life in South Yorkshire.
More importantly, to me, at least, ‘Sheffield Almanac’ is about what makes the city great; not just the people and the buildings, but its deep roots, its history, its capacity for regeneration and transcendence. Sheffield has a reputation for being cold, mechanical, steely; something reflected in its sharp edged cutlery and the icy music it has produced, but never has Sheffield seemed so organic, vibrant and alive as it has within these pages.
Re-reading Sheffield Almanac, as I have done several times since buying it, it becomes obvious that although orders of magnitude more ‘pastoral’ than Howl, Sheffield Almanac is no less visceral. Not in terms of blood, gore and lethal drug usage but in terms of revealing its heart and showing the world the precision and beauty of a place that would be otherwise go mostly unnoticed and unloved to all but a few.
If there are negative points – and I’ve gushed for long enough – then perhaps there are a few too many zeitgeist-y references that may lose their power in a few years time. And as much as I admire Longbarrow Press’s output, I think ‘Sheffield Almanac’ was probably worthy of a sturdier binding, but these are tiny, niggly points that in no way reflect on the quality of the work.
Sheffield Almanac is, quite simply, sublime.
Review by WV