Sheffield in 8 pints

When it comes to Sheffield, the one thing everyone bangs on about is the Park Hill flats. Like a lot of things – HD eyebrows, Brexit, a Hollywood star’s face – the flats look better from a distance. Walk out of the train station into Sheaf Square (a space that shows that the city is at least trying [1]), past the water feature/sculpture that looks like a big urinal (‘The Cutting Edge’, which, according to Sheffield City Council’s web site, “combines the city’s famous resource – steel – with water and light”. OK) turn 180 degrees and the flats look down from the steep hill, their arms crossed in a ‘come and have a go if you think you’re tough enough’ attitude. Like the Zulus fringing the horizon at Rourke’s Drift as Michael Caine kept a stiff upper lip. To be honest, that’s about as close as you want to get to the flats. Unless you fancy the full on urban tours experience – there’s nothing like a fridge being dropped on you from a gangway (sic) to endear a place to you.

Welcome to Sheffield.

You have to be selective when visiting Sheffield. Much of it is a mess, made more for cars than people (and certainly not trees). And this accommodation of the combustion engine leaves the streets feeling dirty and greasy, particularly when it’s raining (rain or shine, West Street makes me feel grubby every time I walk along it), and it also generates a lot of dead space that needs to be crossed if you want to get anywhere. Its best bits are spread apart beyond walking distance. Namely Division Street and Kelham Island. Leopold Square (a bit too posh and self-consciously upmarket to be really welcoming), some pubs on Norfolk Street near to the theatres, and the Winter Gardens (a lovely space) are worth a mention. But the rest… Humph. Its main pedestrian thoroughfare, the Fargate, is a haphazard, clumsy and strangely claustrophobic collection of utilitarian boxes (flanked on all sides with shops you can see anywhere in the country) whose sole purpose is to flog things without any pretence at warmth or friendliness (some of the branches off Fargate, like Chapel Walk, have character, but almost always seem empty and lifeless when I’ve walked along them). Get down as far as Snig Hill and the Crown Court and, to quote Morrissey, every day is like Sunday – streets overlooked by passively hostile, anonymous office buildings, which are almost empty of people, except for the smokers gathered around the doors of the aforementioned Crown Court.

Scaffolding is the City’s main architectural statement, the ‘regeneration’ seems like a never-ending project that doesn’t appear to have any prospect of coming to any sort of cohesive conclusion. Sheffield is like the householder who asks you to excuse the mess, but they’re just in the process of cleaning up – but you know they’ve been at it for the last twenty years without it looking any better. The city seems to be continually under construction without – decade after decade – any real feeling of improvement or consistency.

Sheffield’s most iconic building from the present day – run any search for Sheffield on the internet and it always seems to come up as the main image – seems to be a multi-storey carpark known locally as ‘the cheese grater’. This is the Q-Park multi-storey on Charles Street (Allies & Morrison, 2008), just off the windy canyon that is Arundel Gate. The ramp is a tight corkscrew that climbs with such nauseating insistence that as part of his pre-space training Tim Peake used to drive his Ford Focus up the ramp at 70 miles an hour. It came third in a vote to find the coolest car park in the world (the winner was Michigan Theatre, Detroit, USA, and in second place the Veranda Car Park, Rotterdam). Below the Cheese Grater, across from a blingy, Hello! magazine, the Only Way Is Essex kind of place called ‘The Genting Club’ is the Roebuck pub, a squat relic of Sheffield’s past. Like an old foundry worker rubbing shoulders with the shiny suited office worker. The contrast works well. Let’s hope the town planners continue to think so. If not, I know which one will have to make way.

The ‘new’ nave (1966) attached to the side of the squat Cathedral (it was originally a parish church, and it shows) now looks like a uPVC porch bolted on the side of an old house – a good (and practical) idea at the time, but now woefully dated. Paradise Square (about the only old part of the city centre to be (slightly) praised by Ian Nairn in Britain’s Changing Towns [2]) has been taken over by solicitors and barristers, and is consequently a sniffy, lifeless place. The foreshortened square outside the City Hall (typically of Sheffield it accommodates vehicular access) is a pleasant area to congregate before a show, but what was once the first choice from visiting acts from Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, The Small Faces et al, now tends to get niche bookings, the bigger draws pulled out of town thanks to the Arena which is situated in what is essentially a city outside the city, i.e. the Meadowhall/Centretainment estate of buildings sited next to the M1. The Arts Space (clustered around its headquarters in an impressive neo-Brutalist building near to Sheffield’s only semi-legendary music venue, the Leadmill – the closest Sheffield got to something like The Hacienda in Manchester. The Smiths never played here, but they should have done, it’s that sort of place. I saw The La’s here in 2005) is a nice idea, but suffers from Sheffield’s main problem (as exemplified in the Meadhowhall/Centretainment excrescence) – it doesn’t feel to integrate with the rest of the city.

Recommended: Rare and Racy bookshop on Division Street (amongst a group of character buildings that the council is trying to pull down), you’ll always find something to read or a CD/vinyl that will brighten up your day and give your brain something to think about. Bungalow and Bears also on Division Street – a bar in an old Fire Station decorated in a shabby boutique style that serves great burgers and a range of craft beers. The Steam Room (Division Street again), for those who like their coffees from an independent shop (an arty relaxed space with some nice décor touches – great artwork by Tom Newell. Though the biscuits are over-priced). The Showcase Cinema which is the main home to the annual Sheffield docfest, housed in a building whose predominant feature is the art deco windows, with their narrow rectangular panels.

Pubs (conveniently starting from the train station): The Graduate, Surrey St, Sheffield S1 2LH. Head of Steam, 103-107 Norfolk St, Sheffield S1 2JE. The Brown Bear, 109 Norfolk St, Sheffield S1 2JE. Brown’s, St. Paul’s Chambers, 8-12 St Paul’s Parade, Sheffield S1 2JL. The Benjamin Huntsman, 12-18 Cambridge St, Sheffield S1 4HP. Bungalow and Bears (again), 50 Division St, Sheffield S1 4GF. The Original Bierkeller, 104 West St, Sheffield S1 4EP. The Botanist, Unit 5A and 5B Leopold Square Sheffield S1 2JG (the bar is not as good as the one in Leeds, but the restaurant, complete with a Victorian-esque pagoda in the middle of the room and some amazing period-feature sky lights, on the top floor is a delight (take the lift)).

[1] Sheaf Square is named after the river Sheaf (which obviously gave Sheffield its name, but it seems like one of those pieces of information I am obliged to impart) that runs underground at this point. The railway station flanks one side of this messy, busy space, whose low, unobtrusive Victorian façade always reminds me of those pre-fabricated suburban castles that could be bought from magazines in the mid-nineteenth century, like the one owned by Mr Wemmick in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (if you haven’t read it, you should).

[2] A word of advice to anyone following in Nairn’s footsteps (pubs) and looking for the Mulberry Tavern on Mulberry Street (in Nairn’s opinion the best of Sheffield’s city centre boozers) – it was pulled down in the 1970s.

Simenon’s Maigret

In the 1963 film The Wrong Arm of the Law (penned by Galton and Simpson in their pomp) Peter Sellers, as arch criminal-cum-ladies fashion designer, Pearly Gates, taps his skull and brags: ‘I’ve got schemes going off in here that’d make Maigret drop his pipe.’

I doubt it.

Writing in the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction, Maigret’s creator, Georges Simenon, stands head and shoulders above his crime contemporaries. This is largely because the Maigret books aren’t crime novels in the sense of say Agatha Christie – though there is generally a puzzle of some kind to be unravelled – but rather, they are expeditions into people’s lives. Which is what real police work – particularly that of the detective – is about. You are turning over rocks and looking under carpets, to see what is lurking there and what has been swept out of sight.

Other than a few contemporary touches – the descriptions of cars, the tendency to drink liqueurs, descriptions of life when goods were hauled on the canals, and so on – the novels feel very modern. The prose hasn’t dated (reading the books in English, I’m not sure how much of this is down to the translator). The novels are not twee, but neither are they unnecessarily hard boiled or callous. They are the inquiries of a pragmatic man carried out honestly and without artifice. Maigret sees people for who and what they are, money, social position (or the lack of) make no difference. He probes humanity, and it is the nature of the individual that interests (and occasionally impresses, more frequently disgusts) him. He is a good man, and fair, and values human justice above the artificial tenets of the law (The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien). And he isn’t a snob – which is perhaps one of the reasons his books have survived without shame, unlike many of Simenon’s Golden Age colleagues.

On almost every page there is something to admire. Some little touch of detail, or a reflection of Maigret’s. He had never paid too much attention to her. He’d thought she was a sturdy girl, well upholstered, but without a nerve in her body… Was it thoughtlessness, transcendent irony? In any case, she was holding something back. Maigret could tell. Not all the pus had come out… The weather was neither fine nor foul. A luminous grey morning sky, unbroken, like a frosted glass ceiling…

Simenon is obviously a little bit in awe of Jules Maigret, and clearly admires the detective’s imposing physicality – plenty of mention of his mammoth shoulders and imposing bulk. He imparts the idea that Maigret is there to put things right, and that Maigret’s size implies moral certainty. The detective couldn’t be a slight man (which is one reason I couldn’t watch Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson in the role – I don’t think Simenon would have approved of the casting).

The books are short (generally no more than 150 pages), but manage to pack a wealth of experience and insight into their slim covers. Were they longer I think they’d lose impact. And in some instances the intensity would become mentally tiring. Like a real detective, Maigret is in and out of the lives he encounters as quickly as possible. It’s healthier that way.

King Kong in Leeds

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King Kong bellows silently outside the Henry Moore Institute on The Headrow, Leeds. It’s January 2017 and it’s freezing and the big lad is starkers, so it’s understandable that he’s a bit disgruntled. That, and someone seems to have nicked his wedding tackle. Though, as I said, it is very, very cold.  I’ve always found the genetically over-sized primate to be a sympathetic figure. In his battles with Godzilla, I’ve always rooted for the big ape. And when I consider his treatment in the original RKO film from 1933, didn’t he have every right to be angry? Who did the filmmakers think our sympathies should lie with? Did they think that he should have performed without protest for his evolutionary betters? I’m sure there were some who’d love to have piloted one of the planes that shot him from the Empire State Building (I know a few – twats to a man). But I’d have been on Kong’s side. Albeit keeping a bit of distance.

This Kong, by Nicholas Munro, was originally commissioned for the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation’s City Sculpture Project of 1972. Here’s some spiel from the Henry Moore Institute:

‘Sculpture was talk of the town in Britain in the summer of 1972. It was being interrogated, debated, written about and photographed – and regularly appeared in regional and national newspapers, often with damning criticism and complaint. This was down to the City Sculpture Project, a hugely ambitious public sculpture scheme that supported the commissioning of large-scale works… For a period of six months, between March and November 1972, sculptures were installed in eight cities in England and Wales. From Nicholas Monro’s over five-metre tall statue of King Kong in Birmingham, to Liliane Lijn’s revolving cone in Plymouth and William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture Angle in Liverpool, these works all reimagined sculpture’s relation to the city and the urban viewer.’

March to November 1972… when Marc Bolan was in his pomp and David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This was also the six months that saw chess become a national obsession as Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played for the World Championship, the Second Cod War between the UK and Iceland and the terrorist attack at the Summer Olympics where Mark Spitz cleaned up in the swimming. Dirty Harry and The Godfather were in the cinemas – as was Carry on Matron and Carry On Abroad. Even in the exhibition’s black and white photographs, Britain in 1972 looks a cooler, better designed place.

The cities that originally housed the sculptures were Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff, Southampton, Cambridge, Plymouth, Birmingham (home to Kong) and another that I’m struggling to find listed on the Henry Moore Institute’s (HMI) website (the site’s paucity of information will become a theme). The Leeds exhibition at the HMI brings together what remains of the works that were commissioned (other than Kong and William Turnbull’s Angle, the other 1972 exhibits now seem to exist only in photographs and models), and drawings for some that were submitted but not taken up. Personally, I can’t see any difference in quality between those that made it and those that didn’t, but then, as now, as always, it’s not what you know… As I often find (such as at the Hepworth in Wakefield) there is more aesthetic quality in the way these pieces are displayed, than there is in the actual exhibits. It’s all beautifully done, and I especially liked the artist’s graphical/tech drawings, annotated in ink and old school typewriter, with rudimentary photographic mock-ups (there was no Photoshop in 71/72) – the Sky’s Edge proposal behind the Parkhill Flats in Sheffield was a favourite – and the newspaper reports. But when it comes down to the installations it’s the usual collection of metal tubing, concrete and RSJs, held together with reinforcing spikes and spot welding, that resembles the B&Q stock yard. Most of the exhibition fails on the simple test posed by the question: ‘Could I have done it myself?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s a case of ‘move along, nothing to see here’. With all of the exhibits there was none of the mystery of creation. There was no moment where I thought: How did they do that?!

That said, I was struck by how a shape or angle can convey a sense of culture and place – the contours of Bernard Schottlander’s ‘Untitled (Red)’ (that stood outside The Crucible in Sheffield in ‘72) somehow looking Japanese. And I liked the vox pop recordings prompted by Garth Evan’s installation in Cardiff (I’d like to tell you what it was called, but I can’t remember and if there is information on the Henry Moore website, it’s well hidden… It’s all Kong! Kong! Kong!) that were played alongside some of the exhibits, bringing the original idea for the exhibition (and a moment in time) to life. In the five minutes or so that I sat and listened to the voices from 1972, the reactions were universally negative. The very fact that Evans went out to record the responses indicates to me that he was expecting people to be either angry or bemused. Which makes his motivation ambiguous at best, and perhaps even deliberately and perversely obtuse – which, in the Oh no, Yoko… school of installation/performance art is a discipline in itself. Where any reaction is better than no reaction at all. Maybe.

Kong is the only figurative piece. If I put my bullshit/A-Level Art essay filter on for a moment, with his broad, powerful shoulders and big belly, the silent scream, not to mention his lack of genitalia, shirtless in the cold weather, he is the perfect analogy for male working class disenfranchisement/unfocused aggression/emasculation and as such, the best representation of ‘The Spirit of Brexit’ in public art that I’ve seen…

That’s not to say I don’t like Munro’s Kong, because I do. But is it ‘art’ any more than the Kong who greets customers and passers-by outside the ‘Kong Adventure’ climbing wall in Keswick (my boxer dog Bertie weed up his leg once)? The used car dealer who bought Munro’s Kong when the original 1972 exhibition closed wasn’t daft –  browsing the web for any mentions of the 1972 exhibition and it’s Kong that gets all the press (not even the Institute’s own web site lists all of the 1972 exhibits in one place). Because a big gorilla draws people in (which is why they dragged the original Kong from Skull Island to New York in the first place), unlike say, ‘Work for Arundel Gate, Sheffield’ (a column built with nineteen identically shaped boxes and nineteen identical horizontal planes, height: 5.9 metres) by Kenneth Martin. I bet Munro’s Kong helped flog some Vauxhall Chevettes and Rover P6s (one lady owner) back in the day; whereas I can’t see Martin or Schottlander’s works helping to shift many old bangers, full service history and a complimentary full tank of four star, or not. And something tells me that William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture Angle struggled to find a buyer after the exhibition closed (none of the purchase options – not even Kong’s, hence the car dealership gig – were taken up by the councils that exhibited them) – though I’m sure Harold Steptoe (the penultimate series of Steptoe and Son airing as the exhibition opened) would have been happy to take it off his hands.

I think Munro should have been more ambitious and come up with a design/mechanism where Kong would be attachable to the side of a building, so that, for instance, when he was exhibited in Leeds, we could have seen him with one hand gripping the top of Cuthbert Broderick’s Town Hall clock tower, the other hand curled into a big fist, raised defiantly to those looking up at him from below. Make him inflatable, perhaps? As impressive as he is, I think my idea would have topped it. As he stands, mute and frustrated, Munro’s Kong is not a threatening presence, bless him, despite his bright red eyes. Not like the slightly sinister, pagan rabbits (hares, apparently) of Sophie Ryder that tip up in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Everyone loves Kong. Every right-minded person sympathises with him… Though, I might observe, that his slightly occluded position (the War Memorial outsizes him from the road) has saved Kong from the attentions of late night drinkers, who in smaller towns where his appearance would be more of an event in the local press, he would have been a bigger pull, and attracted (for better or worse) more attention. Certainly, a few miles down the track in Barnsley someone would have seen the big lad flexing his muscles in the street of a Friday night and taken him on.*

* See the above comment on Brexit.