So, I have been to Sheffield and walked (very roughly) in a circle as part of the Off The Shelf literary festival, accompanied by an “audience” of 25 or so fellow (paying) pedestrians. Odd to be paid to walk. Odder still that people would pay to walk with me.
The group was limited to that number, which at first I thought was very low, but in the end I reckoned it was about right. The organizers said they could have sold out the event ten times over, which was very flattering, but the idea of walking the streets of Sheffield with 200 plus people in tow sounds like a recipe for absolute chaos. Keeping twenty odd waifs and strays in line, getting them across roads, stopping them wandering into traffic, keeping them within hailing range, was tricky enough, and I was glad I had a couple of wranglers from the festival, Lesley and Emma, to keep everybody in check (myself included).
Ultimately the task I’d set myself (strange as it might seem) was to do a compare and contrast between Sheffield and Hollywood. The differences hardly needed to be labored, but finding the similarities was very instructive and actually much easier than you (or even I) would imagine.
The walk began and ended at the Showroom Café Bar, which happens to be right opposite an endearingly eccentric piece of architecture, designed by Nigel Coates, consisting of four large, metal-clad forms, that are variously described as looking like drums, curling stones or crucibles.
The building originally housed a rock and roll museum, officially the National Centre for Popular Music, which I visited in the short period it was open. Understandably, the founders wanted some local flavor, and so the museum contained a lot of memorabilia from local bands. My memory’s a bit vague but I think there was a guitar that had belonged to Frank White, who was once Joe Cocker’s guitarist, and I’m pretty sure there was another belonging to Richard Hawley. No doubt local bands such as ABC, the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Def Leppard featured too.
It was all interesting enough but it always seemed doubtful that hordes of music lovers would beat a trail to Sheffield to look at this stuff. And so it proved. The museum closed down after not much more than a year, and now it’s the students’ union for Sheffield Hallam University, and known as The Hub.
I really liked the original building, since it seemed both fun and yet serious, and in that sense it resembles the Capitol Records building in Hollywood. The lesson I think is that architects can allow themselves to be playful when they’re designing a building that has some connection with entertainment or showbiz. But when it comes to courthouses and city halls, for example, people demand something more poker-faced.
Sheffield seemed to be in the middle of a street art revival, as I suppose is much of the world. L.A. is currently awash with the stuff, both in and out of museums. In Sheffield the most ubiquitous was Kid Acne. Great name. His word pieces are all over the city, simple messages painted on the boards surrounding empty plots of land: “That’ll Learn ’em,” “Dust In the Giant’s Eye,” “Tha Knows,” “You’ll Get What You’re Given,” and so on. He was also having a show in the Millenium Galleries: I was particularly taken with his “stabby women.”
Not least of the problems of street art is that it has to make an immediate impression, but then it can hang around for a surprisingly long time. Just how many times can you read “That’ll Learn ‘Em” and still think it’s interesting? Colin Drury, a columnist at the Sheffield Star, directed me towards an artist rejoicing in the name of Phlegm, whose work is certainly more complex, and one imagines more enduring, though of course endurance may not be what we’re looking for in street art.
I did manage to find a Sheffield equivalent of the Hollywood Sign (well, sort of), a large banner hung on a wall beside a parking lot, saying “Welcome to Sheffield” though it seemed that whatever direction you were coming from, you’d have been in Sheffield for some time before you received this welcome.
The local people on the walk found this sign every bit as mystifying as I did, and some said they’d never noticed it before, which made me feel pretty good. I knew it was never going to be easy to show the people who lived in Sheffield something that was new to them.
I also had a spiel about the ways in which, given a little neglect, benign or otherwise, the natural world has a way of reasserting itself in the built environment. I talked about the way creepers and palm tress spring up around the Hollywood Freeway, and there in Sheffield we saw the way that some unrealized developments had left empty patches of land around the city center, patches on which jungles of greenery were now thriving.
Some of the things we saw en route were genuinely ephemeral. We walked past the St. Marie’s Cathedral (Temporary), relocated in a storefront while the actual cathedral is being renovated.
At one point a young man in full vampire drag cycled by us. We stared at him, he stared at us, then said by way of apologetic explanation, “Halloween.” We had already guessed.
And it so happened the fair was in town. There was a helter skelter right in the middle of Fargate, the main pedestrian shopping street, and who can read the words “helter skelter” without thinking of Charles Manson and the L.A. murders committed in his name by his “family”?
Similarly, a little way up the road, outside the City Hall (the place where - a lifetime ago as it now seems - I saw Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and indeed Tony Williams’ Lifetime) they’d set up some vomit-inducing fairground ride called Freak Out, and I can certainly not read the words “freak out’ without thinking of Frank Zappa, the man whose work gave me a crash course in American culture. His mentions of Howard Johnson motels, rancid Budweiser, Cel-Ray, the El Monte Legion stadium and so on, suggested that there were things to know about America that I wasn’t going to find on a university American studies course.
I was put up in the Hilton hotel in a part of Sheffield I’d never even heard of, a regenerated area now known as the Victoria Quays. I think this used to be called the Sheffield canal basin, though as I grew up in Sheffield I didn’t even know there was a canal in the city. The whole area is now wonderfully cleaned up and pleasant and terrific place to do a certain kind of post-industrial walking.
I assume the area got its new name because it’s more or less where the old Sheffield Victoria station used to be. I certainly went to the station a few times as a kid, at least once in the company of trainspotters. I never really “got” trainspotting, though I did develop an unprofessional enthusiasm for trains, tracks and railway buildings, which remains with me.
I knew the station had been gone for a good long time, but I even so I walked around the area looking for signs of it. I could find hardly any, could barely see where it had stood. The station hotel remains, and I knew it had to be adjacent to that, but it took quite a stretch of the imagination to picture where the station had once been.
The area had changed out of all recognition, but the gentrification wasn’t absolutely complete or permanent. Little pockets of mess and decay continued to show through, and I wasn’t entirely sorry to see them. The railway arch below is actually part of a recycling facility, so I suppose you could argue that even this is environmentally friendly.
Although, on my walk, I was happy to talk about the Sheffield I knew growing up, I tried to avoid the “I remember when all this was fields” approach. However, my old Sheffield pal Steve, who was my tour guide, even as I was a tour guide for other people, next day took me along Prince of Wales Road, a route I used to know pretty well back in the day, and he pointed out that a large number of council houses had now been demolished because of defective mortar, and had never been replaced. This allowed him to say, “I remember when these fields were all houses.” We both enjoyed that.