Salmon Pastures

A while back I saw this video of a salmon trying to make it up Aldwarke Weir near Rotherham shortly before going for a run through Salmon Pastures and the little maze of streets in Attercliffe between Staniforth Road and the River Don. It got me thinking about cobbles, scales and the past and present of the area and I wrote a little poem about it.

SALMON PASTURES

Glinting in bright winter sunlight, cobbles
reappear, wet, through cracked tarmac. A
Halal butcher, a strip joint and the
Office of the Diocese huddle against

Workshops whose sounds and smells have filled the air
Since obnailed boots scratched sparks along these lanes
And pithead gears auled ancient istory up
From underfoot to fuel forge fires at Firth’s.

Flexing furiously against the force
Of weir water and centuries of works’
dirt, silver scales shimmer. Soon they will be
at Salmon Pastures, proving that the past

Presses into the present as sure as
The rich cannot enter heaven.

I was well chuffed that Now Then printed it alongside the winning Off the Shelf short story entry, Sarah Peacock’s excellent ‘After the Fire’.

It’s the first time I’ve had a poem published and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. One of the great – and unexpected – results has been people sharing their knowledge and memories of the area. Here are a few examples:

  • indentures stated that ‘little mesters who had their workshops in Salmon Pastures weren’t allowed to feed their apprentices salmon more than three times a week
  • Oh Sheffield and Rotherham used to be aglow, I’d park my little Renault 4 for a few minutes to watch white hot ingots of iron cooling outside a foundry on my way home on a winter’s evening
  • I liked watching the rolling mills, long red hot snakes yards and yards long
  • there was ‘a wee train loaded with hot pig iron crossing the road at Brightside
  • sturgeon were caught in the Don up to the late 1800s and fish passes are now being installed on the weirs to help fish return upriver

Thanks to everyone whose comments I’ve shamelessly pilfered from Facebook! Please do comment below or drop me a line if my poem sparks any memories for you.

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The kind of cobble thing I’m talking about ©David Ash – thanks Dad!

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A salmon trying to make it up Aldwarke weir

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Ray Hearne: Joe Mather and Me

Ray kindly took the time to write a few words for Proletics about how he came across Owd Mather, what he found so inspirational about the radical balladeer and how his songs spring from – and add to – the ‘people’s tradition’.

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I came back from Essex University in 1981 with a head full of Shakespeare, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Pablo Neruda. I thought I knew a bit about literature and poetry.

I’d got myself a job as ‘Tutor Organiser’ for Rotherham, my home-town, for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) with the ambition of ‘liberating’ literature and poetry from the vaults of the rich and distributing it promiscuously around the borough. Ray Fisher was the WEA’s District Secretary and he had a passion for what he called ‘local literature.’ Ray had a copy of The Songs of Joseph Mather and he used to let me borrow it.

It seared across my mindscape like a lightning flash, or maybe it just meandered like a murmuration of starlings and installed itself into chemical permanence in my bonce. I was supposed to know something about English literature and here were people who spoke and thought a bit like me, yet nobody mentioned them. That’s where my next literary education began.

Mather inspired me. I came from an Irish house and a childhood filled with hymns and ballads. Here was a bloke, uneducated except that he seemed to know the bible back’ards, making up his own songs and ballads about his own experiences and his own community: dark, dogged, highly charged with political insights, telling the stories of his own people in crafted versions of their own language and idioms, and performing them in the hope of earning a few bob at fairs, markets, race meetings and public gatherings generally.

Nobody knows anything about the music he employed. He might have sung everything unaccompanied; he might have worked ad hoc with musicians, a fiddler perhaps; he might have composed his own melodies. Far more likely it has always seemed to me, he was one of the few bobbydazzler South Yorkshire embodiers of the ‘people’s tradition’.

By that I mean he heard, adapted, borrowed, chopped, changed and tailored the tunes and melodies that he heard from other singers, either local or passers through. That for me is how the people’s tradition has always worked. It’s mucky, grubby from pawing by innumerable gentle and powerful dirty hands; a vibrant, dynamic and exquisite vehicle capable of transmitting as great an artistic experience as any other art form Radio Three might mention. Its most marvellous exponents include Shakespeare, Robert Burns and the yet-to-be equalled Ann On.

Mather’s flat-vowelled, late-eighteenth-century Sheffield demotic, with its overtones of biblical rhetoric and phrasing, filtered through an ancient stand-in-the-street-and-sing-it ballad tradition, confirming some of my deepest intuitions about human songs and their roots.

The very first time I read ‘The File-Hewer’s Lamentation’ [listen to Ray’s version below] it seemed to arrange itself to the tune of ‘The boys of Mullaghbawn’ on an old cassette-tape I’d somewhere acquired of songs by Paddy Tunney. No one knows the source of the original tune, though the words we have seem to pertain to the United Irishmen’s 1798 rising. I like to think either that Joe picked up a variant of that very tune listening to some itinerant Irish labourer looking for work in the alleys of early industrial Sheffield, or even more pleasing is the idea that the same Irish singer heard Joe’s song and took the tune back to Ireland where it became ‘The boys of Mullaghbawn.’

I was also struck by the staggering courage involved in composing and singing publicly, ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine.’ To sing such a piece, just after the French Revolution and during what some historians have called ‘the English reign of terror,’ calling for the overthrow of kings and aristocracy and championing democracy, is an act of such breath-taking bravery as to be barely believable. That he was singing this song and others with similar sentiments to fellow Sheffielders in the streets gives us insights into the local culture. Sheffield was considered ‘disloyal’: ‘barracks and bastilles’ were built and militias were recruited. The ideological battle for the next fifty years was made articulate between the plain English, common-sense, Republican ideas of Paine – ‘The People and Reform’ – against the flowery, murderously oppressive polysyllables of the turncoat Burke and his ‘Church and King,’ to whom the common people were a mere ‘Swinish Multitude.’

All that and more, emblematised in the words and defiant singing of a bloke from Cack Alley, just off West Bar, known to locals as ‘Shitten Entry.’

So when I was offered an opportunity to set some of Joe’s pieces for the Festival of the Mind I was delighted. It nudged me towards doing what I should have done years before. I was able to bend tunes to fit six more pieces in addition to the two above, most of them emerging from my small but well-mellowed crock-full of Irish airs and melodies. Though my attitude to the provenance of each of the tunes remains open and flexible, sceptical and even mischievous, if you like. Who is to say that the above wandering Irish man was not a woman? Ann On herself even? Gathering sheaves of tunes during her dalliance with Joe before making her way back over the water to share them with all and sundry. I could swear that when I hear such as ‘Biddy Mulligan’, ’Patrick was a Gentleman,’ ‘Rosin the Bow,’ ‘The Dean’s Chapter,’ and ‘Kevin Barry,’ I can detect clearly beneath them, as sure as I’m plinking on this banjo, Mather’s own tunes donkeying their beneficent ways through the beaming and appreciative crowd.

 

Listen to Ray’s version of ‘The File-Hewer’s Lamentation’ here:

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If you like what you hear you can get the CD for six quid – find out more here.

Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast

A couple of years back I wrote a post about Shut Out the Light’s fantastic Still Ragged, a documentary about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In it Dennis Skinner provides a typically passionate and straightforward critique of zero-hours contracts, arguing that they are the modern-day equivalent of the insecure employment that blights the lives of Tressell’s characters.

The filmmakers obviously got on well with Skinner: they’ve spent the last two years making a documentary about his life. And what a life. Skinner was born between the wars into a big mining family in Clay Cross, Derbyshire. His dad had been blacklisted following the General Strike in 1926 and Dennis followed in his footsteps, going into the mines – and the Union – when he left school. Skinner was a gifted scholar with a sharp wit and was quick to master the skills of a pitman and a union rep, going on to get elected as a councillor in 1960 and MP for Bolsover in 1970.

Since then he’s been the scourge of Tories in the House of Commons, stymying bills from Enoch Powell and Anne Widdecombe (on stem cell research and abortion, respectively) and delivering brilliant parliamentary put-downs, earning himself the title The Beast of Bolsover. Examples in recent years include him telling Jeremy Hunt to ‘wipe the smirk off his face’ and suggesting that rather than the economy, the only things growing in the 1970s and 80s were the lines of cocaine in front of George Osborne.

Behind the headline-grabbing one-liners, though, there’s a serious and thoughtful politician and a kind and decent man. Skinner’s socialism was formed through the mining culture he grew up in and 22 years down the pit. He actively supported the 1972 Rent Rebellion in his home town (he had two brothers on the Council) and the 84-85 Strike. As an elected representative he’s fought tirelessly for his constituents, embodying the ideals of hard work and selfless public service that underpin his politics.

Skinner is Labour through and through. He’s proudly on the Left of the Party but he believes in supporting his colleagues from across the Labour spectrum. As a principled left-winger who has consistently spoken out against the dodgy patronage of Parliament, his honesty and integrity are beyond reproach and he has lessons for us all about socialism, solidarity – and singing (as demonstrated in this moving clip about Skinner singing with the elderly in his constituency).

Skinner’s story is an important and timely one. As the Labour Party rediscovers its socialism, Dennis Skinner’s long memory can help its members to understand the rich political tradition they inherit. If you have a few quid to spare, please chip in to help Shut Out the Light finish their film and bring the compelling story of this real-life working-class hero to the big screen.

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The Songs of Joseph Mather – Ray Hearne CD

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Firstly, thank you very much indeed to everyone who came along on Monday and helped make our celebration of Joseph Mather’s life and songs such a great occasion.

Ray and Robin Garside also produced this fantastic CD of the Songs, which you can get for a fiver (plus a quid for postage). These sold like hot cakes on the night so get yours quick to avoid disappointment!

To order, please drop me an email with your postal address to j.windle@sheffield.ac.uk and then transfer £6 to me with your postcode as the reference (s/c 07-04-36, account number 13264065). Email me if you need to pay by cash or cheque.

I’ll be writing a proper post about the project soon.

All the proceeds from sales of the CD will go towards a project I am working on with Steven Kay to republish the classic Sheffield novel The Good Lion by Len Doherty.

Finally, massive thanks to Ray for arranging these songs and bringing them to life so brilliantly – I for one hope to see him perform them again soon!

‘Osgathorpe, behold!’-Strange Trains and Poetry on the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway

I learnt two fascinating things about the Sheffield to Rotherham railway last Friday. The first was the the 16.24 from Sheffield is invisible, as are all its passengers. Along with a fellow inhabitant of this reality I stood and watched as no train departed from anywhere except the LED screen on Platform 1A. At the information desk we were shocked to discover that  it had definitely left because the computer system – triggered by censors in the tracks, no less – said so.

Glad to have narrowly avoided a trip to the Rotherham of a parallel universe, when I did eventually get there I met up with Ray Hearne to talk about a project we’re working on (more on this soon). It just so happened that Ray had a copy of Ebenezer Elliot’s ‘Verses on the opening of the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway’ which he very kindly gave me (you can find it on page 65 of this excellent collection of Elliot’s poems edited by Agnes Lehoczky and Adam Piette for the PlastiCities project back in 2012).

This is a remarkable poem for a number of reasons. Familiar places are vividly brought to life through enraptured, Romantic eyes and returned to the final days of their pre-industrial innocence. The poet stands ‘on war-marked Winco’s side’ less than half a mile from the brand new railway and calls on the surrounding settlements to see ‘with gladdened eyes’ the ‘triumph for mankind’ represented by the ‘towering vapours’ that trace the new trains’ progress:

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The note is my favourite thing about the whole poem. It tells us that Osgathorpe is ‘A beautiful eminence between Sheffield and Winco-bank, and, like the latter, overlooking a landscape of equal beauty’. My mum lives on Osgathorpe Road and I was brought up round the corner and I love it, but ‘beautiful eminence’ isn’t a description many people would recognise. It transports us back to a time when Sheffield’s industry was concentrated in a small centre whose outlying areas remained largely unspoilt.

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This 1832 map shows Burn Greave, Grimesthorpe and Wincobank were sparsely populated, semi-rural areas overlooking the Don Valley and the villages of Attercliffe and Darnall.

 

The view over the Don Valley is still a beautiful one in its own, post-industrial way: the vast steelworks away to the north-east, the incinerator, the railway arches and Supertram lines, Park Hill flats and the neatly laid out streets of the Manor. Elliot reminds us that not so many generations ago, if we strip back the layers of history, this was a stunning, idyllic valley (the otters and salmon who are returning to it remind of this, too).

Another remarkable feature is Elliot’s scattergun approach to the exclamation mark, a piece of punctuation now associated with the excitable emotion of acronym-heavy text-speak. The above stanza – with a fairly modest six occurrences – shows perfectly that inveterate texters and shouty copywriters in our own time are working with a long-established textual means of conveying intensity of feeling with a sense of wide-eyed innocence and youthful excitement. OMG! Literary pedigree!? WTF! LMAO!

In all seriousness, though, its sheer excitement at the potential of new technology is what is so remarkable about the poem. For Elliot, the Sheffield to Rotherham Railway is a harbinger of a new, fairer world and proof that the human ‘Mind shall conquer time and space’ to ‘Bid East and West shake hands!’. ‘Tyrants of all lands’ will ‘wither’ before the revolutionary power unleashed by advances in transport and communications, heralding a new world free from oppression.

This utopian vision chimes with the most hopeful and optimistic assessments of the power of technology in our own time, such as in the predictions of a post-work world of full automation by the likes of Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The poem’s most striking relevance to contemporary debates, though a bit more modest and mundane, lies in its advocacy of the democratising power and freedom-giving potential of public transport. Remembering the world-changing optimism of the early days of the railways can help us to re-energise our arguments for renationalisation now. Our ancestors forked out the £100,000 that paid for the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway in the first place and we deserve a cheap, efficient, public and accessible train service that doesn’t depart Platform 1A into a parallel universe.

 

There’s a petition to stop the sell-off of our stations here.

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Elliot had excellent hair too

 

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun is one of the great plays of the twentieth century. I was lucky enough to see it at the Royal Exchange in 2010 and there is a superb Eclipse Theatre Company production at the Crucible until February 13, then on tour.

I first encountered Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece as an undergraduate ten years ago and found it a compelling piece of drama that – and this is rare for a play – was engrossing, exciting and entertaining even on the page. I wrote a fairly cringeworthy first-year essay about the play and raved about it to anyone who would listen. A couple of weeks back my mum offered to queue for tickets to the public dress rehearsal so I got the train home and went with my folks. When it finished every actor had tears running down their cheeks and I reckon quite a few of the audience did too…

Raisin is about three generations of the Younger family, living in a cramped flat and sharing a bathroom with neighbours, whose fortunes are set to change with the arrival of a cheque for the late Big Walter’s life insurance. The action all takes place in the living room – which doubles up as the young Travis’s bedroom – and is driven by the tensions between generations, genders, siblings, beliefs and colours of skin. The vicious racism of post-war Chicago, which Hansberry had experienced first-hand as a child when her house was attacked by a racist mob, is central to the plot.

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Lorraine Hansberry, New York City on April 7, 1959. (AP Photo)

Hansberry was brought up by committed members of the NAACP and her uncle was a prominent professor and pioneer of African American studies. The family mixed in the same circles as many leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement such as Langston Hughes*, W E B DuBois and Paul Robeson, whose journal Freedom Hansberry wrote for when she moved to New York at the age of twenty. One of Hansberry’s many achievements in A Raisin in the Sun is to distil so much of contemporary Civil Rights and anti-colonial discourse into such accessible, amusing and utterly plausible dialogue. Beneatha – the strong-minded, outspoken atheist who will be a doctor and won’t be pressured into marriage despite the stifling, sexist social conventions of the time – is courted by both an ‘assimilationist’ and a Nigerian student. Her feminism and Afrocentrism are fully developed and wittily articulated, despite predating the second wave of the former and the coinage of the latter by at least two years.

Old values and ways of life are openly challenged (Beneatha: ‘What has He got to do with anything? Does he pay tuition?’), causing painful generational friction. Preoccupations with housing, money, masculinity and education are central, as are the aspiration and social mobility of the post-war period (Beneatha again: ‘the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich coloured people’). There are striking parallels with developments on the British stage at the same time: Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey premiered in 1958 and deals with many of the same issues, including racism, in the British context.

Ossie Davis, who played Walter in an early production, said that ‘one of the biggest selling points about Raisin was how much the Younger family was just like any other American family’. It is testament to Hansberry’s genius as a dramatist that she was able to condense so much of mid-century African American experience into such a seemingly simple domestic drama about an ordinary working-class family.

Until her tragic death at just 34 years old, Hansberry worked tirelessly for the Civil Rights Movement, honouring her conviction that a ‘total’ approach was the only way to gain true equality:

Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent… They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns and pray on steps.

To find out just how excellent a production of this wonderful, visionary play the Eclipse Theatre one is, get along to the Crucible by Saturday or go in Ipswich, Southampton, Liverpool, Watford, Deptford or Coventry.

 

Nina Simone talks movingly about Hansberry and performs ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, the song she wrote for her with Weldon Irvine.

There’s a short doc about Lorraine Hansberry here.

*This is the Langston Hughes poem, ‘Harlem’, from which the play takes its title:

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The Purging of Spence Broughton, A Highwayman

Why is the robbery of the Sheffield and Rotherham mail over 200 years ago still of interest and significance today?

Rob Hindle’s beautifully presented pamphlet from Sheffield’s own Longbarrow Press narrates fragments of the life and death of Spence Broughton, whose body was gibbeted on Attercliffe Common in 1792 and hung there for 35 years. Broughton’s story is vaguely familiar to many from the area, not least because it was immortalised in the name of a particularly scenic stretch of the Ring Road and on the panelled exterior of the city’s most gruesomely kitsch pub, The Noose & Gibbet, which has a plastic Broughton festooned in a grubby England flag swinging outside…

The sequence opens with the voice of authority, Mr Justice Buller, decreeing that Broughton’s ‘body should be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either’. The following page is a Post Office notice offering ‘a Reward of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS’ for the capture of John Oxley, Broughton’s accomplice. What follows is Hindle’s multi-voiced imagining of Broughton’s story followed by a sequence of Illustrations, short poems that elaborate on the themes of Broughton’s tragic life and set them in the social and historical contexts of the period.

Hindle’s lines are clean and controlled, narrating each episode with an understated sense of unfolding drama. The simple seven-liner that introduces the first and central poetic voice closes with the image of the gibbet, ‘the forged outline of a man’. The second uses rhythm brilliantly to convey Broughton’s agonising final moments. The first quatrain is brutally monosyllabic other than eyes that ‘ogle’, whose strangled feminine ending conveys expiring life. In the second stanza the creaking rope and desperate, dying beats of Broughton’s heart are evoked by the simple description of his head and hands in the last moments before his final, convulsive crisis, when ‘the bones of his feet / make the dance of the Tarantella’.

 

This second poem also introduces another voice, Broughton’s own, which appears in darker, marginal font and functions as a way of complicating the narrative by offering different and at times dissenting perspectives. This technique enables Hindle to present sympathetically Broughton’s descent into a life of ‘dissolution’ and his powerless perplexity at the cruel indifference of the law towards the poor.

Woven into the narrative is a reference to Broughton’s contemporary Joseph Mather (who I’ve written about before and will be returning to this year…), whose ‘Spence Broughton’s Lament’ was composed in response to the letter Broughton sent to his wife asking forgiveness. Mather hawked his songs at mass public events and it’s likely this one was composed in a rush to be sung and sold to the huge crowds – reportedly 40,000 people (more than the entire population of Sheffield at the time, suggesting both exaggeration and attendance from across the whole region) – that gathered for Broughton’s gibbeting. In Hindle’s ‘A Lads’ Wager’, written in excellent dialect (have ‘nayo’ and ‘ayjers’ appeared anywhere else?)  a mischievous ‘Mathers’ feeds a bowl of ‘curdlin’ broth to the rotted corpse. Also included is a poem about the potters who snapped off one of Broughton’s fingers with a stone and worked it into the handle of a cup.

Broughton’s own voice becomes more prominent as the sequence progresses, taking a whole poem of its own to deliver his account of the robbery and quote at length from the victim’s testimony. The Illustrations section expands Hindle’s attempt to give voice to the marginalised: ‘A Great Battle at Waterloo’ is voiced by a soldier ‘sick of wars, sick to death of generals and officers’. They movingly expand upon the themes of poverty, injustice and the brutality of an arrogant British elite, conjuring historical events from a refreshingly bottom-up perspective. It is this retracing of well-trodden paths through modern history in the shoes of the 99% that makes Broughton’s tragic life seem so close and familiar to the contemporary reader.

You can buy Rob Hindle’s The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman here for a fiver.

There’s a video of Rob Hindle and Ray Hearne reading from the sequence here and you can listen to a couple of them on Soundcloud here.

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