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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Interwoven Histories – working-class writing and immigration

Working-class writers have for centuries understood the interwoven histories of their own position within British society and that of colonised people overseas. The radical rhetoric of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drew parallels between the plight of the African slaves who picked cotton in the American South and the children who carded and spun it in the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of the North of England. I’ve just started a piece examining the continuities of this tradition in two post-war writers’ treatments of ethnicity, racism and immigration. Like so many of the issues that I’m interested in, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists provides an early and important twentieth-century example. At the beginning of the novel Owen and his colleagues are sitting on upturned buckets, slurping tea from jam jars during their lunch break. One of the decorators, Easton, is reading the Obscurer, which provokes in him

a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that it was about time we did something to protect ourselves … The papers they read were full of vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country. The enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.*

When he was writing in the early 1910s, Tressell was dismayed by the way in which those in power distracted the people from their own colossal greed and corruption by blaming foreigners. It’s a sad statement on our own times that a century later the right-wing press are up to the same dirty tricks. Another subject of a previous post, Jack Hilton, was disarmingly honest about how he was brainwashed by such racist propaganda, describing how the foundations were laid during his education:

What a fighting chance we were given to understand the happenings of world significance – it was not a dog’s chance. It worked out this way. 1st: Heaps of God; 2nd: England first – the world nowhere; 3rd: Blatant swagger; one good honest Christian blue-eyed English schoolboy equalled twenty infidel Japs …

Having been schooled in the bigotry of British imperialism, Hilton was swept up by the anti-German feeling of the First World War and later flirted with eugenics, a despicable and discredited philosophy not a million miles from Boris Johnson’s. True to the enduring internationalism and anti-racism of the radical working-class tradition (stretching back to Joseph Mather and beyond), Hilton came to see the working-class movement as related to the anti-colonial struggles of his day. Gandhi visited Lancashire whilst Hilton was writing his first book and slept on the sofa of a Labour family in Salford. Renewed interest in the historical theft of common land – linked to the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 – forged a more concrete connection between these twin struggles and in the post-war era working-class writers continued to show a progressive interest in the intersection of class and colonialism.

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Gandhi in Lancashire

Writers whose work was shaped in the post-war era by these interwoven histories include Sheffield’s own Len Doherty, Shelagh Delaney (whose A Taste of Honey, in Colin MacInnes’s memorable phrase, was the first play to portray black and gay characters ‘without a nudge or shudder’), Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow (whose narrator Vic says of a racist character ‘she could hardly open her mouth without showing everybody what a stupid, bigoted, ignorant old cow she is’), Buchi Emecheta, Jeremy Sandford, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the list goes on…

The project I am starting looks at two more whose lives and works traverse British inner cities and former British colonies. In the pages of these writers’ work we find out much more about the changing nature of the working class and the spectrum of working-class responses to immigration than we ever can from the journalists and politicians who blame immigrants for everything from putting too much strain on the NHS (it would collapse without them) to roasting swans.** And indeed more than we can from phenomena like the BBC’s White Season of a few years back, which managed to be racist by labelling all white working-class people racist – a pretty spectacular feat when you think about it. What we find in these books is what many people from diverse neighbourhoods know through their daily lived experience – what Paul Gilroy has described as ‘demotic multiculturalism’ – which is that the working class co-authored multiculturalism alongside immigrants, largely from the colonies. The history of immigration into Britain following the Second World War – and in many areas before the war – is a history of immigration into working-class areas.

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Grave of a Muslim miner killed at Beighton colliery in 1922, Bunrgreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Working-class writers deal with the realities of what this means. They don’t shy away from appalling racism or seek to present a rose-tinted view of things, but nor do they ignore the rich history of tolerance and conviviality that many contemporary commentators ignore and efface. The tradition of internationalism and radical anti-racism in working-class writing constitutes an eloquent historical response to the absurd and offensive notion that the working class is somehow inherently racist or intolerant.

In our own times, as recent work by Beverly Skeggs, Stephen Garner and Owen Jones has shown, there is a worrying trend for journalists, politicians and academics to vilify working-class people in ways that are sinisterly reminiscent of the how ‘racial others’ have been demonised since the beginning of the colonial era. Working-class writers often intuitively understand this and deliberately position themselves alongside the ‘other’. In the opening sonnet of his brilliant collection The School of Eloquence, Tony Harrison connects his exploration of working-class history – and his search for an identity and a voice to express it – by analogy with Aimé Césaire’s founding text of the Négritude movement:

…I call these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,

My growing black enough to fit my boots.

With these lines – and the dedication of the poem to members of the Angolan independence movement Frelimo – Harrison aligns his own project with that of the anti-colonial poets of Africa and the West Indies. It is this interwoven history that I will be exploring in my current project.

*pp. 41-3 – as a member of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, I have copies of this book to give away. If you’d like one, please email me your address and I’ll post one to you.

** ‘SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen’s birds for barbecues’.The Sun has removed the article from its website but Nick Medic’s Making a Meal of a Myth details its complete lack of any factual basis.

Sweetly Sings Delaney

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This is an overdue review of a book published almost a year ago. John Harding’s Sweetly Sings Delaney: A Study of Shelagh Delaney’s Work 1958-68 is a valuable exploration of the first ten years of a fascinating career. Jeanette Winterson wrote that reviews of Delaney’s first two plays ‘read like a depressing essay in sexism’ and called her ‘the first working-class woman playwright’. Such an important figure in the development of working-class writing deserves far greater critical attention than Delaney has received, and this book is a welcome step in the right direction.

Since its publication, Salford City Council organised the first Shelagh Delaney Day on what would have been her 76th birthday (25 November 2014).* Given the then Director of Education’s public hostility to her depiction of Salford in 1958, Delaney might have found her officially sanctioned local hero status amusing. But this recognition rightly places her alongside Salford’s most famous artist, LS Lowry. The painter was a major influence on Delanay: his Coming from the Mill hung in her classroom and she gazed at it when her attention strayed from lessons (‘which was often enough’).

In LS Lowry is the very essence of a child … The universal truth – this loneliness of mankind – this loneliness is something we have always suspected at some time and Lowry has caught it – comic, cruel, beautiful, ugly and tragic.

Those last five words could equally describe the genius of A Taste of Honey. Just as Lowry had been a significant figure in representations of the industrial north a generation before, Delaney was a leading light in the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the 1950s. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – received at the time and seen since as a pivotal moment in post-war theatre – was made to seem tame and dated when A Taste of Honey swaggered out in front of an unsuspecting audience two years later in 1958. Apart from a too-detailed summary of the play (similar accounts of later works are understandable given their relative obscurity), the seventy-or-so pages Harding dedicates to its genesis, development, production and reception are by far the most thoroughgoing account yet offered of Delaney’s masterpiece. Harding notes that there are few extended analyses of the play (a chunk of my PhD thesis takes issue with Arthur Oberg and Edward Esche’s readings, the two most detailed academic engagements with it) and his seven short chapters are a useful antidote to this critical neglect.

coming from the mill

Coming from the Mill

On the first page we’re told that on her birth certificate her name is spelled ‘Sheila’ and that ‘why she changed it isn’t known’. Harding assumes it was to emphasise her Irish roots – of which she was doubtlessly proud – but skips over its wider significance. ‘Shelagh’ seems part of a concerted effort to cultivate the cult outsider recognisability of a JD Salinger or Françoise Sagan (with whom comparisons were made at the time). Delaney projected an image of herself as a bolshy, defiant and mysterious young woman intent on rocking the theatrical boat and shaking post-war culture out of its complacent conservatism.** Harding’s assumption is of no great significance but it is indicative of the book’s un-academic tone.

The advantage of this approach is the ready readability of Harding’s prose, which is pitched at the general reader as well as a more scholarly audience. He has amassed a great deal of material, much of it entertaining as well as insightful, and he stitches many and varied quotations into a coherent and compelling account of Delaney’s early career. Harding illustrates well how Delaney was, like many writers, an inveterate self-mythologiser, telling Joan Littlewood in the letter that accompanied the manuscript of A Taste of Honey that two weeks previously she ‘didn’t know the theatre existed’ and leading journalists to believe that she cut her cultural teeth in the music hall and on thrice-weekly visits to the cinema. In fact, she’d worked as an usher and regularly went to plays with her friend, the artist Harold Riley, who was ‘struck at the time by the extent of Delaney’s knowledge of the history of the theatre’.

Fascinating insights such as this, gleaned from interviews and an impressive range of sources, make Sweetly Sings Delaney an invaluable account of her early writing career. Harding sets out to show that Delaney ‘played an important role in both stage and film writing and that her contribution to the careers of film directors such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson was a significant one’. He certainly succeeds, and at the same time offers a comprehensive account of her early development and her relationship with Salford. For anyone interested in the first working-class woman playwright, it’s a must-read.

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Shelagh Delaney’s Salford has great footage of the playwright in her home town.

*There’s a promotional video – with a very odd choice of backing music – here.

**This was surely part of what fascinated Morrissey about her: The Smiths used one of Arnold Newman’s portraits for the cover of Louder Than Bombs and Morrissey said ‘at least fifty per cent of the reason for my writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney’.

louder than bombs

Still the Greatest Novel of the 20th Century

Half way through Shut Out the Light‘s fantastic Still Ragged, Andrew Lynch – one of several writers to have dramatised the novel for radio – describes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as a classic, iconic text, going on to say:

It stands as a great novel and then its political significance makes it rise above just a novel.

Lynch condenses into a single sentence a century of criticism about this controversial, mysterious masterpiece. Since first emerging in heavily abridged form a century ago it has become a set text of British socialism and a popular classic whose readership is several times the number of printed copies. Over the last hundred years it has been handed down through generations, passed around workplaces, union branches and armed forces and – in a way only a book that has generated its own folklore could – won a general election (in 1945). As Lynch suggests, its unparalleled political potency has overshadowed its considerable literary achievement and it is one of the strengths of Still Ragged that both elements of Tressell’s genius are considered by the impressive cast of passionate enthusiasts the film gathers together.

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An example of Tressell’s highly skilled painting

Only The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could require such a cast, including trade unionists, painter-decorators, singer-songwriters, playwrights, writers, actors, MPs and, yes, literary critics to even come near to doing its genius justice. Those who share their thoughts about the book include well-known fans such as Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Skinner and Len McCluskey, as well as readers at a Liverpool book group. A painter-decorator talks us through the difficulties of the job – still plentiful in the early twenty-first century – and an actor gives entertaining solo performances of some of the book’s most memorable and important passages to give the viewer unfamiliar with the text a flavour of its tone and message.

One of the most fascinating contributions is by Stephen Lowe, who has adapted the novel for the stage several times, including for the Isango Ensemble’s musical re-imagining of the text against the backdrop of Apartheid-era South Africa. Lowe argues that Tressell’s book is a major literary landmark, skilfully blending influences as diverse as Dickens, Zola, Flaubert and Swift in order to find ‘a new form able to take a lecture in the middle of it almost Brechtianly’. As Nicola Wilson points out, Tressell self-consciously comes out of the Victorian tradition, using an intrusive narrator and the foregrounding of the men’s labour to subvert the country house novel and represent the way in which society is constructed by its members. Still Ragged manages something that literary critics have largely failed to do: it advances some decent literary criticism of a book that has always been primarily considered a political text and in doing so calls for a well-overdue reassessment from a literary-critical perspective.*

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 Tressell’s Oblong, still a depressingly accurate breakdown of British society.

As well as giving literary credit where it’s due, Still Ragged gives plenty of space to the impassioned political polemic of the book and its continued relevance today. Dennis Skinner is visibly livid as he likens the current scourge of zero-hours contracts to the instability of the men’s employment in the novel. Ricky Tomlinson tells the extraordinary story of how the prison governor introduced him to the text whilst he was in solitary confinement on purely political charges. The film shows how urgently relevant Tressell’s political message is in our own time and urges viewers to return to it and consider how it can help us in our current crises. The recurring account is that the book is passed on to people and it changes their lives; as Dave Harker points out with his extensive collection of translations, it persistently has the power to change people’s lives across space and time.**

The film also conveys some of the incredible story behind the novel’s publication, which would provide enough material for a whole film in itself.*** But what it achieves most convincingly is to celebrate the triumph of this most brilliant working-class novel. Despite being butchered by editors and publishers (who we nevertheless have to thank for the survival of the text) and ignored or patronised by critics, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has managed to become the most important and influential British novel of the twentieth century: Still Ragged passionately conveys this and will hopefully recruit more readers and change their lives. In my case it was very much preaching to the converted but the film was hugely effective at that: I immediately ordered more copies to give away.^ If you’ve ever read the book, buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant. If you’ve never read the book, email me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Then buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant…

Still Ragged trailer

*Welcome progress was made in this direction with the publication of Revisiting Robert Tressell’s Mugsborough in 2008.

**Peter Miles’ intro to the 2005 OUP edition includes this quotation from a website in the Philippines: ‘the injustices suffered by Owen (the hero) at the hands of the vicious foreman, the corrupt politicians, the hypocritical churchmen are all around me in Manila. It makes me so angry that we have made so little progress over 100 years’.

***It was burnt, rescued, passed on, lost and eventually bought – in a tin box handed over in a station café by a mysterious stranger – by Fred Ball, a Hastings painter-decorator and Tressell enthusiast who painstakingly restored the manuscript to as close as possible to its original state. Have a look here.

^I’m a member of The Association of the Ragged Trousered  which was set up to help the book reach new readers and whose founder Kevin Jones appears in the film

Tommy Youdan: Music Hall Hero

On Monday the 8th of September I sent this article – Tommy Youdan: Music Hall Hero – into Now Then (a great, beautifully produced free Sheffield magazine that’s had the good taste to publish a few of my articles in the past). The following day, on route to The Tumble near Abergavenny to see Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Tour of Britain, I got a call from Point Blank Theatre asking me to be… Tommy Youdan in a production about Harvey Teasdale at the Spiegeltent in Barker’s Pool for the Festival of the Mind. I ended up leading the Tour of Britain briefly over a famous road climb later on, so it was a pretty surreal day all-round.* This post is a slightly longer version of that Now Then article and I will post shortly about how and why I ended up being Tommy on stage and my experience of researching, devising and performing in the piece.

In 1844, Engels wrote that ‘immorality among young people in Sheffield seems to be more prevalent than anywhere else’. In fact, early music-hall was transforming working-class culture in Sheffield by introducing a huge variety of popular and ‘high-brow’ entertainment to affordable venues. One of the key figures in its development was the tenth son of a farm labourer from Kirk Sandal, near Doncaster. Tommy Youdan was born in 1816 and followed older brothers to Sheffield to look for work. After being a labourer, a silver stamper and a beerhouse keeper, in March 1849 he opened Youdan’s Royal Casino at 66 West Bar: it was so successful that it was enlarged twice that year to hold 1,200 punters and a stage big enough for elaborate shows. Despite its size and nightly entertainment admission was still free, suggesting drink was the main attraction.

But Youdan had grand plans and wanted to offer high quality, affordable entertainment to his working-class clientele. The 1843 Theatres Act required licences for all sorts of dramatic performances, and theatre managers were on the look-out for infringements so they could inform on music-hall owners who were encroaching on their turf. Youdan used phrases like ‘illustrated ballad’ and ‘duologue’ to describe operas and plays so he could offer a wide range of entertainments without a licence. It didn’t always work: in 1850 he was fined £20 for eighteen nights of ‘operatic performances’. The fact that Youdan could pay the fines shows that the working-class appetite for music and drama made it a lucrative business.

In the same year he changed the name to the Surrey Music Hall, a bold statement of intent because Sheffield’s foremost respectable concert room was the Music Hall in Surrey Street. The range of entertainment on offer was huge, from high-grade musicians, opera and ballet to animal acts, comics, ventriloquists, dramatic readings and ceiling walkers. Youdan’s blend of low prices, classy surroundings and programmes mixing high-brow and popular entertainment was so successful that it spawned a rash of copycat venues. When a rival took over a massive former circus in Blonk Street, opening it in 1851 as the Adelphi, Youdan responded by investing £5,000 on expanding to a capacity of 3,000. At Christmas 1851 he advertised his ‘ELEGANT ESTABLISHMENT’ as ‘the EMPORIUM OF ECONOMICAL INTELLECTUAL AMUSEMENT’.

The Adelphi got a theatre licence in 1852 and its manager and the Theatre Royal’s owners repeatedly took Youdan to court for staging unlicenced shows. Determined to prove his respectability, Youdan made himself a popular public figure through charity work and canny PR. He gave beef and blankets to the poor, hosted an open-air tea for 2,000 old ladies to celebrate the end of the Crimean War, offered train tickets to London and trips to the St Leger festival as prizes to his customers, leant his house band for public events and bought a menagerie of stuffed animals for educational display. But even his philanthropy got Youdan into trouble: in 1856 he advertised the sale of a 4-ton ‘Monster Twelfth Cake’ in portions, some containing medals entitling the holder to a cash prize. Cautioned by the authorities under the Lottery Act, he was forced to sell off the soggy, undercooked cake with no prizes.

Tommy Youdan 25 march 1865 after the fire

The only surviving photo of Youdan, centre in top hat, with his company after the fire.

In 1858 Youdan’s popularity and public spirit got him elected as a Town Councillor and a member of the Board of Workhouse Guardians, positions in which he worked conscientiously to improve conditions for the Sheffield poor. The following year he took on the lease of the Adelphi, removing a major competitor, and used it as a warehouse. This turned out to be his saviour when, in 1865, the Surrey Music Hall burnt down. He reopened the Adelphi as the Alexandra New Music Hall and eventually got his theatrical licence, allowing him to bring the greatest stars of the day to Sheffield audiences at affordable prices.

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The Burning of the Surrey Theatre, 1865

Not only did Youdan revolutionise music-hall, he also had a hand in the early development of the next great mass entertainment, football. He donated the trophy and prize money for the Youdan Cup, the first ever cup competition, featuring twelve teams from the Sheffield area including Pitsmoor, Broomhall, Heeley, Norton and the winners – and only team still going – Hallam FC (who still have it now). Even though he had retired in 1874 and died two years later – leaving £25,000 to his niece – The Alexandra was popularly referred to as Tommy’s right up until its demolition in 1914. Because of Youdan’s vision, drive and ambition, Sheffield had a much richer music hall culture than most other industrial cities. His love of popular entertainment and his desire to improve the lot of the city’s poor led him to have an important hand in the development of music and football in the city, two passions that its residents still hold dear.

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The Youdan Cup presented to Hallam FC in 1867

* MOTORBIKE COP: You’re gonna have to pull over, there’s a race coming through

ME: I know, I’m winning!

MOTORBIKE COP pulls unimpressed face, speeds off.

Dr Graham Joyce (1954-2014)

Laboring-Class Poets Online

Dr Graham Joyce (1954-2014)

John Goodridge
Nottingham Trent University

This posting is about a working-class writer who won’t be listed on our Database of Labouring-class Poets any time soon, even though he was a coalminer’s son and an immensely successful and popular writer (and even had an interesting link to our project). He would of course be ‘OP’, or ‘out of our period’. But more importantly my friend and colleague Graham Joyce, who died on September 9th aged 59, loudly disdained what he saw as the pretentiousness and self-absorption of poets, and indeed art writers of all sorts. (His antipathy towards poets though, like the music-loathing of the Chief Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine, evidently masked suppressed longings, because according to the long memory of our mutual friend the poet Mahendra Solanki, Graham began his writing career as a poet long ago.) Graham’s attitude to mainstream fiction was…

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The Evergreen in Red and White – Review

Steven Kay’s self-published debut novel, The Evergreen in Red and White, is about the first professional footballer of Romany descent, Rabbi Howell, and his final season at Sheffield United in 1897-8. Kay has dedicated a post on his blog to reviews of fourteen Sheffield novels – a great reading list for anyone interested in the city’s representation in fiction – and invites a review of his own effort. So here goes…

The action starts with a friendly in Glossop in such horrific conditions the teams agree to play half an hour each way. United are preparing for an ambitious tilt at the title and Rabbi and his best mate Mike discuss how long they can expect to last as professional players. United’s matches punctuate the narrative, sometimes from Rab’s point of view in italicised passages and always true to contemporary reports from United’s most glorious season. There is fascinating detail about football history: players are forbidden from training with the ball to make them hungry for it on match days; they are confined to the club house the night before games to keep them away from pubs and music halls; managers travel in first class whilst players go in second. Kay is clearly a die-hard Blade and has meticulously researched the club’s finest year. There is much here for fans of football history more broadly, too, but the novel has more to it than that.

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Sheffield United in 1891-2: Rabbi Howell is 2nd from the right on the middle row.

Rabbi returns from matches to a fractious home life where there is no enthusiasm or respect for his profession. Having been cheered by thousands of fans, he is sneered at by his father-in-law for playing ‘schoolyard games’ and becomes increasingly marginalised in a household that is dominated by his wife’s family. As in many novels of working-class life, there are sharp contrasts between the predominantly feminine domestic sphere and the macho worlds of mining, manufacturing and match days. Having turned pro, Rabbi has far more time on his hands than his brother and father-in-law who still work at the pit, and spends it walking over Wincobank, smoking his pipe and strumming his Spanish mandolin. His estrangement from family and ordinary working life, compounded by away matches and training camps at a hotel in Matlock, make Rabbi restless and unhappy whenever he isn’t playing. The Evergreen imagines how these tensions played out through Rab’s playing career and private life using what little evidence remains about his life.

Rabbi and his wife, Selina, are from Romany families who have recently left the old nomadic life to settle in ‘chooreste-gav‘, or ‘knife town’, the Romany name for Sheffield. Rabbi was the first Romany player to be capped for England and Kay presents his hybrid identity with skill and sensitivity. Rabbi’s speech switches between Sheffield and Romany dialect and he brushes off his team-mates’ jokes about gipsy spells and Egyptian ancestry with the kind of good humour in which they are made. Prejudice, though, plays a part in the management committee’s treatment of Rabbi at the end of his United career – something which, to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into here.

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Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations feature in the novel. With a healthy dose of republicanism…

The other character that is meticulously researched and lovingly brought to life by Kay’s prose is Sheffield itself. Rabbi’s home in Brightside  is a short walk from Wincobank Woods, which overlooks ‘the Don valley and its majestic array of chimneys’. Sheffield is painted as a friendly, bustling place where the clanging and hammering of industry provides the backdrop for a vibrant cultural scene. Crowds flock to football matches and music halls and a scene in which Rabbi visits the theatre – to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, stage superstars in their day – captures the class anxieties of a rapidly expanding city. Kay does a good job of evoking late-19th-century Sheffield and giving its inhabitants genuine depth and humanity without over-romanticising, a difficult balance for a historical novel to strike. Readers from Sheffield will enjoy encountering familiar places and well-written dee-dah dialect; it’s great to see industrial Sheffield come to life on the page and have well-drawn working-class characters walking its streets.

This is the best Sheffield novel I’ve read for a long time and anyone interested in the city’s history will find it a fascinating and entertaining read.