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A Magazine for Sheffield

Inside Out: Tracing the outlines of the city

Visitors to our house often comment on the lack of curtains or blinds. Sometimes you see their eyes flicker, ‘Are these guys exhibitionists?’ Others wonder how we stay asleep after sunrise or worry about marauding snoops seeing into our private world. The real reason is that what goes on outside our home is generally much more interesting than what goes on inside. When I wake up in the morning, I can gauge the weather and watch the wind blowing the trees. On a clear day I can see traffic on the Parkway, at Shalesmoor and on the Tinsley Viaduct, so I know if it’s going to be a steady day or one of those chaotic ones when the infrastructure inexplicably goes berserk. At night I can watch the city as it shimmers and festers. I can project onto the landscape an imagined past of woodland and wolves or a Utopian future of solar roofs and cable cars. If I close the curtains I’m pretending that what’s outside isn’t there any more, and I don’t think that’s good for me. The more you think about it, the more important the outside of things becomes. It’s like the trick people use to learn to draw: draw the space around the edge of an object and the object will reveal itself. Magicians divert attention from a deception that is hidden in plain sight. There’s a kind of insight that comes from shifting your focus from what you’re supposed to be looking at to what’s around the outside of it. If an estate agent describes a house without mentioning the bathroom, then either there is no bathroom or it’s a pit of slime. If a tin of soup is labelled as 90% fat-free, it’s 10% fat. We’re getting wise to these little deceptions, but not so to the big ones, to the politicians, bankers and media moguls who rub their hands as the rest of us attack each other for society’s ills. We routinely blame drug addicts for crime, immigrants for unemployment and terrorists for our battered civil liberties. Inside each of those prejudices is a grain of truth that swells up out of all proportion and squeezes out the real issues of rampant inequalities that suit those with power just fine, thank you. When the hard-fought campaign to save the Edwardian Wing of the Jessop Hospital was lost, there was a massive hole in the ground, surrounded by wooden hoardings with portholes you could peer through to see what the big hole looked like. People loved to examine the archaeological unpeeling of a place they thought they had known. But recently the plain, white hoardings were replaced with glitzy ones advertising The Diamond (let’s call him Neil) and the glories that will be contained within. Passers-by have stopped peering in and now just gaze at the hoardings: ‘Oh, so that’s what it’s going to be’. No matter that Neil’s ascent from the big hole would be much more interesting to watch through completely clear hoardings. No matter that Neil’s innards might turn out to be wonderful. No matter that he will be another incongruous, disconnected boulder in the University’s torrent of new lumps, lining themselves up and down the hill like some misfits’ identity parade. Suddenly all this is forgotten, and we are left looking at nothing but words and pictures spewed from a giant printer. The truth is that changing a building changes what is outside, in the big wide world. There is only one iconic building on Leavygreave Road, and that’s the Henderson’s Relish building. It earned its status not through grandeur but through practicality, and not for what was inside but for what came out. Just like the lamented Jessop Hospital, it has a personal relationship with a huge proportion of Sheffield’s population. But now Hendo’s has moved out and this too is under threat of demolition. The building’s magic still exists for now, as a kind of psychic emblem. But what will happen next, I wonder? Another meaningless misfit, probably, jostling with Neil for attention on a lost street. )

Next article in issue 75

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