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A Magazine for Sheffield

Psychogeography: The Idealism Walking Tour

[This article was originally submitted for consideration for the April issue, but couldn’t be included due to space restrictions.] It's snowing. An urban Eskimo speaks loudly and dramatically into her mobile: "I can't get my car out so I'm walking to work!" Eventually she'll arrive, snow and bits of fish clinging to her mouth: "I made it!" I set off from Commonside in Walkley with a flask of coffee and my trusty Harris Tweed jacket. If this clobber could get Edmund Hillary up Everest, I stand a good chance of getting from here to Norfolk Park. I'm in a Victorian snow scene, though in those 19th century winters these huge, knarled trees that dominate Upperthorpe would have been saplings, or even twinkles in gardeners' eyes. I doubt there's much evidence left of Upperthorpe's Viking origins, aside from a few copies of Abba’s Gold in the CD collections of Birkendale, but its more recent history is worn with pride: a blue plaque tells me that Upperthorpe Villa was home to Ebenezer Elliot, the poet and reformer. He's the guy whose statue guards the entrance to Weston Park, and he has been called Yorkshire's Robert Burns. The annual 'Ebenezup' tradition - of drinking Hendo's Bloody Marys, eating Bingham's Meat Paste sarnies and reading Elliot verses - must be due for a revival. I cross Netherthorpe Road, which today is like a queue for a ferry across the Arctic, with crampon-clad pedestrians weaving between stationary cars, coat collars turned up against the blizzard. Now I'm heading towards Scotland Street. HSBC has positioned global capitalist bookends around this library of dereliction and sleaze. Whether your means of escape is paintball, karaoke, evangelical Christianity or heroine and glue, it's all here. Cities don't work without these kind of transitional spaces where the sacred, profane, dignified and destitute all stand, nose-to-armpit like commuters on a crowded tram. When we try to zone them out, we end up surrounded by faceless aliens with faux-ancient names: Omnia, Metis, Capita. Somewhere inside those names is the idea of a city designed by committee, its governance outsourced and no encounter left to chance. Welcome to Hell. Mercifully, humanity is messy. Now I'm on Queen Street, the slightly sore backside of the pin-stripe quarter, whose self-assured facade occupies Paradise Square and Campo Lane. Wharnecliffe House, a picture-postcard commercial building, all white stucco and perfect proportions, at some point has acquired a monstrous growth on its back, and now stands empty and dejected. Then there's the Post Office that's only for business post. Is there another one that's only for junk mail? And here comes the Boardwalk, the prow of a ghost ship, where my old post-punk band played more often than I can remember. At the final gig we supported TV Smith from The Adverts, the man who wrote a hit song about someone receiving the transplanted eyes of an executed murderer. I cross Snig Hill, calculating my degrees of separation from various musical heroes, and wishing to relive my youth with the benefit of hindsight. Drifting in nostalgic soft-focus I approach the Old Town Hall, opposite Castle Market. I've always fancied it as a time-traveller's doorway. I pass through, and as I reach Fitzalan Square a disembodied woman warns me, "Caution: two-way traffic". One moment I'm on the Pond's Forge tram bridge in a modern, European city, heading up towards smart apartment blocks with brightly coloured wall panels and designer furniture on balconies. A minute later I come up against a metal security fence and flying walkways, that divide two ages of social experiment, and suddenly I'm in a Cold War spy novel, all trenchcoats and Trabants in bleak, snowy streets. A train thunders through a chasm beneath my feet, and transports me to my earliest memories of travelling to Sheffield as a child. How bizarre, I used to think, that people's first impression of the city is a rat's eye's view of its stone-walled, graffitied bowels. But before I know it, I've climbed high above the station, and another disembodied woman reels off lists of distant towns and warnings of slippery surfaces. It must be odd living within earshot of her insistent monotone, as the new inhabitants of Park Hill surely do. Heading up Norfolk Road I pass through another timewarp, with the Shrewsbury Hospital almshouses on my left that could be mistaken for a monastery or a Cambridge college quadrangle, and the Cholera Monument on my right that marks the burial ground of hundreds of victims of polluted water. Another Victorian scene: on one side, the poor, on the other, the dead, both given pride of place high above a dirty city. Finally, I've made it to Norfolk Park, and the sun is making a weak attempt to be seen. I peel off the snowy scarf, break open the coffee, and raise a chilly toast to dukes and earls, preachers and paupers, communists and capitalists. In the last hour I've seen them all. )

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