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A Magazine for Sheffield

Superhero: Saving the Parallel City

For Now Then’s tenth birthday, I decided to rifle through the various pieces I’ve written over seven of those years, exploring the fringe lands between fact and fiction. I expected to find common threads in my take on Sheffield itself. Instead I found running themes of superheroes, time travel, and the fragility of what we assume to be permanent. This article is no exception. Maybe this just makes me a fantasist, grabbing any chance I can to escape into a dream world. Or maybe I just don’t trust what I see, and suspect that some alternative reality is hidden in plain sight. That last part is probably true. Some people think it’s OK to sell other humans into prostitution, or kill elephants just for their tusks, so they must see the world through a very different lens to mine. I can’t be 100% sure they’re wrong and I’m right, though it seems likely. Yet there are differences that I’m less complacent about, all around me in the street. Sheffield is breathtakingly beautiful and unfathomably ugly. Some people here are stinking rich, others are cripplingly poor. A friend visiting me last week commented on how healthy all the older people seemed, bounding along in their padded jackets and hiking boots. She was shocked when I said we also have some of the worst obesity and long-term illness in the UK. I remember seeing an empty bottle of Tesco Value Gin abandoned in a shop doorway in Neepsend, with a segment of lemon shoved in the neck. There was a down-and-out who still had pride and standards. That’s a scene that sparks a story, one of the countless stories a city is made of. Let’s make it a man and let’s call him George. He had inherited wealth, a rambling old house in Nether Edge, and two live-in staff. One night his house burned down and it wasn’t insured. One of his staff, a Malaysian woman with three kids back home, lost her life saving his. He sent what remained of his money to the Malaysian family to assuage his guilt, but he couldn’t find work and ended up on the street. Wouldn’t you turn to drink, and shoplifting for lemons, if you were in George’s shoes? I would. Maybe it’s unusual to crash from such a height. But for every sad story there’s an inspiring one, like Jemima, who managed to get a bunch of qualifications while she was bringing up her son alone, got a good job and became a mentor for other single mothers who’d flunked school. No doubt George and Jemima would both have wished to wind back the clock, to un-make their past mistakes, but that’s not time travel – that’s just regret. Real time travel is experiencing something from the past or the future. The future has always been a dystopian hell because we project our fears onto it, but it needn’t be so. In the last ten years, Sheffield has got both better and worse, simultaneously, and it has also stayed the same. Kelham Island has become trendy, while Devonshire Street is battling chain eateries that threaten to price out the independent businesses. We’ve celebrated the Women of Steel, and ruined our reputation as the greenest city by spectacularly misjudging public attitude to street trees. I’m proud and ashamed of my city all at once and I see no contradiction there. Batman wouldn’t have tried to clean up Gotham City if he hadn’t loved it, for all its flaws. Sheffield’s superhero is an androgynous, hang-gliding nurse, who splits her spare time between her electro post-punk band and working at the soup kitchen. The wrongs of the place drive her on and its beauty resides in the glint in her eye. If you think me a fantasist, I make no apology. )

Next article in issue 121

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