Our friends in the North

Robert Edric was born in 1956, the year Anthony Eden’s government passed the Clean Air Act to reduce the heavy smogs known as “pea-soupers” – caused largely by coal-burning fires – in which British towns and cities were regularly cloaked. Even so, the Sheffield that emerges in his tense and vivid memoir My Own Worst Enemy is not dissimilar to the one that left George Orwell, in 1936, spluttering in shock: “It seems to me, by daylight, one of the most appalling places I have ever seen.” Edric spent the first six years of his life in the “semi-rural” village of Ecclesfield, on the city’s northern edges, and he evokes it with all the economy and skill of recall of the novelist he would become (his first book, Winter Gardenwon the 1985 James Tait Black Memorial prize):

Along the valley bottom, amid scattered patches of untended woodland and slowly settling slag heaps, there were forges, mills and a coking plant, all of which pumped smoke and steam into the air and which made the sky glow at night. The beating of distant machinery could almost always be heard. A few local pits remained in operation, and it was evident everywhere that this had once been an industrial landscape. Despite the fields and woodlands and reed-fringed ponds, this was still coal and steel country.

Edric’s family lived near the vast Parson Cross estate, which was built on farmland after the First World War, and expanded throughout the 1940s and 1950s as people were moved from dilapidated Victorian housing in Attercliffe and Heeley. In 1962, by then with the addition of Edric’s younger sister and brother, they moved into the proper city, to a cramped two-up two-down on Idsworth Road, near Firth Park, a street that would some thirty years later feature in the film The Full Monty.

By the early 1970s the “smokeless zones” established by law had extended to encompass the whole of Sheffield. The paradox of this industrial, part-rural city, surrounded by the hills and gritstone edges of the Peak District, comes alive in Edric’s book (originally published by the Nottingham-based Shoestring Press). Each short, fluent chapter provides a pen portrait of family members, rituals, happenings, violent enmities and uneasy community ties, under a fug of beer and cigarette smoke: “Almost every adult I knew smoked… twenty to forty cigarettes a day would be considered normal, sixty not unusual”. Edric’s grandfather is glimpsed in his allotment in overalls, but the memoir is dominated by the figure of Edric’s father – a vain, preposterous bully of a man whose ruinously expensive toupée, bought on hire, was his pride and joy. One chapter is splendidly and contemptuously devoted to his jewellery: “he favored heavy gold”, and wouldn’t be seen in public without it. Cufflinks, signet rings, a link bracelet. “In summer the pale blonde hairs of his chest caught in the links of his chains and he endlessly released these.” Edric records earning pocket money by doing a paper round, something he enjoyed and was good at, before his father despitefully prevented him from continuing – even though, as a teenager, he was expected to earn “bed and board”.

While Edric’s matter-of-fact and melancholic book distils a time and place, No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy, The memoir of the journalist, writer and publisher Mark Hodkinson, is effusive, entertaining and sprawling (at times to a confusing degree). Born almost a decade after Edric, Hodkinson grew up in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, in a “modest, boxy house” on an estate. His was an “Every family… everyone watched the telly, lots of telly”. Young Mark, however, was a dreamer and a collector – of beer mats, comics, conkers – and he developed an obsession with reading in a household that only possessed one book (Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, which his father kept on the top of a wardrobe along with his son’s cycling proficiency certificate). Hodkinson estimates that he now owns about 3,500.

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy is a frustrating work. It is too long, and Hodkinson admits himself that he can come across as a bit of a pub bore in his endless evangelism not only for books, but also for music and football. There are selfconscious passages of literary criticism, or perhaps less self-conscious than lacking in self-awareness, but he enthuses memorably about his early reading of The Catcher in the Rye (its “great strength … is that it feels so exceptionally personal. The paradox, then, of the author wilfully hiding himself away is viewed as outright betrayal of his integrity”); and we share in his excitement when he commissions and edits Kenneth Slawenski’s JD Salinger: A Life (2011), and meets contemporary author heroes – among them Hunter Davies, Simon Armitage and Alan Sillitoe. (Sillitoe, then just turned eighty, had “inky rapt eyes that flashed.”) Among writers, Virginia Woolf seems alone to represent “womankind.” Yet every time the book balls, Hodkinson comes up with another diverting and often moving segue. A beloved grandfather, who seems to have had bipolar disorder, flits in and out of the narrative like a revenant; In one passage we read of the strange behavior he started to exhibit soon after he married Hodkinson’s grandmother. “He drew on the wedding photographs. On the wide-angle shot of the assembly outside the church he daubed a pair of horns on his head and an arrow pointing down at his feet.” Hodkinson’s parents were not unkind, as Edric’s father was; but there were misunderstandings. When Hodkinson desperately needed glasses, his mother thought he was “showing off”.

Edric passed the eleven-plus and went to grammar school. His memoir ends in 1974, when he left Sheffield for university in Hull; he was the first in his family to go on to higher education. Hodkinson’s rattles on into a different era, of recession, unemployment, and underachievement. He went to a secondary modern, and his evocation of those years, witty and compassionate, is one of the best parts of his book. Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) and Ken Loach’s film adaptation, Kes (1969), are ingrained in the psyche of the north: the small unloved boy, his nasty older brother and his pet kestrel. Their spirit imbues My Own Worst Enemy, but it is Hodkinson who explicitly nails it: “Billy Casper, the book’s protagonist, was the definitive emblem of a ragged generation. Everybody knew a Casper – half-boy, half-pigeon, disowned by his family and his school, left to hobble through life in a ten-bob anorak and half-mast trousers.”

One of the Caspers Hodkinson knew took his own life in the mid-1980s. In the note he left for his mother, read out at the inquest, he wrote that he was “fed up with not having a job and feeling like I can’t get on properly with life like everyone else”. Forty years on, in an era of food banks and cuts to universal credit, not to mention renewed concern about the quality of the air we breathe, it seems that Billy Casper has never gone away.

Catherine Taylor is editor of The Book of Sheffield: A city in short fiction2019. The Stirringsher memoir of the city, will be published in 2023

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