Gang culture in Sheffield is nothing new. In the 1920s, when my grandmother was growing up in the city, gangs fought for control of areas of the inner city, and their exploits were a common topic of conversation in the house. The names of the main protagonists – gang leaders and police – were known to everyone. As J P Bean’s book The Sheffield Gang Wars* makes clear, they were seldom out of the papers.
A glance at the mug shots in that book suggests one difference: whereas today’s gang members are typically young, the faces from the past appear older and rough edged – what the press like to describe as ‘hardened criminals’. However, the two men hanged for murder – brothers Wilfred and Lawrence Fowler – were only 23 and 25.
They hit him on the head with a bottle.
They hit him on the head with a child’s scooter.
This is depressingly familiar – and perhaps unsurprising. Motives for recruitment into the Sheffield gangs seem to have been very similar to those of today: social prestige allied to a lack of opportunity. The Mooney and Park Brigade Gangs grew out of the poorer areas of the city at a time when the country was struggling – economically and socially – in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. The chance to associate with powerful men, whose notoriety was enhanced by their control of the lucrative ‘tossing rings’ that had sprung up across the city, drew many young men into gang activity.
Here is a tossing ring under the arches, the ha’pennies spinning
over men’s heads. In the dusk the pikers watch for the cops.
Whistle as the coins drop, watch them scatter.
I don’t intend to reiterate the historical accounts of these events here: those interested can seek out the above book. Instead I would like to offer some thoughts on how the poem – which was after all a response to place as much as to history (or a version of it) – developed.
I was commissioned by Longbarrow Press, along with five other poets, to produce a series of poems relating in some way to the experience of walking.** My interest in local history – both public and personal – initiated the idea that I might track a series of significant journeys made by people through and around Sheffield at different periods in time. Over the course of about a year, I completed five walks and produced five poems, or sequences of poems, which attempted to illuminate both the events and protagonists relating to those journeys, and my experience of tracing their routes, years after. I followed the bombing raids of 1940, the funeral cortege of the Chartist Thomas Holberry, and the Park Brigade Gang; and I retraced the journeys of Richard Marsden, an 18th century ancestor immigrant to the city, and Harold Hindle, a great uncle who spent his last years in the South Yorkshire Asylum at Middlewood.
Followed; retraced. I am perhaps making overambitious claims here. How could I know the exact routes taken by these people? Historical accounts – whether in public archive or family history – are primarily interested in change: departures and destinations. I know that Marsden left Grindleford as a young man and arrived in Fulwood; and that Holberry’s body was returned to his mother in Attercliffe, from whose house it was taken in procession to the General Cemetery. The specifics of those journeys are supposition. One can establish likelihood to some degree: the best used route over Houndkirk Moor, or the main thoroughfares through the city. Yet the physical structures of these terrains have changed to varying degrees – and unless the journey itself might have had some special significance, it is not recorded.
In Princess Street, the arches bricked in, windows blackened,
these last terrace houses are shiftless and feral.
There are other questions, inevitably, relating to direct experience. I was asked in a recent interview*** how, not having experienced the Blitz first hand, I could describe it. My response at the time wasn’t particularly robust: I tried to say that we all share common experiences – of fear or anxiety for example – and that this informed my poetry. In other words, that while we might not have witnessed a specific event, we have an emotional understanding of the world based on those things we have experienced – and poetry, if it is communicating successfully, can therefore enable the reader to inhabit emotionally the experience being addressed. In the end, my reading of some of the poem was the most persuasive element of my argument.
Which brings me back to the journey. What is offered, I think, by the historical privileging of discrete processes – departures, arrivals, murders, hangings – is the gaps this leaves us. While we can set off from one point and arrive at the next, and might (as I did) choose a time of day, or year, or kind of weather, which might encourage an emotional identification with the original road taken and those travellers we are seeking to follow, we also make our own paths: following traces of the past, we move across other, contemporary terrains, inner as well as outer; and it is in the creative process that we can seek to illuminate this dual condition.
In the gun-green glass of Saville House I am a silhouette, a trace.
And this is where we might strike a balance. Walking through the east end of the city, we can find enough features extant from the 1920s to give us a sense of passing through the same space: the river, the bridges, some of the buildings; but there are also differences – in traffic, in the skylines – which are part of the contemporary experience. In this poem, I am as much a presence as the dying man or his vicious attackers. The connection between then and now is an acknowledgement that true things are those which are experienced emotionally – and that these truths are fundamental to human perception. While I didn’t see them ‘hit him on the head with a bottle’, I know how that would feel; and I know that others do, too. All I have to do – all the poetry has to do – is to trust in this, and make the bottle as hard as possible.
Rob Hindle, February 2011
*J P Bean, The Sheffield Gang Wars (D and D Publications, 1981)
**The series of poems, collectively titled ‘Flights and Traverses: 5 Itineraries’, appears in The Footing (Longbarrow Press, 2013)
***BBC Radio Sheffield interview, 11 December 2010