September 12, 2011, by Jon McGregor
On Pulp, Sheffield, and learning a trade
This article was originally written for the Swiss newspaper NZZ, and translated into German. Here’s the original.
“At the age of twenty-two, newly graduated and without a clear plan in life, I moved to Sheffield. It wasn’t a city I knew well, and there was no particular reason to move there other than that I knew someone with a room to spare. I was also a big fan of the band Pulp, and their song Sheffield: Sex City had led me to believe that the city held a promise of sorts.
I’d been listening to Pulp for five years by then, and was still catching up on the fifteen years they’d been making their music. More than any writer I’d come across at that point, the lyrics of Jarvis Cocker were what had made me want to tell stories (and, for a brief time, wear corduroy smoking-jackets). His songs were tales of a world I recognised; a world of cheap cigarettes and threadbare sofas, park benches, ‘crumbling concrete bus shelters’, and boys who didn’t always get the girl. There was also an overlap, for me at least, between Jarvis Cocker and Ian McEwan; I’d first heard McEwan’sLast Day of Summer read on the radio by Cocker, and, later, McEwan’s Conversation with a Cupboard Man became inextricably linked with the Pulp song Babies, wherein a boy hides in a wardrobe to listen to his friend’s sister having sex. So, from the outset, I thought of Pulp’s music in literary terms.
But more than that, I took Pulp’s lengthy unrewarded apprenticeship in the shadows of the music business as an inspiration. I wanted to write, and somewhere in a steely corner of my heart I believed I could, but I assumed it would take years of hard grind and pink rejection slips before anything happened. I’d heard the stories of Pulp’s early years – living in abandoned warehouses, playing gigs in sticky-carpeted pubs, falling out of windows, splitting up and reforming, wearing charity-shop clothes, forging a self-belief through those years of not being heard. And when I moved to my tiny mis-shapen room in Sheffield, and took whatever work I could find to pay the rent, and started writing stories, I was, I hoped, following that same path.
I signed up with an employment agency, and travelled all over Sheffield to find temporary jobs in bakeries and warehouses and sorting offices, through the districts name-checked in the introduction to Sheffield: Sex City. (‘Shalesmoor, Wombwell, Catcliffe, Brincliffe, Attercliffe, Eccleshall.’) The title of the song was partly a joke, of course; a play on Sheffield’s actual reputation as the steel city, a reputation which it still just about warranted. Out in Tinsley, towards the motorway and the wastegrounds of the Don Valley, the streets still narrowed to canyons between towering buildings which were joined overhead by walkways and pipeworks, the evening sky lit up by flashes of sparking fire. Through open doorways, you could still see, in halls the size of aircraft hangars, steel being rolled and pressed, cut into beams or spun into wire. And in other parts of town they were still making things from that steel: cutlery, craft knives, scissors, tankards, toecaps, jewellery, machine-parts, ball-bearings. There are still, today, small workshops where people who’ve inherited generations of skills and knowledge forge, grind, hone and temper some of the best steel-work available anywhere in the world. Glimpsing them through open doorways as I walked home from a long shift of packing bread rolls into crates, listening to Pulp on a cassette walkman and thinking about a story I was working on, I would sometimes wonder about getting a proper job.
I never did, of course. In fact, by the time I left Sheffield, barely a year after I’d arrived, I’d more or less given up working altogether. Writing was the thing I wanted to learn to do, and the best way I could find of serving my apprenticeship was to read as much as I could, write as much as I could, walk around as much as I could, listen in to people’s conversations and peek through windows and sit around and watch and speculate just as much as I possibly could. Working any more than I needed to only got in the way.
Sheffield gave me the music of Pulp – or did the music of Pulp give me Sheffield? – and it gave me a cheap place to live, steep streets packed tight with stories, songs seeping out of pub doorways, and places to go and people to meet while I figured out how to write.
And as for the promise offered by the song which had first lured me to Sheffield? That would be telling.”
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