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Hair is falling on to the floor of the Victoria Hall Methodist Church in Sheffield, clipped neatly by volunteer barbers.
“I am a chef not a barber,” 33-year-old Antonio Quarente tells me, flicking stray hairs from the back of a neck. “But I came here one day and saw a massive queue and just one barber. I thought, ‘I can use clippers’.”
Antonio came to the UK when he was 17, fleeing the war in Angola. The man whose hair he is clipping is newly arrived from Syria. “I know what it’s like to come here with nothing,” Antonio says.
After a year on the road, our Wigan Pier Project has reached Sheffield, the start of the final leg of our journey retracing George Orwell’s famous Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell stopped in three Yorkshire towns and cities, starting here in Steel City. With his usual diplomacy, he called Sheffield “by daylight one of the most appalling places I’ve seen”.
We are standing in the Methodist Church where the 1984 and Animal Farm writer came to listen to a clergyman’s “ramblings”. He added, sympathetically, that unemployed men “will put up with almost anything in order to have a warm place where they can sit for a few hours”.
Eighty years on, as winter winds blow outside, Victoria Hall is still a place where the dispossessed can sit in the warm. In 2007, with the support of the city council, Sheffield became the UK's first City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees.
Today, Orwell, who watched fascist leader Oswald Mosley “bamboozle an uneducated audience” 16 miles away at a public hall in Barnsley, would find clergy outnumbered not just by barbers but by clothes-bank helpers, lawyers, night-shelter hosts and other volunteers.
Sarah Eldridge, the centre’s coordinator, says: “Sometimes we see 140 refugees and asylum seekers in a single week. People came to Sheffield through the Kindertransport in 1939 to escape Hitler. The help we are providing here is carrying on the tradition.”
A year later, in 1940, Sheffield was laid waste by a German blitz targeting the city’s factories. It left 600 dead and 40,000 homeless. That was the devastated city Stan Shaw walked into at the age of 15, looking for a job. His father, a ganister miner, had died from TB and Stan had no qualifications after spending most of his childhood in hospital. “You could smell all the work in the air,” he says.
He walked into Ibbersons’ cutlery makers. “One of the men made me his apprentice,” Stan says. “I earned 10 shillings a week and walked the five miles home.” He later became one of the self-employed cutlery makers – ‘little bosses’ or ‘little mesters’ – Orwell had written about.
A modern legacy of high numbers of self employment and small businesses is one of Sheffield’s unique selling points.
“It’s one of the reasons people fall in love with our city, why they move here and stay,” local Labour MP Louise Haigh says. “But it’s also one of the reasons why in 2017, Sheffield was named the low-pay capital of Britain.”
Some 76 years later, at 91, Stan is still working long hours every day in his long grey overalls, making intricate penknives that can sell for up to £1,800. A living, breathing exhibit, he has a workshop at the Kelham Island Museum, where all the materials he uses are reclaimed from Sheffield’s industrial past. When the Queen visited Sheffield in the 1980s, Stan made her a platinum knife. This year, he was awarded a British Empire Medal. “Scruffy cutler gets a medal, that showed them,” he laughs.
Orwell stayed up on a hill opposite the gasworks on Wallace Road, Neepsend, with a view of “lamps twinkling like stars”. His hosts were Gilbert Searle – who was out of work and took Orwell to Victoria Hall – his wife Kate, a cleaner, and their young son Gil. Orwell wrote in his diary he had “seldom met people with more natural decency”.
But even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield. Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas.
We meet Jean Searle, wife of Gil, the little boy who gave up his bed for Orwell. His child’s bed was too small for the 6ft 2in writer and the Searles had to put a chair across the foot to make it longer. “Orwell told them, ‘I’ve slept on worse’,” Jean says.
Gil, who went on to become a scrap-metal boss in Sheffield before he died in 2001, remembered Orwell typing up notes on the kitchen table.
Jean, a former hairdresser who now lives in the Peak District, says his family always spoke about “being part of history”. But they said, “He could go back to his own life, we couldn’t.”
Neepsend is gone now, like a drowned town, levelled for future housing that was never built. Its cobbles and orchards are overgrown and at the top of the hill are rusting gates that once announced a ski slope. Beyond them a community of 30 people now occupy the abandoned land, living in vans and caravans. The council is currently trying to evict them.
“You can see the street where Orwell stayed, it’s right in the middle of here,” says Juna, 22. “In his day, it would have been really busy, all those houses, with trees at the sides.”
Adam, 29, is a landscape gardener who lives with his girlfriend in a converted van fitted with solar panels.
“It’s harder in winter,” Adam admits, “but it’s a nice life and a genuine community. But now they want to regenerate the area and maybe we’re not part of that. If we get evicted I don’t know where we’ll go.”
I left Sheffield at 10.30 this morning and in spite of its being such a frightful place and of the relief of getting back into a comfortable house, I was quite sorry to leave the Searles. I have seldom met people with more natural decency. They were as kind to me as anyone could possibly be and I hope and trust they liked me.
The slums Orwell wrote about were cleared in the 1950s, with hundreds of families moving to the Gleadless Valley estate, a state-of-the-art village built among ancient woodland.
Connie Moore, 81, was living with her husband and their baby in her parents’ attic when the slums were cleared. She moved into a brand new, three-bedroom house. “This place honestly felt like paradise,” she says. “It was just heaven.”
Today, the estate is struggling despite its obvious pride. After decades of Right to Buy, private landlords are in danger of returning the residents of Gleadless Valley to the slums.
Meanwhile the industrial city that survived Hitler is facing up to Blitzkrieg by robot.
“They make as much steel in Sheffield now as they ever did. It just takes about 10 men to do it,” says Dave Ridley, 70, drily.
At a Sheffield University centre named after Bernard Crick, Orwell’s biographer, local young people have been attending workshops organised by the Orwell Youth Prize. Later, they will watch the artist Grayson Perry deliver the first Orwell Lecture in the North in 20 years.
Eighty years after Orwell tried to make the middle classes feel the visceral pain and taste the filthy air of northern industrial Britain, Perry’s subject is social empathy. He diagnoses Brexit Britain with a lack of empathy and a deep fear of changing our minds. The two tribes Orwell saw have been pushed even further apart.
But unlike the silent, grassed-over coalfields elsewhere along Orwell’s route, it’s impossible to leave the city without the sense that Sheffield’s industrial heart is still beating.
Matt Flinders, Professor of Politics and founding director of the Crick Centre, describes the hundreds of tons of foundry hammer still smashing raw steel into shape as the city’s “living, roaring pulse”.
Lou Haigh quotes John Betjeman’s poem on Sheffield. “On back street and alley/ And chemical valley/ Laid out in the light / On ugly and pretty/ Where industry thrives / In this hill-shadowed city/ Of razors and knives.”
Meanwhile, across the city on Kelham Island, Stan works late into the night in his dusty workshop, sharp as the blade he is honing, bending Sheffield’s steel to his will.
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