There’s a joke around here: father and son are sitting on a hillside looking over rolling fields. Father turns to son and says “Of course, son, when I were a lad, all this were factories”
By the site of Blackburn Meadows nature reserve, on the far side of Meadowhall, there used to be a steelworks – a complex of buildings strewn around a gargantuan black shed – shaped simply, like a monopoly house, but as big as an aircraft carrier.
These vast black hulks were everywhere here, each fed from pylons bearing bloated bundles of cable that kept furnaces glowing, sinister and orange under winter skies.
Long on both time and curiosity, my pal, Tanky, and I used to traipse down there from his house in Rotherham. We’d descend: past gently creaking piles of scrapped cars and the squat shell of a Victorian building – filled with machinery twisted into crazy shapes in fires long doused – and we’d cross the canal to the wasteland beyond.
Even then, the waterways were becoming something more bucolic than the city’s reputation promised. There’s another local joke – an old cartoon in the Sheffield Star – an environmental inspector jauntily strolling atop the Don’s rank, solidified surface, chirping: “it’s much cleaner than last year”. By the early nineties, we were watching pike stalking in its shallows.
I guess the site had been empty for about ten years – unfenced, unprotected, abandoned – acre upon acre in which you could wander at leisure. There were dozens of sites like this from Sheffield and all along the Don Valley. This is not a political piece but, if you lived in London then, I defy you to imagine the scale of the dereliction here.
So on long, hot summer afternoons, Tanky, his son Anand and I would explore. All around the black hall and its cool, dim interior, shoulder-high willow herb ruptured the simmering concrete roads. It was all largely intact then – even the scrap dealers had not yet robbed it bare. I remember a piece of graffiti: “Meeting for one last drink. 8.30 in the pub” neatly written, in pencil, on one office wall.
Like the child we accompanied, we too would mess about with the detritus that lay everywhere. Not breaking, not destroying – just playing and exploring. I remember laughing and laughing – a brief but timeless, joyful dystopia.
Come the following summer, the clearing of the site had begun and the titan was on its knees. Still unfenced, the building’s vertical supports had been blown and the immense roof had buckled. Inside, the stairwells and gantries hanging from roof trusses were twisted through the space in lunatic perspective. Fire doors gaped horizontally over the great black void. I doubt, if not intended, it could be classed as art. But there it was: as bleak as Totes Meer; far more surreal than the Persistence of Memory and amply big enough to knock the turbine hall into a cocked hat – a concept piece in steel, asbestos, soot and history.
I wish I’d drawn it – I think I tried.
Outside, I scooped up a skein of pylon cable, lying on the ground, and left for home. I never went back.
The stiff, pliable wires followed me over the next two decades, from college to studio to studio to shed to shed. Armed with mole-grips and pliers, I have used it to make all sorts: sculptures of climbers; Calder-style mobiles; a funky, octopoidal lampshade in a desperate student hovel in Manchester; sconces to illuminate a summer’s evening with dozens of tiny lights; a pair of giant alien hands and somewhere, in a couple of offices in London, there are trophies whose armatures are made of it.
This weekend, whilst sparrows bickered and bees hummed outside my shed door, I made costumes for a school theatre production and finally used the last few strands.
As part of the city’s great recreation, there are plans to repurpose Sheffield’s enormous, redundant power network, to use it to power datacentres and host a small corner of the Internet.
I need more wire.
SN, July 2013
About the Artists
I referenced a few – here’s a bit more about each (from artsy.net).