In April last year, I attended an evening event entitled “Everything’s Better in the North” where we endured a series of presentations by residents of Sheffield telling other residents of Sheffield about how good Sheffield is. All good people, and if you were one of those presenters (and you know who you are) please do not be offended. But I don’t need to spend two hours of my life being told that everything is going to be alright when it’s abundantly clear that it’s not.
I grew up here. Not in Sheffield itself, but in this area, and I have been coming into the city regularly for my whole life. I didn’t move to live here until 2003 but I have spent almost all of my adult life living and working in the Sheffield city region.
The speaker from Sheffield City Council did the usual thing of claiming Sheffield is well placed, amongst other things, by being next door to the Peak District, and I grew up believing that the Peak District was a special place, but I was wrong.
The Peak District is an artificially-maintained, ruined landscape. Before the Middle Ages, the whole area was forest. In fact, pretty much all of Britain was forest until it was cleared for the purposes of farming, burning, or to build ships for war and colonisation. That might seem like a long time ago but in geological terms, a few hundred years is not even the blink of an eye. In ecological terms, however, it is plenty of time to fuck up our environment.
Moorland is a stunted wilderness, maintained barren by what George Monbiot refers to as the great white plague. That is, sheep. There is nothing natural nor beautiful about grouse moors. They are a barren wasteland, maintained as such as a playground for the undeserving rich and we should not be celebrating that fact.
I, too, love living in Sheffield, but where I fall out of line with many of the people who are active in the creative, business and marketing sectors is that I do not subscribe to what I would characterise as an destructively uncritical positivity-cult.
Somehow, it has become understood that to be critical is to be negative, and anything other than unfettered enthusiasm is disloyal to our home city. But someone needs to talk about the uncomfortable truths and, in the absence of any other willing soul, that someone is me.
These days, Sheffield is a shit-hole. It’s sacrilege to say so, I know, and it’s getting worse. Not all of it, of course, and there is plenty to be proud of, but also there is plenty here that we should objecting to, rather than celebrating.
Our roads are in the worst state of repair as at any point in my lifetime, homelessness is now as commonplace in Sheffield as it used to be as a cliché in London, public services are being eroded at the same time as banks and corporations are making record profits, wages are falling and employment opportunities are reducing. Publicly owned land is being sold off to corporations, and town planning control has been eviscerated to the point where we are witnessing the most poorly planned and brutal urban redevelopment since the 1960s.
Interesting times, and unless we do something about it, there is worse to come.
But now the Conservative government has offered the carrot of funding for The Great Exhibition of the North. The stick, of course, is not critcising the most corrupt and incompetent government in British history.
Having watched the promotional video, representing Sheffield’s bid and featuring University of Sheffield’s Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Chair of Museums Sheffield, Kim Streets and director of Sheffield Theatres Daniel Evans, I understand their dilemma and I sympathise. Although that is no compensation for their vacuous complicity.
Kim Streets enthuses about the “great spaces” available for the exhibition whilst standing in the Millennium Gallery, but fails to mention how many staff have been laid off by Museums Sheffield in the past few years due to austerity-led funding cuts, or the shortened opening hours of these great spaces. Professor Vanessa even has the disingenuous hubris to use the term “Northern Powerhouse”, having fully absorbed and regurgitated the Tory propaganda. She’s a highly-qualified academic and social historian and should know better.
Five million pounds sounds like a lot of money and like it would do the region some good, but it’s not. Not only is it a tiny amount, given the size of “The North”, but if the aim of the exhibition is to celebrate what we have, or what we achieved in the past, it belies the elephant in the region.
That is, what we have lost.
Arts and cultural activities are, mostly, the indulgences of the middle classes, and a large proportion of the population (the same people who regularly receive nothing from arts and cultural funding) will receive nothing of value from money spent on exhibitions, craft classes, seminars and walking tours.
The disenfranchised of Sheffield and “The North” will not be re-enfranchised by the enthusiasms of academics, administrators and curators. Nor will they benefit from the fees paid to accountants, solicitors and technicians, employed to enable such a celebration.
And the so-called “legacy fund” of £15 million for the whole of “The North” is little more than the retirement package of now-retired Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) chief Fred Goodwin (real name, honest).
Maybe some of that money could be used to repair the roads in “The North”, or maybe the PFI corporations charged with the task are restoring them back to their pre-tarmac days by uncovering all the cobbles and setts of yesteryear.
The problem I see with this kind of festival (and I have worked on, and been to, many of them) is that it will be primarily comprised of activities of consumption and distraction, created by middle-class people, for middle-class people and selected & funded by middle-class people. Artisan bread and carbon-neutral circuses.
But we could say no.
Conditions here in “The North” are now worse than at any other point in my lifetime and pretending that everything is going to be alright is a deluded fantasy. Rather than singing “God save the Queen”, we should be singing “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”.
That might seem angry but this is what I grew up on:
For many years, a regular sight in Sheffield city centre was a man carrying a banner, claiming “The End Is Nigh”. He always seemed a little out of place, wielding his melodramatic warning amid the thronging shoppers of Fargate.
But just the other day, walking along The Moor, Pinstone Street and Fargate was like one of the continuous follow-shots from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” (2007), the streets lined with religious zealots, worn-out beggars and passive-aggressive chuggers, every one of them hussling for money and salvation.
The end was nigh, after all, although I didn’t know how nigh, and now I do know, the end is even nigher.
I never expected to be the angriest voice in the village during my own middle ages. But where is the protest? I was a young adult at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s but I do not see any of the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian rebelliousness in young people today, just when we need it most. They seem to be too busy watching “Game of Thrones”, or playing Minecraft, or else whacked on energy drinks, too distracted to recognise what a sterile, debt-ridden dystopia they are growing up in.
There’s plenty of money about. Not in Sheffield, of course, but ask Google, ask Apple, ask Barclays or maybe even ask the Bank of England who conjured £375 billion of funny money in 2009 to support a group of businesses, supposedly too big to fail, whose operational practices are indistinguishable from organised crime.
And they did it again, only a few weeks ago. And it’s not working. Again.
Lloyds Bank who have doubled their profits in the last year but are now laying off 3,000 staff and closing branches. No doubt a few in Sheffield and lots in “The North”.
“Every day, we’re busy helping our millions of customers get to where they want to go in life. Lloyds TSB, for the journey.” Yeah, the journey to the local Job Centre Plus. God bless their crooked hearts.
We now live in a world of post-factual journalism, post-responsibility politics and post-competence institutions.
And this brings me back to the Great Exhibition of the North. The very name betrays a divisive cynicism only conceivable within the distorted mind of a Westminster-based “special adviser” to the most corrupt and destructive government in British history.
I genuinely apologise to anyone in Sheffield that I might have offended by suggesting that their endeavors are futile but, if it’s any consolation, I include my own. Especially in the creative & arts sectors, we have lied to ourselves for years that everything will be alright, and if we do this project or that job, or another exhibition for nothing or very little, it will lead to some sort of deferred future “success”.
But it didn’t, and there is no precedent to think it ever will.
The promised funding is nothing more than a bribe to keep “The North” quiet and those people who have contributed to the application should be ashamed of their complicity in such shallow and cynical manipulation.
And maybe the proposed date of the Great Exhibition of the North, summer 2018, is coincident with the proposed start of fracking operations in “The North”. Theresa May has just announced personal bribes for local residents affected by fracking.
I hardly think that such politically-savvy professionals will have missed the significance of the timing. I wonder if the Great Exhibition of the North will include an exhibit about unconventional gas extraction? Or the increase in homelessness? Or banking fraud? Or the 45% loss of invertebrate species in the past 35 years.
I doubt it.
But an exhibition celebrating all the good things about “Not London” will seem pretty sick when your water has been poisoned and your house condemned due to earthquake-induced subsidence.
If Sheffield wins the bid, I’m sure The Great Exhibition of the North will be about much more than stainless steel, Park Hill and Henderson’s Relish (like most exhibitions in Sheffield are), but I hope the people involved will look beyond the end of their own suburban gardens and consider how to include those in our city and region that are unrepresented by middle-class professionals: those without homes, those without status and those without disposable income.
And in the meantime, I say fuck you, I won’t like what you tell me.