Personal Finance

My summer of cutlery: how packing Sheffield steel checked my privilege | Catherine Taylor

What is it about a place that, once you have left it, draws you back, however unwillingly? Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1989, the so-called second summer of love, I had completed my first year at university and dragged myself and my spider plant back home to Sheffield, both of us exhausted and a little less euphoric than when we had set off.

Gone, seemingly, were the drizzly, cold summers of the recent past: by July, 1989 seemed to be on the same path as the drought of 1976. It was a year of upheaval: the year my personal nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, would make a historic speech on climate change to the UN, only the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. That summer, the US rock giants REM’s “eco-rage” album Green dominated the airwaves, along with the little-known Manchester indie band the Stone Roses, who a couple of months earlier had released their eponymous debut.

My best friend had decamped to a villa in Portugal with a group he’d met at Cambridge. We were splitting, splintering apart. Back in Sheffield, I was broke: my next student grant was due in the autumn. Despite getting top results in my end-of-year exams I was also considering dropping out of university, a plan I had confided to precisely no one.

My mother, a hardworking single parent, was not particularly sympathetic to my claims there were no jobs, and duly circled the ads in the Sheffield Telegraph. Which was how I came to work at one of the last stainless-steel cutlery factories to survive Sheffield’s long post-industrial slump.

I met three other students the first morning in the factory, temps clocking in among the regulars for our inaugural, inept shift. We fell upon each other like world-weary co-conspirators. The hours were long. The factory was unbearably hot, stinking of tar and metal, the workforce mainly female, apart from the shift managers (go figure). The one non-white worker, a quiet Asian woman in her 30s who didn’t speak much English, was the target of relentless, racist “teasing” from the others, as was my friend C, who was Italian.

That first morning I cut my finger deeply on a serrated knife edge, fainted and was sent off for a tetanus jab, the first of several. To everyone’s surprise, I went back again the next day, and every day after that. After the week’s work I would spend Saturday nights clubbing with my new friends. The Limit on West Street was the legendary basement club where the B52s made their first-ever UK appearance, Joy Division played a seminal set in 1979 and, it was rumoured, Pink Floyd had once turned up for a surprise gig. It was to remain open for only another 18 months. We made the most of it, but its time had passed. The Leadmill, near the railway station, was the place to be seen now.

Mondays we were back in the cutlery factory for 8am, packing knives into resistant blocks that roamed the conveyer belt, my own precarious pile growing higher and higher, glinting in the sun’s arrival through the tiny windows. But I became accustomed, even addicted, to it as the others dropped out or went Interrailing: discovering that I could be equally as absorbed in manual tasks as in my supposed comfort zone of books.

I can still conjure up the half-light of the factory, the bronze-coloured tea in the makeshift canteen, the crackling pages of The Sun, the endless smoking and swearing, the ghoulish tales of fingers accidentally lopped off by the machines, the 10 crisp £10 notes in a brown envelope at the end of each week. There was a rhythm and a satisfaction to finally being able to assemble a knife block in the required time, the fact that my small fingers, whose greatest achievement until now had been to stretch an octave on the piano, were acclimatising themselves to different capabilities; and, above all, to win begrudging acceptance from our supervisor. It also made me wake up to my fanciful, middle-class, leftwing notions of working life and to realise I was lucky to have been given the opportunities I had.

Disaffected with the city in which I had grown up, with my only impulse to turn my back on it once I could, I had found another side to it: friendships I would not have made otherwise, a new respect for work that was not purely cerebral. I suspect my astute mother, who, like my father, had come from a background lacking in any kind of material privilege, and for whom education had been a lifeline, had intended to provoke exactly this reaction when she marked that advertisement for me in the paper.

Catherine Taylor is editor of The Book of Sheffield, new short stories about the city to be published by Comma Press on 24 October


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