Sheffield is synonymous with steel. The heavy industry which began in Victorian times and continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century has resulted in worldwide fame, not for machines, tools or big guns but, somewhat incongruously, for cutlery. No matter where I travelled in the world, mention of my home town elicited the same delighted response 'knives and forks'.
My earliest memories of 'The Works', as the foundries were known locally, are twofold. Firstly a distinct dislike, culled from my father and grandfather, of the hellish conditions under which men had to work in the great sheds. Long hours in the heat and grime doing heavy, dangerous work left them exhausted, unhealthy and old before their time. It also caused tremendous thirst that resulted in a beer-drinking habit in many of the men and subsequent anguish in many of their women.
My second memory is of dirt exuded by the factory chimneys. Until well into my teens I believed the buildings in Sheffield were built of black stone and was utterly amazed when some enterprising individual sandblasted the town hall to reveal a fairytale of pale cream.
A film of soot covered the whole city. You could taste it in the air especially during the thick grey-yellow fogs that returned without fail each November and filled the doctors' surgeries with victims of bronchitis. The dirt was so endemic that I would never have noticed anything unusual except that we regularly visited relations in Ireland and the journey from Sheffield to the hills of Donegal was a procession from darkness into light.
Every August we left behind the grimy streets and broken-down factories that lined the railway and took the night boat to a more colourful land. The air smelled of things unknown, new-mown hay, farm animals and the open sea. We entered the time warp of the Irish countryside, trains were smaller and slower, people everywhere stood and talked or just watched life happening around them. There were other contrasts too, porters did not need tipping, voices were melodious, faces welcoming and stones, benches and trees clean to touch. Outside my grandmother's whitewashed cottage she would, to my astonishment, throw newly washed sheets across the hedge to dry.
The return journey was of course a reversal. By the time we reached Sheffield station, murky buildings, acrid smells of industrial smoke and the closed faces of busy people withdrawn into their own small worlds had taken their toll. In my childish memory the grime of Sheffield became confused with the grim character of its people. It was as if the soot hovering in the air had permeated their souls causing a cloud to dull their spirit of joy.
But we were the lucky ones. Not even the harsh Yorkshire accents of the porters, their black uniforms echoing the walls, could flatten our spirits completely, for we had glimpsed the bright, fresh world that existed beyond the darkness of industrial England.