Revisiting the Central Library, Sheffield

I was 20 years old, touching 21.

Back then, I had floppy, wavy hair, cut shorter at the back, left long and deliberately dishevelled at the front. It was the beginnings of a bob that I’d begin to grow out that Summer. In those heady days, I wore just one, solitary pair of battered, brown DM shoes, perpetually accompanied by baggy 501s. I favoured plain, loose fitting tee-shirts, under a creamy, beige oversized hoodie – bought once, worn a thousand times over.

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This year, this time, was the tail-end of my arts degree, of living and learning about life in Newcastle Upon Tyne. My degree was mostly practical (Izzy would call it a ‘mickey mouse degree’) but that, would occasionally, involve writing essays. These assignments were mostly on social theory and the arts, and we were actively encouraged to write about aspects of arts and culture that we felt, as young, politically and socially minded students were relevant. It was a time of ‘relevance’. It was, after all, the 80s.

This time, February/March 1988, it was the biggy – my end of third year dissertation. The culmination of at least a year of ‘community arts practice’ (don’t ask) and of three whole years spent on a degree when there were degrees that allowed you to soul search and find the references for what you thought was relevant. And when they were paid for by the Government.

However, stuck in my upon Tyne, Summerhill Terrace student house, I was perpetually, never-endingly cold. It was not proving a good place to sit and write. And the Newcastle Poly library just didn’t cut it for me (I now blame the brutalist 60s concrete for this cognitive dissonance). So I decided, in order to get the job done, to get this final furlong finished, and typed up by my mum, I needed to return home to Sheffield, for a few precious weeks of solitary confinement. The quiet suburbia of my family home and the loft room that, through my teenage years I called my own, would be the perfect place to put the damn dissertation to bed.

At first, I made progress, don’t get me wrong. I laid out all my research material on the floor around me. I organised and prioritised my reference papers and images (it was about photography, but again, let’s leave it at that). I scribbled pencil notes and I constructed my thinking. But, I had to admit, I found myself spending more time staring out of the loft room window, watching suburban life pass by beneath me, than clocking up the required word count.

So, one day, I gathered all my papers together and I caught the bus into town. I climbed the stone stairs of Sheffield’s central library on Surrey Street, found a seat at a large, communal table, and spread myself out.

The hushed aroma of book shelves and bound journals must have helped. The lofty ambitions of fellow students, alluding to the Victorian ceilings of the municipal library must also have helped. And the fact that I was in public, that I couldn’t put my feet up on the desk, or start drawing, or fidgeting , or yawning, also contributed, alot.

FYI, I got a First. We’re a family of Firsts. Izzy, as I made it clear to her, on numerous occasions, had a lot to live up to, as she started her degree.

And now, I’m 53, touching 54.

It’s February 2019, and I find myself again, needing a place to concentrate, needing somewhere to go to get the job done.

Now, I need to bring 3 years of thinking and rethinking, 3 years of ruminating, of intense researching, followed by months of stalling and avoiding. 3 years of deep, deep soul searching. 3 years of missing and longing and crying. 3 years, all to bear, on one solitary, well-rounded, rational, considered statement – preferably no more than a page of A4, ideally no more than 2.

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So later this week, I’m going to catch the bus into town again. I’m going to climb the stone stairs to Sheffield’s central library on Surrey Street, for the first time since I was 21.   I’ll pull out the beige folders wrapped with rubber bands, and lay out the evidence and the reports, some 200 odd pages.

And I’m going to fire up my Macbook, and I’m going to begin to write.

For Beth and Izzy, forever young.

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