Review: The Stirrings, Catherine Taylor

Published in The Telegraph on July 16, 2023

In the mid-1800s, Sheffield’s success as the Steel City was built on long hours and unsafe working conditions. This led to the Outrages, also known as the Stirrings: union militants resorted to violent protest, blowing up factories and murdering employers, a period immortalised in Alan Cullen’s 1966 musical, The Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday Night.

From the latter, Catherine Taylor takes the name for her “memoir in Northern time”, about growing up in Sheffield in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a smart insider nod to how grounded this critic and ex-publisher’s first book is in its locale.

For those who know and love Sheffield – this resident included – there’s pleasure in the specificity of Taylor’s account, from childhood outings to Padley Gorge and Stanage Edge to hanging around the chapel in the General Cemetery, or walking up Highcliffe Road, “one of the steepest in Sheffield, a city composed of challenging hill starts.” She stokes nostalgia for long-gone landmarks or businesses, such as the Egg-Box building, Cole Brothers department store, or The Limit nightclub. 

There’s some enjoyably insouciant name-dropping, too: Taylor served Philip Oakey of The Human League as a regular in her mother’s bookshop, and went to early Pulp gigs because Jarvis Cocker’s cousin was in her year at school. She was even an extra in Barry Hines’s infamously bleak 1984 film Threads, about a nuclear bomb dropping on Sheffield.

But using The Stirrings as a title is also an indicator of how braided together the personal and political will be throughout Taylor’s book – as well as suggesting the murky atmosphere she evokes. She can be amusingly wry about her youthful propensity for nihilism and moody posing – she claims she was cast in Threads thanks to her “ability to look authentically depressed”. Yet as a writer, she retains a taste for gloomy portents and ominous symbols, often delivering a close-up intensity characteristic of the way we remember childhood. A building normally submerged within the Ladybower reservoir is revealed during the drought of 1976, and “resembled a warning finger, pointing towards something I wasn’t yet able to see” – her father abandoning the family – while the Christmas after he leaves, glass tree-decorations “twinkled painfully” like “little icicles of grief”.

Foreboding is also fostered in the way Taylor yokes together accounts of dark news-stories, especially about violence against women, with darker times in Taylor’s own life (of which there are many). Her teenage years are clouded by an increasingly dysfunctional relationship with her father, but also by the lurking threat of the Yorkshire Ripper, who was finally apprehended on the tree-lined street directly behind Taylor’s school. “The killings”, she writes, “began when we were small children, so that we have grown up alongside them.”

These implied elisions can, just occasionally, feel tastelessly stretched, as in the suggestion that in “the years I did not see my father, it was as if he had been replaced by a shadow figure [of the Ripper]”. But mostly Taylor moves nimbly between era-defining events and her own coming-of-age story. And she is writing, of course, about a period in which politics was sharply divided. Given that the same police force was implicated in both the Battle of Orgreave and the Hillsborough disaster within five years, living in South Yorkshire must have come to feel like having had a ringside seat for a shameful chapter of British history.

But it isn’t all gloom. Taylor writes about the jubilance and bravery within the female-led solidarity of Greenham Common and the Women Against Pit Closures protesters. And how glorious is this as a time-and-place establishing chapter-opener? “Halfway through the Second Summer of Love, I lost my last milk tooth. It fell into the mouth of a stranger I’d been kissing in one of the foetid nightclubs I frequented, a baby incisor mistaken for a Disco Biscuit…”

Taylor pithily suggests early on that “any excavator of personal history must assume the role of private investigator into their own life”. Her findings are presented with both poetry and wit: The Stirrings is a vivid chronicle of a young woman’s journey into adulthood, and an equally vivid portrait of a place and moment in time.

Where next?