joanne lee


edging out

This text and image were commissioned to appear in *periphery, a publication developed by Great Yarmouth based YH485 Press (Aaron Juneau, Jonathan Watts & Harriet Mitchell)

As a kid I had no conception of being on the edge, even though the area in which I was born and raised was marketed by the local tourist board as ‘England’s last wilderness’: so far as my family and I were concerned, this was the exact centre of the known universe. It was only when I experienced the obligatory discontents of adolescence that I began to realise just how remote I was from what others defined as culture and to wonder about creating a life elsewhere. I chose to move to Sheffield, England’s fourth city and thus, I thought, a place that would be fully urban. However, my relocation coincided with a powerful recession, so that what had once been an industrial giant now lay sleeping: vast areas of north and east Sheffield were derelict, and behind the facades of once productive works there lay only crushed brick and dense thickets of buddleia, goldenrod and willow herb. In some places grasses and wild flowers had colonised the thin soils of waste lots, forming curious urban doubles for the hay meadows I’d known since childhood.

The pale vacancies on the A-Z street plan intrigued me; the very fabric of the city seemed perforated. It was, on the face of it, a melancholy sight, evocative of medical scans showing damaged organs, or, more prosaically, the remnants of a moth eaten sweater… At that time it was possible to wander such sites at will: these areas were without value to their owners and as a result were often poorly secured. Scrambling through gaps in fences or over crumbling walls, once inside the map’s blank sections, it was hard to tell quite where they started or finished; their edges were so blurred by collapse and vegetative growth that scale became uncertain. One could easily lose oneself – literally and imaginatively. Besides derelict factories and foundries, I once discovered an abandoned cemetery overcome by trees; a scene straight out of a Friedrich painting, the city felt unmoored in time. It was a little like finding oneself in a futuristic fantasy, something akin to Richard Jeffries’ Victorian novel After London, in which the city has rendered back to nature, so it was fitting that Sheffield twice provided the location for post-apocalyptic film dramas.

Having sought a move to the centre, I found myself right back on the periphery, living in a city that wasn’t urban at all. As a result I was able to remember what my childhood self had known: that the peripheral is a site where imagination can flourish. Across the eighteen years I lived there, I discovered how edges formed the core of Sheffield - aptly enough for a place manufacturing blades of various sorts and with a historical propensity for radicalism. It resonates in city place names - Nether Edge, Brincliffe Edge, Tapton Edge, Skye Edge: although many of the blanks have gradually been filled by redevelopment, this last location remains ‘empty’ on the map. Skye Edge is a roughly grassed hilltop ringed by council housing and pigeon lofts, which offers a panoramic view out to the city’s blurred perimeter. I find it potent that this open and literally ‘edgy’ area (it provides the stage for a certain amount of ‘anti-social behaviour’) occupies the exact centre of the geographical city, pushing the retail streets askew. It suggests that despite planners’ attempts to make Sheffield a place like any other, there is still space to dream alternative and unsanctioned realities.