'I was ready to turn bad, like that thin lass from Fame in Footloose'
Growing up in 1980s Sheffield
By Rachel Genn
The author has written two novels: The Cure (2011) and What You Could Have Won (2020). She grew up between Arbourthorne and Gleadless and still lives in Sheffield. She is currently re-imagining her teenage years.
Back when I was holier, in about 1981, I had picked up a carefully-curated stamp collection at a well-to-do jumble sale in Dore and immediately felt I’d hit the ground running. A real Tory feeling, and it set a bad precedent for short-cuts that would mess with my future motivation and authenticity. Aunty Joan would take me for more stamps to a market stall that sold them, alongside coins, in country-labelled tubs. You didn’t have to so much as receive a letter. The next plot along was buttons in tubes with a sample button held by wire to every lid. Then mint rock and Yorkshire mix with scoops the colour of aniseed balls, scuffed to white.
Being a butcher’s daughter, I was used to the smell of clammy suet from the abattoir. I had never been one of these Saturday morning children begging not to go down the ramp into the belly of the The Castle fish market; those toddlers at the lip of it, baulking at the first whiff, either digging in heels or collapsing. I hadn’t read Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall yet but it would be these kids I would think of when eventually I did.
My mum’s sister was the one who insisted on us spending Saturdays down there. Walking with a caliper, Aunty Joan used any accompanying child as a crutch and so to get through the market I had to endure a yoked lumbering without breathing until we got to a pie and pea place. Cutting into the pie; a packed mince lump cowering under the crust, I could breath in the steam, calmer now, knowing the exit to Castlegate was close at hand.
In 1985, my cousin Marie got me the job at K&D,* a record stall which stood like the square prow of an ugly trawler at the mouth of the Castle Market. The records were wedged tight along the back wall — arranged first by label then by surname in boxed shelves — LPs; 12 inches; then singles, with barely a yard between the shelves and the counter we worked behind. Facing the public were stepped racks for browsers, and I noted the three rammed slots of Humperdinck down H.
Pensioners would hand you an Acker Bilk sleeve and you’d cheerfully fill it with a record. I mean, I still read at church on Sundays so I didn’t really feel qualified to be in the music business but once behind that counter, I was ready to turn bad, like that thin lass from Fame in Footloose.
Working in a record shop, our Marie was the best DJ on the Batemoor and when everybody came back to theirs from The Jordo pub on a Sunday night she would be playing Linton Kwesi Johnson. Roxie and Scamp would start their vibrato Yorkie chorus, straining at the neighbours and strangers arriving in that adorable conga of kicking out time. If we stayed at Aunty Pat’s, there weren’t many Mondays we made it in. The record player switched to Barry Manilow and was on the floor and I think a neighbour once put her stiletto through someone’s foot. My sister says I have asked her twice if this happened.
I write what I can’t get over and once, when the boss showed up to pick up the float, I got done for playing Scritti Politti. I thought Saturday staff could play what they wanted, so had made free with the shop’s one deck to play some Commodores or Rose Royce or Princess’s Say I’m Your Number One (which I tried to smuggle up the charts via the Gallup machine). But only the top 10 were allowed and the repetition got to me so that one Saturday after the non-stop chirp of “Frankie” by Sister Sledge, I dropped change into a granny’s hand saying “Thankie.”
Sheffield had good records before Warp you know, and after some pointed suggestions from me to the boss, there was a time when DJs could get imports from Aldine Court; K&D’s sister record shop in an alley off High Street, where I would go to cover people’s dinner breaks and pretend I owned the place. For my dinner I’d have a potted meat on white; I never entertained fish market fare, even the frilly lemon-striped cockles on a tiny metal plate. Or the tripe in strips, the vinegar forced into a fat brown cone in one corner of a plastic bag then lobbed.
The closest cafe to K&D had railings marking out its terrace and did Cheshire cheese on white uncut toast topped with tinned tomato and white pepper. Sally Lunn buns nosed icing against the glass of the cabinet while I ate this, followed by smoking my first embo numero uno of the day. Early morning weekdays, I came to this cafe with a woman who had a yellow beehive. Together we mopped the concrete corridor under the fruiterer’s Bradshaw’s in Fitzalan Square and if ever I was early she’d ask, “Has he tried to back scuttle you?” I blame her for my obsession with Kim Woodburn.
K&D stood between Harrington’s Menswear and the entrance to the market so standing in the record shop you could feel like a figurehead in the fish market’s frosty crosswinds. Catering for teenagers, Harrington’s speciality brand names crowded the racks: Stay Press trousers and Y-cardigans were a staple, but there was a spate of daft names for cheaper brands of jeans, like ‘Godric’ (which patrons called Go Dereks) or ‘Karibou baggies’. The owner, Brian, ran a local ad where he had a drawn-on crown and Harrington’s had a mezzanine-level changing room which I hear was great if you were robbing. Now, when you search for photos of the place, it looks like an elaborate on-boarding set-up for a VR fashion experience.
After a while, catering to the Rat Pack fans got to be hard work; I was scared of getting infected with back-datedness. A boy from school took up sentry at a pillar between us and Harrington’s to smoke a pipe and stare at me and I had to pretend Dean Martin wasn’t playing. And when I thought my local bus-driver asking for “The Power of Love” was a Frankie Goes to Hollywood fan! That swell that comes from a sudden understanding of the limitlessness to tastes! Then the comedown when I realised it was the Jennifer Rush track of the same name — with its wheedling chorus (“Cause I'm your lady/And you are my man/”) — they wanted, all because they needed to get out of some kind of shit at home.
Even Saturdays had their lulls and in the markets, standing at our stalls, we workers had to believe in each retail plot as a thing in itself, but in the quieter late afternoon it was harder to ignore the shivery idea of the deep and the ramp down into it. Like the girl whistling in the dark to keep her spirits up, I forced myself to recognise how each stall had its own sense of theatre, each one a circumscribed play of civilisation. Look at the little shops performing themselves, I think now. The jewellers directly across had a Georgian-style window set in some ply, and behind it glittered the tiniest diamonds and the brassiest gold. Old gold was what we wanted in 1985 and the factory shine on a new belcher bracelet was spied at 40 paces. When my goodness wore off, I would get involved in rucks where the battlecry was “Hold me gold.”
Aunty Joan went down in the fish market more than once. You only had seconds to save yourself when you felt her going, there were the gutters you see, shutter grips and that. I still feel in my body those arcs of imminence, moments of Timber! It could be anything. Cabbage leaves, whelks, lethal for anyone, — let alone a stiff angled caliper through a cuban heel, whose purchase on tiles was never brilliant. Add to this your hand in her awkward clawed grip, your wrist straining toward the floor in counterweight to her pronounced limp. You had to, in that split second of sacrifice just watch her fold like a cooling tower. Then time got real again and a Savoy leaf would skitter along the tiles and she’d be on her good knee but already getting up, declaring I’m lame! to just me. Assuring everyone she was alright when no-one was asking.
*In my most recent book, the record label that signs Astrid is E&I, which is named after my own children, just as K&D took its name from a previous owner’s children (Katie & Daniel).
(Thanks to Heidi James for reminding me of “Hold me gold.”)