Storying Sheffield


A row of small identical terraced houses on a slant, you could be anywhere in Sheffield. Inside the walls were blank above a clean cream coloured carpet, with two sofas facing a wooden coffee table at the centre. We had already slipped our shoes off outside and crowded in to the living room. Three generations in one place, the grandmother and matriarch of the family sat down in layered skirts with intent eyes. I’m the same age as her daughter, who has two children; they laugh having thought I was far younger. No one introduces themselves as Romani, yet one of the children still shouts out, “No! We are Roma!” I felt struck by their open faces, engaged and confident, I suppose they have less need for distractions with their expansive families. Still, my pens become the main source of entertainment and scribbling away in my notebook I learn I am a ‘gadzo’ (a non-Romani). The women don’t speak much as they are not as fluent in English as the men, who speak of work, whilst the eldest granddaughter tells me English is her favourite subject. She’s beautiful, wearing flower earrings and definitely the most perceptive person in the room. She watches everyone with a slight knowing smile; as the translator in the family she has been given the power of language. The son-in-law, who on first impressions felt quite imposing, turned out to be surprisingly shy. As a young woman I have learnt to be apprehensive when first meeting men, yet here amongst this family I have never felt uncomfortable. Slipping on his glasses he showed me where they migrated from. I browsed the fragmented landscape they grew up in in Eastern Europe, eventually focusing in on a rural village – there won’t have been much traffic there. The locals here allegedly complain because the children are always out playing on the main road. I look up to see a boy’s scooter being taken off him, making too much of a racket inside. Back to Google Earth and its inherent juxtapositions; a modern concrete block and a burnished church stand along a dirt road framed by a vast waving landscape. I’m struck not by the difference, but instead by the similarities. Walk to the top of any hill in Sheffield and look out to see layers of history awkwardly puzzled together. Now find another lens and move through its streets, as if through a city to which you will always be an outsider. Sheffield is in a constant state of ebb and flow giving life to many stories, yet for some a city can come to represent the boundaries of their narratives. Perhaps by adjusting the ways in which we tell stories, allowing us to re-map and transmute our memories, people can come close to a form of control over their own lives.

Colombine Neal

Excerpted from Gradients. Glimpses of Sheffield