Rose George

Violence overshadowed my Yorkshire childhood

Catherine Taylor describes her anxiety growing up in Sheffield against an ‘uneasy backdrop’ of picketing miners, the Hillsborough disaster and a serial killer on the loose

Fear of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, overshadowed much of Catherine Taylor’s childhood. [Getty Images]

We might be twins, Catherine Taylor and I. We were both girls growing up in Yorkshire in the same decades – I in the West Riding (where an alley is a ‘ginnel’), her in the south (where it’s a ‘gennel’). We are children of the Yorkshire Ripper years, conditioned to be constantly scared of the murderer, the dark, and our independence. We were both fatherless too young – mine dead, hers departed to another household; and we both had strong mothers keeping the remaining family afloat and forced to take in lodgers – in our case, Polish, German and French, in hers, Japanese and Senegalese. Much of this bookis familiar – but not all of it. There is still room for surprise and stirring.

Its title derives from the Sheffield Outrages known locally as ‘The Stirrings’, a period in the mid-19th century when aggrieved trade unionsts murdered and bombed. Taylor duly writes of violence – of Peter Sutcliffe, the Battle of Orgreave, the Hillsborough disaster and the quiet Cold War terror of the Bomb, although this is usually at a remove and oddly passive. She sometimes calls events ‘an uneasy backdrop’ – and that is what they were, no matter that she was living through them. The NUM is based in Sheffield, where she grew up, but she watched the Battle of Orgreave and the tragedy at Hillsborough on the news like everyone else.

This muted tone can be powerful: the departure of Taylor’s father is vivid because dampened, the mutism conveying her childish inability to express her distress. She sees one lodger, Henriette, a Senegalese woman, extravagant in her outward grief at the death of her mother and marvels at it. To describe her own feelings she has to reach for a bird, remembering a starling trapped in a chimney which resisted help in its fright: ‘The moment the frantic flapping ceased was even worse than the pitiful sound of invisible agitated wings inside the chimney breast.’

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