>Love Letter to Sheffield<
“Intake, Manor Park, The Wicker, Norton, Frecheville Hackenthorpe, Shalesmoor, Wombwell, Catcliffe Brincliffe, Attercliffe, Ecclesall, Woodhouse, Wybourn, Pitsmoor, Badger, Wincobank, Crookes, Walkley, Broomhill, Oh!”
Pulp - ‘Sheffield Sex City’
Everyone comes from somewhere. Most people think that the place they come from is somehow special. And they are probably right – everywhere is special to someone.
As out-going Lord Mayor of Sheffield, I have chosen to write a love letter to the city. But to boast and to brag about ourselves is not a very Sheffield-thing to do – we are not Manchester! Our songs tell the lives of inner-wealth and outer-kindness that only the poets can capture. And, despite my Mother’s wishes, I am no poet. So, all I can do is share what I know to be the heart of Sheffield, imperfectly but as honestly as I can.
Though I am not originally from Sheffield, I am of it. It has made me who I am. From the hilltops to the rivers, from the trees to the tram-lines, from the Blades to the Owls, in the rain, the snow and the sunshine, Sheffield is and will always be my home.
I say ‘my’ but I should say ‘our’, as I have never been here alone. First arriving from Somalia as a refugee with my Mother and siblings when I was 5 years old, I rapidly made friends and learned to speak English with a Yorkshire accent, and now my world in Sheffield is made up of accents from Yemen, Honk Kong, New York, Sydney, London and so many other places…
Let’s be honest. From the outside, mine is an unlikely story. I’m a Black, Muslim refugee who became the youngest Lord Mayor in Sheffield history. But for those of us who live in Sheffield, we know this is just one of thousands of unlikely stories made possible by the kindness of neighbours, teachers, friends and, yes, strangers. Strangers matter more in Sheffield than in most cities, because any one who lives in Sheffield has probably had their heart warmed by a gentle conversation at the bus stop in the queue about the weather, sports, or even about how it’s all Maggie Thatcher’s fault (which it most definitely is)…
“Though her buildings are impressive and her cul-de-sac's amazing”
Strangers matter in Sheffield, because sooner or later it becomes clear that there aren’t really any. We all know someone who knows someone who knows the person we now think of as a stranger. It is this idea, at its most simple, which helped me discover a burnishing passion to fight injustice. A lot of the bad things in the world look like they are happening far away to strangers. But, in Sheffield, we are never that far from the world’s stage and those who suffer are never mere strangers. There are people who are connected (as family, as friends, as lovers – current and past) to people all over the world. That’s why I think it is no accident that Sheffield became the first City of Sanctuary in the UK. Connection, welcome and respect are built into the place. It is in our DNA.
“We finally made it on a hill-top at four a.m.”
It is easy to think of a place like Sheffield through the eyes of the outside world – as a post-industrial, mid-sized city, somewhere in the North, made notable only through The Full Monty, Pulp, Arctic Monkeys, and Sean Bean. Though I like our local celebs, I see us completely differently.
Sheffield has been at the heart of British life for hundreds of years. Many of the miners who fought Thatcher’s government lived here and Robin Hood was one of us – ‘Robin of Loxley’. But beyond that, chartists, suffragettes, and radicals of all types emerged out of our city and changed the nature of democracy and the country for ever. The truth is that this dedication to helping each other, the world, and the environment is just as alive today in our beautiful city as ever before (despite what some of our leaders might wish). In my time in office, I have met troves of exceptional people –every day leaders, grafters, dreamers and thinkers – who were pupils, students, teachers, artists, intellectuals, social workers, and carers, from every corner of the city and the world. They showed me the meaning of kindness, care, and dedication to something bigger than themselves. These people inspired me every day. They reminded me what I was here to honour, protect, and remember. Even though the struggle for our children’s future, for tolerance and compassion is far from over, it is this city’s character that gives me hope, reminding me every day that, in the words of Jarvis Cocker:
“There's nothing to worry about because we can, we can, we can, we can get it together”
Doing things differently can be scary, that there are people who will hate you for it but I promise you, there are people who will love you for it, who will join you in it and even more importantly, you will risk changing the world, in small ways and large ways and middle ways in between. But if you keep doing things how they’ve always been done, if you stick to traditions (and what is tradition if it isn’t peer pressure from dead people?!) then you risk never knowing what it’s like to succeed and to fail in the pursuit of great endeavours.
So let us make a promise, to not denigrate but to inspire. Rather than bemoan the present, paint a picture of what can be. Instead of inciting hatred and instilling fear, rise above the chorus of our age and dare to sing a different song.
This past couple of years as a councillor and Lord Mayor has been as much of a success for other people as it has been for me, because had it not been for the sacrifices my mother made, the friends who grounded me, the people of Sheffield who voted for me and the countless strangers I met who have shown me nothing but unwavering love and support (online & offline), this story would have not been told. And yes, my story is inspiring, I get that. But what does it inspire you to do?