News From Elsewhere: Where West meets East

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The Independent Online
SHEFFIELD does not exist. At least, not as a unitary entity, except perhaps on a few knives and forks at the back of the cutlery drawer. There are two cities up here in South Yorkshire. One is East Sheffield, the one you glimpse as you come off the Parkway from the M1. Double back and you can see the shells of the steel works and the rubble. If you go far enough out you will see, in a desert of industry long since abandoned, an oasis of commercialism - Meadowhall, Europe's biggest shopping centre. Then there is West Sheffield, the one you glimpse as you come off the Snake Pass from Manchester, all leafy suburb, university and college.

The two Sheffields date back to the start of the industrial revolution. In 1895, the Royal Commission on Secondary Education commented that there was 'no other manufacturing town where the contrast between the dwelling places of the rich and poor are so strongly marked, or the separation between them so complete.'

West Side men live on average eight-and-a-half years longer than the East Siders, the women six. West Siders have their own consumer-based magazine, West Side, delivered free. The entrepreneurs who set it up at the very pinnacle of the Thatcher years, in 1986, decided that they were going 'to cut the rhubarb'. Their watchword was: 'What's the use in reaching the naff customers?'

Up in the leafy suburbs you can almost hear the laughter. Recessions may have plundered the East Side, but the West Siders found ways of surviving. Then you notice real laughter from the back of a shop. Behind the jewellery, behind the glass cases, behind the gold and silver. Very up-market, very West Side. Somebody was telling a funny story. The laughter was dampened down. Then it erupted again. Great guffaws. 'I've sold vacuum cleaners to people without a carpet in the house.' The laughter started again, slower this time, but quickening. The pitch rose with the volume. 'I sold a woman two ironing boards - one for upstairs. She only had pounds 100 credit limit, so she couldn't have the iron.'

This little backroom was the centre of a company selling jewellery in a 'direct sales operation'. A salesman would go out with an agent from a credit collection company to see customers who were paying off outstanding debts. The jewellery would then be offered to the customer on the never-never. Rows and rows of gold horseshoes and coats of arms, and rings inlaid with semi- precious stones ('semi-precious covers a lot of bloody things,' explained one salesman). All this temptation to clients already in debt - East Siders. 'But don't forget that 99 per cent of our customers couldn't go out and borrow a tanner from anybody else,' explained the director.

A customer buying a pounds 300 ring over 120 weeks would pay pounds 204 on top of that for credit. 'But the customers themselves care little about the interest rate being charged. All they're interested in is how much per week the ring or the gold chain or whatever will cost them,' he explained. 'We always say that we leave all the multiplication up to the customer.'

Even at night, the differences between East and West remain. At a club in the centre of the city some of the West Siders get in for free with their colour-coded VIP passes. The East Siders queue in the rain. Tony, however, crosses the great divide. His customers come from all over Sheffield. Anyone wanting to look the part seeks out Tony. He rolls up his sleeves - Tags on one arm, Cartier and Gucci on the other. The watches sell for about 16 quid. West Siders can have their fake Rolex and laugh at the light- weight construction on their wrists. They can afford to. It's all a bit of fun, a bit of a nobble. For the East Siders, desperately trying to be somebody in the gloom, it isn't quite so funny.

Tony picks the goods up in New York 'in Chinatown' for a couple of quid a piece. He makes frequent trips away for days at a time. A bouncer in the club pulls me to one side and suggests the goods really come from Manchester. A trip to Manchester, an hour across the Pennines, was thought sufficient to explain several days' absence. It reminded me of Sidney Pollard, the economic historian, who wrote: 'South Yorkshire, let us face it, has always been land-locked, inward-looking and provincial. It has therefore always been somewhere near the very heart of England.' Just add class- locked and we're nearly there.

Sheffield was steel, but the steel has gone, and the coal is going. Everywhere you look you can find the industrial debris from the East of the city spreading West. The man with the funny baseball cap who tends the boiler in the sports centre used to make boilers for all over the world. The unemployed man sitting in McDonald's used to be a miner. He has just finished reading West Side from cover to cover - because he has nothing else left to do.

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