There’s a bit in the opening pages of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” where the narrator begins in earnest to talk about his life in the city, in his case the Paris of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and he says, “I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing […] To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”
I’m on the ground floor of a student house in Sheffield, near the university, and I can hear one of my house-mates singing along to some old-fashioned Italian music while he hangs out his washing. I feel a bit lost and worn-out because I’ve just moved house, try and walk around the streets and old houses to work out what my impression of Sheffield is, but it’s all fragments, cigarette-ends and door-frames and street-names and house-numbers and cooking, cooking to reassure myself in one of those pans you know has lived in a house for years and years, through years and years of occupants.
On Saturday, collecting stories from the people of Sheffield we’d managed to persuade into the theatre for a tea and a chat, I was - and still am - desperate not to be awful, not to be condescending, not to be someone who starts an essay with something quoted from Henry Miller, not to try and be impressive, but to be generous, and good, and almost invisible. I wanted to reassure people that it wasn’t necessary to know what they were doing, and that I didn’t know what I was doing either, I was only offering something, only offering a space to talk about something.
When I listen back to the recordings that we made, I feel alright, partly because I like it when people laugh. The low notes of people talking about their mothers, about handwritten letters, the high notes of “you know what else we’ve got …!” I spent all day talking to people whose voices fall into a rhythm, a sort of song. I can’t work out yet if it’s a song of Sheffield, but it’s a song I think of coffee-cups and talking, the song of remembering.