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14 August 2023

Catherine Taylor’s The Stirrings: a memoir of girlhood in a time of rebellion

These reflections of 1970s Sheffield are steeped in the Cold War and the shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper.

By Pippa Bailey

In the mid-1860s, trade union militants agitating in Sheffield carried out a series of explosions and murders. Locally, these events became known as “The Stirrings”. It’s a perfect double meaning for a memoir about girlhood turning to womanhood in Sheffield, a city with a history of resistance and rebellion. It’s also an early indication that, for Catherine Taylor, the personal and the political are inextricably bound.

Taylor was born in New Zealand but moved with her family to Sheffield – “grey, grim, and wet: steep roads, forbidding buildings” – as a child. Not particularly popular at school, she gets her real education in the bookshop her mother runs. She stands out among her classmates for being the first to have divorced parents. Her father leaves in 1977, when Taylor is nine – her pet cat disappears the same week ­– and the pair later become estranged.

She is different too for her politics: her mother is a Labour Party member and, to her Thatcher-supporting peers, Taylor comes from “a hotbed of left-wing activists”. As a teenager, she visits Greenham Common to protest against nuclear weapons, and is an extra in Barry Hines’ Threads, the first film to depict a nuclear attack and its aftermath shown on British TV. “South Yorkshire self-declared itself as an anti-nuclear, demilitarised zone,” Taylor writes with pride. “On May Day each year the red flag was hoisted above the town hall, and a peace treaty was exchanged with the city of Donetsk, Crimea, then part of Soviet Ukraine.” During the miners’ strike, aged 16, she is diagnosed with Graves’ disease: “Derbyshire neck” – a visible swelling of the thyroid in the neck – had for centuries been common in the Peak District owing to an iodine deficiency in its soil.

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Taylor grew up in the late Seventies when the Ripper stalked the women of West Yorkshire. “The killings,” she writes, “began when we were small children, so that we have grown up alongside them.” She is not allowed to walk home from school alone and has nightmares in which he is a “huge, oily-feathered bird”, attempting to smother her. When Peter Sutcliffe is finally apprehended, in 1981, it happens on a street behind Taylor’s school. “In a sense, we had been waiting for the Ripper to visit for months, even years.”

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Taylor’s desire to link her life with broader events at times leads to some sketchy parallels. In her imagination, her estranged father is “replaced by a shadowy figure, one that was menacing and faceless”. The police, she writes, were as much swept up in the Ripper folklore as were the public and wasted years “starting at shadows”. (Sutcliffe was interviewed by police nine times during the investigation.) Similarly, she writes, she was too young when her father left to understand him as a real person, “or to peer behind the myth that I created around him; too many years spent starting at shadows”.

The Stirrings begins with a disclaimer: “This is a work of autobiography entirely from my own perspective and allowing for the elisions and imperfections of memory.” Taylor’s memories are deliciously vibrant, particularly when it comes to the charming illogic of teenage romance. She loses her virginity while listening to “Savoy Truffle” on side four of the Beatles’ The White Album. “The following April he gave me a tambourine for my birthday then almost immediately dumped me.” Her last milk tooth falls “into the mouth of a stranger I’d been kissing in one of the fetid nightclubs I frequented, a baby incisor mistaken for a Disco Biscuit”.

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Less convincing is Taylor’s liking for portentousness. During the summer of 1976, then the hottest in Britain since records began, drought reveals the ruins of Derwent village, formerly submerged in the Ladybower reservoir. One structure “resemble[s] a warning finger, pointing towards something I wasn’t yet able to see”. Six months later, her parents separate. Leaving a lover’s bedsit, unknowingly (and unwantedly) pregnant, she “fancied there was something off, something askew about the cloudy spring air”. Later, when she sees her university flatmate asleep with just her legs visible sticking out from the duvet, “like a corpse”, we know what is to come in the following pages, lessening its impact.

There is always some element of self-mythologising in the telling and retelling, the moments that come to mean something they could never have meant when they happened. This is, in a sense, the nature of memoir: starting at one’s own shadows.

The Stirrings: A Memoir in Northern Time
Catherine Taylor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 240pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future