Books People

Sheffield Books: The Northern Clemency

Philip Hensher. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty

If you want to read a novel about Sheffield, then a good place to start is Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, an epic chronicle published in 2008.

It charts the relationship between two families, who live on opposite sides of a street in Sheffield in the 1970s – Malcolm and Katherine Glover and their three children; and their neighbours the Sellers family, newly arrived from London.  It ends in the mid-nineties with one of the children running a trendy restaurant.

Philip Hensher (born 1965), is a novelist, critic, journalist and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Born in South London, he spent most of his childhood in Sheffield and attended Tapton School. Now he’s the author of several novels including The Mulberry Empire, Scenes from an Early Life, and A Small Revolution in Germany.

He says that The Northern Clemency came after years of thinking about school and childhood, and it brought forth details that he put into the book.

“I made a practice of getting up early, and thinking hard about long-lost places – a school, our house then, a favourite shop, a library. All sorts of details would emerge, even phantom smells. Then I started to write. I knew who the characters were, but not at first who they grew into. 

“It took about three years to write. I wrote best when I was away from the novel’s sites. The most productive period was three weeks in Khartoum, Sudan. There was not a great deal to do in that great but strange city. In the mornings I got out one of the 10 school exercise books and one of the 20 blue Biros I had bought from a stationer in the Omdurman market, and wrote solidly, 2,000 or even 3,000 words.”

The novel contains one of the most unusual lines about Sheffield. “Dense Victorian villas dispersed through a verdant forest, breaking out like the frilled edges of amateur maternal pancakes into lavender moorland”

The book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.