Middlesbrough The Tough


In the first of a series of guest posts, this blog by our co-artistic director Sam Butler includes an introduction by David Tufnell, Arts Development Officer at Middlesbrough Town Hall, our host and partner organisation for This Grief Thing in Middlesbrough:

“My father was a steelworker, as was my uncle”. A phrase, some simple words, that could be used by any single person in Middlesbrough or Redcar – Teesside, you might say. Some may even be able to say that as well as their father, their grandfather was also a steel worker and their great grandparent too but for me it was my dad and my uncle.

About a year and a bit ago I was taking a drama class over in Redcar. (I work as a freelance drama teacher, actor, writer, director) During the class I was asking the children what they wanted to do, where they saw their life going – what they aspired to. I was expecting astronauts, actors, builders, singers. Similar answers that I had previously heard in other classes. One particular hand raised up, one twelve year old, he sat on the floor and proceeded to tell me that since the steelworks have closed, his father was unemployed and he wouldn’t have a job to go in to, that his pathway was already closed and decided – predestined. This was a hugely surreal moment… a moment where we shared some connection.

See I grew up near the Palladium shops in Middlesbrough, not a place overflowing with aspiration in the 80’s - yes Brian Clough grew up the other side of the beck from my home, but I didn’t know who he was or care who he was until much later in life. My father was made redundant from the steelworks and my Uncle had taken early redundancy, he had been caught in a fireball whilst working. This young lad and I had a thin thread of commonality, however at no point in my childhood or teens was a limit placed on what I could be, or wish to be.

We struggled, my dad, my mum, as a family. Finances were tight, love was abundant, pride was stolen but we were cared for. We had a story, so very similar to so many other families around us but our dialogue had nothing to do with the steelworks. Any grieving that my dad did, he did with my mum and away from us. That’s where that word fits in. Where it fits in so perfectly. Grief.

When Fevered Sleep first began chatting about coming to Middlesbrough with ‘This Grief Thing’, I was hugely keen to have them come. I’d felt loss and grief – of family, of friendships – I knew people who had been deeply affected, others who still carried that loss. But also I knew people who had lost homes, communities and a way of life – here and abroad. They seemed the perfect group to help Middlesbrough start to talk about all those things. Not just because I feel that art, theatre, experiences and connections can help create a space to chat but in their approach they could help start to explore, what I perceive personally, to be a long and winding path about loss and grief for a way of life and an industry, that a huge group of men – grandads, fathers and sons – their wives, mothers and daughters could benefit hugely from just talking. To David and Sam, to the other people who would visit, to their neighbours and their comrades. That we could start a new dialogue that would change the heavy weight some people carry, that we could try and help change the demographics surrounding male suicide in the area and that eventually the way a twelve year old talks when asked what he wants to be when he grows up. 

Middlesbrough shop.jpg

We install ourselves into a newly relinquished shop space in the midst of a busy shopping area of Middlesbrough. We shift, arrange and rearrange our furniture and fittings; we fill and fold and settle, before finally flicking the switch which lights up the name of our shop “This Grief Thing”, heralding our opening and drawing people in. From behind our counter we watch and study the people of this new place rushing by for flashes of intrigue, in anticipation of our first customer.

You have not come here to meet with grief. Your grief is packaged and patched up with the sticky tape of hush and don’t go there and you carry it around in invisible bags which cause your shoulders to ache and your muscles to harden. And into this shop which interrupts the usual flow of a busy day of looking, mooching, choosing; for leisure, for pleasure, for feeling filled up, some of the people of Middlesbrough come. (You have 4 seconds. At shopping walking pace. To see the sign, slow your body and out yourself to the strangers inside. Entering this intimate space is rarely done on a whim or a just browsing basis, it’s nearly always a declaration of membership to the most undesirable of clubs, the club for the bereaved).

You enter with the cold of the day on your clothes and face and hands, skirting the displays of words which seem to be written for you, of you. This is for you, stay a while, we made it for you, stay a while.

So you slow down, you stop and you stay. You begin by saying nothing of any consequence. A breath and a sigh or so, to test how words might sound here, to test these strangers playing at keeping shop (are they listening?)

Do you have this scarf in yellow?

Is it for you?

 Middlesbrough the tough; the town of slick toil and sometime steel, reeling from the was and the gone and the no longer, and all swollen with its loss. The folks of Middlesbrough, like people in most places, speak proudly of family and relatives and connections; of where they’re from, and who they love and who belongs with who. They are complex self supporting meshes of love and belonging, and at each intersection a weld of brother to brother to sister to father to niece to friend to cousin to auntie to wife to daughter to mother … When somebody dies the repercussions are boundless. The loss is unfathomable, the grief is timeless.

You put down your bags by the counter and with a hint and an aside of hushed still tender sorrows you begin to unpack before us.  

Sometimes, somewhere in Middlesbrough she wears a yellow scarf around her neck against the cold, and on it these words, “Grief = Love”.

Sam Butler