I was born here in 1943. My first memories were of contrast. We were very lucky to rent a house on the west side, and I remember feelings of the steepness of the hills there… getting back from school, you had to climb up the hill. I remember stone buildings rather than brick. It was quite a tough and rugged sort of area. It was 800 ft up, so you got snow every winter and quite wild weather. Then there was the other side of the city which was the iron and steel-producing area, which was always literally sort of under a cloud. Very dark, and not somewhere that I went to very often – although my father worked as the export manager in one of the steel firms down there. There was a different feel to that part of Sheffield. When I was growing up a lot of it was recovering from the war, and that was really the contrast: a big, huge, sort of smoky industrial area where all the steel forges were. Dust, noise. And the west, which borders on the Peak District, and is very beautiful and very leafy.
I was very proud of the engineering work the city was producing. It wasn’t glamorous, but it had that very strong identity, that without Sheffield we couldn’t have produced the steel we needed to win the war. That was a thing that I heard many times as I was growing up. And looking back I’m very proud of the tradition of craftsmanship and construction that there was in Sheffield during that time. I think that it still defines the city in the minds of people of my generation.
So many people live in cities now. I’m very much an urban person. Born in one big city, lived the rest of my life in another. We are mostly urban people, and how we deal with the need to get away from cities, as well as being in cities, interests me very much. A lot of city dwellers like to go where there are lots of people. Getting away from it all is proving more and more difficult. When I’m in London, I miss the hills, I miss the views, I miss the ability to escape so quickly into rugged countryside and the feeling of the fresh air away from the noise of cities.
But now I have gone all over the world. I think of Cusco in Peru and Wellington in New Zealand which are two smaller cities that have a real identity, which I think Sheffield has too, actually. So whilst I’ve lived in London for over 50 years, I believe Sheffield defines me. I think anywhere you spend the first ten, fifteen years of your life is going to define you, whether you like it or not. I think it was [writer] Barry Took who said, the ‘thing about the Monty Python team is they are all from the provinces, they are all from outside London.’ I think he had an interesting point there in that we weren’t metropolitans, there was no sense of entitlement or belonging to the major city, or the big capital. It made us take risks and it made us all feel as though we could give a view from the outside of what was going on inside.
Edited with kind permission of National Geographic UK and Simon Ingram, who originally interviewed Michael for the ‘My Life in Cities’ series. The full interview can be found here: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/cities/2019/04/my-life-cities-michael-palin