An honorary Salfordian on the Mancunian Way


Last year at a local jazz gig, a fellow audience member commented on my use of a phrase (“have you not?” rather than “haven’t you?) which to them signalled that at some stage I must have lived in the north-west, as had they.  Having moved back South a decade ago, and often felt that any traces of my Mancunian life, in particular accent and speech, had long since disappeared under layers of a return to East London and Essex roots, I found this a strangely comforting exchange.

I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on what it means to be ‘Mancunian’.   I know better than to stick my head above that particular ‘parapet’.  But I have known the city for over 20 years and lived there (well Salford actually, but that’s another story), for a time.  And what I do know is that Manchester (and yes I include Salford in this) has a sense of its own identity like nowhere else. Inside the core of this place is an innate confidence born of survival, invention, and a collective self-knowledge that understands the city and its place in the world.

Manchester has long been the epicentre of a global story.  Its inventions and legacies have shaped our lives.  From the devices we use, to the democracy we hold dear. Walk in the footsteps of Lowry through Peel Park. Stand at the desk where Marks and Engels began a manifesto. Stroll in the corridors that gave life to the computer, have tea where Mr Rolls met Mr Royce, dance in the city that gave us Madchester and beyond.  Manchester lives its history because it is our history. Yet it re-invents itself for now and tomorrow.  In that it is like all urban success stories – a marriage of history and modernity.

Returning to the City in 2017 to attend a conference, those of us from London were (partly in jest I think) encouraged, if asked where we were from, to respond ‘the Manchester of the South’.  This may have been tongue in cheek but it nevertheless reveals a truth.  There is, rightfully in my view, a disinterested bemusement in Manchester when it is referred to as the ‘London of the North’ or mentioned in debates on the UK’s ‘second city’.  I never met anyone born of the city or who has adopted it as their own, who would entertain either notion for a second. There is no need. Manchester’s sense of itself, its place in the world and way of doing things – its identity, are utterly solid, and rarely if ever, usefully defined in relation to elsewhere.

During my years there I was always aware on some level that I was an outsider, a southerner away from my roots – but never ever in a way that was unwelcoming, in fact quite the reverse.   It took a while to understand both the distinction between Manchester and Salford, and the epic uniqueness of the latter.  Indeed a neighbour’s reference to me as an ‘honorary Salfordian’, remains one of my proudest moments.

While I would have always written this piece, it is now difficult to do so without reference to the 2017 Manchester Arena attack (the anniversary of which is approaching), and the city’s response to it.  From my first knowledge of this tragedy there was never any doubt in my mind that the city would face this, with defiance, hope, dignity, and above all with an unassailable sense of itself.  In the days that followed, Manchester’s assertion that it would rise from tragedy, was almost entirely about identity and self-knowledge.  In the words of survivor Adam Lawler “This is Manchester, this is England. You can try and threaten us and destroy us but you won’t, we are Manchester.  “We don’t look back in anger.”   Adam knew what he was talking about.  The adoption of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ as an anthem in the immediate aftermath was an early signal of a collective determination to rise above a quick, and obvious, temptation to blame and hate.

In the late afternoon sun of a crammed Albert Square, Tony Walsh read ‘This is the Place’ in its entirety.  Though removed by the distance of TV I was blindsided.  The work is both a love letter to the City (probably the greatest love letter to any city) and a statement of fact.  Written two years before the attack, it is stunning in its truth and simplicity. it quite simply, could not have been written about anywhere else.  It is a roll call of everything Manchester has gifted to the world.  Everything it is.

That healing lyrics and poetry came from sons of Manchester was inevitable. Another city might have had to adopt the words of elsewhere, but not Manchester. No need – so much choice. The roads of the Northwest are paved with world-class talent.  For my generation Manchester was music.  Joy Division spoke to us of unknown pleasures, the Smiths reminded us that we were happy in the haze of a drunken hour, and from student bedrooms afar we yearned for the dance floor of the Hacienda.

Manchester’s awareness had implications for my own.  The years there reinforced in me a belief in the centrality of place in identity, at least for those of us (and certainly me) – for whom ‘who we are’, is to an extent, ‘where we are’.   In a divided country much (largely London-centric) commentary has debated the merits of being a ‘somewhere’ or ‘anywhere’ person, almost always with a discriminatory bias towards the ‘anywhere’ option. It is beyond implied that only as an ‘anywhere person’ can you be truly global in your outlook, that to be a somewhere person is to be somehow ‘stuck’ and ‘limited’.  Tell that to the City that has always known it is ‘somewhere’ and see how far you get…

The Manchester years clarified in my mind that I am, and have always been, a ‘somewhere’ person, and enabled me to finally own that understanding.  For me place is central to identity precisely because it is our heritage in its purest form. And how can you truly engage with the world unless you understand where you are from.

This place I adopted as home for a time took me into its arms and doesn’t let go.  Early on they were the hardest of years, and some of the loneliest. But when I return, it is not only to the embrace of some of my closest friends and a comforting familiarity, but to the knowledge that Manchester will always be part of my ‘somewhere’.

All text and images © A Sense of Place

Who are we now?

I began writing this several times during the six weeks since the start of ‘lockdown’ .  Other things have drained time and emotion, and the currency and perhaps validity of the writing has been overtaken by events more than once.  it is surprisingly difficult to write about aspects of identity when so much of what informs it is gone.

I am lucky.  At the time of writing I have not (to my knowledge) lost any friends or family, either directly to this awful disease, or indirectly to its consequences.  For so many that is not so, and I imagine their experience both of the COVID-19 pandemic and of the lockdown, will be one of loss, exacerbated by solitary mourning, without the comfort and reassurance of embrace.  Daily statistics shaping a national grief,  are masking individual tragedy that will send ripples of loss across families and communities for decades to come.

Others, like myself, have lost livelihood.  A self–employed and zero hours worker – by March I had work arranged until the Autumn.  As the reality of the horror to come advanced over the horizon, closures seeped across the land like some catastrophic economic spillage. Cancellation after cancellation arrived, and in 2-3 days in the middle of March, a portfolio of work I had spent a decade building, was gone.   Loss of income follows, but also loss of purpose, identity and planned future.  Who we think we are now may not seem the greatest priority in the face of such loss, and upheaval.   But I suspect the answers we find in these days will in some way shape the rest of our lives.

At the time, and for 3 weeks afterwards I was numb.  I told others that as awful as it was, there was no point in ‘becoming stressed’ as there was nothing to be done, and others had lost so much more.  Then the profound – and I see now inevitable – sense of shock and trauma arrived, I was floored, literally. I began to wonder not only what I would do, but who I would be. The sectors I work in are largely dependent on face to face contact, and the absence of this, not only now, but in the months to come, may well lead to a different way of life, chosen or otherwise.  Only in recent days have I acknowledged, that as painful as those losses were, I may one day look back to know they saved my life.

Many others, may have had similar experiences, although not all. This will I suspect, have been a very different ‘war’ for those who emerge from the other side with their working lives, incomes and professional identities intact.  And for them ‘peacetime’ may well have more of a ‘business as usual’ air about it, than for those of us having to forge a new path.

There is also I have discovered recently, a more insidious, albeit temporary, loss.  Independence.  In an (otherwise) independent household, but one with several health conditions increasing risk if the disease is contracted, we have been forced to rely on the kindness of others more than would ever normally be the case.  I have been so lucky that such kindness is there, and embedded in my local community I have not had to look far for help.  I am however by nature a contributor and giver.  In any situation my first question would be ‘what can I do?’.  And it has been frustrating and almost confusing, that in this context my contribution (other than to observe the lockdown of course) is not yet clear.

These are almost dystopian days.  We stand on the edge of an unimagined, future, shaped by inevitable difference. The very absence of what defines us will lead many to reflect and reprioritise.  For some life will have changed irrevocably, with or without reflection.

Forced to encounter our lives and ourselves, at close proximity without distraction – in the end we will have all lost something. If only a fundamental sense of security, in the understanding that never again in our lives will we be able to take quite so much for granted.

Postscript: I have been sustained during these days by many things including the natural world, music and new forms of contact with others. The relationship between these activities and identity will be the subject of further thoughts.

All text © 2020


Affairs of the Heart


I first saw this ad on the tube last summer. I remember thinking at the time that science has nothing to do with love. That it can’t be predicted or defined by an algorithm. That there’s something indefinable about it – and that’s rather the point. By January this year the UK Advertising Standards Authority were saying something not dissimilar and upheld a complaint that there was insufficient evidence to support the ad in its current wording. (1) As we leave the month of Valentines I’ve been reflecting on this again.


While there may be something indefinable about love itself – its presence in our lives, and our attitude towards it, can define us. Our identity is often constructed in terms of our relationship to others and ‘love’ provides a short-cut to this. We are someone’s wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend, or the less value-laden ‘partner’. Or we are none of those things and may be defined in all or part, by love’s absence. Indeed there are times when the absence of love might influence us more than its presence ever could.


Love also impacts on our identity in another fundamental way. It is tribal. We are the pragmatist, the romantic, the singleton, the serial monogamist, the player etc. This is mostly not about whether or not we have a partner but the truth of what we believe love is. What we think it’s for. The extent to which we believe it is unique. How we believe it arrives, and for that matter, departs. And our hopes and fears for its consequences.


I have at least two contacts who met their partners (in one case husband) through online dating profiles (e-harmony would be delighted I’m sure). By all accounts these individuals have now been very happy together for a number of years, and I too am happy for them. I do however remember being distinctly unnerved when one described in not inconsiderable detail the level of specifics she had listed for her potential partner, and indicated that she had approached the ‘project’ in much the same way as she would a work assignment.

Piglet with loveI’ve somehow never felt entirely comfortable with this idea that you go online, pay your money and take your choice, specifying the age, the weight, the looks – down to a level of specifics one might deploy when ordering a new coat or buying a set of shelves – which of course can be returned if they don’t ‘fit’ (as can these potential partners). However experience has led me to conclude that for many, if not most, the ‘strategic’ approach to love appears to result in happiness. So good for them.


When my friend was describing her online search I privately thought ‘where’s the romance in that?’ To voice my reservations could have exposed me, as a likely member of that (in most circles) unfashionable love identity – ‘a believer’. A true believer in the holy grail of a love that is generally more elusive than an emotional job description of ‘essentials’ and ‘desirables’. Believers also tend to subscribe, in whole or part, to the (now often maligned) ‘soulmate’ theory. That enticing shibboleth that out there somewhere, there is ‘the one’. In the reflection of whose love, you are the best version of yourself.


The lyric is frequently the greatest descriptor of love and its influence. And when reflecting on loves tribes I’m reminded of lines from The Rose – delivered with such authenticity by Bette Midler – “and you think that love is only, for the lucky and the strong”. I have always taken slight issue with the Divine Miss M on this one. For the lucky – yes certainly (though hopefully not only). Only for the strong – not so much. Anyone who has been alone in adult life, will know that it can be loves absence that truly requires strength beyond imagining.


And then there are those who find their (presumably soul) mate early on, manage to actually be with them – and stay with them – all in the same lifetime. It is possible to gaze with something approaching awe at couples who have married their first and (it turns out potentially) only love. What must it be like to believe in ‘happy ever after’ – and actually have it come true? Forever. Surely this confers a level of emotional privilege and security that could make one almost invincible in the face of life’s external challenges?


Of course experience has also taught me that not all of these ‘arrangements’ are as they appear. Behind their outward solidarity, some conceal at least one individual who is unhappy or whose heart is elsewhere, however physically present they may appear to be. And it is ironic that is often members of this elite club who are the greatest advocates of ‘moving on’ – and the wonderfully Californian – ‘achieving closure’ – when relationships struggle or end. Presumably because they have never had to experience either concept themselves… (Part of another sub-tribe creeping in here – the ‘experienced cynic’).


But ultimately, whether we are believers or strategists, or, to quote the late great Amy Winehouse, believe – “love is a losing game”. It remains an alchemy of everything that makes us human. And in honour of this I leave the last words to John Lennon:
“Love is the answer, and you know that for sure”




At the going down of the sun…


As we leave November behind for another year I find myself reflecting on contemporary remembrance and its relationship both with art and our identity.

In my childhood, ‘poppy day’ was a fleeting affair. You asked for some extra pocket money to buy a poppy (plastic and paper with ‘Haig Fund’ stamped in the middle), in the week before remembrance Sunday, and you might have participated in a remembrance parade on the day itself. There might have been a lesson at school about ‘what the poppy was for’. That was pretty much it. At a time when many veterans of both world wars were living, and long before the casual vigilance and random terror of the post 9/11 world.

Now annually, in early November poppies are everywhere, beyond lapels, on cars, vans, bags, scarves. This year for the first time I saw a ‘poppy-decorated’ house, in a not dissimilar way as one might decorate it for Christmas. These participative acts of poppy-wearing, have also in recent years been accompanied by the articulation of remembrance as art, in part brought to centre stage by the Centenary of World War One and the work of its artistic arm 14-18 Now.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ – between 17th July and 14th November 2014 saw the moat of the Tower of London gradually (and this was significant) occupied by a spreading carpet of 888,246 ceramic poppies (each of which represented a British military fatality). Over the months, as the installation grew, so did public interaction with, and support for it. I visited on three occasions – the first two of which were in the early weeks, and the last was in its last days. The difference was overwhelming. My early visits were timed to coincide with the inclusion of my Great Uncle in the Roll of Honour read from the moat at dusk each evening, preceded by the sounding of the Last Post. In these early weeks there were perhaps 100 people present each evening. From the many conversations I had there, it was apparent that most of those attending had a direct connection with one of the fatalities. Many had brought mementos and family stories, and a willingness to share on a deeply personal level. It was for them, as for me, a way of reaching down the generations to our (overwhelmingly) young ancestors who gave their lives in the face of horror beyond understanding, to tell them that it wasn’t in vain. We acknowledge your sacrifice. We remember.


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red © A-Sense-Of-Place

By its later weeks ‘Blood Swept Lands…’ had quite literally assumed a life of its own. The moat was full, as were all the vantage points, access to which from any direction was at shuffle-pace only. It was daily news, the subject of discussion in parliament, and firmly on the ‘tourist trail’. What began as an act of remembrance, had become an attraction to be witnessed, uploaded and shared.

In 2016 Canary Wharf became the first place in the UK to host a Remembrance Art Trail. Fitting given the Wharf’s location as a permanent home to one of the UK’s largest collections of public art. The Trail ran for two weeks with seven installations curated by Mark Humphrey in collaboration with the Royal British Legion and service personnel. The installations were radically different representations of remembrance. In particular the largest – ‘Boots on the Ground’ aimed to capture the spirit of the armed forces. Away from a main tourist site, the trail engaged a new audience and moved remembrance art and its curation as a destination, to a new level.


Boots on the Ground © A-Sense-Of-Place

Also in 2016 the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was commemorated by ‘We are Here Because We Are Here’. From 7am onwards on 1st July, 1,400 young men wearing WW1 battle dress appeared in (often contemporary) locations across the UK. They did not speak but occasionally sang a song from the trenches – ‘we are here because we are here’. If engaged by members of the public they handed out a printed card with the details of the fallen soldier they were representing. Reportedly, in Manchester, within half an hour of the process commencing, a ‘soldier’ had amazingly handed a card to a descendent of the individual named on that card. The power of this seemingly random connection across a century, is spine chilling.

‘We are Here…’ was particularly unusual, both as art and remembrance, in several respects. Firstly, it was not revealed until the evening of the day itself that the entire project had been the work of the artist Jeremy Deller and Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris. Similarly, its substantial three-year preparation was entirely secret. There was no element of advance marketing or publicity, as Norris has stated – there was ‘no sell’. This is almost unprecedented in art terms within which the building of an audience prior to the event or launch is key. There is also the sheer level of public awareness and engagement achieved within a single day. Statistics from 14-18 Now indicate that by the evening of July 1st 63% of the British public (approximately 30 million people) had some awareness of the work. Not withstanding the fact that the organisers had harnessed the help of key influencers, and that the work was a gift to social media, this is impressive. Finally there is the interaction with, and reaction of, the public. The volunteers participating in ‘We Are Here…’had been trained to expect and respond to potential aggression. What they were unprepared for was a level of public emotion that meant that many on encountering the ‘soldiers’ broke down and sobbed. Both shortly after the work took place, and more recently, Deller has publicly linked this out-pouring of emotion to political uncertainty at the time post the EU referendum. For me this is to significantly underestimate the power of our national connection with remembrance in general, and the iconography of World War One in particular.


© and acknowledgement 14-18 Now

My connection with remembrance has always been strong. Many if not most of my peers had parents who were born during, or immediately after, the Second World War. Mine were older. My father served in the navy during the war (though not technically old enough to do so) and my mother has vivid memories of the London Blitz. At least one Uncle also served, and my maternal Grandfather too young to fight in the first world war, found himself (to his great distress) too ill in the second, to be accepted front line duty, and served in the London Home Guard. In addition to the Great Uncle mentioned above, another (a lifelong pacifist), was a second world war conscientious objector, and served in other ways. I imagine we are not that unusual in this collective heritage.

These experiences, my father’s in particular, were frequently talked about, sometimes with an immediacy that belied their distance. It was commonplace to hear reference to an older relative having ‘been in the forces’. In spite of having been born decades later, I grew up in the long shadow of the world wars alive in my family, and the more immediate influence of the Cold War, with its terrifying and ever present nuclear threat. As a child, and particularly as a teenager, (that time of all in life when we are desperate to ‘fit in’), I resented this ‘difference’ from many of my peers deeply. It is only in recent years, with the benefit of hindsight (how wonderful that is), that I realise how lucky I was, to grow in the shadow of the generations that gave all.

The activities we associate with ‘remembrance’ are now mostly ‘commemoration’. We can no longer turn to direct memories of those who gave their tomorrows. With the passing of Harry Patch in 2009, the last surviving combat soldier in the trenches, of any country, died. And there are now very few living who were alive during World War One. In the decades to come we will inevitably lose that same connection with the witnesses of World War Two. Yet the further we are from the experience of ‘world wars’, the more central ‘remembrance’, has apparently become to national life and identity.

The decades of ‘peace’ have in part been anything but. Post 9/11, war is everywhere. It runs into the Manchester Arena with a bomb, through the streets of Borough Market with a knife, and in the hearts of those who believe hate is the answer. As a nation we may now be more consciously familiar with random loss, and mourning. It is also not surprising that we now ‘remember’ with contemporary relevance. ‘Blood Swept Lands…’ and ‘We are here…’, were literally made for the social media age. We articulate through the visual. If we haven’t seen it and shared it – and therefore participated in it (even if only by re-tweeting) – did it really happen?

In 2016 there were suggestions that the art of 14-18 Now, and in particular ‘We are Here..’ had the potential to grow popular support for increased public funding for the arts, at a time when this is clearly threatened. In 2017 there has been an emerging debate that perhaps there is now too much ‘remembrance’ and that the ‘message of the poppy’ has been lost. Are we now living in an age of art in the service of remembrance? Or remembrance in the service of art?. Or both? And does it matter?

I’m not sure it does. Every generation will remember and memorialise in its own image, for that is the path to relevance and engagement. However, connection to a world characterised by individual effort and sacrifice for the common good, still has much to teach us, not least about our humanity. That art can articulate and inform this connection, is only testament, both to its power to connect and transform, and its importance in our personal and national lives.

All text © A-Sense-of-Place
All images, unless otherwise stated, © A-Sense-of-Place.


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

14-18 Now

Canary Wharf Remembrance Art Trail

There is Art. There is Hope. – There is Art. There is Hope.