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