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Letter to a City.

Manchester is obscured by haze:  blanketing the top of Hilton hotel. Saharan sand and European pollution have triggered a freak weather event: fine residue falling on cars and windows, dusting lungs. Sitting here, I know each brick the vapour slides along. I know there’s traffic winding below my first student flat on Oxford Road; cars forcing the vapour to eddy along in their slip streams, to close in again as they leave. I expect the same dorm room walls are covered in new posters. I know the spice of incense from the Mosque is still drifting through the windows of my old student house in Moss Side. I know the greenhouse café sits empty and mouldering, just around the corner. In the Northern Quarter, I know the tiny bits of the unreal city: the fiberglass masonry, the fake posters, the music shop that never existed, the one cardboard brick still stuck to a wall on Dale street:  left behind by TV  film crews and  film set prop designers. Never real but absorbed by the city and allowed to shape it all the same:  disguising the streets like a fake moustache.

I know Jillies Rock World is gone, replaced by a Tesco. That right now a student from the latest cohort is reaching for a loaf of bread in the spot where, on a dance floor a life ago, I kissed my husband for the first time.  I know the geese are getting ready for new broods of chicks down on the canal, that greedy developers are ripping up Pomona where the Lapwings nest and where, last year, I found a bin bag hastily stuffed full of weed: a trail of uprooted plants coming from the estates. There’s a pub, now a Sainsbury’s, that was the stage for one of those moments in which roads divert. A single point in time you can point to: thirty minutes that changed the direction of your life.

In that first student flat, I arrived half-formed and amorphous, to a community of students filled with optimism and drugs. I met wonderful life- long brothers, glittering misfits and eternal children. They seemed more complete than me: brave young things who would drag me, embryonic and filled with alcohol, through years of dancing, earnest late night discussions, basement drum sessions, awkward  self-expression, bunches of asparagus, days upon end of wakefulness, chairs through the back of my skull, Ally McBeal through a haze of weed, nights spent wondering for hours through streets that were mine, the occasional sense of wonder that I was out on my own: living for myself in this frantic city. A sense of true belonging. I love their faces.

I know the flat in Longsight Lee and I rented is nicer than it was. When we called it home, the door didn’t lock, the sink didn’t drain, the toilet broke. The local gangs threatened us a lot: once they tried to put us into the boot of a car, left us angry and hiding in a burger king. (I would meet one of them again a few years later, as my student in a Strangeways prison art class. “If we’dve known it was you miss, we’d never have done it”). The sofa collapsed, the heating broke, the cooker and fridge died.  We asked for new heating, and a joyless man screwed a heat bulb into the bathroom light socket: we spent the winter huddled there in a pool of fluctuating warmth, like incubating chicks. On Plymouth road, at the back of the flat, gangs began shooting each other. At night we played the “Is it a gun or a fire work?” game; checked the news to find out. I sat in the kitchen/diner and watched in frozen horror as the twin towers collapsed. Someone wrote “BIN” in big letters over our doorway, and we hootingly agreed.  A ginger headed child started climbing onto the roof below our bathroom and sliding through the window (he could’ve used the unlockable door). The wall fell over. The flat was condemned. We were sorry to leave: our time there measured out in the changing posters on the illuminated billboard outside our window.

I haven’t been there for a couple of years, but I know the blossom is frothy and pink all around the streets of Blackley right now, softening the red brick North Manchester terraces where we bought out first home. I know there’s a carpet of purple crocus flowering next to Boggart Hole Clough. On Crab Lane, our favourite neighbours are still walking their staffy; crooning Simply Red tunes as they go.  The first night we spent there the road was closed off: a man had assaulted his wife, climbed onto his roof. For four days there was a stand-off outside our door as I unpacked boxes, ending abruptly as he stabbed himself in the lung, tumbled from the roof. I put flowers in a vase. Placed a cushion. Made a home. We made a pond out of the old bath, and grumbled as local kids tried to set fire to our tree, burgled the school opposite and vandalised our car almost daily. We loved the portal to another time that Crab Lane represents: a whisper of old farms and cobbled villages, swallowed up by inner city estates. Our house had been weavers shop, a hundred years after it was mentioned in the Doomsday book.  I worked briefly as a florist: carefully dressed the coffin of a young Mancunian Mother as her child sat by, then taught in Strangeways: on it’s murky yellow psyche ward and it’s wings and workshops: filled with the city’s lost and the forgotten, the infamous and the angry. We loved the trees and Heaton Park, and we walked: learnt the paths, the hidden wildernesses that stretch across the city, breathing chlorophyll and wild garlic to the sound of the motorway.

An anti fur demo In St Annes square, sparked a touch paper. Already Vegan, we became campaigners too: every weekend for over a decade the streets became something new: a battleground, an auditorium, a new kind of playground. We developed a new family, that this time, stretched across the globe. We got used to challenging authority when it was wrong, and became familiar with the inside of holding cells. Vegan, Antifa. Meeting the EDL, BNP and those who profit from suffering: on our streets, in our home, and telling them: no. Not here.  Manchester is ours, and it is loud with the voices of those who have fought here, for here, and to be equal. Our city shifted. Our landmarks changed: we weaved routes between social centres and queer safe spaces, bouncing, flailing gigs, whirling dance floors, open fields tailing hounds in full cry, political meeting-houses and vegan cafes.  We made friends who became family. I grew, shaped by my city: finally, I found my voice and my direction. I know who I am now.

Our red brick street in Levenshulme is filled with cats. They sit under cars and stare, saucer eyed through our windows at our house rabbits. In a few weeks, the blossom on the tall cherry I planted will flower pink, but we’ll have gone. In summer, the borage will grow wild around the garden heavy with bees, the honeysuckle will flower. There will be spinning rides in Cringle fields, and Art shows at Bankley Gallery. For one week in late summer the lime trees will flower, and fill the street with the most beautiful scent I have ever experienced. It is the smell of summer, and of home. But we’ll be somewhere new again.

It’s been a while, Manchester, since I came home to you. We stayed while our friends have moved away, to other countries, other lives. I’ve lived out several here. To psychogeographers, the city is a love affair. Derive night is date night. Leaving, when you have poured over every street, every story: hurts. And I love you.