by Jude Rogers.
22. Northern Lines
Manchester calls me, and not for the first time. Half my life ago, it all began with The Smiths and Joy Division, the thought of their mystical homeland where Tony Wilson was King. Then, the city used to call to me four nights a week. Rough, chewy accents and soft, crackly songs would travel south, across the border, to my small Swansea bedroom. Curtains closed, one lamp on, only me and Mark and Lard, and our different abstractions of the industrial north.
And now I am here, outside the same BBC building, three hours before I go through the doors and broadcast from the same studio – Mark Radcliffe still behind his desk, the very best kind of furniture. It is a moving moment for me, one that makes me think how time has passed. But Manchester and I have even more to remember than that. I’m in town a few hours early, so I stroll along the Oxford Road, remembering how deeply this city cut into my skin in other ways, the afternoon light starting to fade behind the buildings. How now, all grown-up, it still pulls me in.
a. It is a Wednesday afternoon, the day of Cameron’s cuts. I walk past the BBC into the land of the students, of rucksacks and beige folders, holey trainers and tiny hangovers. In 1995, I was hoping to be one of them, getting the train up from Swansea to the philosophy department, falling in love with the bricks and the mortar, the air and the dust. I went to Oxford instead, a comprehensive girl bitten by the idea of a fancy education, before ending up feeling like a bulky square peg. For three years, I longed to be somewhere warmer, healthier, better.
When I came up here to see a friend, the road felt right under my feet. The sun blasts through the side-streets, and the past comes back, burning.
b. When I was 21, some years later, I went out with a boy here. We would walk down Oxford Road, bubbling with lager and laughter, and I’d look at the city’s old buildings, the way they had properly been preserved. Today, I see more of them. The Grosvenor Picture Palace with its chin in the air above the dirty cars. The Deaf And Dumb Institute newly opened up as venue. Around them, spotless noodle bars and cafes are polished to a glow, but grit still lingers in their corners, defiantly, happily. This is what I loved then, this is what I love now.
c. I walk past the old UMIST buildings, then Manchester Met, then the bold red and white of Royal Northern College for Music. I remember Richard and I breaking up, these streets fading in my mind. Now, every institute seems to be lining up proudly for inspection, waiting for Ofsted to swing by in its cape.
A skinny couple lurk near the latter, leaning against a phonebox, rolling fags. They stare at an advert on its door, debate its brightly-coloured promise to make any graduate a lawyer. The boy shakes his head. “No fucking chance, even that,” he says. He puts the paper to his lips, and flicks his light tiredly, before they walk off together, their heads down, their hands held.
d. The University Of Manchester sign, on the bridge, comes into focus. It takes me back to smoky snogs, Southern Comforts, bashed knees.
Just past it, someone has stuck a little note to a postbox. “Never Underestimate Your Capabilities”, it says, in spidery writing. Its intent could be optimistic, happy-clappy, a Carling short of a six-pack. On today of all days, it seems gentle and right.
And then I see the chalk, and my spirits lift even more.
e. Before I turn back, I notice how much has changed, how the new, swanky Manchester makes me feel a little jaded in comparison. A restaurant called Couture selling continental lagers. A new university building in a stout, silver cylinder. I think how Tony Wilson would have endorsed all this shininess, how it takes us from the clouds and the rain, how it aims for something hopeful.
But then I notice Blackwells Bookshop as I near the station, where I would spend all my days, my mind fizzing like a lightbulb. It now calls itself a knowledge retailer, and the phrase chills my bones. I wonder when that happened precisely, and what made it so – when education became something to buy and to sell, rather than something to have.
Under the old city sign, I notice the old tattoo shop getting grotty. I notice the older cafes, full of grimy coffee and grease. I notice the students I saw earlier, outside a pub called The Odder, sharing one pint, making it last. I go back to the old song lyrics, the old romances, the old times – and how we do what we can with what we have, if we have enough of it.
I push the door to go in, turning my back to Manchester again. I can still feel the sign watching, knowing it will always be with me.