Down the Road

Madeleine Howard

(Manchester)


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Welcome to Manchester! You! Yes, you! Alright?

We’re starting in town and then heading south. The city centre has always been “town” to us.

Here we are, in St. Peter’s Square. See!—the trams hum by quite gently, honking their funny honk every so often if someone is walking too slowly across their tracks. See!—the Central Library is white and neoclassical, modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, but this grand old labyrinth is always friendly: it is hung with colourful banners advertising reading events for children or exhibitions on real local culture, like the nightlife scene in Moss Side in the 1970s before the government bulldozed the whole bloody thing and some of the youth got into guns. Community has a way, though. Just tune your radio to Legacy 90.1 FM: …shout out to snowy. This is a man that’s listened to me for…thirty-five years? Oh my days. He’s actually got me recorded on a cassette. He sent it to me. Big respect to you, snowy…

Anyway, I’m digressing. Back to it.

See!—Piccadilly Gardens is the centre and we’re surrounded by this mad collection of humans going about their business: all these laughing, intense faces; all the hours spent sitting on benches on your phone; all the pubs leaking day-trippers back out into the street; all the children running and splashing in the fountain when it’s sunny; all the Chinese, Caribbean, Greek, Kebab vendors and the scent a nourishing thing, isn’t it? 

The clothing is eclectic, everyone expressing themselves in the way they want to. And see!—the shouting preachers on Market Street armed with a megaphone and a magniloquence, explaining why we must try to avoid going to hell. 

Our love is unconditional.

When it’s night-time, I’ll show you where the city’s love comes from—its beating heart. I was made in Manchester nightclubs, where coloured lights push their way through the translucent, steamy air and we stretch our fingers out to touch them. The basement of Soup Kitchen [i] is dark and smells dank, as all the good clubs do. You get used to it. 

Antwerp Mansion is a dilapidated Victorian mansion that was illegally used as a club in the 2010s, where the smell was even worse and the vibe even better. There were rumours the locked basement was a flooded swamp. The toilets had no doors but you’ll find a friendly human body to protect your modesty. Antwerp was shut down for clubbing: it is now an arts space. Across the city, the culture remains of pounding bass and live MCs who lean into the crowd, junglists old and new commanding a bouncing and skanking army who heave, step and flow as one.

We got a little lost. Upstairs, downstairs, toilet, back and forth, do you smoke? 

There’s something so British about being literally underground, in a hot box away from not only the long, star-kissed sub-zero nights of winter but your very past and future, too. 

Talk about mindfulness! Nothing else matters when you’re down there, where your body runs the road because the beat gets inside you. I can take you to a hole in the ground that will love you, too: we’ll romp, stomp and slide across the floor, until three or four, then take the bus or the long walk home.

Do you cycle? You should. The pavements are wide and the road is flat for miles: the hills are all out there [ii].

We can head South down Oxford Road past the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Metropolitan University: did you know that Manchester has the highest student population of any city in Europe? We are quite proud of being big and full and far from elite. 

When we get to the Steve Biko [iii] Building (the Students’ Union for the University of Manchester) you’ll see windows, walls and bus stops plastered with political posters: Why you should be a Marxist in 2023. Socialism isn’t dead…could have fooled me, but where else but Manchester?

Here, lots of young’uns get in your way. I was one of them. Nowadays, I frown and huff and puff and sweep through them as they dither, faces upturned to the cherry blossoms that swing in the windy spring sky. 

Manchester is my own: my longest-ever relationship. We are close.

A little further, Oxford Road becomes Wilmslow Road at the start of the Curry Mile [iv], a name accepted by all despite its inaccuracy: as well as curry houses, we’ll see the shisha bars, the mouth-watering dessert parlours and the expansive Middle Eastern grills. We’ll see shops selling Islamic dress, books and homeware: it’s the hub of an emphatic British Asian community. 

I have lived a stone’s throw from here for five years and I know all the sights to make you smile: little girls dressed to the nines doing pavement pirouettes, bows in their hair, one toe pointed, on their way to a special meal out; the same men who always seem to be taking a break, sitting in plastic chairs outside the barber’s and gruffly supervising pedestrians; the bright crates of fruit, vegetables and herbs piled high outside Worldwide Foods, free of choking plastic. And I always smile when I see Tony. 

Tony is one of the long-termers: an Irishman originally, with an accent unblemished by years in England, he was homeless when I first met him on Wilmslow Road around seven years ago. I don’t always give money to the countless people sitting in the street—I’m no angel—but somehow Tony got my change and pretty soon my conversation. He is a soft grey colour, slim and wiry, with a lovely smile and clear blue eyes edged with deep creases. Still handsome, I would guess he is in his fifties.

When I used to walk to the shop or to town, if he was there I would stop and squat down next to him, froggy-style, and he would talk. He can bloody talk for England (or should I say Ireland?) and is able to keep up a constant, well-considered ream of stories from his past and present for as long as I’ll sit with him: if I’ve not got an appointment, I’ll join to watch the world pass by for thirty or forty minutes. Without reserve, he immediately treated me like family and through our catch-ups over the years has followed my studies, then my interviews, then my jobs, then my quitting, with sympathy. He has a council flat now, perhaps because he kept getting ill or slipping on ice and breaking bones, but I still see him on the Curry Mile sometimes, out to make up enough for the electric.

‘You’re looking very well,’ he said, happily, a couple of weeks ago.

‘Yep, I’ve been on holiday to Europe and quit my last job.’

‘Ooh, lovely. Yeah, I always thought you didn’t look as well in that job.’

‘The pressure was too much, Tony.’

He would shake his head and we’d both feel good for talking about things. 

I gave him twenty quid, making up for the months I hadn’t seen him. He has pretty severe lung cancer now, not to mention the crutches, so it always makes my day to see him alive. 

Finally, we come to the park. Gratefully.

He’s just another slightly pot-bellied dad from round here. Look, he’s alone, just standing shirtless in the meadow. He has taken off his t-shirt and tucked it into his trousers. It hangs down and he looks like a cowboy, doesn’t he, standing bare-chested towards the benevolent sun? It is September 15th, 2023, one week until the autumn equinox, but the air is warm and they mowed the meadows today. Five minutes is all you need with the scent of cut grass.

He stands in the middle of the mown meadow, swaying ever so slightly, the t-shirt hanging to his thigh.

The 70 hectare park Platt Fields runs along the west side of Wilmslow Road and has always, always been a green place. The first records of the land of Platt comes from 1115 and for the next eight hundred years it was the private grounds of Platt Hall, transforming from an old English terror into a newly built Georgian elegance in the 18th century, where the friends of the wealthy could rustle through flower beds lit with torches and breathe in the peace and quiet of a morning above stairs in a manor house.

By the late 19th century, after the smog became so you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face and the proliferation of lower and middle classes became a touch too much for their blood, the family had abandoned the Hall and moved to London. Robert Southey once wrote, ‘I would rather be hanged in London than die the natural death of a poor man in Manchester’, but that was in 1808, some decades before public parks were created across the city to alleviate the “poor man”’s condition. In 1910, Platt Fields was about to be sold as building space for more terraced houses, but the park’s destruction was saved by a local philanthropist [v] who successfully campaigned for the land to be bought with city money and rebuilt as a “People’s Park” by hundreds of local labourers. He stipulated that there were to be no rules in this park: it was for the children.

Now, Platt Fields, to me, is where family is. In summer, men in white keep a territory for cricket, not far from where a diversity of mushrooms grow in autumn. Barbecuing is a serious business and elders gather round enormous grills brought from home, dipping hands into cool-bags to fetch food, children playing in a spiral around this venerable picnic all Sunday long. Students and singletons loll on the grass like it’s a beach and kids whizz up and town the Olympic standard BMX track in the sports complex known as the “teenage village”.

Many times this summer, I sat in the tall grass and watched people come and go behind my sunglasses. I remember, once, the bright evening sun lit the tops of the trees and shone into my face but there was a strip of shade beneath that no sun reached. Noises began to emit from this darkness, cracks of branches, murmurs and laughter, and I knew it was teenage boys climbing and jostling with nature. Suddenly, three of them approached me.

‘Hello.’

‘Hello.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Just sitting,’ I said.

‘Oh, we thought you were meditating.’

‘Nope, I’m just sitting here.’ I put my shoes on. ‘Maybe I was meditating by accident.’

They floated away.

Welcome to Manchester. People will talk to you here: they’ll survey you in the typical Northern way, squinting, maybe grinning, and wanting a conversation. I like this. The thing is, if you choose to make your home in a city you can’t get away from other people and they can’t get away from you, so you must be kind: every look, every word and every gesture has a consequence. A city like this wears its heart on its streets and demands a relationship with you: the longer you walk down the same road, the closer you will be.

To strength in numbers. 

To love when you’re lonely. 

To community.

 

Endnotes

[i] I think they call themselves just SOUP now to avoid mix-ups: my best mate once accidentally got a taxi to a real soup kitchen trying to get there.

[ii] To the South and East, The Peak District surrounds the city.

[iii] South African anti-Apartheid activist.

[iv] The nickname for the stretch of Wilmslow Road that runs through Rusholme.

[v] His name was William Royle.

Madeleine Howard

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Madeleine Howard is a writer and educator living in Manchester, UK. She holds a Masters degree in English Literature and American Studies from The University of Manchester and is a qualified secondary school teacher. She now works as a writer, private tutor and voice over actor. Above all, her work aims for honesty, humour and humanity. Her poetry and prose has been published in SoulSauceLiterary, Nerve zine, Tin Can Poetry and Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place and Nature. Follow her on Instagram @mhowardwords.

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