HOW ARE YOU TODAY – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 5

Another post about language, but not in the manner of previous posts. I won’t be spouting poetry, or analysing turns-of-phrase. This is about communication, connection, and companionship. I’ve written before about Manchester’s homelessness problem (let me stress here that it is not the homeless that are the problem, it’s homelessness), which is something that us everyday folk decide to not engage with every day.

I cross the city centre every day.  I live here, I work here, I go to the shops here, I study here, go to the gym here, go for a midnight walk here (more to follow on this seemingly controversial matter), live out my whole existence here.

At first, like so many other new Mancunians, I just accepted homelessness as an unfortunate consequence of living in a large city.  But as the years passed, the economy dwindled, and the political climate became harsher; and it became more noticeable.  Today, you cannot avoid it.  No amount of averting one’s eyes can hide the fact that we have a monumental level of homelessness in our city.

An integral part of the problem is the social deprivation that breeds the disillusion, unemployment, addiction, poor health, and non-participation that makes one more likely to become homeless. We cannot solve the rampant social malaise by putting a roof over people’s heads, but the preferred course of action is currently “do nothing”, which doesn’t seem to be fixing those problems either.

Anyway, back to language. I went off on that particular tangent to illustrate that homelessness is everywhere and most people don’t seem to give a toss about it (yep, sounds harsh, but if you can find any evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it – I’m not holding my breath). From my point of view, I do care, but I feel powerless to do anything. The structure of our society isn’t conducive to benevolence (I’m expecting John Galt to stroll in any day now), and as I said in my last post on homelessness, I would bankrupt myself if I gave just a tiny amount to each of the needy. So what then? Who gets my spare change? On what criteria should I pick and choose who deserves a meal or a bed tonight? No matter what choice I make, someone is screwed.

And because I can’t give to everyone, I apologise a great number of times per day to those doing the asking.  And things started to happen.  Often, I’d walk past someone, apologise, and be on my way.  But I’d receive acknowledgement, and a word of thanks, or wishing me a good night (I have NEVER had a bad experience with a homeless person in my decade-and-a-half here; the thousands of society’s leftovers that I’ve encountered are just trying to get on, like the rest of us).  And then one time in Piccadilly Gardens, a particularly persistent gentleman accosted me for more than the usual two seconds, and he told me a little of his story.  I listened and chatted for a few minutes, and as we parted, he thanked me for speaking with him.  “Most people wouldn’t” he said; and I don’t doubt that.

Nowadays, I give not just my spare change, but my spare time.  I’ll take a couple of minutes to sit and talk with homeless people.  I’ve learnt so much about other humans – many stories are tragic, but many are fascinating, and delightful.  The elderly man who carries all his possessions in two shopping trolleys and some carrier bags?  He was a historian.  The dreadlocked Big Issue seller I met in Cambridge?  He was a graduate of the University.  Everyone has a story to tell, and no-ones is worth more or less than anyone else’s. When we walk on past beggars without even looking them in the eye, we reinforce the idea that they are “other”.  I don’t always have money to give, but just a little human contact and a few words can make the difference between feeling human, and feeling cast aside.

CLUBBING IN YOUR 30s – SANKEY’S SOAP

During my undergrad days, Sankey’s was touted as The Place To Go on a night out.  If you were serious about House Music (yes, yes I definitely am), this was your sanctuary.

Unfortunately, during my initial time at university, I was a bit of a Shrinking Violet (hard to believe, I know), and I didn’t really end up with the type of flatmates I actually got on with (or even liked, tbh). It was a self-perpetuating cycle: not going out because I didn’t have many good friends; not having many good friends because I didn’t go out. I finally decided to do something about my miserable predicament in my mid-twenties (more on this in another post), and started exploring the awesome city I’d lived in for Ten Damn Years.

I found some friends (in the office – who says it’s all work and no play?) who did want to go on a proper night out, and so we embarked on an adventure.

Now in my uni days, it wasn’t the case that I never went out, it was more that I went to the safe, pedestrian venues that all the other preppy clones were going to.  There was plenty of bad behaviour and fun to seek out, but it was in a controlled environment, never straying too far from the interests and venues of the predetermined middle-class student experience.  I craved more, but didn’t have the boldness to go out and get it.

In my thirties, the opportunity for adventure aligned with my spirit for novelty, and I joined the heaving, sweating masses at Da Club.  Most of the patrons are younger than me, but there is a substantial minority of thirty-somethings trying to capture that last flush of youth prior to middle-aged spread.

But there is one Universal Truth:

In the club environment, there are exactly two topics of conversation.  Due to the fleeting nature of our interactions, and the audibility of nothing except some dirty beats, brevity is essential.  These talking points are:

  1. “Have you got any drugs?”
  2. “Do you fancy a f%&k?”

And that is it.  No great philosophical debates to be found here – save these for the pub or the after-party.  But it actually suits me as a clubber in my thirties – in my more naïve and non-confrontational guise, I had a severe aversion to the word “no”.  In some respects, it gave me some incredible experiences, in others it led me to some icky and dangerous places.  But now, at this time of my life, I just want to go and dance, and coexist in indifference with my fellow humans.  No, I don’t have any drugs, and no, I’m not going back to yours.  I’m just here to dance.

I SAW SOMETHING

One of the aspects of living in a large city is that you see things that just don’t happen in the rest of the country.  My parents, who live in a tiny village in the Home Counties, complain about neighbourhood problems frequently, and I don’t even bother comparing their plight with the myriad social ills that you can find in the middle of Manchester.

One of our biggest problems is homelessness. The council doesn’t seem to have control of the situation at all – there were numerous protests (read: campsites outside the Town Hall) last year, and the main result of this was the Council invested more in moving the protesters on. Social housing is difficult to find; the wait can be years. What is someone supposed to do in the meantime? And what if you have a crisis that needs to be dealt with now? Most of the shelters have closed down, and yet many of the people who need them probably wouldn’t fare well there either. Rules on behaviour, alcohol, drugs, pets, curfews etc, etc, just don’t fit with the erratic lifestyle of someone with a set of other problems that have led to their situation. And so the only place left is the streets.

We can’t solve the addiction and mental health problems by providing more homes or relaxing society’s rules. But we can make progress on homelessness by tackling those social problems that make it more likely.

There are a number of settlements around the city; along the canal banks, under the Mancunian Way, up near UMIST, and plenty more. These people live in clusters of tents, because it’s better than a shop doorway. Seeing homelessness has become so commonplace now, that if I were to give every homeless person in the city centre a quid, I’d easily blow a month’s salary in a day (and I have a reasonably well-paying job).

All Human Life Is Here
All Human Life Is Here: a tent village beneath the railway arches (on the left of the shot) on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, overlooked by the Manchester Hilton.

Living on the streets is not good for you, mentally or physically.  Statistically, the homeless are more likely than the general population to have ill-health generally, to have less access to healthcare, and to die prematurely.  I’m actually amazed that in the decade-and-a-half that I’ve been here, I didn’t see a dead homeless person; until last week.

I was walking towards my boyfriend’s house late at night, and up ahead of me on my route, I could see something that looked wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  As I got closer, I could see a man in a sleeping bag slumped in an unnatural position against a shop front.  He was lying in a way that one wouldn’t be able to relax and sleep in, and he wasn’t responding to either of the two police officers stood by him, radioing in what they’d discovered.  All signs indicated that this poor chap was no longer alive.

I don’t know what he died of, and it doesn’t matter much to me.  Another human has left this earth, a human who took a humble place and yet was still a part of the society that shapes all of us.  As I walked home, I felt shock and sadness, and I wanted to put down what I had seen on paper.  So I did what any self-respecting hipster would do, and wrote a poem about it.  Here it is:

Tonight it is hot.
Hot enough for me to stroll semi-clothed through the city centre.
And yet,
A shiver runs down my spine.
In front of a shop that sells kitchens for more than the value of my one bedroom flat,
A homeless man lies slumped and still.
Two doleful police officers stand watch,
Waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
This is Manchester, in 2016.

If that man lives on only in my words, then a part of him does remain. I never even knew his name, and yet he changed me.

PUBHD MANCHESTER NO. 8

Seeing as I’m one of the organisers, it’s only right that I promote the event on my blog.  This coming Monday, 21st March, it’s the next PubhD Manchester: this month on Psychological Sciences, Collaborative Performance, and Philosophy.  It’s a pretty brainy line-up; we hope you’ll have a stimulating evening!

Speakers: Monday 21st March 2016 – PubhD Manchester

We are at the Crown and Kettle, one of my favourite Manchester Pubs. It’s near to Piccadilly Station, and a short walk from Market Street. We are in the Snug, a room as cosy as it sounds. Real ale, a real fire, and a real good time. Join us for an 8pm start.

END OF AN ERA 1.1: AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER

I wrote about the demolition of the Grosvenor halls of residence in an earlier post, END OF AN ERA 1.  Today, I was walking to my office after attending a training session at University Place (this is going to be one for a future post), when I was stopped by a woman looking into the Grosvenor complex from Booth Street East.  She asked me some questions about what was going on, and I explained that they had started demolishing the halls about 4 weeks previously (at the moment, they’ve done some groundworks around the front of Grosvenor Place, on York Street, and they appear to have started taking the roof off of Bowden Court).

She told me that she was also a UMIST graduate, and that she had also lived in these halls.  She had been away for a long time (20 years!), and she was checking out her old haunts to see what thinhgs were like now.  We got talking and shared some stories of what it was like to live here.  She used to go out with someone who worked in the building opposite, and they’d wave to each other through the high-level windows across the service road.  And I used to sit in my room at night, watching the colours change on the UMIST sign next to the weather station on the top of the Maths and Social Sciences building.

We parted at the path that takes you across Brook Street to the rest of the North campus.  She wanted to get some photos of the site, and I had work to do.  But it was great to chat and reminisce with someone who I’d never met before, but shared the same experience as me.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST 2

About 5 years ago I designed a housing estate in Gorton, but due to financial constraints, only part of the site was built. There is now more money coming back to the construction industry, so the second phase of the project is underway. I’m really proud to drive by the site and see something that I designed being used, lived in and enjoyed.

houses
New houses on Clowes Street

apartments
New flats on Hyde Road
The row of shops in the picture, right, are one of the few remnants of the old council estate that once stood here.  Most of the old houses are gone, leaving an overgrown wasteland.  There are one or two rows of houses remaining, the only streets with the signs still on, and not cordoned off by Heras fencing.  Within these abandoned roads, a single house is still inhabited, unlike its neighbours all boarded up with notices on the front door stating that everything of value has been removed from inside.  The residents are not ready to move on yet.

Last one standing.
Last one standing.

Impressively enough, some of these shops are still open.  Just not today.
Impressively enough, some of these shops are still open. Just not today.

These streets used to be a filming location.  Shameless was shot here, and the old homes with the ginnels and balconies of a 1960s housing estate formed the backdrop for a neighbourhood in decline.  It was decided that this neighbourhood needed gentrifying in real life, and that’s where my hard work came in.  We lose a landmark and gain a new home.

END OF AN ERA 2

Ah, a sad one.  I’m not a sentimentalist at all, so the demolition of my old University Halls (from an earlier post, END OF AN ERA 1) was just noteworthy rather than something to shed a tear over.  But this one is genuinely sad.  Decent, old pubs are closing at a rate of 29 per week (check out the Lost Pubs Project – you can disappear on this site for hours), and while the market is changing, sometimes that’s not the only factor.

We used to use a beautiful old boozer near the city centre for pub talks, and to meet up generally whenever we had a spare afternoon – because it was lovely, the licensees were friendly, and it was in a great location. We’d built up a good relationship with the landlord and we knew we were always welcome.  Sadly, the landlord’s circumstances changed, and they needed to move on. The pub was taken over immediately – great location, captive audience, and seemingly profitable (with hindsight, I’m not so sure about this one.  The old owners seemed to be bending over backwards to get the place to work, and while it was working, it must have been bloody hard work). I was apprehensive from the start, the new landlord seemed like a bit of an oaf, but the pub was still our place, and we weren’t going to give it up just because the landlord was a bit odd. But…

It soon became an unfriendly place.  I spoke with the new landlord, whose aspirations for the place were reminiscent of The Jockey from Shameless.  He launched into a tirade about how terrible the old owners were (not sure if he realised that every person in the bar was there due to how good the old leaseholders were), including how he felt that they had alienated the locals by catering to the wrong audience.  He said he wanted to get the locals and the students in, and he was going to do this through the medium of karaoke (good grief).  For the next few weeks there was a set of speakers and a karaoke machine sitting untouched in the corner of the bar, taking up half the seating area and looming over us with it’s threat of chavdom.

Two things:

  1. People have been trying for years to unite the locals and the student populace through meetup.com and groups like PubhD, and it’s going to take more than a bit of Kylie and Jason;
  2. There are many people living in the area, but the demographic has changed a lot from the type of locals he was trying to attract.  I can think of one “old man pub” in the area that hasn’t shut due to the regulars moving on or dying, and you don’t go in there without discreet body armour.

Additionally, the former owners had apparently done it wrong by focusing too much on food, so he was going to bring in the proper drinkers by offering: exactly the same range of beers, and, um, doing food.

And to demonstrate just how out-of-touch he was, he acted faux-surprised and make a hilarious joke about women drinking bitter.  “Ho, ho, you’ll be getting the vote next”.  I thought he was going to offer me it in a ladies glass.

As if he couldn’t make us feel any more uncomfortable, he commented to drinkers in our group about how much our drinks were earning him and complained if someone had a glass of tap water.

The pub has been under new ownership for about two months, and I noticed it was closed a few nights this week – notably on one occasion where we had pre-arranged an event to be held there (aargh!).  So I stopped by one afternoon to ask them what was happening with the place, and, ignoring the fact that the bar staff were openly hostile (I was going to at least stay for a half but they convinced me against it – interesting business model they’re operating by), it was worrying that they said they’d been closing up early due to lack of trade.  Places like this are, unfortunately, under threat, and diversification is key to their survival.  When I resided in Chorlton, I lived near another stabby-looking pub, but it was just about alright enough for a group of mature students to make it in and out alive again.  But the establishment knew it’s fate, and did something about it.  They advertised their palatial meeting and conference rooms for free to local groups, and soon started raking it in again.  If the owners of our local had been on the ball, they would have made a tidy sum from the drinkers that they have so far managed to scare off.

END OF AN ERA 1

These are the University halls on Grosvenor Street, where I spent my first full year in Manchester.  When I lived there, these halls were still part of UMIST, which merged with the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004.  That was 15 years ago, and now the last residents have left and there is fencing and warning signs to keep people out.  They’re being demolished this summer to make way for the new engineering campus to be built on the site bounded by York Street, Grosvenor Street, Booth Street East and Brook Street.

Viewed from Grosvenor Street, opposite the gym
Viewed from Grosvenor Street, opposite the gym

The back of the building - my old kitchen window is next to the tree on the second floor from the top
The back of the building – my old kitchen window is next to the tree on the second floor from the top

STALYBRIDGE

I needed to go to Stalybridge, for the very important reasons that it is nice, it was sunny, and it is rich pickings for Ingress players.  So off I went on my day off.  I had a number of cool things to do, namely complete two Ingress missions, get some new portals (all is explained here), and go for a drink in the famous Buffet Bar in the railway station.  It’s a lovely pub with real ales and a beer garden that backs on to platform 4 (it genuinely does! But you’re not allowed to take drinks on to the platform).

Stalybridge is actually quite well-known for its nightlife (the locals call it Staly Vegas), and it has a very high pub quotient.  And there are also two very cool pubs in Stalybridge.  I love geeky facts and imagine my joy when I discovered that both the UK pub with the shortest name, and the UK pub with the longest name, are in the same town! Wow!

 Q is just round the corner from the railway station and looks trendy and friendly (ooh you get a rhyme as well as an amazing fact). Q Q
The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn is located in a housing estate just 700 yards away.  The name is so long that the sign is the full width of the pub! The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn

ECLIPSE

Yesterday morning, my lovely boy woke me up to see the eclipse!  In my sluggish stupor I had forgotten all about it and I was most upset at being woken at the ungodly hour of, um, 0830.  But when he told me the purpose of his interruption of my glorious slumber, I was totally OK with it.  Maybe even a little excited.

We had Stargazing Live on on the telly, and we had a great view of the eclipse over the flats across the street. What with it being Manchester, it was predictably cloudy, but this actually worked in our favour. Sometimes we couldn’t see the Sun at all, but when it was visible,we were able to direct light through a pair of binoculars turned round the wrong way on to a piece of white card (really tiny Sun, but very clear). We also managed to get some photos of the eclipse when it was veiled by a thin cloud layer – this actually worked great because if there hadn’t been cloud, we wouldn’t have been able to see the eclipse with the naked eye (this would have been very dangerous!). It was difficult to tell whether it got slightly dimmer because of the eclipse or the cloud – or if it was just confirmation bias.

I remember the 1999 eclipse, and where I was living at the time it was much sunnier.  But there wasn’t the same amount of enthusiasm for it in the groups I hung out with then, so I didn’t really appreciate it.  But this time around it was way cooler. The 1999 eclipse was a 95% one from where I was living, and the 2015 partial solar eclipse was about 95% in Manchester too.  Here’s the best pic I took, with a close up of the Sun (it’s still pretty unclear but you can just make it out):

The beautiful Manchester sky
The beautiful Manchester sky

The Sun's in the red rectangle
The Sun’s in the red rectangle

2015-03-20 09.17.21
Impressive or what?