Mhairi McFarlane tries to evoke a city and it's micro-climate in her book 'You Had Me at Hello': "that special Manchester rain that manages to be both vertical and horizontal at the same time". When I moved there aged 18, the first thing I did was to go out and buy an umbrella: Wielding one in a Manchester downpour requires skill and dexterity; generally......you still get wet.
In spite of its climate which is famously to be thanked for the cotton industry, I have loved this city my whole life yet only lived there sporadically. As a little girl, my memories are of the days before Christmas, travelling to Picadilly station from Penistone and visiting Kendal Milne's department store. Even for a child who lived not far outside Leeds, the lights of Deansgate seemed spectacular beyond measure and that huge Art Deco store like the biggest shop on earth. Manchester and its bright lights was a treat, a longed for reward if I was good: An amazing day out. Small wonder then that when I chose College, I applied to the University of Manchester. Believe it or not, I turned down a place at University College London to go there, a decision which might seem strange to some.
This year, for the first time, I had the privilege of spending the whole of Christmas here. Here's hoping that it will be the same for many Christmases to come. This year for the first time, I shopped in the Arndale Shopping Mall on Christmas Eve, I attended the Christmas Eucharist in Manchester Cathedral and on Christmas Day I enjoyed the quiet of an almost deserted Piccadilly, wandering warm and happy with my boyfriend. So much has happened since I last lived in Manchester as a teenager.
Aged 18, I arrived in Manchester to live in Fallowfield, the student suburb. I was young and impressionable, in emotional turmoil and doubtIng my gender identity and sexuality. In my dreams, Manchester was the big City where I could finally confront my problems and just be me. I had spent my childhood and teen years as a girl inside yet accepted as the opposite by those around me. I asked my Mum to teach me how to knit and sew. In summer when I walked into town (Wakefield) via Thornes Park, it was in cut off jean shorts embroidered with flowers and homemade tops. I stitched my check blouses up to bare my midriff and tied my long dark wavy hair up with a ribbon. When I was in that place, life seemed simple and I was happy.
By the time I attended College, life had gone sour, I began to lose a grip on who I was and what might become of me. Much of how my life unravelled is already covered elsewhere in this blog. It was probably too much to expect Manchester to sort out my problems. Leaving home only created more of them. I was in a relationship with my best (girl)friend. With hindsight it was a same sex relationship. To onlookers it looked like a straight one. It was an entanglement that didn't help. In my room I was myself; a girl working hard to get her degree; to my College friends I was gay, to my parents and girlfriend I was the exact opposite. A mirror image in terms of gender and sexual orientation. Something had to give, maybe it had to be me. Messing up an overdose before Christmas lead me to believe I was a failure and a disappointment, especially to myself. I ran home and retreated into what others around me expected: someone who seemed like a boy and was supposed to act like one....
So much for the angst. It removed much of the shine from Manchester's bright lights. It was long enough ago for Canal Street to seem like a sordid and unrespectable place. It wasn't the Gay Village. The Village had not yet come to being. It was a place for cruising and meeting, bordered by dank dark canal and a convenient distance from Piccadilly station. I preferred just being out in the city with friends; in Albert Sq, Piccadilly, Princess Street and the Student Quarter around Oxford Rd. The memories were good ones even though the personal experiences were bad. I salvaged that much from my past.
Periodically I've returned to the City. For so many years I've lived within 2 hours by train. As I've grown and changed so has the city. Once austere and northern, Manchester is now more like a modern European city. Trams thread the streets. It has a wonderful juxtaposition of high rise and neo gothic. Piccadilly is a busy thriving commercial hub full of great bars and hotels. Chinatown has the most amazing shops and restaurants, the Northern Quarter is bohemian and quirky, the Village just plain fabulous. Everyone has there favourite district, I just love it all. As I came out and became myself Manchester has redefined its place in the world and grown more stylish.
This year, just before Christmas, I took my boyfriend to visit the John Rylands Library. The last time I visited that amazing building, I was 19, perceived to be the opposite gender to what I really am. At High School and in College I had so many crushes on those dreamy guys around me. It was an truly upsetting and frustrating time. Knowing that I could never be who I needed to be publicly led to distress, anxiety and frustration. With no outlet I turned it all on myself both mentally and physically; self-harming my body and my mind. Hurting 'helped'. It became a punishment for having a body that had let me down and a mind that would not do what I wanted. Forcing myself to be what others expected was only what I deserved. Seeking sex in ways that got me hurt felt appropriate too. Denied the dreamy romantic love from guys which I secretly wanted I felt I deserved no better than the abuse I actually received.
Now, the John Ryland's has changed and yet it hasn't. It's beautiful interior is enhanced by a new plate glass foyer; a tastefully designed modern addition. The two complement each other perfectly. Through modern changes you can see that inside, the library is as it always has been. The new enhances and showcases what truly is a gem of architecture and a visionary inspiration to those seeking knowledge. I too have changed without changing. People around me can see who I properly am now. My clothes and how I present myself are how I've always truly been. They just enable others to see clearly what I've known all along.
Returning to the John Rylands with my boyfriend's caring arm around my waist and his loving kisses when no one was looking, was the most improbable and impossible reversal of fortunes. We were treading in my 19 year old footsteps, following a despairing teen. A teen who tried to deny what she would finally become. I'm glad it turned out that way. Thank Manchester that it did.
POSTSCRIPT: if you ever have the privelege to visit the John Rylands in Manchester, be sure you visit the loos. The Victorian lavatories are a work of art and well worth a visit. As a 19 year old I used the wrong toilets because I was expected to. This Christmas, I could finally use the right ones :)