Future Hope is a special series of powerful essays about Manchester, exploring past experiences in the city and hopes for the future
in collaboration with Manchester International Festival
Becoming myself in the city is written by Elizabeth Gibson. @Grizonne
I am sitting in my flat in central Manchester. Outside the window is red brick, clumps of wild buddleia, the trundle of traffic. I have lived in the city for over eight years, on and off, but that always takes me by surprise. I could say that I’ve only really lived in Manchester in the last year, when, in the midst of global loss and change, I started walking around the city, really seeing it, taking photos, writing love letters to it.
This last year is when I have become self-employed, fully embraced my queerness, and started trusting and respecting myself. I am beginning to realise that both Manchester and I are sprawling and fluid and a work in progress. That every life experience has been a part of building me.
I arrived in 2012 to study languages, and settled into my room in a hall of residence in Rusholme. I was there for six years, with intermittent placements abroad, and holidays back in Wigan. My life in Manchester was contained within the Oxford Road corridor: jogging to lectures, carefully selecting my panini in the Student Union, drifting home, sitting down to dinner with a hundred others, eating stodgy desserts, and trying to sleep through the squirrels scrabbling on the roof.
“All of it was slowly, painstakingly laying a foundation for the person I can be now.”
It is easy to call it a bubble, and it was – an intense, lonely, treacly one. But those years of listening to the Indigo Girls in my room at one in the morning, writing poems about women and nervously putting them out in the world, and turning up, trembling, at queer student meetings and quizzes – all of it was slowly, painstakingly laying a foundation for the person I can be now.
I spent one winter almost starving myself, and walking the length of Oxford Road twice a day, through ice and snow. I was convinced that I lived in a different world to everyone around me. I would inhale the deep-fried scent of Archie’s, admire the pink, red and purple ukuleles in the window of Johnny Roadhouse Music. I thought of starting a band with two friends, but I didn’t have two friends. I wish I could reach back to that version of me and hold her tightly, keep her warm.
“At weekends, I started venturing out to queer groups, making conversation over hot chocolate and crumpets.”
I survived, and graduated. I got an office job and a flat in central Manchester. It was a new start, I thought. I had money, cut my hair short, wore ‘men’s’ shirts and boots. I walked through the centre every day to work – down Cross Street, past the Royal Exchange and Town Hall. I went on work nights out, got glimpses of bars and restaurants around the city. I bought a suit blazer and leapt around with my colleagues to Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect’, and felt the first flickerings of queer joy within myself.
I still spent the majority of my waking hours at work or home. But I shouldn’t discredit this time, either. I was learning and resting. I read Eileen Myles’ books and saw a life I’d like to have: living in a city flat, without luxury, but able to work as a writer and be comfortable in my sexuality. At weekends, I started venturing out to queer groups, making conversation over hot chocolate and crumpets. In March 2020, I went with my cinema group to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and felt something close to euphoria.
Then, lockdown came, and everything ground to a halt. I was put on furlough. My social groups were cancelled. I was incredibly alone. I started walking, in every direction I could.
“Walking in the city has brought me empowerment and autonomy: I decide my direction, the speed at which I go, and when to stop and rest. When to share a moment, and when to keep it for me.”
I discovered Ancoats, canals and houseboats and geese and swans. I watched fluffy cygnets grow. I would make my way down Deansgate, then start criss-crossing over the River Irwell, Manchester to Salford and back again, enjoying the view from each bridge, the cool breeze coming up from the water. I walked into Cheetham Hill, past neon takeaways, and boxes piled high with watermelons and squashes in front of a grocers. One night, the moon was so enormous and orange that it didn’t seem real. It hung over Asda, and I tried to take photos, but couldn’t do it justice. So, I just looked, and drank it in.
Over time, most of my groups started up again, online. I was so glad for the tentative friendships I had already forged, which helped give me the courage to Zoom with those people and with new ones. They keep telling me I have got so much more confident, and I am daring to believe it. Walking in the city has brought me empowerment and autonomy: I decide my direction, the speed at which I go, and when to stop and rest. When to share a moment, and when to keep it for me.
I have stopped working office jobs, and am self-employed as a tutor and writer. It was a big decision, but my new – and old – friends gave me advice, and I know now that this was absolutely the way that I was meant to be. Flexible, creative, in control of my days.
I recently turned down an opportunity to work in Spain. After the angst of deciding, once I knew I was staying put, I felt such a rush of relief and joy. I have been used to having an ending ahead – the Uni year, a placement abroad, my work contract. Now, there is no fixed ending in sight. I just exist, day to day, in my flat in Manchester. I teach and write, and at weekends, I have amazing meals at the local street food market. I wander and discover new places, or I re-tread my favourite routes.
I will get to see my Zoom friends in person one day, go to the Gay Village together, sing and dance and be my current, brave self. Or, I can walk alone, absorbing everything at my own pace. I feel a peace, and I am looking forward to my future, my life, in Manchester.
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