Over Christmas I spent two weeks in Manchester. It’s the longest I’ve been back since I left over two years ago. I mean really left, and not the temporary severing of university. As usual when I go back to Manchester, I kept asking myself the same question: why don’t I love this place? The answer should be straightforward, there are plenty of places I don’t love, that’s just the way it is. I’m not sure why I keep returning to this question, but a part of me feels that I should love it, should feel some sense of attachment.
As I walked or drove around the city or looked out from bus windows, one word kept coming to mind: grim. It’s a cliché worn far too thin, it’s grim up north. But no other word seemed to quite encapsulate the constant rain (and I’m not exaggerating, it really did rain the entire first week I was home), the grey skies, the crumbling down old houses, the alleyways full of rubbish, the cobbled streets and the undertow of poverty. My friend, who recently moved from Manchester to Barcelona, used the exact same word when we were comparing notes on expat life.
Still I kept asking myself that same question. It was going over in my head as I walked down Oxford Street to meet a friend and passed the old Odeon cinema. It’s been boarded up for years and I’ve often wondered what will become of it. Now the old Odeon signs have been removed from its façade and new hoardings have been put up showing the big glass box that will soon stand in its place. It saddened me to see such a beautiful old building being torn down and replaced with something lifeless and boring. More offices, more glass and concrete.
I realised that it wasn’t just the physical building I felt sad for. It was also a part of my childhood. That cinema was a staple of weekends with my dad. I remember smuggling in sweets from the corner shop because the concessions were too expensive. I remember the curve of the grand old staircase leading up to the screens. I remember the carpet with its floral pattern and I remember the way my dad would always, always fall asleep (and sometimes, mortifying, start snoring). I read the proposal for the new building that will replace it, it states that the new building will not have more than a local impact. I know that I have moved away, that I have revoked my right to be considered local, but those words seem to pull me back in.
As I walked on past the cinema, past St Peter’s Square and the Manchester Art Gallery, I realised that though I don’t love Manchester, it will always be an enduring part of my life. One day it will have diminished to a small fraction, but for now it still looms large and maybe it always will – perhaps that’s how childhood works, always more distant than it seems.
My mum is no longer living in ‘the old house’, so I stayed with my aunt during my trip home. People kept asking me whether I miss the house and I honestly don’t. But when my mum and I happened to be talking about the old fireplace in the back room and I suddenly pictured the new owners making a fire there, the thought felt wrong and strange. I felt what it might be like to be a ghost, watching a new life taking shape around me. Home isn’t necessarily that one house, and maybe it isn’t even the people you love (where the heart is), because I spent plenty of time with them over Christmas and I still didn’t feel that I had come home. Perhaps a sense of home has something to do with the accumulation of stuff. The stuff we buy countless pieces of furniture for, in an attempt to ingeniously hide it away. Though it doesn’t take much stuff to make a home. During my week of cycling across France and Germany, I found myself developing a routine involving the things in my panniers. Everything had its place in the tent and when everything had been put in its place, the once empty tent became home. The heart and hearth replaced by a small, one-ring stove.
I thought of the old house and its things and how those things were a link with what I suppose will now have to be called ‘the old old house’ – the one I lived in from birth to the age of 11. I thought of the big pile of towels in the bathroom, some of them so old and full of holes they should have been thrown away years ago. I thought of the mismatched cutlery and my favourite fork (the one with a slightly bent prong) and how one day perhaps my mismatch of cutlery will seem like a permanent thing to my own children. I thought too of the kitchen table and chairs and the day we bought them just before the move, that long shot in the dark, and I thought of the old cabinet that once belonged in my grandfather’s post office. All of these things, all of these lifetimes, make up a home.
A friend gave me a collection of poems for Christmas, Parallax by Sinead Morrissey. In the poem ‘Daughter’ she writes:
She’s learning this house
like a psalm: the crack
in the kitchen sink,
the drawers and all
their warring contents,
the geography of each room
immutable as television.
The drawers and all their warring contents. All that stuff. But it is the line about the geography of each room that stands out to me. Whilst I was staying at my aunt’s house, I kept stepping on creaky floorboards. In the old house I knew without even thinking which steps on the stairs to miss, which ones you could step on in a certain place so that they wouldn’t make a sound. I knew in which precise way to hop and leap from the bathroom to my bedroom without stepping on any loose floorboards. That’s how intimately I knew that house, it was a geography of reflexes.
I didn’t realise I was pronouncing the letter ‘h’ wrong until I was 19 and met my boyfriend. I don’t remember how it happened but as some point I pronounced the letter ‘h’ as ‘haitch’ and he corrected me. It’s a Mancunian thing and though there is no love lost between me and the Mancunian accent, I can’t bring myself to relinquish this part of me. I could change it if I wanted to, like getting a new haircut. But it is part of a story. Where are you from? people ask, you sound like you’re from the north. My vowel sounds give me away. The way I pronounce the eighth letter of the alphabet gives me away, and I don’t want to give it up. This northerness is important. As Esther Woolfson writes in Field Notes From a Hidden City, Of all things, it’s latitude that creates us, forms us, makes us who and what we are.
In the Netherlands I sometimes feel like an outsider when I’m surrounded by Dutch speakers having conversations I can’t understand. Being part of a place means knowing the language, or rather knowing the language is a way in to a place. Language is also a part of who we are and how we present those versions of ourselves to the world. My Barcelona friend is learning Spanish and she talked about how, despite being able to have conversations in Spanish, she feels effaced, unable to express herself fully or communicate humour. I can identify with that feeling. When I have conversations in Dutch I sound like someone who isn’t really sure what’s going to come out of their mouth next and literal translations of English rarely seem to work. At work my colleagues (who are Spanish and Dutch) will often say, we have an expression, sometimes it translates, but sometimes it really doesn’t. To be in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is to be expressionless.
Whenever I go home, my accent becomes more Mancunian, or rather, it starts to sound like a parody of itself. After coming back to Amsterdam it dies down again, but the ‘haitch’ is still there. Mostly it’s hidden, but every now and then it makes an appearance. I imagine it to be like a little tea light, a small, still burning part of that strange and complicated place I call home.