Illusions of ‘otherness’ – Over The Pennine Horizon
Darton-to-Wakefield-to-Mirfield-to-Huddersfield-Manchester-to-Leeds-to-Darton (Northern Rail-to-Grand Central-to-Northern Rail-to-Transpennine Express-to Northern Rail).
“Today’s Manchester is dominated by the sounds of the trams. They beep, clunk and even scream as they turn on the tracks, in spaces so close to pavements you wonder how they all function. How do they all function? How does everything keep carrying on? The embarrassing urban anxiety kicks in. The pursuit of something which leads me to the same point I departed at. What to do in this world…today – this city? “Don’t know which way to turn. The best possible use”. Thought paralysis – it makes me unable to show my human face to an homeless man, despite managing to chuck him a quid. But I’m stunned into shy teenage mumbling when he speaks of his plans of getting through the night ahead of him. I turn down towards Victoria station, stalling as the minutes pass along, knowing full-well I’m aiming for one of the few pubs I know in this city. “What to do in this world…today – this city?”
“An empty seating area in a pub on Friday teatime, a familiar jukebox soundtrack, and I’m regaining mild rays of confidence. “What spurs me on to travel to other towns and cities?” I thought to myself earlier today, whilst the rain mocked any escape plans I had. Maybe my anxiety to “get on the bus and get out” isn’t so much a desire to travel through space, but a desire to travel purely through time. I have a deep longing to leave these times, and traveling allows for a temporary confusion of time and space that throws fools gold in my direction. I find out that the place I have arrived in is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the one I’d just left.”
“The default Manchester-of-my-mind is a first-industrial-city-Manchester, mixed with a Joy-Division-Manchester, mixed with a Blair-years-failed-attempt-at-studying-here-Manchester. But I return to realise it’s more like a 2016 Leeds, but with less of a Canary-Wharf-steroid-injection and more of Shoreditch-smug-injection. The old mills and engraved testaments to the hard-fought gains of the working man easily fall from mind amidst the banal bazaar of retro bars, hip cafes, veggie restaurants, all named anything and everything under the sun. Where is the Manchester that is buried in our heads like old folklore? I’d had liked to have witnessed it before it became an overly decadent city with an ambivalence that pulls LGBT gains to the same level as homelessness epidemics. Maybe I can now see why the drama Life on Mars‘ recreation of 1970’s Manchester was such an appealing fantasy. We don’t crave homophobia, the real IRA, or for the gates to reopen to those dark mills, but we crave an authenticity. And whether or not authenticity ever existed, our postmodern addiction to the idea of it seems to distance us further from anything that could be called it. Places become parodies of themselves, as if a city could be constantly taking selfies, just to reassure itself it still exists. A once-industrial titan, obsessively staring into a mirror, whilst the land shifts worryingly underneath it’s feet, as fracking and nuclear contracts give a green light to those less decadent players on global capitalism’s stage.”
“In an age where companionship has been turned into a highly valued resource, made to feel in short supply, we are left to feel ashamed of our loneliness. The weekend is scarcity-central, with everything feeling in short supply, especially time itself. As Friday evening begins, it doesn’t matter where you are because if you are alone you’re alone – every seat in every pub, usually for a rendezvous with stable solitude, is taken, and every space for daydreaming is swallowed up. I walk back and forward, like a stuck soundtrack, only noticeable to the homeless, the only static bodies in our hasty times. I bump into a friend in the Piccadilly rush. It’s awkward. He wouldn’t care, but I do. “Just what am I doing?” These whole endeavours seem so pathetic under the weekend’s spotlight. “The city can be a lonely place” – an old piece of wisdom digs itself up to the surface, more like woodworm than earworm.”
“By now the peak fare rail curfew is lifted and I grab a can of M&S cider and head for the train back to Yorks. My anxiety is curbed as a 6 carriage train pulls in. But no: it seems that any train attending to the needs of the millions who make up the discontinuous Northern Metropolis has to be a scarcity train. The first 3 carriages stay put as the tired have to use their one last burst of energy to run up to the other 3. If you want a picture of a Northern English future, imagine continual disappointment under signs for ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ – forever. “We should never have it so good” is what Macmillan meant to say. As we travel eastwards the early Autumn sunset penetrates the windows and makes silhouettes of Manchester’s millennial monoliths – they pray to the Gods that the sun will never set on the world that built them. But despite the illusions of clairvoyance the September sun gives as it penetrates the scene, their day of reckoning isn’t today.”
“Land-locked on an Island”
“As I begin my cycle up to those hills, yesterday’s impulse is today’s: always trying to escape reality by fooling myself I am doing so by traveling across space, away from wherever the sense of stuck-ness is most claustrophobic. I always end up where I was, and who I was, before. But during these cyclical doings I exercise the very best and worst in me – new depths of contempt and idealist manifestos crisscross in my thoughts. As the first of many hills give way, still on the foothills, I ask myself what it is I really want to happen – a question prised out of me from a pressure to DO SOMETHING. I answer myself with this: “What is to be Done? Lots of things have been done, and lots don’t seem worthwhile doing again. Right now the only thing that is to be Done, is to ditch capitalism – transcend it, upend it, or just end it”. That is the immovable objective of now.”
“I’ve always wanted to reach the Metropolis on the other side, only to realise it’s no lost world, no place where things are done differently, after all. This is what happened yesterday, but yet the climb to the hilltop Horizon is where the allure still lives. After all these years I’m still climbing up here to see if there is something beyond this reality. From the road the other side of the valley, the Woodhead pass looks like a river made of Mercury. And I don’t care what more far-flung wanderers think of this, because this area, for me, sometimes contains an otherworldly essence, like a gateway to another celestial body.”
“The Stocksbridge Bypass valley almost broke me, and as the thirst and exhaustion kicked in, it took on an almost mythologised representation of itself as the ravines, pylons and conifer plantations began to look threatening – almost a concrete abstraction of the notoriously dangerous road I was climbing up. So, by the time I reached Sheffield I was massively relieved. But not before long I felt estranged amidst the weekender endeavours. The locus of this seemed to be the diversion I had to take, after realising a large concrete chunk of postwar Sheffield, centred around the Grosvenor hotel, was ring-fenced for demolition. The erasure of yet more of one specific era also made a physical embodiment out of what I was feeling today and yesterday in as the cities reached their weekend point: a sense of being forced either onto the narrow curbways or of being funneled into a design for late capitalist life. Neither appeal. Nor does hanging about this evening, and I call today off at an earlier than usual point.”
The Land That Noise Forgot.
“There’s strangely a normality to Sunday evenings, that reassures, quells anxieties often found at other times. Which means that our post-working-hour walk up onto the very tops of hills between Yorks and Manchester is going to work out OK today. These barren stretches up here seem to speak something of the concealed melancholia of life down below. Perhaps they allow you to feel at ease with its truth, ridding yourself of social status anxiety like the weight of a poorly-designed work uniform, as you climb further from the road, to the point that even if you went to far into the early autumn sunset, and found yourself in mortal danger, such anxiety wouldn’t reappear – all you would have is clean fresh fear, a sensation that is somewhat different from dog-shit stink of anxiety that clings to us down below.”
“We look over to both Saddleworth Moor and Holme Moss. A beginning. Or the ending. Like reaching a land’s end, in-land. We are Landlocked on an island. Time-locked in space. But this area is like a frontier, even if there turns out to be nothing beyond it. What is it about the life down below that makes us want to seek such desolation? Steve speaks of the value he places on the silence up here. A silence that separates it from everywhere else on this noisy land. As up here, like staring at the sea, or into space, you can see things move before you can hear them moving. In a noise-filled age this is almost non-existent. From these hilltops we access the lack of real dialogue amidst the noise below. What is the use of thought down there, when it seems reduced to shards of information in perpetual battle for dominance with one another? These monochrome colours and featureless plains help bleach that noise, opening our eyes like portals to a frontier out of which sprung our industrialisation, and into which we see a space waiting, waiting, and waiting, to be filled by a future.”
“We look down to where the first few cluster-settlements begin the outer edges of a Greater Manchester sprawl that changes from cobbled-stone to concrete within our hazy horizon. Dave talks of how, by seeing where the green farming land gives up to the ‘desertified’ hilltops, such stark end/beginning points allow you to visualise how it all began, and continues, everywhere else. Like the streams that flow down to form the necessary rivers of this ‘first’ industrial city, I think of the flows of people coming down from these hills, the upheavals, the Peterloo Massacre, the endless rows of workers crammed together, the hopes, aspirations for something better, which informed a pop music that in turn informed the world. All for what? A noisy competition in consumption? An Instagram App on an Iphone? An overpriced hovel overlooking other, lesser, hovels? Surely this can’t be how it all ends?
“Walking back down the hills, anticipating the mental noise awaiting us, Dave remembers how his noise cancelling headphones kept in his terrace house in a busy suburb of Huddersfield gives him access to a silence provided by capitalism to endure capitalism, rather than a silence from capitalism. But the break out of it’s frenetic inertia hasn’t ended for us just yet, as we decide to seek refreshment in a place that you couldn’t even designate as an Inn. It in it’s location on the border of Yorks and Lancs, this is more of a non-place from a time that is gone. As the night falls around it, who could have ever been a ‘local’ up here on this horse-drawn-carriage-cum-commuter highway? Lights on and open, it still feels forgotten, trapped in a time-vacuum. There’s a jukebox in a dark corner of the room, the music on it dates no later than 1999. But this isn’t the re-hashed CGI Steroid-90’s you find in the towns below, this is the late nineties as we left it. It’s like the millennium never occurred. Maybe the sentence at the end of our narrative had ended already by then, and the emptiness up here is like a pause at the end of a sentence that’s only exhaustively prolonged down below because it’s amidst an feverish command for economic growth? But where’s the next sentence? Maybe it isn’t Manchester that has ‘so much to answer for’ after-all, but the moors themselves?.”