Thoughts On Being A Southerner Up North

I am one of this region’s countless creative immigrants. The North has shaped my character all the more for my not being a native. I was born in Portsmouth. I will always be an irredeemable Southerner to the majority but it matters not a whit so long as I refuse to value acceptance for its own sake. I understand only too well that the cultural signposts in my little scrap of the nation’s collective memory are laid out differently to those around me. I grew up next to the sea but don’t feel as though I was especially shaped by it, only reminded of a persistent elsewhere that might lie beyond. It wasn’t until I was nearly twenty that I found the somewhere that I really wanted to be from. As in the case of so many others the somewhere was Manchester. After all, for good or ill, it is one of the world’s foremost cultural engines – nowhere is sheltered from that kind of soot.

I estimate that around half of the people I deal with on a day-to-day basis are émigrés like me. But we have not come together as outsiders – we are decidedly not Other – but rather a species of anchored nomad found in all major cities. The lure is often a morbid one though. For me it was the orphaned rays of a long dead star that drew me in, longing as I did to be ensnared in the orbit of a particular music scene that had burnt out a decade earlier.

But that was then. I no longer wish to worship – I now wish to work. And this is where the trouble begins. For I am smitten with a common desire for my creative output to transcend place.

No environment, no matter how radical its artistic population, can sustain a singular undefiled creative identity beyond one generation. Over the years Manchester has welcomed all manner of influence, from Irish folk to New York dance culture, it has always straddled the Now with one foot in the past and the other in an imagined (even idealised) future. Sometimes, however, one glimpses an aggressive conservatism taking hold of this cultural legacy, an impulse to either build walls around past triumphs or, worse still, fashion that past into a cruel apparatus with which to define the present.

It is perhaps inevitable that Manchester, after exerting such sway over the British popular music landscape (and pretty much dictating the rule book for a certain kind of independent record label) would go on to inspire more derision than admiration from the rest of the UK in the years following Brit-Pop. Tony Wilson famously said “This is Manchester, we do things differently here” but, after a while it seemed very much like Manchester was actually just chasing its tail, the dubious mantra “the next Stone Roses” being a kiss of death to any hotly-tipped new band that drew too much attention to itself.

But, as Bob Lefsetz once said: “the day you become mainstream is the day you die.”[1] One cannot appraise the fertility of a creative ecosystem by scrutinizing the flatulent guzzlings and affected bitterness of a pampered glitterati, regardless of the dignity of their humble roots. Since moving North I have met some of the people that contributed to the songs that inspired me to leave the South, but in doing so I came no closer to the magic (the opposite in fact). What I have found, however, is a jazz scene, a folk scene, a blues scene, a poetry scene with endless experimentation and collaboration. I became aware of small overlapping communities of artists working together with relatively no ego. This is what happens when thousands of people make the same pilgrimage and all discover the same peculiar disappointment – they start to build something meaningful of their own. That is also the mark of a great city, it allows its inhabitants to continually reinvent their surroundings without destroying or devaluing what went before.

I suspect I am now getting ready to leave Manchester. Though my departure is currently more suspicion than intention there is a certain whiff of inevitability hanging about my thoughts. I think it has changed me enough; I am now ready to spend some time with a town that is a little less assertive. There is, however, one thing of which I am certain: When I go, I will go from Manchester and when I reach my destination I will say that I have come from Manchester.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOW THEN MAGAZINE (MANCHESTER EDITION) OCTOBER 2012 (click here for online version)

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