Ten years ago I was zipped from a small city to its much bigger neighbour along a stretch of motorway which pointed right to the heart of that auspicious destination. To Manchester, a place of hulking arches and seas of cobbles, a place of warehoused gigs, a gluttonous and sparky history, of a wry smile behind a facade of football gloss. It loomed on the motoway horizon with its single half-built skyscraper, flanked by bowing cranes, rising out of the shining glut like an agressive middle finger shunning everything due south.
I was nothing special. Just another midly terrified fresher with a bag of artsy A-Levels and the promise of three bewildering years of artsy degreedom. I was single and, looking back, in rather desperate need of a girlfriend. I knew no-one on my course, no-one in my hall, seemingly no-one in the whole damn city. It was thrilling and unnerving, it was a new leaf turned away from mildly complicated late teenager years in an awkward little city that I had outgrown. I loved Preston but I needed something bigger, something more obviously progressive. I found it in Manchester, in abundance.
My UG years were a tad hampered by a clunky 'Combined Studies' degree which mixed in bits of this that and the other and never really had a clear shape. The others on my degree were in other classes so our unit was on shaky foundations from the off and never really stuck. And then, on the flipside, I was a bit of an outsider in the classes I did end up in so never quite stuck there either. My closest friends were hallmates, among them a bold and caring yorkshire lass called Hannah who I will be marrying next May, all being well. She was what I needed and she tidied me right up, bless her.
I loved most of what I learnt at uni and did rather well. In the end the clunky combined degree did provide me with a broad panopticon of intersecting areas of interest and by my final year I'd tailored them so that I was studying brilliant things like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and gallons of the best of Shakespeare. Taking a punt on a course in 2nd year, I signed up to 'Introduction to Creative Writing' and followed it up with the equivalent course in 3rd year. Slowly my calling began to clear its throat for attention.
A dissertation on post-9/11 sci-fi films later, and in summer of '08 I graduated and crashed head-long into the same quandry most graduands face: what now? It was around then that I made a gaggle of the most important decisions of my life. I kept writing fiction, I started a blog, and most importantly of all, I went out into the city and found Manchester.
Let me explain. For those three uni years I had found comfort in the nest of the Oxford Road corridor, only venturing into the city for shops, cinemas and the occasional hazy night in the guts of an indie floorfillers club. I knew what Manchester looked and smelt like, I knew my way around its illogically splayed streets, but I was lacking an essence. I was lacking what the place actually felt like. In my head, home was still Preston, even though I had no real intention of going back there. Manchester was settling around me like a cotton pillow but it had not let me into its dreamscapes just yet.
I joined a book club, I joined a writing group, I went to a blogmeet. All these things took place in the mysterious Northern Quarter - the netherworld of graffitied shutters and decaying XXX video stores which hid an abundance of glittering cultural gems in its various curious tombs just begging to be raided. I began to meet the like-minded and the exciteables. I met older people with more city experience, visionaries with dreams of filling Manchester's twitchy ears with creative experimentation. I grew bolder among my new pals and took to the stage in the Deaf Institute with a piece of my writing shaking in my hand. I survived the four and half minutes with everything but my shredded nerves intact and, crucially for me, a new seed firmly embedded in my chest.
My blog began to grow wings. I was writing and posting a new short story a week and the strange tales (which I look back on with some embarrassment now) began to clutch at people's attention. Turns out people like being told stories for free. I joined twitter and tweeted my way into the waylines of Mancunion social media, like a junky in a Jeff Noon novel. I discovered that Twitter thrives on local connectivity; on bringing a cityful of dispirate souls into a virtual townsquare for various festivals and the occasional beheading. I was plugged in to the city now; I needed it to charge my new juices.
At the end of this first transformative post-uni year I was nominated for a prestigious Manchester Blog Award. At the ceremony I orchesterated a bizarro reading of my story about down-graded Pluto using two youngsters and some papier mache planet hats. It was my first 'theatrical' spoken word performance and it went down rather well. I came runner-up in my 'Best Writing on a Blog' category and it felt like Manchester itself had given me a tiny appreciative nod. You can stay.
Stay I did. I went back to uni for an MA but never let the storywriting or telling drop. I settled down proper with my better half and we let our roots spread out for sustainence. We found the Manchester & Salford RSPCA, we found Bad Language, we found vegetarianism, Flashtag, and a plot of land with a building on it in a tree-lined street in Stretford, which we bought. We found a space on the wall of Trafford Registry Office big enough for our names.
But most of all we found Manchester itself. This brilliant, beguiling, defiant city that never seems to sit still. Somewhere beneath its cobbles, in the mulch of an industrial revolution which it was never fully proud of, there's an incredible fertility which actively encourages and demands all manner of creativity and vibrancy. There's a special core to the place which you see flash through the International Festival, Canal Street, the Northern Quarter, the suburbs to the south, in every little start-up small business and free arts event. It's a flash of brilliance too fleeting to capture and understand, but its always there. It took me a good three years to see it but I'm forever grateful that I did. It remains my number one piece of advice to new creatives keen to develop their talents: go out and find the place to plant them so they might have a chance to grow and flourish.