Posted by September Blue Saturday, 3 May 2008

That's the third person who's told me that my new flat's a great place 'for a single girl', and I've only been here a week. Well, thanks, I think. I've been trying to work out what this means without asking them to explain, because if I did that then they might say "to be honest, what we meant was that your new flat is so tiny it's a good thing that there's only one of you and you're five foot two," and this would be so much less interesting than the idea of certain spaces suiting certain people, which I'm not sure is true but which I'm determined to believe in regardless.

Especially with cities. Rural landscapes always feel like spaces in something more than a geographical sense, as if they have a self-ness, a kind of dormant consciousness, that might not affect you much but won't be relying on you to notice it anyway. Won't be relying on you at all, in fact. Rural landscapes have human histories, but it's not those histories that give them a sense of self; rather, their histories are histories of hundreds and thousands of years of humans interacting with what's already there.

Sun and dial

The metal disc (not much of a sundial; more of a map) was put there in 2002. Whoever designed this must have set it out on a computer, and whoever picked the location must have frowned over an 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map, and whoever thought of it in the first place must have sat through at least one County Council meeting in a room with suits and overhead spotlights and long beech tables. And between them, they ended up thinking the same kind of thing that the Methodists who held open-air services here two hundred years before them were thinking when they picked this spot, and the same kind of thing that the Neolithic farmers were thinking when they built a massive burial chamber on the lower slopes of this hill, built to catch the equinox sunlight. The background of that picture is made up of rocks and vegetation and the winter sun in the same way that it's made up of pixels: both are true, but neither quite describe it.

Cities aren't that way. The history of cities is entirely human. No less beautiful, maybe, no less powerful, and with no less meaning, but... artificial, all the same. Something that exists because we want to remember it.


This is Kendals, a beautiful Art Deco department store building in Manchester, as seen from the Waterstone's over the road. I love how this picture turned out, how you can't quite tell what's mirroring what and how the foreground dissolves into a vanishing point behind the backdrop, but that's all tricks and reflected illusions, not the city itself. It's not that Manchester doesn't have an important history; it's just that a history is something a place is given, not something it's already got.

That's what I used to think, anyway. I didn't like cities much then either. Now, I'm reconsidering.

My new flat is a small, one-bedroom place two floors up, on a street that was built, or at least rebuilt, by a series of nineteenth-century merchants back when the old city's wealth started to spill over and run down the hill. It's changed since - shops grow and split and merge again, and change hands on what seems like a weekly basis, and grand old spacious townhouses don't last long as they are in student towns - but above street level, the buildings look the same as they always did. And below that, there are crowds of people, and buskers playing slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitars, and small gaggles of tourists clustering around the landmarks.

This time last week, all that was a vaguely interesting thing to notice when glancing out of the living-room window. Now, I've stopped drawing that curtain when it gets dark. And I'm falling in love with things written about cities, and with music about cities, and with poetry about cities, although more in the abstract than the concrete because I can't find any poetry about cities that I like, but damn it there has to be some out there.

Which isn't to say that I can find anything particularly single or girl about my new flat, either with or without my belongings moved into it. But maybe that's not the point, after all.