As a teenager I used to like going into Manchester city centre on a Saturday afternoon, not necessarily to shop (although I often purchased one or two small things), but to mingle with the crowds and enjoy the relative anonymity of being a single face in a sea of humanity. This weekend I took my husband to see some of my birth city’s attractions & museums, and for various reasons, not least an EDL demonstration in the city, we walked along some of the city centre’s busiest streets.
But they were subtly changed from the atmosphere I remembered. I remembered as a teenager feeling anonymous, feeling as if I was comfortably overlooked, feeling a sense of safety that stemmed from being totally unremarkable in a sea of likewise unremarkable people. Yesterday there was far more interaction than I remembered, people trying to get our attention to sell us things, strangers trying to take ‘selfies’ with us, people pushing onto the bench where I sat to rest a while and putting bags on the seat behind my back. It was as if the safety of the crowd had been replaced by a subtly threatening atmosphere and I didn’t like it at all.
It might have been the EDL demonstration that had heightened my threat perceptions. It might have been the shear quantity of police officers around. It might have been the helicopter hovering low in the sky above Albert Square, where the protesters were gathered. It might have been that walking one way I was anticipating and planning our visit to the Museum of Science and Industry rather than concentrating on what was going on, and other other way I was tired craving somewhere to sit and eat. It might even have been my awareness at my husband’s anxiety at being in such a large crowd. But, important as each of these aspects are, I don’t think they were the main reason for my discomfort.
I believe I discovered on Saturday that I have grown from a teenager who loved cities to an adult who loves a quiet, rural life. I now feel far more at home surrounded by trees, hedgerows, fields, farm animals and birdsong than I ever imagined I would. The city, whilst full of fascinating architecture, peaceful churches, interesting museums full of curiosities and an amazing and hugely varied history, is no longer my home. I was born there but I have left it behind far more completely than simply moving away. It no longer holds me as it once did.
I have lived in some places that were very isolated, very rural and it’s true that I didn’t get on very well there either. But the village I’m in now is more or less perfect. I have described it more than once as ‘as far away from civilisation as I can cope with, and as close to civilisation as I want to get’. I guess that sentence sums up how I feel, but I’m not entirely comfortable with calling the Saturday afternoon crowds in the city ‘civilised’. I’m not criticising individuals who live, work & play in cities, be they Manchester or anywhere else. But the nature of the crowd, the way people act when protected by the anonymity that teenage-me craved, makes the crowd feel a far less civilised place than ever it did.
Perhaps the very anonymity that felt safe to teenage-me encourages otherwise sensible people to act in a threatening way. Perhaps the anonymity has become threatening in and of itself. Perhaps to be anonymous encourages less civilised behaviour among many people. Perhaps those who regularly join the city crowds do so because they don’t want to have to keep up a mask of civility. Or perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps my perceptions are strongly skewed because of my experiences with a wide variety of UK geographies make me see the city in a different light.
Our visit was fascinating, that is true. We saw a lot, we visited so many places, we enjoyed our time there and I was able to share some of the things I used to enjoy with my husband. Our Saturday in the city was a great day. But civilised? I’m not sure.