Anemoia in Manchester

Holly Regan, on finding an unexpected home


Whenever I go to a new city, I instantly know if it’s a place for me. It’s simply a feeling, an energetic imprint, like a sense memory of some long-forgotten lifetime, and it hits me the second I step off the bus, plane, or train. Anemonia is nostalgia for a time you’ve never known, and I felt something similar on my first visit to Manchester, like coming home to a place I’d never been.

Some cities insist upon themselves, forcing their way into your timeline: elaborate edifices enshrining some all-important past; monuments to mammonism rising in the mirage of a consumption-fulfilled future. But Manchester, to me, was a place of presence, an old city grounded in the now; changing, yet retaining its working-class aura. Like the feeling I get on a psychedelic journey, it was a place where I didn’t have to be told I belonged, I just knew. 

I wandered through Gay Village early on a Monday evening and found it quiet as a sanctuary, patiently awaiting cocktail-clutching throngs. Under a tapestry of tiny rainbow flags and twinkling yellow lights, I stood in reverence to the sanctity of safe space, street signs on building-sides proclaiming that this belonged to us. 

Yet it knew no bounds, spilling into places that were queer venues without even trying; perhaps their proprietors even being aware. In cafés and pubs, shops and restaurants and bars, you could tell just by reading the room and feeling the air, knowing glances silently speaking volumes, and I realized I’d been longing for that belonging more than I knew. 

Little seemed binary or boundaried, polysemous places challenging stasis. There was the church that felt like a gallery: delicate paper angel wings dancing before stained glass, dangling from ornately carved wooden windows, framing knights and saints poised in petrolithic repose. There was the gallery that felt like a church, the spirit speaking subtly through oil and ink and blatantly in bold, block print in mantras that seemed to narrate my life; art that both reflected and resisted the Instagrammability of everything.

Then there was the pub that looked like a cathedral but was really an old civic structure: the Crown and Kettle, one of Manchester’s oldest, adorned with the quotidian artifacts of centuries, including a sheep that stood sentinel just beneath the intricately carved ceiling. The building dates to 1734, thought to be a courthouse with an underground passage to the prison; I phoned home while sipping a dark, silky Corvus Stout, watching the sun slip through brilliant vermillion and fade to black through lancet windows.

At LGBTQ+ bookstore Queer Lit, I asked if they had any titles that were both queer and polyamorous, and instead of the typical, blank stare, I was given a selection. As I tenderly thumbed the cover of a children’s book about embracing their gender-expansive identity, I wondered what could have been in a world where I was raised to believe it was possible. Here, I could imagine it: some alternate, queertopian present with a really good taplist, like one of Marty McFly’s slightly altered timelines. 

Over and over, I found myself in places that recognized my specific proclivities. In the breweries and pubs, we spoke the lingua franca of Bitter, Dark Mild, and Export Stout, briefly united in communion: we know what water, hops, and grain in these particular proportions and preparations feels like in our bodies, and that means that I have one; that I am alive. Strangers seemed familiar and new acquaintances instantly felt like old friends, bound by shared experience and sense memory.

I wandered into Café Beermoth, dreamy bohemian and trimmed with false foliage, like a Belgian beer garden brought inside, and chatted with the staff, slipping into blissful kriek- and gueuze-tinged reveries. I ate paneer with a Salted Lime Sour at Bundobust; sipped Bitter and Stout with new mates at Port St. Beerhouse; and crossed the canal to Cloudwater Brewing’s big, bright facility, with a meeting space and taproom that could be the break room at a tech hub, if you didn’t look down to the shining, stainless-steel brewhouse. 

Indeed, I could sense the tension between Manchester’s industrial, analog past and a gentrifying, technologizing future, textile mills and manufacturing plants yielding to digital media and design schools. I don’t know what things were like before, but the city at least seemed aware of its predicament, doing its best to hold two seemingly contradictory things at once, as the practice of presence teaches.

So on my last night in town, I lived in the moment: bouncing between bars and busting out bottles with new friends, wandering down darkened streets with the glow of mixed cultures warming our bellies; millions of microorganisms living infinite dramas inside us as we enacted ours. The next morning, I nursed the consequences with a towering sourdough sandwich, the sun on my face and a chill breeze whipping off the water, the day’s pain directly proportional to the previous night’s delight, because that’s how the whole thing works.  

It was that Red IPA that did me in, something I normally wouldn’t have liked and I'd say that I shouldn't have had, but I did because of who served it and what it symbolized: a moment of connection, an extra laugh, the photo where we're all kids again; the ethereal, ephemeral importance of everyday joy.

Manchester was a reunion with I don’t know what, a return to the start of something left unfinished once. Sure, it was the flags and bookstores, the beers and bakeries and bars, the conversations in corner shops and crowded pubs, but it was so much more. It was a culture of belonging, something intangible you can’t manufacture, and I carry it with me still.

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