'but what happened in the summer?'
A writing set over the course of summer, 2018, considering crowds, cities, apathy, privacy and the environment. Flowing between short chapters, each written in the plural pronoun, the piece has been shown as both a booklet and a large scale wall piece.
This piece was first shown as part of Matters of Procedure, curated by Katy Morrison, and has since been edited and adapted. 'but what happened in the summer?' has since been shown the Manchester School of Art degree show 2019 and was the prize winning piece at Young Cumbrian Artist of the Year, 2020. A copy is held in the collections of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
We all complained about the rain, we all hated Piccadilly Gardens. After that it was down to subjective taste, individual experience. Even then there’ll be a few of us who disagree; they’ll argue that they, in fact, like the rain, that it’s good for the plants. We’ll laugh in return; which plants? Which plants in our notoriously industrial city? We all complained about the rain, we all hated Piccadilly Gardens, we all disagreed.
We all disagreed about a lot of things; who was ruining the city, where we should live, where it was most honourable to sell out and work in a crumbling economy. You could put the answers on die, on hundreds of them, and every time you rolled, with every different combination of answers you’d be able to find one of us it translated to, dotted around somewhere within the ring road orbiting us. But we really all did hate Piccadilly Gardens.
The Street and the Sirens
Most of the city centre was smothered in the noise. That’s why a lot of us moved out to the edges and commuted in by bus and tram. Even four, five floors above the city the shouts of those on a night out or fighting reached the very interiors of our, mostly small, flats. There was no where deep enough to hide from it. Occasionally the sirens would stop outside our blocks, and we’d be drawn to the windows by the lights, fragmented yet overwhelming, casting ice blue mosaics on our ceilings. On our own street-above-the-street, windows would be opened ajar and we’d see our counterparts across the road doing the same, looking down. Is it a fire? do we need to leave? or is it just another fight. Just another.
We never acknowledged each other’s presence, those of us that lived in the flat blocks in city centre had an unwritten rule not to; often the rooms were so small in our compact-stylishly-furnished-studios that if we closed the blinds it immediately made us claustrophobic. We never made eye contact, never waved or pointed or in any way acknowledged each other. Soon you forgot that your windows were even windows, that anyone could see in at all. Then some of us would have sex on the sofa or kitchen counter and another would see and the self-consciousness would seep back in. Windows are windows, even if you pretend they’re walls. We pretend we are above it but we’re always curious to see how everyone else lives.
The Heat Wave
When the Heat Wave arrived, early in the year, it really split our opinion. Over time the general view of the Heat Wave probably played out as neutral, or slightly positive. Initially we were ecstatic. We flocked to the beer gardens, cascaded into the few parks, lounged on every available outside surface, every step or wall or bench, drank and ate. And when those of us who worked evenings left our places in the glorious sun, the ones who had worked the day took over. It felt like a party, working in shifts to enjoy every last minute of it, one long bank holiday.
Never before -at least it felt- had we enjoyed such a blissful climate. In our effort to enjoy ourselves we inevitably over did it; Monday morning rolled around and the trains would have a good helping of partially cooked passenger, once pale arms now brilliant red, straps of tops and t-shirt lines burned into place. Sweat, stale with yesterday’s alcohol clung to brows. Still we carried on, chalking our discomfort off as a meagre price to pay for the joy the endless sun had bestowed upon us.
We loved it. Right up to the point where it went on too long and then some, or a lot, of us started to hate it. It made us nervous.
Some of us were proud of our airport; it was part council owned and fed millions into our city’s economy. A hell of a lot of us didn’t give a damn about the airport except when we went on holiday. 10 of one and 2,799,990 of the other. Most of us really didn’t care. But when we were forced to consider the airport -sat in the cavernous departures lounge, drinking beer at 5.30 in the morning because reality doesn’t exist at 5.30 in the morning in an airport- it got the usual mixed review.
We admired it; this amazing between worlds where we weren’t in Manchester but we weren’t anywhere else. We wondered in awe at the feat of engineering that was the modern aeroplane, we talked in raised and giddy voices about the beaches, or cathedrals, or clubs we would visit. We scoffed at the ridiculous prices of the airport teas and coffees and sad looking sandwiches. Then we boarded our flight and we were off. On the plane some of us drank again, or we closed our eyes in a futile hurry to sleep before the inevitable stomach-churning turbulence jolted the crowded cabin once more.
The Heat Wave, Continued
It was getting to a lot of us by this point; how were we meant to work? How was anyone
meant to concentrate under the piercing scrutiny of a sun that was not ours? The parks emptied slightly, those of us left felt lethargic. It was tired, we were tired. Office jobs, our main industry and employment alongside hospitality, became unbearable; 8 hours a day staring out smeared windows or shielding too-dull computer screens from its glare. It would have been great with the time to enjoy it, we all told ourselves. We weren’t miserable, glum or pessimistic; we were realists who had to work in ill-equipped rooms melting in the heat. ‘I’m just being honest’ we’d say, ‘how are we meant to work in this? How are we meant to focus? How are any of us meant to concentrate under this heat?’
We’d all agree, we’d all go back to work, we’d all wish we were somewhere else. Enjoying it. There always seemed to be people enjoying it; where did they come from? Who were these slackers in our number that spent their whole days and nights lounging and soaking it in. Some of us hated them, whoever they were. The carefully curated shift system had broken down in our eyes and we each individually thought we were out of pocket. Who was ‘in-pocket’?
Floating in space.
They rose silently but persistently. Over many months more populated the skyline. Soon at the end of every street they towered, ungrounded. When you were in the suburbs they would appear occasionally over the low roofs of the family homes. Identical in everything except height. We were told in the news that there were more to come, these skyscrapers were the new Manchester; a city of economic power, ready to de-centralise and re-generate. This would be Manchester the Alpha City.
We weren’t sure how we felt.
On the outside
There were a lot of draws to move out of the city. We could have more space, a patio or a garden perhaps. The air was clearer, the side roads were quieter. Some of us were well off and for them it was cleaner. It wasn’t for the rest of us, it was just cheaper. They repurposed the old railways into tramlines and soon there were new areas for us to live in where we could still travel in with ease. ‘Ease’ meant ‘in not too much time’. Our new metal vessels were often pact to the ceiling and even worse when there was a football match on. But it was probably worth it because a lot of us lived in thriving areas with bustling new high streets. We never wondered what was there before.
The tramlines left the city in a spiders web, like a crack etching its way down a window. This was a fundamental problem, sometimes. We could travel into the city centre, out of the city centre, or into and out of again to get to somewhere else. But we couldn’t avoid it, you couldn’t travel round it. So we got snarled in a couple of square miles of crowds. We didn’t have a choice. Some of us complained and some said it was fine, most of us thought they were complain- ing about nothing but it’s always good to have a new subject to critique when the others got tired.
Chapter 7. The Fire
We could smell it, all over the city. As soon as we left our houses, our flats, halls, terraces that morning we knew something was wrong. The city air was heavy enough with fumes from traffic and the stenches lingering near slow running canals, but this morning it had the added tinge of burning. We checked the sky line around us to see what was wrong, at least those of us who hadn’t already seen the news did.
The moors were burning and nothing was making them stop. By that point a lot of us hated the heat wave. This was too much, too close to home, it didn’t happen here we said. It doesn’t happen here! It doesn’t happen here!
A fog set in thick over the city, the only images most of us saw of the burning was on the TV that night, then the next night and the next. Soon one of us came on say- ing the only way to stop it now was for rain, or it to burn itself out. That we’d tried everything. That night we went to bed hoping it would rain.
How it was.
We remember older relatives marvelling ‘when I was here...’. We crossed our fingers for a reasonable outburst and luckily it was often just the change in buildings, though sometimes ‘there wasn’t all these shops with made-up names’ followed it. They were right though; the city had changed a lot since their day, whichever it had been. New buildings had come and gone, layers of development that could no longer be seen. We smiled, indulged. We couldn’t really picture it any different, this was the city we knew so well.
Something changed though, and now we’re saying ‘when I was here...’ We aren’t much older at all, perhaps we’ve moved for work or school but altogether few years have elapsed. But the cities! Suddenly our old schools or favourite pubs or offices have gone. In their place stands shiny new buildings and we turn to a friend to say ‘when I was here’ and they nod and smile and they don’t know any different. We get scared after that, possessive. What will go next? How the fuck do we stop them? Soon, we fear, all the backdrops of our memories will be stripped out and what then? Will our memories also fade, become lifeless or bland or two-dimensional?
Some of us like the ‘new city’, we have to agree it looks better. But that’s not the point.
The last Waitress left.*
Largely we moved in masses, crowds pouring into a station, onto a bus, along a street. Occasionally though it felt that one of our number got left behind. Trapped outside the perpetual movement encompassing the rest of the city. Being left behind was rarely accompanied by a full awareness of the situation; more likely just boredom, a certain conviction that there was something missing.
One after the other, blanked out windows, boarded up and graffitied over, barred up doors. Letters in deep piles on doormats behind dirty glass. To stand on the street and face off empty shop fronts from horizon to horizon. That was the curse of the last Waitress left; to face destruction, to watch the rest go and know soon you must follow…
Sections of our city grow, bustle, swarm, gleam with a currency that hasn’t trickled-down to here. Over the rooftops of this street the glass blocks rise as well, distant, mirages in a grey sky. The busiest bus route in Europe supposedly yet in this stretch we all shoot past, leaving the shops empty and uninhabited, the cafes enclosing a few solitary figures. A real life Hopper painting, some of us remarked with a smirk, how cultured. The Greggs is still doing well though.
The Waitress hurried quickly around the outside tables, pulling the metal chairs in under the awning that stretched out from the two large windows making up the cafe’s facade. The weather -sweltering clear skies for weeks now- had finally broken this weekend; dark clouds gathered to the north, the humid air seemed to vibrate with static, it would rain, surely it would rain. As she pulled the final set of chairs in from the furthest table the leg became caught in the grate of a gutter running parallel to the cafe’s front. In her hurry she had already rushed a couple of paces from the table before the caught chair yanked her back, causing the other to fall to the floor in a crash.
The frustration of the Waitress would have been tangible to all around her, instead the empty street and stilted trees were her audience. At most the sharp sound raised a few eyes from the cafe’s interior, but nothing more. A few of us thought it was thunder, expecting the storm to break any minute. The Waitress stood starring at the capsized chair, rubbing her upper shoulder. If one of us had looked more closely we may have seen the anger on her brow or the few tears starting to gather in her eyes, but we were more interested in our food and only the slight inconvenience of waiting for our order denoted her absence. A chair catching in a grid is no reason for anger, or at least the amount the Waitress felt, on its own. We may have wondered what else she was battling, that made a menial hitch so consuming. We may have.
The final chairs were pulled in under the awning as the sky broke properly. Within minutes the asphalt outside was dark grey, pools gathered under the rough gravel beneath sickly silver birches. The street, already quiet, emptied completely and the interiors of the buses rumbling past glowed against their steamed up windows. We settled into our damp seats on the upper deck, glanced out of windows and dashed between the shelter of bus stops and awnings, we held our place in the busy doorways of the office buildings, seeking shelter to savour our mid morning cigarette. Thunder, long and loud, rumbled across the sky, drawn out, a few seconds later the Waitress saw the lightening follow, close by, to the East, above the Royal Infirmary. Tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, she moved away from the open door towards the waiting patrons, menus folded and eyes demanding, hungry.
A Great Time
The new term started as did the rain. The worst parts of the heat were forgotten and we went on again, we complained about the rain, hated Piccadilly Gardens and disagreed a lot of the time. A lot of us still haven’t decided where we should live or who’s ruining the city or where we should sell out and work. We disagree with the ones who have decided, with their narrow-mindedness.
We remember the summer fondly.