A quiet life on the edge of Manchester
The city's reopening this week brought excitement and optimism. But you don't have to travel far to find Mancunians living in a different world
By Joshi Herrmann
Every day, Martin comes down from his flat and walks to a woodland on the estate where he lives. It's a small thicket of trees behind a car park, which separates his block from the next one along on the estate. There are six other 17-storey towers, which were built by the council in the late 1960s in this northernmost tip of Manchester.
Martin goes into the woodland and feeds the birds. He's got a few feeders among the trees, which he has been filling up for years. "I put it out for them, and then I watch them from the window," he says. "I can see what they are doing sometimes."
He sees magpies, woodpigeons, blue tits and robins. In the middle of the list, he names squirrels, as though they are just another bird. I laugh but he carries on naming creatures. "There are foxes around here," he says.
Martin has lived in his one-bedroom council flat for 19 years. Before that he lived in another one of the blocks on the estate for ten years — he points it out but I can't see it in the dark. Then he points at the location of another block on the other side of the trees and says he lived there for four years. That one has been demolished. Originally there were nine blocks of identical size.
He's 62, so his time on this estate equates to more than half of his life. "I've ended up living in blocks of flats for years," he says. For all of that time, he's lived alone. He says he doesn't really know his fellow residents, though. "I don't pal about," he says. "I'm just a loner."
"Do you just prefer being alone?" I ask.
"I've got that used to it," he says. "I'm a bachelor. I've just got used to it for years."
He's wearing grey trousers, black leather shoes and a black Umbro hoodie, made of a synthetic material that looks like it belongs to a wet suit. He has a good head of grey, shaggy hair and a compact, kind-looking face.
We're surrounded by the scaffolding and aluminium fencing of an ongoing building project at the bottom of the tower block. Works have been going on for a couple of years without much urgency, he says — fitting sprinklers in the flats and upgrading the windows.
This area is called White Moss, a dreary stretch of former wetlands and farms which sits midway between Middleton and Moston. It is characterised by tall tower blocks and big roads — bisected by the M60, which separates Martin's estate from the more salubrious setting of Blackley Golf Club, and also by the arterial road Victoria Avenue.
The bit of the area Martin lives in is known as Charlestown, and some people call the blocks the Charlestown Towers. It’s not a neck of the woods in which you are likely to spend any time unless you have a specific reason to. What's the area like, I ask him. "It's nothing really," he says. "It's always quiet."
Just 15 minutes down the road, the city centre is alive. It's the third evening of Manchester's reopening and old friends are gathered outside bars and restaurants, shouting and laughing and singing. On my walk home from work I could hear snippets of pop songs being sung by the crowds on Stevenson Square, led by a singer with a guitar rigged up to an amp.
But it's quiet in White Moss. You would not know the night-time economy had just re-opened — there isn't a night-time economy here. It feels a long way away from the city centre, not a short drive.
"I don't go to Manchester," says Martin. "I barely ever go." The only times he does are when he goes to rock concerts at the arena with his older brother. He's seen Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Journey, and Pink Floyd. "Australian Pink Floyd," he clarifies. Who? "They're fantastic, they are," he reassures me. "Just like Floyd really."
He was born in 1959, and grew up on the Miners Estate in Moston — the name locals use for a series of public housing estates built for the families of miners who worked the Moston Colliery, which was closed in 1950. "It was amazing when I was young," he says. "You know, I had lots of friends."
His mum did 'piece work' at home — working on garments on a sewing machine, and when she was younger she had been a telephonist. She also "worked on school dinners once", he says.
As a teenager, he lived in Middleton Junction and then moved to Todmorden in the Upper Calder Valley. He left school aged 15. After spending some time in Leeds, he then moved back to live with his sister on the Miners Estate. He doesn't see much of her any more, he says. "Only at Christmas."
In his twenties and thirties, he worked a variety of low paid jobs, including one at a clothing manufacturer. One of the last jobs he had was at a Bannatyne's health club in Manchester city centre in 1998. It was actually a placement from an employment agency, doing internal cleaning, but he says he got into arguments and it didn't turn into a job.
Around the same time, he worked as a kitchen porter at the restaurant at the Royal Exchange. "It's quite a busy job that, you're washing the pots and all sorts of different things," he says. This was another placement attempting to get him back into full-time work.
He found it difficult to settle in. Some of the chefs were "bullyish" and picked on the porters. He sounds sad about it, and a bit perplexed. "I thought it was illogical, I was a good worker. I just get on with the work.” The treatment he received got him down. “You didn't want to get up in the morning eventually,” he says.
Doctors put him on anti-depressants years ago. He doesn't really understand why and isn't really able to describe what the drugs do to him, and how he feels when he doesn't take them. He was prescribed them more than 20 years ago, when he was working in a pallet yard in Failsworth for about 15 months. It was outdoor work, and in the winter he got a bad flu-like illness that put him in bed for weeks.
"The doctors said I have a depressed personality," he says. "I don't understand it really. It's been that long." Ever since then — that's more than 20 years ago — he hasn't got back into work.
Perhaps because he doesn't speak to people very much, Martin has an idiosyncrasy where he lumps different genres of things together, as if the normal taxonomies of speech aren't as relevant in his head. Like when he lists the squirrel among the birds, and when he tells me: "I've been on income support a long time and antidepressants."
He's been to various tribunals to prove his eligibility for welfare. His council rent is £68 a week, which is paid for by housing benefit. He says he has enough money to pay for his life. It is a limited, quiet life by most people's standards — lived on the edge of the city.
There are around 2 million people in this country who are classified by the benefits system as being inactive due to long-term sickness or disability, and an additional roughly 200,000 who are “long term unemployed” — meaning they haven’t had a job for at least a year. They are supported by the state, but by virtue of their low incomes and the stigma attached to not working, they often live on the fringes of society.
Martin is a red, and he sometimes goes to a local pub to watch football with a friend, or he used to before the pandemic. Otherwise, the past year hasn’t changed his routine much. He already spent most of his time in his flat in the sky.
On Fridays, his brother visits him. He sees his brother as a father figure who has looked after him for many years. "He's always been more powerful," he says. What does he mean by powerful, I ask? "Worldly and brainy and everything. He knows about politics and the world."
His brother helps him to look after his money, because he's been taken advantage of in the past. "I've had a few people in here who take money from me and you don't see it again," he says, pointing up at the block. "There's quite a few, preying on somebody." One young woman who moved into the flats recently comes to his door and puts pressure on him. Recently he gave her £90, which he knows he won't see again. "She's very powerful at doing it," he says.
By this point in the conversation, I understand what powerful means — it's the savvy that other people have and that he feels he lacks; the tool that helps people navigate the world and get what they want. It's a good definition actually — because that's exactly what power is. He knows there are traits that stand in stark contrast to his mental vulnerability, traits that are highly prized.
Other than the occasional pub trips and the visits from his brother, he is alone with his thoughts. What's it like, being in his flat all day? "I've got that used to it," he says. "It's how life is."
When he's not feeding and watching the birds, he listens to music and sketches. "I do some drawing sometimes — I try to draw portraits," he says. He draws actors from DVD covers — recently he’s done the James Bond actors Sean Connery, Roger Moor and Timothy Dalton. He's been doing it a long time and thinks he has picked it up, but he adds: "It's difficult. My mind struggles with it at times."
Martin is not his real name.
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