Rainy city stories

From Northenden to Partington, it’s rain
From Altrincham to Chadderton, it’s rain
From Cheetham Hill to Wythenshawe, it’s rain
Gorton, Salford, Sale, pretty much the same
What makes Britain great
Makes Manchester yet greater
The Beautiful South, ‘Manchester’, 2006

I still vividly recall the five consecutive days in November 2011 when it rained continuously in Manchester. Still a relative newcomer to the city, it was a rude induction to Manchester’s reputation as the rainiest of English cities (it is, in fact, only the 5th wettest city in the country). In dismal late-autumn light, those five wet days seemed locked in a strange timezone – my experience of the city was all interiors, punctuated by dashes between buildings or steamed-up buses, umbrella always at hand. Outside, the rain stained the city’s brick and concrete buildings with ribbons of water; it gathered in every available hollow, and dribbled incessantly from lintels and eaves. For that seemingly interminable period, it was as if the solid architecture of the city had been blurred into the smudges of paint seen in the work of Adolph Valette, teacher of L S Lowry – the city liquified into atmosphere; water everywhere. 

Adolphe Valette, Albert Square, Manchester, 1910

As literary historian Lynne Pearce has observed, Manchester’s rain looms large in nearly all fictional representations of the city, confirming the way in which the city has tended to be disparaged as a place of bleak monotony – a city with intractable problems. Unsurprisingly, rain features strongly in much of the crime fiction centred on the city. In Karline’s Smith’s Moss Side Massive, a novel which reflects on Moss Side’s reputation as a centre of gang violence in the 1990s, the young ‘Rasta’ Zukie is depressed by the drizzle as he cycles along Moss Lane East, where a ‘dreary grey block of council flats … [is] awaiting demolition. Row upon row, block upon block of solid, grimy pigeon-shit concrete’. Here, rain is a metaphor for failure – a reminder that Manchester seems condemned to keep repeating mistakes made in the past, as if unable to escape the depressing connotations of its predominantly grey skies. And, in Moss Side Massive, this is a failure by the city towards its black citizens – a municipal authority that repeatedly used demolition as a way of dispersing concentrations of ethnic minorities from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Photograph by Mike Kniec

More personal is Lem Sissay’s poem ‘Moods of Rain’ (1988), in which water frames the poet’s experience of being a young black man in the streets of Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s – a time when racist abuse was encountered everywhere. 

I’m giving up dodging glassy eyed puddles
My feet like the kitchen cloth
Face screwed up no time for scruples
Head down, walk straight and cough
And silver speckled my licks are crowned
Melting black faces drip and shine
No smile but an unsatisfied frown
Same goes, I think, for mine

Lem Sissay, ‘Rain’, Oxford Road

When that discrimination eased, rain came to mean something altogether more positive for Sissay. His 2008 poem ‘Rain’ was painted onto a wall above a takeaway on the Oxford Road near the University of Manchester. In order to make sense of the poem, one has to read from top to bottom rather than left to right, as if following drops of rain themselves, assembling the fragmented words one-by-one. The ‘triumphant’ rain in this poem is equated with hope – the ‘Man/cunian way’ of the last line referring both to the motorway that bisects the city just north of the University and also the indomitable spirit of Mancunians themselves. Here, rain provides a shared experience of the city that strengthens the spirit of its people.

Rain-stained viaduct, Ardwick

Mancunians may moan about the city’s rain, but for many, it does indeed provide a means of connection with others, if only in shared conversations about the weather. Rain represents homecoming – a sense of belonging to the city.  In Jeff Noon’s futuristic cyberpunk reimagining of Manchester in Vurt (1993), rain provides an anchor point in a world where the virtual world of dreams has blurred into reality by means of powerful drugs that are ingested through different-coloured feathers. The novel’s central protagonist Scribble remembers his youth through the rain: ‘all I know is that looking back I swear I can feel it falling on me, on my skin. That rain means everything to me, all of the past, all that has been lost’. The sheer physical reality of rain – the way it makes you feel its presence so strongly – is like a call to be truly present in a world where the virtual threatens all the time to pull us away. Rain demands that we come out of ourselves – ‘The raindrops on my face play a sweet refrain’, in the words of The Beautiful South’s 2006 song ‘Manchester’. For first-generation migrant poet Basir Kazmi, the shared experience of rain allows newcomers to identify with the city:

So that others may take pleasure in your talk, Basir
Don’t talk of your tears, talk rather about the rain.

Rain-soaked cobbles in Heaton Moor

That Manchester is indelibly thought of as England’s rainiest city, despite the facts indicating otherwise, speaks more perhaps of its lack of cohesive identity – after all, Manchester has always been a city of migrants of all kinds longing to feel at home. In Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993), two young Mancunians living in London recite a traditional ballad where the imagery of rain encompasses this kind of longing:

Take me back to Manchester when it’s raining
I want to wash my feet in Albert Square
I’m all agog for a good thick fog
I don’t like the sun, I like it raining cats and dogs
I want to smell the odours of the Irwell
I want to feel the soot get in me hair
Oh I don’t want to roam I want to get back home
To rainy Manchester

Mike Leigh knew the song from his own youth – he sang it with his friends in Habonim – the international socialist Jewish youth movement he joined as a schoolboy in Broughton in Salford. Once again then, the imagery of rain draws us out into a rich tapestry of feelings and memories. Unlike most symbols of belonging – flags, coats of arms, monarchy or national anthems – rain doesn’t allow any one social group to claim it as their own. That is why it is such a powerful way of conceiving the city as a whole – rain falls on the just and unjust, rich and poor, black and white, religious or heathen. It’s a rich metaphor of unity that always reaches beyond any given meaning that we assign to it.

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4 thoughts on “Rainy city stories

  1. Loved this. I’ve spent many years immersed in Michel Butor’s 1956 novel Passing Time, a young Frenchman’s impressions of Manchester, fictionalised as ‘Bleston’ – the near constant rain is a feature on pretty much every page (combined with the fog and polluted air of that era).

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    • Thanks kindly! I’ve not read that novel, but certainly will now. It’s been raining pretty much non-stop this week but the summer was exceptionally dry and warm.

      Like

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