Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill a new book now breaking out
Fireworks are synonymous with red letter day celebrations – most obviously Guy Fawkes night and New Year’s Eve. Yet with a year-round bird’s eye view of a big city and its suburbs, I soon came to realise that the truth is otherly.
Sure, the landmark celebrations manifest a popular – near blanket use of pyrotechnics – but individual celebrations light up the night sky too – and they happen all year round on any day you care to pick. New births, marriages, prison releases, sporting victories, birthdays, anniversaries.
Looking out at the world from on top of Heartbreak Hill, I see them all.
Strontium red, copper blue and barium green regularly caress the walls of my lounge, kitchen and bedroom. At this altitude, sky stuff doesn’t just flash onto the window panes. It literally enters the depth of the living space. And such as fireworks constitute a most welcome invasion.
At distance, I will see but not hear the displays. An arc of cobalt or a line of sulphur climbing gently into the black infinity will no sooner catch my eye than corrupt and fade. Devoid of noise, fireworks lose their sense of ferocity and become a majestic, silent dance. Poetic. Soft at the edges. Graceful as formation dancers in water. Furtive as Morse code messages. Seductive as runway models.
Closer to home, I will often hear but not see the event – perhaps blocked by a building or should it be emanating from a position behind my viewpoint, implying its presence in a mute spasmodic sequence of long-fallen disco light projections or simply denying me any visual sense of itself at all. Now the fireworks encircle me with a stealthy imminent menace on a different spectrum – the electric hum of a drone of bees giving way to a frenzy of cracking and spitting – like food on oil burning in a pan.
And then on an equal number of occasions, I’ll get to enjoy audio and video combined. All these displays are on a more human scale – lasting for only a minute or two, if that, and featuring a modest armoury of technologies. Bearing witness, I am reminded of days gone by and a world where everything wasn’t taken to its logical mighty conclusion. Where audiences were local, events were unrecorded, peer pressures were anathema and vanity was but a child.
A flight of swallows. A flock of swifts. A wedge of swans. A skein of geese. Heartbreak Hill’s proximity to the docks ensures a vibrant mix of coastal and inland birds in flight. A colony of seagulls headed for the ship canal will ring in the new day – even beating the 5 am sunrise in the summer months. Each bird flies at its preferred height. A raft of ducks down on the water will break ground to form a brace before its members take off in unison and get airborne into a flock that usually only ever ascends to about one hundred feet above the earth – each bird almost touching the next to make the most compact shadow across the sky yet still way down below my homestead viewing point. Swans cruise higher. Geese higher still. The truth that birds fly in levels only gets demonstrably known by people who live in clouds.
The Canada Geese play out a delightful if arduous ceremony – the pack leader standing proudly near the water’s edge and calling its far-flung comrades down to the Central Bay at Agecroft with an intermittent bark that gradually increases in volume and urgency. Eventually, the response arrives as its brethren emerge and waddle across the grassland from under the bushes on Salford Wharf – others paddle in from waterborne positions and more still make landing out of the air. Each new arrival confirms its compliance with a nasal honk of its own such that within five or ten minutes a busy crowd of geese are reaching fever pitch. They all turn eastward in their own time and the crowd begins to surge down the landing pads, from a laborious wide-swing strut to a more purposeful forward, faster stride – all the time the noise level increasing – like a statement of intent. The gaggle takes off in a dense cloud of furiously flapping wings which deliver a whooshing, walloping thud like bedsheets beaten on a balcony or washing line. Yet once airborne, the gang swiftly turns north and flies a mile up the hill past my block before arcing off east again onto the downriver flats of the Irwell floodplain where it meets Castlefield near the city of Manchester. The collective has worked out a shortcut and simply bypasses a large meander in the river at Exchange Quay by taking a route inland.
I hear birds walking on the roof above my ceiling as I lay in bed at night. The patter of balance and patrol. Sometimes scattergun. Sometimes rhythmic like the snare drumbeat of a marching band.
High-rise audio on these old, cold and creaking, squeaking social housing blocks, or Chin Music as I call it, is like no other. This is Manchester and at these latitudes Mother Nature communicates in an Atlantic burst of original Skepta and Stormzy rants. Not platitudes.
A delightful surprise, when I first moved in, was rainfall. Not so much the sound that raindrops make when they come into contact with solid or liquid surfaces. It’s the sound that showers of water make when they pass you mid-air and continue their descent beyond earshot. It’s a con-sequence of altitude and if I stand by an open window as a light downpour sets in over Salford and Manchester this unique light bristle whoosh lends to the illusion that I am in the sky and travelling with the storm. The sensation of speed is awesome and the very volume of water contained in rainfall somehow makes itself known to me. It’s like taking a shower without getting wet. Overall, a very refreshing and uplifting experience. Humbling too, because the sky is a big place and I am in it.
If the storm is heavy these sounds will be drowned out by the crescendo pulse of rainfall crashing hard against my windows and the surfaces of the streets down below where the piercing hiss of car tyres ploughing through an aqua sheen on the converse camber of segmented tarmac roadworks rises like the wail of a banshee premonition.
Sounds travel up from the ground with astonishing efficiency – arriving at my flat with, if anything, a newly rinsed and far-flung echoing quality – their potency depending on their tone, pitch and provenance.
Acoustics, driven and pronounced by the wind, deliver a wide variety of ear candy that play tricks. I once had a neighbour who was an acoustics engineer for a music producer and he explained to me how sound ricochets off buildings in its path, turning corners on its journey. The upshot is a kind of illusion. Some everyday noises emanating from nearby – such as the beep of the pelican crossings down on the roads that encircle and lead away from the main entrance onto Heartbreak Hill. Or the airbrakes of buses making stops outside. Such inner city sound production and reverb might disappear totally for a few days and then return with crystal clarity, while long-distant sources of noise are thrown into range. Teenagers shrieking in playful delight as they walk home from a school five miles distant. A dog barking on the Littleton Road floodwater meadows – the former home of Manchester Racecourse and before that, the stunning folly of a Dublin physician’s crazy castellated manor house estate that became known as John Fitzgerald’s Castle Irwell . The pervasive drills and hammers of construction work in the adjacent city a couple of miles from here. Helicopters filming the match unfolding at United’s Old Trafford stadium or music concerts in the Cricket Ground of the same name will swing into view, silently. At other times, their blades will cut through the air like a snow blizzard yet when I look out, they are a good few miles off.
At night a bunkered promissory, wholesome emptiness hangs with me up here in the clouds, co-existing alongside a deep-seated whirring whisper born of aggregates. An essence of old solitude: the night breeze on every leaf in every tree within a ten-mile radius. The soulful sigh of ever-so-distant cars on ever-so-distant roads. The coattails of the North Wind as it banks off the foothills of the Pennine mountains and scurries across the moors and down onto the Salford meadows onto which Heartbreak Hill looks out. Giving life to all the wind farms in its path. By daylight, I get to see every step of this story playing out from my north-facing kitchen window. Yet by night a few dozen terraced street lights flicker and the footlights of churchyards and their spires tail off into black nothingness where thirty miles of rolling countryside sit. This in sharp contrast to my east-facing main windows – where the chaotic neon hedonism of city nightlife and glorious human iniquity never lets up.
The city lives and breathes and to make a home here is to sit in the centre of all its vibrancy. All sounds are distorted, emulated, garbled, contorted and coined and sheared and re-engineered to create a unique piece of music. This Cotton City Orchestra. It might come across as you read this like some big commotion but it is not as rabble-drawn as I am making out. Everything somehow softens into a mellow background murmur. To live high up in the sky is not just to enjoy the amazing light and astounding views.
Like a long, slow exhalation of breath, the air whistles in clear pockets and rings out softly in currents of hope and question.
Much like when you stand high on a hill or a cliff edge – and you catch the near silent sneer of the mighty sky. There’s a solitude born out in the fact that all sources of noise are so far away, way off down below. I am in a tent at the end of a crane. I live in the hall of the mountain king. Each springtime I hear sparrows making a nest in the outer wall of my kitchen near the extractor fan – their rattlesnake tweets as clear as if I am holding them in my hands. Our energy fields conjoined.
Darkness amplifies the sound. Charges it. Adding a sense of anticipation and emphasising the capricious, pseudo-nautical nature of my residential vantage.
I hang above the city, precariously perched. The quotidian dance of her sights and sounds become me. Inform me. Absorb, reflect and own me. I know her well yet she remains resolutely anonymous. Of all my neighbours, she’s my favourite.
An extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. A new book coming soon from Gary Knapton