Soft Keys

Raising Sparks

Burning Babylon


The Half Healed


Selected Poems


Patrick’s Alphabet



Edgelands (with Paul Farley)

Deaths of the Poets (with Paul Farley)


Michael Symmons Roberts

title page for Mancunia

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Epub ISBN: 9781473546905

Version 1.0

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2


20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,

London SW1V 2SA

Vintage is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at

Penguin logo

Copyright © Michael Symmons Roberts 2017

Cover illustration © Thorn Head, WA2010.11 by Graham Vivian Sutherland © The artist’s estate. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Michael Symmons Roberts has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published by Jonathan Cape in 2017

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.

Oscar Wilde

… once went further and saw Manchester, / And once the sea, that blue end of the world.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

What a world it represented – cotton and shipping and commerce, the like of which we shall never see again. It’s a wonder they didn’t use gold bars instead of bricks and stone.

Beryl Bainbridge

Six thousand years in the Sahara looks like six months in Manchester.

Tom Stoppard


because I cannot sleep and this unsteady

moon has lured me out with promises

to light one final act for me.

Filthy sky-black pea-coat,

I shrug it from my shoulders, grip the collar,

and begin to shake it out.

The stars cannot give second thought

to such a slight shift in the world’s array,

but still they flinch with each down-draught.

The backyard breeze, coaxed into mimicry,

awakens fallen leaves from cherries, acers,

laurels, limes, a silvered cloud of tree,

a crack of pylons at the edge of town.

Within an hour, it will be lifting flags

in empty cities you and I have never seen.

I curse myself for waiting days to do this,

given all the places we have been

– turbid rivers, search-lit walls,

dry fields sown with thorns and mines –

no wonder it shakes out so many

splinters, dog-hairs, baggage-tags, such rain.

And given all those half-forgotten places,

it is scant surprise that – look!

my cloth, unfurled, is twice the size.

I had no sense it was so bunched and hemmed,

but now it opens into trench coat, cloak,

black wedding-train, tarpaulin, tent,

and still the dross flies from its folds.

I am a vignette: man-in-silent-yard-sees-light,

or sings-of-where-he’s-been-and-what-he-almost-knows.

O moon, have a heart, my arms are agony,

I cannot stop for fear that when I do,

my old coat will no longer be a fit for me.


Mancunia at night looks like embers from above,

but hold the dive and it reassembles, cools,

coalesces into districts, flyovers, a motherboard,

now stadiums like unblinking eyes,

car lots set out as piano keys, parks with lake wounds,

counter-flow of arteries in red and white,

the bass clef curves of cul de sacs

in outlying estates, then factories with starting guns

of smoke that sting and make you squint,

now you can pick out individual cars, nags’ heads

down in dark fields, glow of dressed shop windows,

drunks on their tightrope walk home,

black poplars’ ragged tops, roof tiles, kerbstones,

air that drops from ice to cloud to everything a city

cooks at once until the road meets you

face-to-face, down and under, slower, denser

and the clay arrests you, holds you as a pulse for good,

so what keeps this city alive is you.


I give you the Northern Quarter in full vamp,

its post-drizzle glory, sun an arc lamp

on that mural of a blue-tit, vast and antic,

with bindweed blooms like blast-holes in old brick.

Spiralling above this massive passerine,

painted candles rise towards some heaven.

I thought how you would hate that twist,

since you dismiss the promise of all worlds but this,

how you would sooner have your cold cadaver

thrown into a skip than warrant any hope of a hereafter.

The street-cleaners are out in force,

steam from Northern Tea Power frosts its glass,

vintage frock stores shake their racks for moths.

The last payphone on Newton Street rings out,

and picking through the gutter at your feet

a blackbird holds the same trill on repeat.

This is no epiphany, but so close-up,

such is the soft density of darkness on its nap

that like an inverse star it could pull everyone,

the whole unrescued world through to oblivion.

If there is another place, another chapter,

I suggest this Ancoats skylark is its harbinger.

But then you pick it up and show how light it is,

its air sacs and its fluted bones: it flies.


Between back-to-backs along the alleys

he lifts wrung-out sheets

and shirts hung up to dry,

in search of a repeat

glimpse of a goddess out to get

a tan. Meantime, her right-hand-woman

uses his old sweat-soaked gym vest

as gift-wrap for a T-bone,

thus reprogramming his own stray

pack of pit bulls, staffies, akitas,

to see their master as their prey.

They do. So said the stars.


I know exactly how you feel:

you’re like some drunken bluebottle

which wakes from winter’s bite not just alive

but in the tropics, and cannot believe

that this is real, such paradise,

with plates of fruit and meat, you buzz

from room to room and this

becomes complete for you, a universe.

How could you know

that just beyond that picture window