Features Essays Published 4 November 2015

The Hole in The Middle of The City

James Varney visits Manchester's Pomona, the inspiration for Alistair McDowall's play: urban island, vacancy, site of destruction.
James Varney


the first thing you learn about Pomona is

thə fu:st thing yu lu:n əbaot pəmonə iz

“no, ive not been there before”

“youve probably been past it”

“theres nothing there”

“there are just holes in the ground”

to walk to Cornbrook Metrolink station, you have to walk under three bridges that lie in parallel, with a couple of feet of sky showing between them when you look up. They’re all three very square from underneath. They seem weighty. As if, were they to collapse, there would be a heavy and definitive end to your life.

I’ve not been into Pomona before today. But as soon as I try, searching past the cars outside the scrapmetalyard, I find a gap in the fence, next to a padlocked gate and I am in. Or out, as the case may be. I’m no longer on sanctioned soil. And I’m unsure if this counts as Manchester, Salford, Stretford or some sort of nationless territory. There’s nothing in Pomona. There are broken fridges, beer bottles, chunks of concrete, giant industrial-sized buckets, a lock, holes in the ground, padlocks on gates, rubber tubes emptied of copper, a road that just gives up halfway across the stretch, a sea of lampposts that never turn on, nothing.

there are some days more appropriate than others

thärə sum daez mor əpropriət thən əthəz

yesterday a fog descended on the country. The Daily Star declared it a ‘killer smog’, as if one of those heavy and ancient choking things that would descend upon the capital before we stopped chucking corpses in the Thames. The air in Pomona is clear, but breathable. More breathable, presumably, than that in the city centre. The air in Pomona is clear and filled with birds and the earth seems like the sort of earth in which you could comfortably bury a corpse. I’ve seen birds today I didn’t recognise – golden brown things the size of starlings – I’ve seen more birds on Pomona today than I’ve seen in RSPB reserves and the ground was full of holes. And if you had a spade I can imagine the earth giving way cleanly. I can imagine digging a perfect rectangular pit. I think I see a cormorant, sat on a lamppost.

There is a list of names sprayed on the ground. As if in remembrance, different to the more artful and colourful murals on the walls that line the Bridgewater Canal. All in a column, all in yellow, just sprayed there. Pomona is not lawless. It has its own set of rules just as arbitrary as anywhere else. But they’re not wholly for the likes of us. Such an empty space has to operate in an empty way. Look too hard and all the grit will just be grit, the puddles and the muddy slopes meaningless, the bird calls empty noise.

are these spaces cryptic or are we

ar thëz spaesəs kriptik ö ra we

i could describe Pomona as apocalyptic and expect you to know what I mean. It’s devoid of the life that counts to a city and packed with the life that doesn’t. There are birds upon birds and blackberry bushes throbbing with unripe magenta fruit, those straggly fluffy and vital kinds of flowers that only bloom where you’re not looking. I could make the mistake of describing Pomona as looking like the end of the world. But the world doesn’t end. We cannot live outside of time. You see Pomona and you know it is not finished. The plants will grow, or die, the birds will breed or eat each other, the land will be bought or left. As much as you wonder how Pomona came to be, you wonder what it will become next.

Pomona is a hole. It’s three vowels, oh, oh, ah. It’s vacancy, stitched together with hard things like consonants, because if you have a hole you need something for it to be punched in. Pomona is punched in Manchester and I think cities have to have spaces like this – places that more than anything else are definitely not the city. Otherwise where is our model for failure? The arch beneath the bridge holds up the bridge – regardless of who lives under it. There’s a reason it’s so difficult to get to Pomona from the city centre unless you already know the way. Pomona’s only ever meant to be viewed from trams, buses, journeys. Heading into Deansgate on the Didsbury line, Pomona is there for us all to see and to aspire to destroy.

The problem is that Pomona is already a site of destruction. Cities do not benignly leave spaces to rot by accident. No force majeurefilled in the docks and shut the locks, and left the weeds to grow. Decay is as much a political tool as shining steel and glass. A nothing so sharply cordoned off, so dense as this, is not accidental. It cannot be any more killed. The threat of it spreading, the sinister possibility that one day this slit of unliving, ungoverned land might swallow us, is enough to turn us away.

but you know therere purposes to it beyond that

bÉ™t yÉ™no thaerÉ™ püpÉ™sÉ™s to i’ beyontha’

All the waste is a record, though.

This empty space is intensely populated.

Pomona attracts as much as it repels. But what sort?

suddenly i am surrounded by birds

sudənley ay am səraoundəd bay büdz

“I spend a lot of time on the internet.” Andrew Haydon in conversation with Alistair McDowall


James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.



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