I knew that during this project I'd experience some pretty special things and meet some people who would challenge and inspire me. I guess I never expected my biggest awakening to come from a man in a green hoody with a broad Liverpudlian accent. But then I should have learnt by now to never judge a book by its cover.
With Danny Collins
Danny was born in Liverpool in 1955, the youngest child of a large, working-class family. He left school at 14, desperate to join the Army- something his Irish Catholic father was against. Danny was close to his father who died when he was 17.
He joined the army as a way of escaping a three-year prison sentence for fighting in the street. He spent 13 years with them and struggled to adapt to civilian life, taking a job in construction that kept him away from home and his wife and daughters when he was discharged.
After a serious accident at work his mental health deteriorated and a decade after leaving the Army he found himself in hospital having been discovered on the outskirts of Birmingham walking down a motorway. When discharged he slept rough on the streets of Birmingham for a while then travelled around, finally settling in Manchester.
After almost 5 years of homelessness, he found support at Manchester's Booth Centre and got himself off the streets. Danny now spends his time working, volunteering and raising awareness.
Danny is our Invisible Cities tour guide of Manchester for the next two or so hours. He greets us warmly clutching a folder crammed full of stuff that somehow lets us know we're in for a treat. As the tour buses stream by and Danny walks us to our first location I feel excited to think we're going to get to see the city through the eyes of someone who has really LIVED in it, we're going to see Danny's Manchester, warts and all.
The beauty of Danny's tour is the mix of historical and present day knowledge, his wit and sense of fun and his beautiful, poignant poetry that he recites at each stopping off point. It really makes the walk a unique experience, so much of his story is intertwined with those of the locations we pause at that I can't imagine anyone else showing me round.
He takes us into a church that showed him kindness and for a minute, taking in its beauty and feeling so small, I knew what it must have felt like for him walking through its grand archway and finding a friendly face and a cup of tea when the rest of the world was shutting its doors.
The most poignant part for me was sitting perched on a low wall and finding out its corner had been Danny's bed for a period of time before he had been moved on so a mural could be painted. He proudly states that he painted the graffiti'd creature's pink tail.
He points out that the city's new 'hostile architecture', in this case masquerading as a bike rack, would mean someone couldn't sleep there now.
Walking round with Danny I'm a bit ashamed to say I notice more of Manchester's homeless community, not least because he greets every one warmly and some by name. He opens a window onto places and people I might have just walked past.
Danny's tour both broke my heart and filled me with hope that with tenacity, the desire for change and some human kindness anything is achievable. As he reads us his last poem and we say goodbye, he leaves us with our heads buzzing with stories and knowledge and the feeling that we've met someone pretty incredible.
'Look at the person, not the bag, think of who they are and what they've had.' Danny Collins 'The Bag'
You can book a tour with Danny here.