The cotton mills are now smart flats and the money is in football, but the air of protest lives on. As the BBC ships 2,300 staff there and the biennial festival looms, Tanya Aldred sketches real life in a city of character ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011
I fell for Manchester when I fell for my husband. The two-hour journey on the train from London would leave the din of Euston for emerald fields, hills, canals, stooping horses, the chimneys of Stockport and finally the cool northern summer evening. It used to leave me so shaking with pre-date nerves that I couldn’t put in my earrings. Now, ten years on, I do the trip more calmly with my three children, who, with their short vowels and industrial pallor, are coming home.
Manchester is no renaissance dream. But it is proud and vivacious with its Victorian redbrick buildings and old mills, many of them now fancy flats or museums, interspersed with new steel columns. The lovely old town hall is the centre of the city, with its huge clock tower, cobbled square and fountains, and its benches that suddenly fill up at the slightest hint of sun. Just down Corporation Street is the spot where, in 1996, the IRA placed a bomb, the biggest ever to go off in Britain in peacetime, which killed no one but injured 212 people and caused £1 billion-worth of damage in today’s money. What came in its place is a gleaming self-confidence. There is money here now, and the shops to match—Selfridges, Harvey Nichols—and even humble old Marks & Spencer, which took the brunt of the blast, is wrapped in shiny glass. Inside, cool customers fill large, branded bags.
Mancunians are not cowed by anything, least of all the north-south divide. Many of the English protest movements of the 19th and 20th century had their roots here—the Anti-Corn Law League, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the Trades Union Congress—and there were powerful provincial presses to back them up. It was in Manchester that Friedrich Engels (who lived here for 22 years) and Karl Marx came to many of their ideas, after observing the conditions in the world’s first industrial city, made rich and filthy on cotton. They used to chat at the wooden desk in the window alcove in the reading room at Chetham’s library, Britain’s oldest free public reference library, opened in 1653. Manchester’s politics remain left-leaning—the Conservatives tend to win one seat in the local elections, the same as the Greens—and it still firmly proclaims itself a nuclear-free zone.
This is no place to come if you are searching for anonymity or for the stammering, repressed, George VI kind of Englishman. Walk the streets with a pram containing a roaring baby, and you will not be short of friendly enquiry or robust advice: “Y’alright love? That poor thing is hungry.” People talk to you: at the bus stop, in the bread queue, waiting for a chip barm (sandwich), watching the sparrows chirp in a tree in St Ann’s Square. We share a garden gate with our neighbours and the children race in and out to play with each other; our washing line spreads over two backyards. This, in other words, is not London.
A Londoner might say that’s because Manchester has the rain. Let’s get this out of the way. It has an average of 806mm a year—more than Dublin, but much less than Auckland—which is not as much as its reputation suggests but enough to make you occasionally weary. My mum roared with laughter when she saw the children all kitted out in their yellow waterproof dungarees—they were not de rigueur where I grew up in Woking (597mm)—but they are the best purchase I ever made. What is more difficult to cope with is the leaden sky that sometimes hangs over the city, even in summer, like a dusty, flaking, safety curtain. But when you do wake to a clear blue vista it is like being presented with a box of heavenly chocolates, and on a day like that the city sparkles with joie de vivre. People spill outside to soak up the sun (tanning centres still do good business here) and the city imagines itself 20 degrees south, and if we were to walk past the terrace of Mr Thomas’s Chop House in the city centre, my husband would pause and I would catch him briefly wishing time away until he was young and free again and could spend the afternoon in the pub.
Jump on a tram in town, gleaming new and yellow if you’re lucky, and head out to Bury and the steam trains—the Santa express if you’ve been good—or to Manchester’s Siamese-twin city of Salford, just over the River Irwell. This is where the BBC is in the process of shifting 2,300 of its staff from London, in the face of much huffing and puffing; for a small country, we seem to squeeze in a lot of geographical prejudice. The move will return some media punch to these parts—the (Manchester) Guardian left 35 years ago and even the Manchester Evening News HQ recently slipped away to Oldham. In Salford too are the twin gems of the Imperial War Museum North, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and the Lowry arts centre. I have spent many hours here with my children, watching the boats on the Ship Canal, examining Lowry’s matchstick men, and indulging their slightly disturbing obsession with the second world war.
I’d be lying if I pretended to live the funky metropolitan life. I don’t go clubbing till dawn on the gay mecca of Canal Street or footballer-spotting at Sugar Lounge, nor do I join the thousands of students soothing their aching feet in the fountains of Piccadilly Gardens. We live in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a southern suburb tucked in between the rougher areas of Moss Side and Hulme (“Gunchester” to the tabloids), and the more affluent Didsbury. Chorlton is a mixture of middle-class terraces and large council estates, with pretensions that drive people mad, but I love it. It is big on local shops, home schooling, bicycles, lesbian parenting, veganism and protesting against almost anything: there is even a man gamely selling the Socialist Worker.
The river Mersey, which comes out in the mouth of Manchester’s great rival Liverpool, flows south of here, about a mile away from our house, and at the weekend the towpath is full of families, lovers, horses and joggers. In summer the swallows dip and gather just by the Jackson’s Boat pub. Last June 21st, a friend and I cycled to a solstice circle dance by the river (very Chorlton) and on our return at nearly ten o’clock the sun still hadn’t set—time is almost Scandinavian in midsummer, when dusk comes a full 21 minutes later than in London.
There is enough of a feeling of community for ordinary people to be well known. Take Jackie Duckworth, the brisk and wonderful midwife, who refuses to use new-fangled equipment and relies instead on her “trumpet” to listen for the baby’s heartbeat. She is still delivering daily, accosted everywhere she goes by grateful parents who insist that she admires their now lummoxing offspring. And I dine out on the actor from “Coronation Street” who lives on our street, even if I’ve still never watched a whole episode. At the school gates you’ll find a wry old mix of Pilates teachers and computer geeks, shop assistants and musicians, academics, builders and little children playing football, football, football.
Manchester is both obsessed and divided by football. Kids inherit an allegiance either to red United, for a long time the vastly superior, richer brother with its self-proclaimed Theatre of Dreams at Old Trafford, or light-blue City, now relocated to Sportcity and suddenly fortified by a sheikh’s billions. On match days traffic grinds to a slow halt with those infamous Man U fans from London arriving in hordes, but the heart of the support is still local—parents, children and grandparents walking together to the game. The footballers, though, are not—those that remain, such as Paul Scholes, are slowly fading into the shadows, and the names on the kids’ backs are from Argentina or Bulgaria or even Liverpool. And the players tend to live out of town now, in the gated luxury of nearby Cheshire. There is another Old Trafford too, just over the way, home to the lovely Lancashire County Cricket Club, sleepy most of the time but pulsating with excitement when England play there, or when Yorkshire arrive to re-enact the Wars of the Roses.
Some say Manchester has pretensions beyond its station. A friend from Melbourne was struck dumb on the top deck of a bus when my kids proudly pointed out the tallest tower in the city. “Is that it?” he managed. He was similarly disgusted with the coffee which, admittedly, can be grotty even when served in an ice-cool café with funky chairs. And although Mancunians are the friendliest city-dwellers I’ve met, there is a wariness about being patronised, especially by a southerner.
The shadow of Cottonopolis lingers. There are still areas of terrible poverty and Manchester has the lowest life expectancy of any local authority in England and Wales, 71 years at the last count. The looming government cuts will be awful for those who are struggling. But to patronise? There’s not much. Consider all the festivals: film, jazz, food, dance, poetry, Pride, carnival and, this summer, the third Manchester International Festival, a biennial spectacular of original work—last time I saw Rufus Wainwright’s slightly dubious opera. Throw in the aquatics centre and the velodrome, legacies of the triumphant 2002 Commonwealth Games. And then there is the music.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Manchester was where it was at—Madchester, home to the Hacienda nightclub and the Stone Roses—oh, I dreamt of living here then. They were followed by Oasis, the laddish Gallagher brothers who inspired a generation of young men to adopt the distinctive, legs-apart, Manc swagger. In the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of artier bands from Joy Division to the Smiths swept into the charts. And so it continues, from Elbow to Doves and I Am Kloot. It was the music that the New York Times singled out when it picked Manchester in its top 20 places to go in 2011.
My daughter’s auburn hair, much praised by old ladies as she sat in her pram, is not so unusual in a city with a large Irish population. Manchester now has many Poles, West Indians, Chinese and a good scattering of international business people too. For me, the welcome has been warm and the city gratifyingly buzzin’. I have learnt to navigate the ginnels (back alleys) between the terraces and to drink more tea than I thought humanly possible; to translate “washing the pots” (washing up) and even to pronounce Tanya with a short “a” when giving my name in a shop. And I love being able to see the first snow on the Pennines from the park. But a Manc? I’m working on it. Fancy a brew?
WHERE TO STAY
If money is no object, blow it at the Lowry (+44 (0)161 827 4000) for five-star opulence and dreamy walks by the Irwell. Otherwise try the Hilton (+44 (0)161 870 1600) on Deansgate for fine views and the buzzing bar Cloud 23, or Abode (+44 (0)161 247 7744) near Piccadilly station for big solid rooms and Michael Caines’s menus, or the Radisson Edwardian (+44 (0)161 835 9929) in the beautiful old Free Trade Hall. For cricket fans it has to be the Old Trafford Lodge (+44 (0)161 874 3333), simple stuff, but with rooms overlooking the famous old pitch.
WHERE TO EAT
While there are no Michelin stars, there are plenty of good restaurants with buckets of atmosphere. Choice (Castle Quay, +44 (0)161 833 3400) in Castlefield serves delicious modern British food and the service is cracking. The Mark Addy (Stanley Street, +44 (0)161 832 4080), just the Salford side of the Irwell, offers riverside eating and local ingredients. Dimitris (Deansgate, +44 (0)161 839 3319) near Deansgate station, is a sentimental favourite, good for tapas, while the Red Chilli (70 Portland Street, +44 (0)161 236 2888) serves hot, eye-opening Chinese. For an old-fashioned boozer with honest pub food, try Marble Arch (73 Rochdale Road, +44 (0)161 832 5914); they brew their own beer next door. I’m particularly qualified to recommend tea and cakes – brownies and culture at the Whitworth Art Gallery or the mouthwatering Slattery’s in Whitefield (197 Bury New Road, +44 (0)161 767 9303).
Manchester is small enough to explore in a pair of flip-flops. For history and canals head for Castlefield; for cool bars, coffee and record shops you need the arty Northern Quarter. For a tour on subjects from the Suffragettes to the gangs, in many languages, try Manchester Guided Tours (+44 (0)7500 774200).
WHAT TO SEE Come for the Manchester International Festival, June 30th to July 17th, but book early, even for the free stuff. Otherwise head for Spinningfields, the La Défense of Manchester, a redeveloped space off Deansgate with the People’s History Museum, the neo-gothic John Rylands Library and an open-air cinema in summer, ice-skating in winter. The magnificent Museum of Science and Industry is round the corner.
Market Street is pedestrianised and offers typical high-street fare, while King Street is good for more upmarket fashions. Oldham Street and the arcade Afflecks, both in the Northern Quarter, and Beech Road in Chorlton all have little boutiques worth exploring.
Tanya Aldred writes a sports column for the Daily Telegraph. She was assistant editor of the Wisden Cricket Monthly before covering various sports for the Guardian. Picture Credit: Pauline Neild.