Sunday, 4 May 2008
[first posted 1st May]
I went to Manchester for work. There wasn't time to be a tourist: just a 10-minute walk from one station and a 20-minute walk to another. Much of the day was spent in a windowless room that could have been anywhere with people who had travelled for several hours to be in that room with one another. It was comfortable and interesting, the people were friendly and had lots to say, but by second afternoon session I was uncomfortably aware of the close ceiling and heavy, tightly-fitted doors. I made my excuses and left in the last tea break.
The sunlit Manchester streets were a delight.
I first knew Manchester through books. At university I read Mrs Gaskell and Engels but before that I found a tattered paperback edition of Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring. The book opens with an account of the Peterloo Massacre, when soldiers on horseback drew their sabres on the peaceful, holiday crowd who had come to listen to Orator Hunt. The troops were sent in by the local magistrates. It's hard to be sure how many were killed and how many were injured but the plaque suggests 15 dead and about 600 injured. The Home Secretary congratulated the magistrates on their prompt action.
Fame is the Spur presented Manchester as a place of oppression and resistance. Perhaps that's always coloured my view of the city. That history was at the back of my mind as I relished my glimpse of a few streets. Victorian Manchester is still evident, with flourishes proclaiming the joys of trade and manufacture. I may mistrust banks and be wary of the police but surely the exuberant architecture comes out of love for the city and hope for the future - there's more passion in Manchester buildings than in today's vast superstores that speak only of quick bulk sales and rapid turnover. Supermarkets seem to be built for hasty demolition. Once they have served their purpose they will collapse like a flat pack; shoppers may miss their bargains but no-one will regret the functional aisles or cheap exteriors.
The old factories, offices and banks of Manchester have been commandeered, often for small businesses. Cab companies jostle nightclubs and grocers display wares between cheap cafes and travel bureaux. Repair shops nestle in railway arches. Victorian window frames are picked out in mauve above a Japanese restaurant. The new occupants of old buildings have inherited their optimism and flourish.
I was in the student quarter but I don't suppose all the people I saw were students. The appearance of the area was international but most accents were local and friendships seemed to extend beyond the supposed barriers of race and culture. I caught fragments of conversation. "So he said, 'Are you from the Caribbean?'" a blonde declared. "Well, I could be but it's not what most people think." I wanted to hear more, to find out who "he" was and what her companions thought, but the group crossed the road away from me and I could not follow. A woman launched into a complaint about her poorly hip, which prevented her keeping up with her friends - but the complaint stopped as a friend apologised and called on the rest to wait. I was running for the train by then.
I caught the train and was carried to Stockport and then through Edale and Hope - the bare slopes of the Dark Peak. I wanted to get out and walk. Instead the train carried me on and I watched the snowy lambs seeking their mothers' sides and safety ... or so they think.