Sunday, 4 May 2008

Glimpsing Manchester

[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.


KateJ said...

I rather like Manchester,especially the Library Theatre, where I've been twice, once for a really good production of Brecht's "Schweik in the 2nd World War" and once for an amazing thing based on the trial of Dr Harold Shipman. Very powerful.
Last time I was in Manchester was when my son had an open day at Manchester Uni, and took one look at the sheer vastness of the place and decided it wasn't for him!
But a good place to visit, I reckon.

Yvonne said...

I've stood on that bridge and taken a very similar photo to yours! Yes, Manchester has a certain Northern charm, doesn't it? I am rather enamoured of the quartier gai, also.

There's a folksong about the Peterloo massacre.

Kathz said...

I've been to Manchester a couple of times before. I once went to see John Thaw in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. I've been there for work and for a party but never as a tourist, though I once arrived early when the jazz festival was on and enjoyed jazz on the streets. I love the cobbled streets with tram lines near the Co-operative College offices and the pubs and bookshops look excellent. I've never knowingly been in the gay area (Canal Street??) but I enjoyed finding bars, cafes and shops which welcomed a wide range of people - some in remarkable costumes - where I was made to feel at home despite my boring and middle-aged appearance.

One day I'd like to spend a few days exploring Manchester and the northern Peak District - if I can find a cat-sitter.