On the Sixth Day – Mancunian Momentos

Visiting a city you once lived in after a period of years is always a jolting experience – perhaps more so if the visit is fleeting.

The old place is still there. Streets you can walk about by habit. Old haunts that ambush you back into your younger self as though you’ve walked through a portal into forgotten memories that are suddenly alive. But all the new stuff superimposed upon it makes it stranger, a different place. All your memories of what this place is become what this place was in a sudden brutal updating. The Manchester that lives in my head is what it was like in the 1980’s. Manchester as it is is full of personal echoes that, however powerful, are as insubstantial as whispers. Time can’t be held in your hands, only in your head. You remember the North, but the North has moved on and doesn’t remember you.

The pictures here were taken in the darkness of a Northern November evening.


These murals are everywhere. A lot of confidence in this, alongside the humour. Clearly, from this picture especially, this is still a work in progress. As we also say of London “It’ll be lovely when it’s finished.”

75 Piccadilly

This was the street entrance to the silk screen printshop I used to work in, making posters for CND, student unions, factory occupations; and shamelessly ripping off designs from the Ateliers Populaires from Mai 68. Back then this was a very shabby part of the centre of town, with semi abandoned workshop spaces available to rent from The Salvation Army, among other unlikely landlords, for peppercorn rents. Now the whole street is swish and slick and exudes the air of valuable real estate. Piccadilly Gardens is similar. once quiet, contemplative, with a sorrowful dignity, it is now brash, lit up, commercial, lively. Richer but with less gravitas somehow. I’d forgotten about the stone lions carved on either side of the skylight. Their damp, crumbling dignity has a feel of Venice or some forgotten kingdom in Anatolia.


The Midland Hotel

This was Adolf Hitler’s favourite building in Britain and would have been his northern HQ had Operation Sea Lion come off. A definite and in your face building. Not one you could miss. Ponderous, ugly pink sandstone. Empty overstated pomp. Right up Hitler’s street. Easy to mock. But had the occupation occurred it would have been one of those buildings that warps the space around it with the force field of all the terrible things being done or planned inside. Outside is St Peter’s Square – site of the Peterloo massacre in 1819 – commemorated discretely only by a blue plaque – so as not to draw too much attention to it or what it meant (and still does). Many people pass by every day, walk over the space where the Yeomanry cut down democracy protesters, and catch a tram without a second thought.

There is something inspiring about the trams though. Something continental and forward looking. Beyond the London model. More distinctive than red buses. Something greener than cars or buses. Thousands of people travelling on these mighty ships of the street with their friendly hoot as far out as Rochdale, Bury, Eccles, Altringham and Ashton. Someone forgot about Oldham – which isn’t easy to do. Nevertheless, as Ursula Le Guin wrote in The Dispossed, “It was hard to look at the trams of Anarres without wanting to cheer.”(1)

The way Indian/Pakistani restaurants used to be.

Round where I live now, a lot of the Indian restaurants have gone up market in a modernist sort of way. There’s slick decor, flat screen TVs. mocktails, good food but at higher prices catering for a quite prosperous “aspirational” third or fourth generation. Back in the early 80’s there were several Pakistani run cafes in an Asian textile district at the back of the Arndale Centre. One of them, Yaqub’s, was a shack in the shadow of the multi story car park, with room for about five of us to squeeze in onto a counter along the window, while one of the staff of two took orders and an elderly, skinny guy with a long beard and shy smile grilled kebabs on skewers, where you could get a veg curry and Gulab Jamun for afters for 80p. My kind of place. There was another, the Lahore cafe, that was hidden away in a hole in a wall down a disused side street. Both these are long gone. The Yagdar, which is just opposite where Yaqub’s used to be, has come up in the world in the sense that it is no longer actually dangerous to eat there. The last time I was in Manchester for a union conference in 2008 the Yagdar had steps down to the toilets that you had to step on very carefully so as not to go through them and an internal decor that could best be described as improvised. Bits of decorative moulding that seemed to have been rescued from a skip had been stuck on the walls here and there and someone had brushed some gold paint across some of it. The food, however, was wonderful. Wholesome, home cooked, authentic and seriously inexpensive.  It looked a bit like this.

The Yagdar. 3 curries, rice and chapati – £5.50. Recommended.

Since then they have cleaned up and sorted out the stairs. Everything is minimalist formica basic. Nothing fancy. But the food is just as good and just as good value. Served up by a friendly but lugubrious guy in Kurta Pajama (what he wears for work not how he dresses up for it) that you can talk to eye to eye. I love these places. I wish a few more of them had survived.

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A relatively honest War Memorial by Piccadilly Station

Most war memorials seek to glorify or to sanctify war. This one, although all the soldiers look far more clean cut and handsome than they can possibly have been, at least shows the damage that was done to so many of them. These were not the “glorious dead” but the shattered living, the Mutilles de Guerre, some of them with wounds that led to them being shunned as an inconvenient reminder of how terrible the war had been. The wounded were far more numerous than the dead. One and a half million in Britain (twice as many as those killed) more than four million in France and Germany. Many more – as with all wars – had wounds that could not be seen.

  1. This quotation is from memory. The book is well worth a read.

Tales from the Riverbank part 4. Visiting the Wind in the Willows as a stoat.

20190813_183627 (2)Walking from Brentford to Hampton Court along the Thames Path is to move between worlds more peculiarly different than in a sci-fi time slip between parallel universes. The same river and the same country, but very different worlds.

Brentford – South of Acton

Brentford is a place most people pass over – swishing way above on the Chiswick flyover; only noticing the upper floors of newly shiny tall buildings. Down below, in the underworld, quiet, twee little houses cluster shyly along the noisy fringes of the North Circular Road. Cars pass above and below, to north and south, east and west. Not a place to stop.

A motorist is a convertible shoots past towards Heathrow, the tan head rests in his back seats looking as though he’s taking two Sontaran visitors out for a spin.

The point at which the River Brent spills into the Thames, Brentford became the river junction for the Grand Union Canal and an area of higgeldy piggeldy workshops, a collection of eyesores all squeezed together in an improvised scuzzy mess around the Thames lock. The lack of self respect for trade in an area surrounded by zones of affluent consumption. Almost as though it is rubbing their faces in it. A well ordered wood yard, impeccably clean and functional, stands out in the chaos; as though keeping its head when all those about it had lost theirs. A busy yard with forklift trucks moving restlessly sports a sign – “No entrance unless under the guidance of a Banksman”- that sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.

A place where boats and buses come to die; London’s largest functioning boat yard sits in a canal dog leg, three large covered dry docks, one working from the sound of the hammering and whining of drills, two absolutely overflowing with junk. Rusty metal, parts of boats, parts of engines, broken pipes piled up and spilling out. More a knackers yard than a hospital. Nothing new and shiny and proud being built, just the old and clapped out being gutted for parts. In a flat bottom barge in the canal alongside, more discarded metal, a whole earth mover rusted through, useless scrap from gutted machines; all just sitting there in a floating skip with nowhere to go.

Along the bank the buddleia and, amongst them and across the water, the dragonflies winking like jewels, their abdomens swaying contentedly as they suck nectar.

Houseboats sit at rest along every available bank. Some are wrecked; a queue of them either waiting for the short trip to the breakers yard, or just gently decaying at their moorings. Some, further on, and still lived in, have a tired and worn out air about them. One has a Union flag on its mainmast and a Red Duster aft – both faded by sunlight and worn thin and ragged by winds, but still nailed to the mast as a memory of departed glories; and an obvious metaphor for the state of a nation in which too many are too wedded to the past to be able to imagine a future that might be different.

Cormorants flash by, or stand sentinel preening their wings. Wooded islands dream on in mid channel – some of them with disused boat yards or tumble down buildings.

At the Morrisons, to which we repair for energy bars to power our feeble legs, the headlines from planets Times and Telegraph are that polls show “the people” want Brexit “done” by 31 October, by riding roughshod over Parliament to do it if need be. With a country as divided as it is, how they think that such a course of action could be healing, or anything other than a prelude to an extended period of trouble and disturbance is beyond me. Referenda only settle an issue if the result is overwhelming. That one wasn’t. Neither side will be happy with the victory of the other and no one will be happy with a compromise. Perhaps no accident that they are recruiting more police and building more prisons.

Just beyond Morrisons is Brentford Bridge – where an English Civil War battle took place in 1642 during Charles I’s push to retake London. The advancing Royalist Infantry nudged back a Parliamentary Foot Regiment that had dug in behind a barricade they had built across the road; and from which they had initially held off a cavalry attack. Parliamentary barges carrying artillery upriver were then sunk or captured. Victory in this skirmish was short lived and Charles’s attempts to advance much further were held off. He was never strong enough to threaten London again and ended up in Whitehall without his head seven years later. The commemorative plaque for the battle notes that both sides ravaged the surrounding area for forage and that one person out of every twenty five died in the war. The death rate in World War 1 was half that. Civil wars are always peculiarly brutal.

The Houses in between

Long stretches of the Thames Path in this part of London should be renamed the Not Quite Thames Path or The Path that would be the Thames Path if we had access to the Riverbank. Beyond the industrial cloaca of Brentford the housing becomes more elegant and expensive – some of it Poundbury style mock Georgian – and a riverfront is part of the cachet; so the Thames Path has to follow the next roads in. These could be anywhere and, as views go, are reminiscent of the music hall song

“With a ladder and some glasses,

you could see to Hackney Marshes,

if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”

To pass the time, in the absence of visual stimulation, we have geeky conversations about who Edith Piaf was, Film Noir and the debt owed by spaghetti westerns to Kurosawa, whether bus numbers that start with a letter are somehow second class (and speculating on how many numbered routes there are in London; more than 700 it turns out) the tendency for sci-fi films to break the logic of their own “scientific laws”  – and why 2+2-2=20 works in Javascript.

And we wept when we remembered Syon

One of the biggest and oldest of the houses commanding its own river front is Syon Park. This has been the London seat of the Dukes of Northumberland for 400 years; built in the 1500s in huge deer park grounds in border castle style, austere, with corner castles and battlements; as though expecting a party of Scottish border reivers to come whooping over the horizon at any moment: or perhaps just to remind the owners of who they were and what they were supposed to be all about. As Shakespeare’s Prince Hal puts it of Harry Percy – his contemporary and rival –

“He who kills me some six or seven dozen Scots each morning before breakfast,

washes his hands and says to his wife,

fie upon this quiet life, I want work.”

To one side of it is a hugely domed greenhouse that looks like an outpost from Kew Gardens, just across the river, or something out of The Prisoner, with a Garden Centre and cafe doing a roaring trade beneath it. The clientele in the cafe are entirely middle and upper class – eating the fat, fluffy chips of prosperity from woven baskets and talking in entitled tones. Elderly women in big floppy hats that they might wear painting oils in a field. Chaps with specs on ribbons. Boys called Horace.


The elegance of the riverside housing in Isleworth, all slim wrought iron balconies, humanely scaled, organically and gracefully linked, studded with trees and looking like a place of rest; is horribly undermined by being on the flight path in to Heathrow. Every 30 seconds or so a huge airliner barrels in on its way to land – low enough to cast large shadows and make a permanent strain on ears and psyches. The impact on CO2 levels doesn’t bear thinking about. They want to expand to a third as much again.


A little further on and the impact of the airport fades away. Everyone walking past now exudes wealth. Young men with headphones and insouciant looks walk well permed poodles or King Charles Spaniels. A man with the deep tan of the freshly holidayed walks past in a bright blue jacket that is as fresh as if he has never worn it, trousers that look like he dry cleans them every day and a pair of shoes that look as if they have been worn once. Wealthy people never look as though they sweat unless they want to. Looking up at the curve of Richmond Bridge, that looks as though it was built to be painted, its easy to see why this area swings politically between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Living round here, and thinking it normal, how could you not think that more or less all was ok with the world; or that those parts of it that were not ok could most easily be seen as a threat?

On the river, well worn houseboats along tow paths are giving way to neat little cruisers and yachts that are tied up at the end of private sloping gardens as routinely as cars in suburbia – neatly tarpaulined and clean. This becomes even more so as we get up to Teddington lock and the last of the saltwater river is left behind. Not far beyond the long pouring weirs and there are people swimming by the banks. Swim in the Thames much further east and you’d need stomach pumps, tetanus jabs and a gut full of antibiotics. Up here – despite the signs warning of deep water and strong currents – intrepid young people take a dip and a whole class of excited primary age kids in bright orange life jackets and safety helmets near Kingston take the plunge at once, while their friends haul in sail boards.

The mid channel islands are now entirely green and bucolic. The paths are busy with walkers and cyclists.

In the river are the first scullers, elegant brown racing boats swiftly pulled through the dappled water by teams of two, occasionally urged to greater effort by someone with a loud voice made harsh by loudhailer, following on in a motorboat and making up for their lack of physical effort by shouting more intensely.

By Kingston there is a long row of canal barges all lashed together with dour purpose, like Octavian’s triremes at Actium.


In the riverside Park there is the happiest war memorial I have ever seen. A World War 1 soldier is walking boldly forwards, holding his big heavy Enfield rifle behind him by the top of the muzzle and waving his soft peaked cap in an elated way,  beaming all over his face. His steel bowler is left at his heel, to show he is finally released from all that misery and suffering. It looks like he has just come home on leave – or that the war is over and he has survived and is showing all his pent up relief. It seems more a celebration of survival than a commemoration of loss. Goodbye to all that – one way or another.

Hampton Court

Another huge deer park with a long stone wall all around. An endless arc of stony river path over- arched with boughs that makes it feel like walking through an green cathedral for urban penitents. Fewer people. A young woman in a woven cloche hat stands motionless to one side; seemingly contemplating something deep and dark.

The house itself comes into view in a symphony of chimneys. I am impressed. Jamie is not. We cross the bridge and find ourselves in Surrey. Astonished to find that leaving London has not turned us into pumpkins, we hasten to the bus stop and head for the Kingsbury Nandos. Journeys end.