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.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
- This quotation is from memory. The book is well worth a read.