Although travelling halfway across the globe to be literally in Burma has the novelty, ‘cultural exchange’ factor and the appeal of the sheer uncertainty that considerable distance, decent weather and perhaps a language barrier offers, it is difficult, costly and not necessarily, in my view, more valuable than venturing a little closer to home. Think of the carbon footprint! And it is especially wasteful when your view of life in the UK is narrowly limited to only a few cities: London, Birmingham and Oxford, like mine is. While stuck on rainy home turf having just escaped the Oxford bubble I took the opportunity to visit the city of Manchester for the weekend under the hospitality and guidance of a charming local.
What attracted me to Manchester in particular is how the city is prominent and even mythologised within wider British culture. It is the city of Manchester United and Manchester City, two world leading football clubs that are responsible for huge amounts of UK tourism; it’s definitely a city that attracts considerable glamour, WAGs, and the young and the reckless. It is also a city of learning, featuring outstanding museums and universities, and is home to one of the largest student populations in Europe. Manchester has spawned an incredible music scene and bands of the calibre of The Smiths, Joy Division, The Hollies, Buzzcocks and the Bee Gees… the list goes on. Readers should be aware at this point that I am a big fan of The Smiths, as is my charming local guide, so this trip was inevitably going to serve as a form of musical pilgrimage. Yet Manchester also played a part in a less glamorous narrative of British history as a key site of the Industrial Revolution: its shocking 19th century conditions inspired the likes of Marx and Engels to act as revolutionaries. It continues to encompass some of the most deprived boroughs in England. Of course all cities including my own, London, are not without their tensions, particularly in recent history during the terrifying frenzy of consumerism and anger that was the riots, so I wondered how ‘gritty’ Manchester would really feel. My family are from India but I have always lived in West London, enjoying the freedom offered by such a diverse and multifaceted place and its lively cultural beat; all aspects which form my criteria for a top city and which I hoped the weekend might offer. So on Friday I arrived in the stunning city, drinking in the visual impact of big statement architecture in glass and cool metals that could not have been more than ten years old, juxtaposed with warm, lightly tarnished Victorian red-bricked facades.
Manchester by Night
We began the night at the Temple: Not a place of worship as such but a tiny bar in a converted public toilet, filled with various types including an androgynous man sporting a wig, all conducting themselves very politely. It offered a quirky selection of beers and many an alternative anthem from the jukebox. Then on to a few other bars in the Oxford Road area, all of which were atmospheric, cheap and within easy walking distance, so you can experience an enviable range of bars and clubs in one night compared to what you can achieve in London. But this was all to warm us up for the main event at the Star and Garter: Morrissey Disco. Founded in 1994, this night consists of nothing but Morrissey and The Smiths tunes, all night long. Unsurprisingly, everyone was oscillating wildly like sweet and tender hooligans who never ever want to go home because they haven’t got one, anymore.
By day, we drove round town to get a taste of life on the outskirts of Manchester city centre. Admittedly much of it was a bit sleepy, and Tesco has clearly asserted itself as aggressively as it has where I live, but there are many interesting places, beautiful parks and a thriving community spirit. There was no shortage of great places to eat or drink: Rusholme has got Wilmslow Road, a curry mile with many Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants and the Blue Cat and Town bars in Heaton Chapel are sophisticated and offer great service, with the added bonus that Town is a regular haunt of Primal Scream’s Mani. In Burnage, the quiet childhood home of Noel and Liam Gallagher, we popped into an amazing bargain record store called Sifters. The area of the four Heatons held a packed community event in Heaton Park, with live music, fairground style games, and even a somewhat fierce bake-off – genuine, clean fun for kids big and small.
The city felt busy but never over-crowded, and it has numerous green spaces and squares where people stop to congregate. One of these areas is outside the new Football Museum at the Urbis building, another of Manchester’s buildings situated by a polar architectural opposite, Manchester Cathedral. Urbis was part of the spurt of regeneration after the 1996 IRA bombing of Manchester, which explains the big shiny glamour. By contrast roaming the city’s Northern Quarter feels much like being in a calmer version of London’s Hoxton where you can find laidback restaurants, thrift and record stores as well as places like the interesting art space and social community hub Nexus. It was here on Sunday that we saw The Condition of the Working Class In England, a community devised play inspired by Engels’ 1844 book of the same name. Using devised drama, dance, film, music, poetry and a fair bit of satire it explored the lives of the working class today and discontent with capitalism through the ideas and perspective of the actors’ own lives, a reminder that despite an improvement in conditions since 1844 there remains an unsettling gap regionally between rich and poor, and indeed nationally between North and South in England. Their impressions of Cameron and Clegg would have anyone of any political affiliation in fits of laughter. More seriously, if a sense of the working class in Manchester city centre is obscured by posh retail outlets, swanky bars and tourist attractions, the actors at this local event spoke out about issues of classism, prostitution, racial and sexual abuse. It was the captivating and fascinating voice of opposition to politically correct analysts seen on the news devising graphs and explaining recent downward economic trends, thereby abstracting from and neglecting the reality of the ordinary person’s day-to-day existence in poverty. We ended Sunday night at Big Hands, the sister bar to Temple, listening to music from Bowie, Dr. John and Tom Waits. It was a relaxing conclusion to an incredible weekend… That was until I chundered everywhere! (Just kidding.)