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A Walk Through Manchester

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Photo by Matthew Wilkinson.

We are in the last days of the city guide. At least in the way we’ve come to know it: landmarks, street names, architecture. Some theologians still talk about the soul, but define it not as entity or essence, rather the sum of all our networks, all our interactions. I see talk of cities going the same way. Future city guides will be as much about virtual maps and apps as iconic buildings.

Manchester has always been a futuristic city. It defined - in its massive mills and opulent office buildings - what an industrial city should look like. In recent years it has blazed a trail in urban regeneration. As Owen Hatherley puts it: Manchester has always been a futuristic city. It defined - in its massive mills and opulent office buildings - what an industrial city should look like. ‘What other cities have dabbled in with piecemeal ineptitude, Manchester has implemented with total efficiency’. In the next decade, I expect this city to show us what a virtual metropolis feels like. Already in Manchester, you can sign up for ‘data walks’ at weekends, attempting to discover (through smartphones and other portable devices) the unseen digital structures and networks between, below, beyond and beside the streets and buildings. But Niklaus Pevsner’s classic approach (county by county, building by building) probably has five years, ten if we’re lucky, and bricks-and-mortar Manchester is well worth a look.

Our tour begins with two planks of wood: elm boards, each three inches thick and too heavy for one man to carry. These planks were discovered last year, propped in the corner of an outbuilding at a retreat centre called Savio House on the edge of the Peak District. Savio House used to be home to a wealthy industrialist’s family - the Gaskells, and the Gaskells had a famous cousin called Elizabeth. The elm boards are likely to have been the two halves of a desktop in the Gaskell mansion. So the man who found the boards wondered if the famous Mrs Gaskell, who spent time at the house with her family, might have rested a manuscript on them as she did a little light redrafting. And was that mouse-shaped burn mark on one side of the boards in fact an ink stain from her leaky pen?

So, the first building on this tour of modern Mancunia is a shed behind a house looking out across peak and plain towards the glittering towers of the great northern city. It is the shed where I write. And I rest my papers on the same elm boards that Mrs Gaskell did when she was writing North and South.

The second building is Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, 84 Plymouth Grove, on the south side of the city. This neoclassical villa sits on a patch of scrub land between large modern estates and the ever advancing university halls. I rest my papers on the same elm boards that Mrs Gaskell did when she was writing North and South. It is the sole relic of its era in this part of town, its incongruity made all the more vivid by the fact that it used to be painted vivid pink. But now it is being renovated and turned into a museum. The pink is an understated grey, and the roof restored in lead. At least it was, until the lead was stolen. Mrs Gaskell and her clergyman husband entertained Charlotte Bronte, Ruskin, Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe here. Charlotte liked Plymouth Grove, because it was ‘out of Manchester smoke’. It still is, though she might find it noisy now at closing time.

From Plymouth Grove, head in toward the centre down Oxford Road. Here, just north of the ‘curry mile’ in Rusholme (some of the finest curry houses and sweet shops in Britain) you enter the ‘Learning Corridor’, where the (reputedly) largest student population in Europe wanders between the University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Manchester Metropolitan University, all of which have buildings lining each side of the road. Head on past the fruit stall on the left, which offers five-a-day to the young, pale and hungover. Keep going north until the university buildings peter out, and pause at the beige monstrosity on your right, for this is our third iconic building.

New Broadcasting House was the home of the BBC in Manchester for thirty-five years. This building is the reason I came home from London in the early 1990’s. I had moved south in my early adolescence when my Dad changed jobs, but I was more than ready to come back up north. All institutions go through cycles. Open plan workspaces give way to clusters of individual offices to enhance productivity, then ten years on they burst out into open plan again to generate better team spirit. The BBC is no different. Its recent and controversial relocation of large chunks of programme-making to Salford Quays was prefigured in the early nineties, when the corporation decided to create ‘Centres of Excellence’ in the regions. As a documentary-maker in the Religion and Ethics department, I found myself making the move north. My memory has jump-cut together the London meeting at which my then boss declared we would move north ‘over my dead body’ to the coach trip when the whole department was shown ‘places you might want to live’ within commuting range of New Broadcasting House.

New Broadcasting House itself is unashamedly ugly from the outside, utilitarian, a concrete machine for churning out programmes. But inside, I loved its long windowless This was the centre of so-called ‘Mad-chester’ in the 1980’s, a club and venue set up in a former warehouse by legends like New Order, Factory Records and its boss Tony Wilson. corridors, and its labyrinthine underground car park with every pillar streaked with car-paint. The whole building is wrapped around a vast central studio, big enough to hold the full BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. At night, the glass-fronted reception area still glows, as a security guard sits pressed to his chair by the sheer weight of emptiness above and around him. It seems portentous, grave. There are rumours of buyers, development plans, the possibility that the site will become another part of the Learning Corridor, but I can’t linger here. The people and programmes have moved across the city, but until it is demolished the great beige edifice of New Broadcasting House feels like a memento mori to me, a skull in the corner of the painting, made all the more poignant by the New in its name.

On, then, up Oxford Road, past the Temple of Convenience, that underground bar the size of a men’s public toilet which was once, well, a men’s public toilet. Standing room only on most nights here, now as then. It divides opinion. For some, it still is a toilet, where the rain runs down the steps and the clientele look like they went down for a sad solo pint in 1987 and never came back up. But for others, it’s one of the best bars in the city, with a quirkily brilliant jukebox offering indie classics and a feeling that, for real musos, this is where you go to talk music.

And speaking of music, there’s the Haçienda, just opposite the railway arches in Whitworth Street. Or rather, there it isn’t. Because it was knocked down in 2002 and redeveloped into flats called ‘ The Haçienda Apartments’. This was the centre of so-called ‘Mad-chester’ in the 1980’s, a club and venue set up in a former warehouse by legends like New Order, Factory Records and its boss Tony Wilson. Actually, don’t even bother to look. It’ll make you sad. What happened to the twenty-four hour party people? They became property developers. Or they died. Best not to think about it. 

On over the Rochdale canal, to the former Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee Building. This is where my parents met. As I walk past it now, admiring its majestic proportions, its intricate red brickwork, this former textile company HQ turned office block makes me feel both close and distant. It’s like meeting a long-lost relative and feeling no connection. It’s a beautiful Edwardian baroque building, admired by Pevsner, but what draws me to it is the idea of my parents in the late 1950’s – she the boss’ secretary, he an office clerk - catching each other’s eye in a canteen full of thick-cut double-breasted suits and fashionable bangs, and the smoke of a hundred Park Drives rising to the high stuccoed ceiling. Once these vast mills-cum-offices lose their original purpose, many of them become, like this one, multi-occupancy office spaces, occupied by quangos and fledgling businesses. I think of the Biblical image on the Tate and Lyle syrup tins – ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness’ – as these vast cadavers of our manufacturing past now buzz with the industry of countless small enterprises. Let’s hope some of them come up with the honey.

The ultra-modern five star Lowry, the Hilton with its characteristic glass blade at the top, the Midland with its glorious polished granite and terracotta exterior and its fabulously genteel afternoon tea, haunted by the ghosts of wealthy American cotton traders; Manchester does hotels rather well. But for me, it’s the Palace Hotel at the north end of Oxford Road that takes the (individually wrapped and free with your coffee) biscuit.

Again, this is high, confident Victoriana, rich russet in the morning sun, and dark chocolate in the rain, its brickwork fashioned into barley-twist columns. Like many of Manchester’s great buildings, it comes to life in the rain. But for all its beauty, it’s the scale that gets me. The Palace is in what used to the be the Refuge Assurance Building, and in its late Victorian pomp, the entire ground floor was one colossal open business hall. This was open-plan office space before anyone knew what to call it. And now, despite attempt to screen off different zones into bar, lounge, restaurant, it is still possible to lose yourself in the Palace Hotel. I’ve had all-day meetings there, and you never get questioned or moved on, because the immaculately-uniformed staff only occasionally walks through your neck of the woods. Find a distant sofa or table, and you’re uninterrupted, save the odd hike to the bar to order food and drink. And the exercise will do you good. In these straitened times there could be countless small businesses operating from the lounge here, saving a fortune on office rental.

So, on, past the Bridgewater Hall, beautiful space-age home to the Halle Orchestra, and the first concert hall in the world to sit on giant springs that insulate it from the nearby road and railway. We are heading, out west, Like many of Manchester’s great buildings, it comes to life in the rain. But for all its beauty, it’s the scale that gets me. across the invisible border into Salford, towards Dock House. I must have been about seven, and my grandad recently retired, when he offered to show me round his former workplace. What I remember most was the model container ship they gave me as a souvenir, which sat on my bedroom window ledge for years until I left home. But I do remember other things: the massive waterside cranes like wading birds, the warehouses stacked high with cargo, hearing the word 'molasses' for the first time (although I don’t think I actually saw any), and the small, neat redbrick office where my grandad worked, keeping ledgers of what came in and what went out. And my memory is that his office building was called ‘Dock House’.

Or so I imagine on this rainy afternoon, taking his ghost to visit the new ‘Dock House’. This one is a great glass tower, and the visitors are not lascar seamen, but celebrities and pundits and media hopefuls, signing in to sit and self-publicise on the BBC Breakfast sofa, or to lounge in a breakout space and try to sell a new sitcom to producers who have heard it all before. This is Media City, part of the extraordinary transfiguration of Salford Docks. And those glass-walled breakout spaces gaze out across a radically different landscape, over the Ship Canal towards the iconic Lowry Centre and Imperial War Museum North buildings, towards the most iconic building of all, Old Trafford. But more of that later . . .

Salford Quays is an extraordinary place. Or rather, it will be. Last Autumn I read that Media City was finished, and you could walk through it. We went as a family, persuading my eldest son that his A-Level ‘urban environments’ project could benefit from the visit if he took a camera. He suggested that if he wound the window down and took some pictures from the car, then we need not stop and would be home a lot sooner. But when we got there, he and his younger brothers were entranced by it. We all were. On this rainswept Sunday afternoon, the cluster of new, unoccupied towers looked like a sci-fi set, a post-apocalyptic Gotham, stripped of its inhabitants. Except this was different. It hadn’t met its inhabitants yet. As we strolled past silent restaurants and tram stops where nobody got on or off, I was reminded of Ordos, the empty Chinese city built to serve the Mongolian coal rush, undermined when the Chinese property boom ran out of steam. And here was Media City’s equivalent to Genghis Khan Plaza, an untrodden square with stone benches for tired production staff to soak up the lunchtime sun (ahem . . . ) and a big blank screen designed to carry live feed from the new, dead studios.

But half a year on, all that has changed. The staff from the abandoned Oxford Road studios now come here each day. And departments from London (after completing their ‘living in the north’ courses on how to catch a tram, order mushy peas, breed whippets, etc) have relocated here. The restaurants, at least on weekdays, are full of hopefuls pitching programme ideas, hoping the waitress doesn’t turn up as you reach the killer line, the usp, the game-changer. And though Salford’s Genghis Khan Plaza is now full of sun-seekers on time-out from their offices, there’s still something of Ordos here too. Across the Ship Canal bridge a whole new suburb of Media City is being built, complete with a relocated ‘Coronation Street’ set. As this new metropolis expands, there’s less and less space for the wind to cut through. But still those gales from the Mersey’s mouth can cut and run between buildings and catch a data-walker unawares as he stares down at his smartphone.

Always a major football city, Manchester has been defined and divided by the question ‘red or blue?’ I was first taken to Old Trafford by my Dad and my uncle (who worked for Boddington’s Brewery, which is as solid a Mancunian job as you can get) at the age of 5, and saw Best, Law, Charlton, Kidd. I’ve always been a red. And for most of my life (with one or two disastrous seasons) that’s been a pretty easy thing to be. At least, it’s been easier than being a blue. And those colours, that particular red and that particular blue carry deep associations from childhood. The rich, tomato red that decorated most of my bedroom – curtains, lampshade, bedspread – and the pale, rinsed-out blue like a milky north-west sky that represented the other side.

But the red-blue balance began to shift when Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002. Many locals see this as the turning-point in the city’s recent development, and a Mancunian who had not been home this last decade would step into it now and be astonished. The pace of development The rich, tomato red that decorated most of my bedroom – curtains, lampshade, bedspread – and the pale, rinsed-out blue like a milky north-west sky that represented the other side. (new build and renovation) has been breakneck, and the scale remarkable. Manchester City struck a deal to move out of Maine Road into the Commonwealth Games stadium after the athletes went home, and this has been the making of them. Well, this, plus being bought by (probably) the richest owners in football. And in a city as football obsessed as this, a shift in the balance of red and blue changes everything. Through their wilderness years, City found solace in their local status, claiming that they were the true choice of Mancunians. United fans responded, when the Blues struggled to fill their new stadium, with the chant: ‘The city is yours, the city is yours, / twenty thousand empty seats, are you fucking sure?’ Now, with the stadium filling up fast, on top of the Premiership for the first time in 44 years, blue shirts are on the streets in a way they haven’t been in my lifetime. For lifelong reds like me, there’s the terrible fear that the tide is going out, and it may not be back for a while. We console ourselves with small pleasures, like the fact that the renamed City stadium, the ‘Etihad’, means ‘United’ in Arabic. Except it turns out it doesn’t. Not quite. It means ‘unity’. I can’t avoid naming the ‘unity’ stadium, and the whole planned Eastlands complex of training facilities and academies, as my ninth Manchester landmark.

Which brings me to last on the tour. And here I’m on home turf again. It’s a small redbrick semi, on Eccles Road in Swinton. My mum’s parents moved a couple of miles out of their native Salford to start a family here, when my grandad got his steady job at the docks. Over the decades, the edgelands fields across the road have been developed, and the busy East Lancs road 100 yards away has turned into a multi-lane highway. It’s the story of countless suburban streets in northern cities, an irresistible pull from the centre until what you thought was the urban fringe becomes part of the heart. I remember nights in childhood, lying awake in the box-room at the front of their house, with a magazine-cut picture of the giant Jesus in Rio sellotaped to the wall above the bed to protect me, bathed in the orange streetlight glow, and the constant comforting roar of cars funneling from all points north into the belly of this great city, as they still do.

Imagine that box-room now, picture yourself lying at the edge of sleep with eyes closed, and try to tune in to the multiple networks and messages and lols and encryptions and emails and feeds and streams and songs and voices that surround and pass through you. Your own flesh is shot through with data. You are not in the city. You are the city. ■

You can also see Michael Symmons Roberts at the following event:

How the Light Gets In: Dark Satanic Mills
5 June, 2.30 p.m. How the Light Gets In festival grounds, Globe at Hay, Newport Street, Hay-on-Wye HR3 5BG

From Tintagel and Camelot through to the dystopian 'inner city', has the shifting character of our accounts of the British landscape affected our identity? Are we still the nation of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Turner and Constable, or is the old country gone forever? In its place should we be creating new landscapes with which to fashion new selves?
Novelists Jim Crace and Mark Haddon and author of Edgelands Michael Symmons Roberts explore visions of Britain's past, present and future with Granta's Ted Hodgkinson.

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