Monday, October 8, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 1: Manchester

[[Originally posted on]

This was an odd trip, just the way we like them, and this will be an odd trip report. I will not be boring you will mundane details about how much that muffin cost in four currencies, or any of that mundane crap. I have far more mundane stories to relate, from Manchester, Blackpool, York, Scarborough, Liverpool, Belfast, and finally Dublin, Republic of Ireland (we had never been to Ireland, and we still haven't, really, what with two days in the capital, but it seemed wrong to travel all that way and not add any new countries to our life list, so Dublin it was).

I have a tragic, crippling interest in industrial heritage: trains, bridges, steam engines, brick warehouses, mills, docks, ships, oil depots and chemical works. My wife has an interest in things that aren't there any more, like shuttered shops. We both have a rare form of the Anglophilia disease; neither of us is interested in Princess Di or palaces or stately homes or gents in red coats and big black furry hats. We like caffs that haven't changed since 1963 and tacky postcards and railway station newsagents and clocks that don't tell the right time and dirty streets and rain. We both enjoy some of the saddest and unloveliest things about Britain the best. We'd rather eat fish and chips than braised medallions of artichokes in a bed of raspberry rocket or whatever. We both like the North.

First stop was Manchester, after a change in Heathrow.

One of our female BA flight attendants provided us with a classic reintroduction to Britain by delivering a blistering tearful attack on her suddenly-ex-boyfriend via cell phone mere yards from baggage claim. "You bastard, you absolute #$%^&* bastard! You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you? I want you out of my flat tonight! #$%^&*$% $%^&#$%^ $%^&!"

I have never seen a group of passengers showing a keener interest in the still motionless carousel, rapt and silent we stared, pretending we couldn't hear. "Oooh, now you're just trying to hurt me, aren't you? @#$ $%^ %^&%^&! Get out of my flat!"

The poor dear was a very attractive young woman, hardly English-looking at all, and I'm sure she will have happier romantic entanglements in the future. Perhaps future Fodor travelers will keep us posted on her progress?

Our hotel was actually an apartment, in the newly-trendy Northern Quarter, and was much larger than we had booked -- two bedrooms, two baths, and a kitchen, and in classic English fashion a total of EIGHT doors, all on springs. I staved off claustrophobia and drawing room comedy with a few improvised doorstops made out of kitchen utensils, and we set off in search of dinner. Being confused and disoriented and jet-lagged, we ended up with the classic British solution: microwaved takeaways back at the room in front of the TV, with a couple of cans of beer.

It's good to get caught up on what's happening in the world of English TV. That turned out to be ALL MADDY, ALL Of THE TIME, throughout our entire stay. Did the mother do it? Look at those guilty, guilty lips! Was the body incinerated in the pet cemetery? Is this the missing girl in this blurry photo from 1932? What is the gardener hiding under that bushel? I don't mean to make light of others' tragedy, but Britain leads the world in trash-TV (and trash newspaper) coverage of scandals and calamity.

Another example: one of the papers covered their front page with closeup photos of Amy Winehouse's enormous infected scab. The others were mostly covered with semi-naked women -- they used to be on Page Three; now they're on the cover. And if you think the pictures are bad, you should try the rabid right-wing opinions in the text! "You'll never see a nipple in the Daily Express", quoth John Cooper Clarke (1980s Mancunian, actually Salfordian, punk poet), and you'll never hear a nice word about Poles, either.

The next day was walking day. I loaded myself up with stupid amounts of camera gear, and we set out.

Manchester is a city in transition. Like most of her Northern industrial sisters, she survived hard times in the seventies and eighties as her traditional smokestack industries died out. Manchester was a city of mills, and in the heyday of the cotton trade was one of the most vigorous and vital cities in the world. But the cotton business went away, and what the Luftwaffe wasn't able to bomb the council did, and a generation of unemployed grew up in some of the grimmest tower blocks this side of Uzhbekistan. Manchester was one of the toughest cities in the world.

But a funny thing happened in the abandoned mills and rotting canalside strips filled with garbage: a bit of a cultural renaissance started in the 1980s, and by the early 1990s "Madchester" was in some ways the pop music center of Britain.

The empty warehouses were filled by famous nightclubs, including the legendary Hacienda, and after an IRA bomb cleared out a big section of the central shopping district in 1996, the city started to become fashionable again. Certainly London had nothing to compare with Manchester's pop roster -- Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Oasis. The worst of the sixties and seventies blocks were cleared away, and the soot cleaned off the old mills, and a thriving gay community turned a stinking canalside street into a row of hip restaurants and clubs. Euro money poured in, especially after Manchester was granted the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and a bunch of new glass towers went up in the center, including museums and posh hotels.

We didn't see much of that; sorry, not interested in glass towers or posh hotels. We did go in Urbis, a big glass wedge of an avant-garde urban museum, but we were there to see the fascinating Factory Records exhibit. Factory main man, con artist, rebel genius and genuinely Great Briton Tony Wilson had just died of cancer before we got there, so the exhibit had the character of a memorial about it. I never had much use for acid house or baggy or Madchester, and the only "E" I'm interested in is on this keyboard, but the Hacienda was a pretty interesting place, and the collection (much of it from New Order bassist Peter Hook) is vast. I've always enjoyed the kind of museum that finds the sense of life in ordinary detritus like crumpled matchbooks and so on.

The Castlefield district is where several canals and railways converge, including the world's first of each (depending on how you account for such things; the Bridgewater Canal, dating from 1761, and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, from 1830, both terminate here. The area has one of the world's highest concentrations of old red brick mills, warehouses, bridges, viaducts, boat basins and stations.

The LMR, the first railway in the world with regular freight and passenger service with locomotive traction the entire way, originally terminated here, in what is now part of the Museum of Science and Industry complex. Much of the museum is rather dated-looking "interactive" stuff designed to excite children (but usually boring them instead), but there is an impressive collection of the big textile machines that made the modern world originate here: spinning jennies, spinning mules, jacquard looms (the first programmable, stored-instruction "computers", really, dating from 1801).

In the Power Hall, a range of steam engines from early Newcomen engines built to pump water out of coal mines, through the enormous power-generating turbines, along with a number of important landmarks in railway locomotives are here. I was in heaven. Mrs. Fnarf was, however, able to contain her excitement, and spent most of the time sitting on a genuine LMC bench waiting for her husband to get tired of going "ooh! Ooh! Look at the flywheel on that one!"

Underneath the complex, you can tour one of the oddest museum experiences I've had -- traces of Manchester's original sewer system, complete with piped-in flushing water noises. Made me want to pee. Some of the exhibits were inadvertently more exhibits of ridiculous museum display techniques -- bad mannequins and so on -- than of the thing they were supposedly teaching you about. I'm sure it was cutting-edge pedagogical style a few years ago. I loved every tasteless cheesy moment of it.

Downtown, the fabulous Arndale Centre shopping mall, widely derided as the world's ugliest, and often likened to a toilet (it is or was made of millions of yellow glazed tiles), has been largely redone in the wake of the 1996 bomb, which destroyed half of it. Truly, the best revenge on the evil dreams of the IRA was when their idiotic bomb, which injured 200 people, became the impetus for a downtown revitalization. Of course, being perverse, we liked the toilet tiles better, and our favorite buildings downtown are not the new glass boxes, or the Victorian red-brick-porn of the Town Hall and its like, but the sixties aluminum-and-colored-panel towers like the stunning Manchester House, and the CIS tower.

The Hacienda nightclub was razed and rebuilt as a block of fancy apartments called The Hacienda, which is both funny and tragic. When the club was first sited there, the neighborhood was an abyss of crime and garbage, with the Rochdale Canal half-dry and filled with shopping trolleys, burnt-out cars, and the corpses of junkies. They took the space because no one else wanted it. Now, it's a fashionable district, and the canal has water and restored pleasure-cruising narrowboats in it.

In front of the posh new apartments was a makeshift tribute to the man who made the club and who made Manchester spring to life: Tony Wilson, who died days before. It was an odd tribute, in a corner that bore no traces of his time there, but it was sweet to see. Tony was a bit of a charlatan, but Factory Records was the real punk rock ideal -- there were never any contracts with the artists -- and he was a true creative risk-taker, and embodied a kind of wild Northern devil-may-care attitude that Manchester is rightly proud of.

Not far from there is Manchester's loveliest pub, Peveril of the Peaks, a glazed-tile chocolate box of a place bursting with flowerboxes, Art Nouveau swirls, and Victorian charm. Built in 1840, but obviously redesigned much later, it is surrounded now by traffic and office towers. Inside lies England's greatest treasure: real ale. Manchester, doesn't seem to have that many great pubs, unlike Liverpool, which has three spectacular pubs on every corner, each more fabulous than the last. Manchester's pubs are intimidating and seem closed off to the street; but not this one. It's the prettiest pub I've ever been in. And the beer is delicious.

I don't normally drink beer; I don't like most American beer, even the craft brews. There's something about American hops I don't like (and my favorite English beer is Mild). But in England, I drink the beer, and wish I could drink more, but when you're walking around a city, and you have a bladder that holds about a tablespoon, it's a problem. Drinking beer means keeping a toilet close by; every pint means three trips for me. And of course, the best place to find a toilet in a strange city is another pub; and it's rude to use the Gents without buying something, so now I'm sitting there with another pint, and another three trips soon to follow... this makes walking tours difficult. It also makes motor control difficult at an embarrassingly early time of day, and causes Mrs. Fnarf to make disapproving faces and noises. Trust me, this is not something you ever want to see.

There are still pockets of hulking mills complete with a few of the smokestacks that once filled the view in the paintings of L.S. Lowry and the poetry of William Blake, the places where a new Jerusalem was builded. They've been quiet for decades, and their facades cleaned, but their size and heavy repetitive brick presence still has power. The Cambridge Street Mills, just south of the city center, and the massive, stunning blocks along Redhill Street in Ancoats still testify to the industrial might of the world's first industrial society. Ancoats is a fascinating place; half-crumbling, with massive blocks of brick leading on to entire blocks of rubble, boarded-up pubs, and scary-looking housing estates.

In this district, while photographing the old fire station on Goulding Street, built in 1870 and largely destroyed by fire inside in 2002, I was approached by a rather threatening looking fellow. He turned out to be the owner, and was not happy about me taking pictures. I think he thought I was from the council, or some developer, and had some nefarious motive in mind. Once I had convinced him I was just a dumb tourist from America, he changed his tune and was very friendly and shook my hand vigorously. I get the impression that every Brit has recently been to Vancouver, BC, so they know where Seattle is. I couldn't testify to the full text of what he said to me, as Mancunian is almost impenetrable speech to me -- Mancs sound a bit like barking dogs to me, with some of the same vowels but none of the lilt of the Liverpudlians a mere thirty miles away.

Near the fire station is my favorite street in Manchester, Anita Street. This street began its life as the first council row in the world with running water and sewer in every house, as Britain's cities recoiled from the horrors of the early eighteenth-century slums, with their cholera-infested tiny back-to-back houses in closed courts with sewage running through them. Anita Street was a named Sanitary Street to mark a new era of housing, but the residents didn't care for the social laboratory implications of that name and blacked out the "S" and the "ry", and the new name stuck. It's still council housing today, some of the prettiest, if quite modest, you'll find.

That night, we met some people we knew, a charming couple of transsexuals who took us to Canal Street, in the gay area, where we drank rosé and ate delicious food in the late sunshine of the nicest night of the summer, possibly the ONLY nice night of this summer. The light on the canal, the sparkle of the wine, the sunset, the pretty people strolling arm in arm -- this was a far cry from the Manchester of the Industrial Revolution, or Morrissey, for that matter!

Afterwards, they took us to see the statue of Alan Turing, one of Britain's greatest, and saddest, heroes. Turing was the math genius who laid the foundations for the invention of the computer, and during WWII he ran the unit at Bletchley Park that cracked the Enigma code that allowed the Allies to read all of the encrypted Nazi communications. You could say he won the war for us. His reward was a criminal conviction for homosexuality, and a crude chemical castration with injections of hormones to "cure" him, which drove him to suicide. He ate a poisoned apple, and his likeness in bronze is posed in a Manchester park, seated on a bench, with an apple in his hand. A simple and moving tribute to a brilliant man, horribly abused by the country he helped save.

Next: Manchester Ship Canal

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