Manchester: Shifting City

Posted by in Culture, Music

Covid here we come

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STRANGEWAYS HERE WE COME

Mucky Manchester as John Foxx whose Shifting City album with Louis Gordon was recorded and designed there described it. Obviously, I don’t know the city in the eighties but like Budapest the streets are alive with beer stains and sick. Manchester looks good from eye level upwards.

It’s bustling, more so than I was expecting and at the time of writing the heart of Covid country and with that in mind, there’s never been a better time to invest in some travel insurance. Cue affiliate link…

Now back to the blog and it’s that irritatingly pesky pandemic which has made travel either impossible or at best, very strange so Strangeways here we come is a very apt title for this intro. My hotel is on the outskirts near the Arena (scene of the Ariana Grande incident) and Strangeways prison (for Smiths fans).

My floor is in turn named after them and the rooms the other side of the wing, Joy Division (the floor above New Order). There is no daily chamber maid service and when the lift doors open I have people asking if they can get in with me, truly a first.

En’joy’ing the Cathedral – see what I did there.

So the music themed floors meant I was kind of in the right place but it was definitely a room with no view hence the curtains remained closed and I veg on my bed watching the Euros. Wales win against Turkey though why they didn’t play like that against Switzerland I really don’t know. 

I manage a quick evening walk around Deansgate and the Cathedral comes to life ringing out its bells for a good half an hour. Standing outside McDonald’s to access their internet in order to download a map I am – in the space of two minutes – asked by a drunk with no concept of social distancing for a favour and another for a Rizzler. 

It could almost be a bigger more bustling Newport or to quote 808 State, very ‘In Yer Face.’ The wind is up and I’m grateful to be heading back to a hotel for a well earned shower and rest.

Rags to Riches.

MY HOTEL YEAR

I decide to first check out some of the other hotels to gauge what’s what.

Travelogue between about £25-29pn (the latter in trendy Ancoats but reasonable for its location) breakfast is an extra £8-9 which is why I headed to the shop for a couple of croissants (tight but right!)

Holiday Inn Express (possibly the poshest one I’ve ever seen) around £59 – steep for a HIE but includes breakfast.

Park Inn (near the Arena) is about £79pn and quite frankly £12 for breakfast is a f**king joke!
*Note to remember the room prices fluctuate during the weekends which even in a stay-cation pandemic will bump up your costs.

Oh and as for hostels, the choice was already slim but I call by Hatters and like many others that relied on budget dorms, it’s dead and buried. That only leaves the YHA which for one reason or another is a non-starter so I decide to stay where I am.

Press reset.

LET CULTURE SET YOU FREE

After that came a jaunt to nearby Ancoats and Band on the Wall (also closed for now). From there I end up in Chinatown, the second biggest in the UK after London. 

Since leaving China I’ve been interested in the Chinese diaspora, The Wai Yin society has exhibited members work (working with artist Julie Mosley) on images depicting immigration, titled Crossing the Borders (hmm that rings a bell) which is on display at the nearby Manchester Art Gallery itself prefaced by a banner with a masked woman on it, very zeitgeist. 

Manchester Art Gallery, past and present continuous…

Inside is regal as the major galleries in any given city, though there is a modern apex. Of those on show, Adolphe Vilette’s misty India House canal image from 1912 comes across like a Mancunian Monet, while Jean Spencer’s 4 Part Painting (Nuremberg) are vertical tricolours, blocks of colour which are fighting against themselves (in a sense painterly borders) and the system. The subtitle comes from her time in the German city where the work was created.

Just around the corner (no Cock Robin pun unless you want it to be) is The Central Library which has its own cafe. There are, thanks to Covid, confusing way finding instructions in that the ENTRANCE is actually the EXIT but it also has one of the best music libraries with as one would expect an entire wall devoted to Manchester bands. As for culture, if you’re around in July check out the Manchester International Festival.

Plenty of bees, no cake.

SECRETS OF THE BEEHIVE

The worker bee – symbolising industry – is everywhere. Almost a masonic symbol, a call to the masses, you are now in Bee country. Why then do neither of Manchester’s iconic football teams play in yellow and black? Good question isn’t it.

My evening walk is in search of a decent co-working place as I’m having a tough time getting online (the hotel only permits 30 minutes, hardly enough). Behind Great Ancoats Street in the Northern Quarter are the brick mill houses of Manchester’s past, now reconfigured for the digital age. 

Colony is one of the businesses catering for the digital nomad and now covid remote worker crowd, the worker bees of the present and future. Beehive Lofts is another although whether there are any secrets in there or not remains well, secret.

‘grab your favourite books’ (but make use of the hand sanitiser).

THE LIBRARIAN

The third day kicks off with another taste of the East but the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art remains closed for now. Across the road is the excellent Shudehill Transport Interchange and I give one of the free buses a try out, the driver is not too happy but if he does that one route all day I could see why.

I get off at the city’s main train station Piccadilly from where I venture to the Portico Library – one of the UK’s independent libraries and it’s on the corner of Mosley Street through an unassuming door (you have to buzz for entry, no fee). What I wasn’t expecting is for it to be on the umpteenth floor. The librarian tells me there is no exhibition but I can already see and point out to her that the library is the exhibition. 

The Portico is everything you expect an old world library to be; only one room but what a spectacle. Of most interest to me is the VOYAGES AND TRAVELS section with old books on the Pacific Ocean, Simond’s Switzerland, Livingstone’s Travels and even Wild Wales! I don’t touch any not only because of Covid but for their frailty.

Elsewhere the university’s John Rylands Library on Deansgate is closed and won’t reopen until the 24th when I should be bound for Liverpool and now gives me a dilemma whether to hold back a day. 

A touch further up the road and a tour booking is required to see Chetham’s; the oldest public library in the English speaking world. Both would have been interesting to see but under the circumstances I’ve got no choice but to pass.

Movement, music and MCR

Back in the trendy Northern Quarter are a selection of cool cafes and one, Movement, comes with music. Not sure I’d want to be off my face listening to music but there’s a bar if one requires one and a rather nice tee shirt for local band A Certain Ratio (acr/mcr). 

Outside on the wall is a poster for Joy Division’s classic Love Will Tear Us Apart – not sure why it’s there and it didn’t look official. Maybe a permanent reminder of Manchester’s musical pedigree more on later, but I see no ode to Morrissey which may or may not be a bad thing depending on your view point.

Onwards to Oldham Street and the legendary Piccadilly Records (opened in 1978) have some nice goodies such as Brian Eno’s Apollo on vinyl, New Order Thieves Like Us and Murder (sisters in sleeve design), Kraftwerk’s Techno Pop. My feet are frying so I head back to the hotel for another rest.

Two of Peter Saville’s finest sleeves to order.

RUINED IN A DAY

So to McDonald’s for breakfast but also to catch up with the internet, it feels like days since I’ve got online. I turn up about 7:30 in the morning expecting coffee and pancakes and instead get a locked door! The opening hours state 5am. 

One of the staff spots me, and comes forth to tell me they are pre-Covid hours and they don’t open til 8! I tell him it might be an idea to put the new opening hours in the window. ‘Not my choice’ he says before locking the door and walking away without a care in the world. Two staff members turn up and I say the same to their ignorance. Welcome to the we don’t give a **** generation. 

At Primark it’s the turn of the annoying drunk couple, I only went in for a tee shirt. The female half of the duo asks me if my parents are dead! Her yob beau reigns her in but they continue to yabber away and with only two cashiers on duty, it’s a bloody long wait. 

Security? What’s that? Manchester is lively, fascinating and terrifying at the same time. My tee comes with free hand sanitiser which smells like some sort of industrial cleaner – no wonder they were giving it away.

Next I go in search of some cheap eats and for that I’m told the Arndale Food Market is the place to be but £6-8 for Chinese, Vietnamese or Indian street food is hardly bloody cheap and would eat through your finances soon enough if you let it. It would be cheaper to go back to Asia and how I miss it.

Two of MCR’s cultural hotspots.

The afternoon walkabout takes me again through the Arndale centre toward Church Road and Afflecks Emporium and it’s teeming with life. Too many people for its narrow labyrinth ways. Regrettably the cassette only Mars Tapes is closed but the cleverly named Vinyl Resting Place and Panic Posters are alive and well with no reason to hang the DJ.

Outside is a similar story in Stevenson Square, a bustling mass of people seemingly oblivious to the threat around them and almost disguising my intended destination Eastern Bloc, famed for its dance music culture and 808 State. The shop itself is really tiny, on a mezzanine floor upstairs so most of the business presumably comes from its cafe.

Here is a place…

THE RAIN FALLS DOWN ON A HUMDRUM TOWN

It rains in the night and its joyous to listen to the cars in the rain. By morning the rain has gone but it feels like one imagines Manchester; grey sky and a chill more akin to March than mid summer! So what to do in the city on a Sunday. 

I decide on the free bus – as mentioned in the Helsinki blog – always a good way to see the city and pick out new points of interest – if any. This time I alight at the People’s Museum but there’s absolutely nothing of interest for me so I’m on foot past the dirty glass facade of the derelict looking Salford Central. I’m almost surprised to see the digital displays are working.

Not far away is the Science Museum but again my main point of interest is out of bounds for now, leaving only the shop with a very nice book on Factory music sleeve design, and postcards of Joy Division’s famous Peter Saville designed Unknown Pleasures plus New Order’s In a Lonely Place. I swing round for my first look at First Street and HOME but nothing much is happening there either except the cafe. 

Everything’s Gone Green …and pink.

IN A LONELY PLACE

Another chilly day; too grey and too late for the airport, so to Salford Quays and Media City on the tram. En-route is Old Trafford, home to Manchester United, no longer just a name on the telly but a geographical point.

Adjacent to the BBC studios over the bridge on the other side of the quay are some protesters accusing the BBC of this, that and the other. While they are not entirely my cup of tea and some of the banners I can agree with, some border on ridiculous conspiracy theories, or do they? Hard to know or tell. 

It seems equally ludicrous to dig out my winter coat but the quay is exposed and very windy. I end up walking back to the city which is a long slog in the relentless wind. I should’ve gone to a shopping mall and that’s what I do next, eating at Rowntrees at the Arndale. 

It’s not quite a greasy spoon cafe but it’s not Vapiano either. With pop art images of the cast of Coronation Street on the wall, it’s hardly classy, hardly me yet at the same time a necessity! The staff call me and everyone else ‘love’ which is endearingly northern int it? I opt for chicken curry but vow to be back for a chip butty before leaving Manchester.

More culture (if you happen to pick the right days and book online – tut).

I STARTED SOMETHING I COULDN’T FINISH 

After two depressingly dreary grey days, a blue sky drapes itself across the city as I head out to get brekkie. There is still a fair breeze as I ponder on which direction to take; the airport park, East or West Didsbury where I’ve heard of some cool cafes and the former Factory Records office, or Oxford Road. In the end I settle on the latter which is in all but name University land.

It seems an odd location to have the Manchester Museum (the city’s version of the V&A in London) but I find that like continental Europe, it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I could have squeezed it in on the Wednesday but it’s run on (free) ticket allocation booked online and it’s booked solid until the 30th. So like John Rylands, it’s a non starter. Pity as I wanted to see the Chinese galleries.

I should add that a few of the museums appear in out of the way locations, only the National Football Museum is in the centre close to Victoria Station. The Jewish Museum for all its architectural splendour sits on a Cheetham Hill Road full of kebab places, and houses for ‘gentlemen.’  

A stone’s throw further up is an out of town retail park, another McDonald’s and in an even more discreet location in Cheetham Hill at the end of a very suburban Boyle Street is the Transport Museum (only weekends and only bus and tram vehicles – £6 for the privilege).

Back in the centre between the football museum and Deansgate, I finally install myself in the Cathedral (they will like most ask for track and trace) but be wary that if you take photos you might be asked for £1 – this is the most money minded cathedral I’ve come across, it’s more like a commercial organisation than a church. 

Shu-be-do-bee-do, welcome to nomad land.

Perched behind the Shudehill Transport Interchange is NOMA district, a shifting city part constructed with the ultra modern CO-OP HQ behind which sits Angel Meadows; urban nature in action. You can watch the tram speed by out of town.

As always there are those that I – being self funded – couldn’t reach for this blog. The cafes and bookstores of Chorlton, the former Factory Records office in West Didsbury, the airport (it was cheaper to go to Liverpool) and as mentioned some of the libraries and museums. 

To and from the Airport…

Tram about an hour, train about 20 mins (note there are several operators with differing prices here) *this may change in the future with the railways once again being amalgamated into a comprehensive British service rather than a multitude of operators and liveries which is only good news for graphic designers! Bus from Piccadilly Gardens roughly 1hr 15mins about £3.50

Bus/Coach to Manchester…

I took the bus over the Peak District from Sheffield but should you be arriving/departing with National Express in the Chorley St coach station, note it’s quite small but I dare say does the job.

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

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Mapping the music and wrapping the music…

SONG OF THE FACTORY: MANCHESTER IN MUSIC

Manchester is understandably very proud of its musical heritage over the years. To that end there is music from Manchester and music made by others in Manchester (some of these are live recordings). There are several books in celebration and some of the musicians themselves have become authors (Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris all have books out). Here’s the playlist…

PLAYLIST
The Noise – John Foxx and Louis Gordon
In Yer Face – 808 State
Chinatown – Joe Jackson
Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
Ruined in a Day (K Klass single mix) – New Order
Reality – Electronic
Eastern Bloc – Thomas Dolby
In a Lonely Place – New Order
Song of the Factory – Jane Wiedlin
There is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths

LIVE IN MANCHESTER
Big Thing (live at the Apollo) – Duran Duran
Stay (BBC live recording from Free Trade Hall 1989 never officially released) – The Blue Nile
Killer (BBC recording from his first tour 1991) – SEAL
*the only official release from this tour is the Live at the Point DVD recorded in Dublin but to my ears the Manchester gig was better, pity it was never officially released, or hasn’t been yet.
Taking it Like a Man (BBC Oxford Road Radio Session October 1992) – No-Man
*TimBow goes a bit nuts towards the end of this but it’s a strangely compelling listen!
Carpet Crawlers (from Live Over Europe) – Genesis

Photo Credits: Photos by KH June 2021, John Foxx, Smiths, 808 State, and New Order covers from discogs.com.