I recently visited Manchester city center, which is just a twenty five minute bus journey from where I live. This is my city-where the modern kisses cheeks with the old, and has recently been voted for the first time as Britain’s second city, after London. Who would have thought that the IRA bomb which so decimated the area in 1996 would become the boon for it to rise, develop, and flourish so spectacularly?
The Corn Exchange, a historic Grade II listed building, was one of the buildings severely damaged in the explosion. At the time it was home to an ‘alternative market’, that was a beacon for the younger, hipper, and hairier generation. A place where you could find music, vegetarian foods, new age clothes and scapegoats. People would be sat around smoking, waiting to see tarot card readers and palmists, or just hanging out. I can recall going there with a school mate, who sadly passed away some sixteen years ago now. We went into an esoteric book shop that was also decked out with didgeridoos and ouija boards, incense burning on the top shelves. My mate decided he was going to buy a stone ash tray that was rimmed by skulls in an appropriate bit of symbolism. I pointed out “Gary-you don’t smoke.” He paused, reflected for a few seconds, then answered “Oh yeah,” putting the smilers back on the shelf next to the dog’s skull with candles in its eye sockets.
In the recovery from the bomb damage, Manchester lost this alternative venue as the Corn Exchange reopened as the Triangle, now filled with designer shops. Very up market, but I think all the poorer for it. Recently it has been announced that there is going to be more change for the building as it becomes home to a collection of restaurants and retail food outlets. Further change for a survivor of both German bombing and terrorist atrocity.
The old Cathedral is closed at the moment while under floor heating is installed for the perishing Christians. Nearby, the RSPB had a telescope trained upon the more modern buildings where Peregrine Falcons are so successfully nesting and breeding. So impressive, these ferraris of the sky swoop down regularly upon the docile pigeon population.There are not many who shed tears at this, just as long as the kill is not done under their noses while they eat their Subway sandwiches.
Opposite the Corn Exchange, where the Manchester Wheel used to be, I stumbled upon the ‘Dig in the City’-Manchester’s Urban Gardening Festival. The National Trust had a stall there, a woman trying to draw interest by doing a curious little dance and blowing a duck call. Surely not a wise thing to do whilst stood beneath Peregrine Patrol? Kids were there making bird houses and dens, mud pies and kites, planting seeds and walking bare foot in sand. Not the kind of thing you normally see in the city center. The whole area was decked out in bunting and flowers and garden furniture, where you could relax in a welcome bit of greenery in the urban concrete jungle. It was as unexpected as it was pleasing, particularly for eager children.
One thing, though, that doesn’t change when I visit Manchester, is the obligatory hours spent in Waterstones book store.Three whole floors to get lost in. Afterwards I had a coffee, idly people watching, aware of the whole mix of nationalities and languages that now contribute to the soundtrack of my home city. The truly cosmopolitan DNA of its heartbeat emphasised further by the Spanish busker nodding in gratitude as loose change was dropped into his hungry guitar case.
On the journey home, my bus was invaded by a swarm of rabid students, cramming onto the upstairs deck, some lounging on seats and some lay awkwardly in the aisle. Raucous and excitable, we were soon introduced to an intermittent cry of “Bogies! Bogies!” I switched off, looking out of the window to spot all of the areas and locations connected to my ancestors who had lived in this area over the last two hundred years. As we crawled along in the rush hour traffic, one of the girls at the front spotted a lad down below walking along the street, wearing a Beatles top. “Look at him there-Beatles! If I could open this window I would spit on him.”
Then, implausibly, they all began to sing ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver. They knew all the words too, not just the chorus. I am too old now to know what is cool, but obviously Beatles are ‘out’ and John Denver is ‘in’. What a curious alternative world this is. Nearing home, Miss Airs and Graces next spotted an elderly man crossing in front of the bus. “Let’s make him uncomfortable” her friend suggested, and they both started banging on the window, but they couldn’t attract his attention.
When I was their age, was I so loud? So obnoxious? I suspect that I was. Of course it is all the front and bravado needed to fit into the herd. For my part, I guess it has been since time immemorial the lot of one generation to not ‘get’ the next.
I got off at my stop, leaving behind one final salute of “Bogies!” by possibly Britain’s next female Prime Minister.
For the first time ever, after a trip to Manchester, I had returned home without having acquired a single book. But I was armed with a list, saved on my phone, of many titles to order for my Kindle.