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Manchester Part One (How We Met) (An Indulgent Post)

I love Manchester. Spent my university days there. Was living there when I became a dad. I’m regularly drawn back for so many reasons; theatre, shops, art galleries, restaurants, meeting friends. My very favourite thing though is just to re-walk the streets of what I once called home and wallow in nostalgic remembrance while marvelling at the bustling new twenty-first century city that is growing out of the rather run-down and tired post-industrial town I knew.dsc_0064It came about by accident. I didn’t do the usual route to higher education. School, sixth form, university in succession and then out into the world of collar and tie work by the age of 21 or 22, with all the toys safely back in the toy box and a serious promotion ladder ahead that would bring a spouse, some offspring, a mortgage and a progression of increasingly bigger houses, in increasingly leafy suburbs, until retirement to a cravat, a knowledge of whisky and the Daily Telegraph. I left school on finding that there wasn’t anything much there to hold me and began on a trail of jobs that allowed me my own shared house on the ring road and enough money for food and the pub with friends on a Friday night. Once I reached the end of the road with one job (and it is very easy for an independent-minded fellow to reach stalemate with jobs where your direct boss has been carefully programmed in petty hierarchies) I’d reach out and find another. I was unemployed officially for a very short time in seven years and these were little patches that acted as paid holidays and I’d catch up with my brother; go walking over Helvellyn, make the Grasmere Sports, go on a road trip that involved a lot of empty glasses, a lot of games of pool, more than the occasional hangover spent eating breakfast with pint pots of sugared tea in greasy spoons and side street grills. I was single and my sense of freedom perfectly balanced out my lack of ambition.dsc_0068A stint as a caretaker at a northern polytechnic brought me into contact with five and a half thousand under graduates and I enjoyed their company and saw no reason why I couldn’t get some book learning myself. Instead, after a while, I had a sad falling out and went off into the country to do some getting away from it all. Two years of making beds and breakfasts for walkers and cyclists and gap year students from Oz and America was fun but the choice was to continue on, on the bottom rung, or commit to a career I really didn’t fancy all that much. It came to the crunch. I’d been out seven years. The new college year was about to start. Along the way night-classes had brought me my admission passport. A smattering of certificates. All I didn’t have was a place to study. I was ready to get me a degree. I had week to find out if anyone would have me.dsc_0160The girl in Oldgate House had received a print-out that morning. There were places in Nottingham to do history, Leeds to do French and Manchester to do English and Philosophy. She rang a number and said they’d like to see me. I caught the next train and looked out the window as derelict Yorkshire stone-built mills disappeared into a long tunnel to re-emerge as redundant Lancashire brick-built mills. Marsden, Stalybridge, Miles Platting, Manchester Victoria. All looked pretty wonderful to me walking between taller buildings than I was used to. Cross Street, Albert Square, St Peter’s Square, Oxford Road. All the way down to the main building on the main campus. They hadn’t a clue who I was. Certainly weren’t expecting me. Picked up the phone and dialled and said I needed Aytoun Street. Everyone needs a bit of Aytoun Street once in their lives!dsc_0114Feeling fobbed off I made the return journey down Oxford Road, passed the BBC, and the glorious Refuge Assurance Building, turn right along Whitworth Street. Thrilled by these buildings. I’d been two years in the sticks, this place was rumbling with power and people and possibility. Passed UMIST, where Wittgenstein found his study boots. Now that is a building! Aytoun Street; not so impressive. A grey tower block that looked like it ought to be condemned (and was some years later). On the eighth floor a diligent woman patronises me and assumes I have no qualifications and is wondering how to deal. Doesn’t give me much a chance for a word in edgeways but is sure I’d do well with an OND or HNC if I worked hard. Was ready to send me back from whence when a fellow with both braces and broad belt came in with a degree of importance that suggested staff though he didn’t look the academic sort. Checked my A levels, never asked to see any certificates, said I could start next Monday. Registration at 10.dsc_0182

All I needed now was a grant and a place to live.

I walked miles that day chasing flats and bedsits. Gained a geographic knowledge of South Manchester that would come in handy and, after several unfruitful trails found a room at the top of a Victorian Street in Whalley Range that may once have known a Pankhurst or two but had since slid down the social order. The landlord could have been Rigsby. Shapeless, sleeveless cardigan, opened his ground floor door enough to give me the once over. He wasn’t fussy. He had half a dozen rooms. I got one at the top. Below me deals were made, tricks were turned along with blind eyes. My naivety kept me safe. The room had a bed, a sink, a small stove with two hot plates and a tiny oven. The bathroom was shared by the whole house. Nothing smelled good. I’d saved up a couple of months wages but the hostels didn’t pay well and by the time my maintenance grant cheque arrived it was nearly Christmas and I was surviving as best I could. On the December Sunday night my cupboard was pretty much bare. But what was there was unusual. I had a handful of coffee beans, the last two slices of a 4 day old loaf, a pot of lumpfish roe and a single King Edward cigar (pocketed some years earlier at a company dinner when working as a wine waiter). On the verge of want and feeling very hungry I enjoyed my last supper of caviar on toast with a cup of decent coffee, followed by a long lingering smoke of a cigar. Next day the post brought a cheque and a couple of Christmas cards.dsc_0179By then I’d completed a term as a proper student and done it on equal terms with those I’d once assumed were my betters. I was coming up in the world. It was 1982. It was a pretty good time to be young and to live in Manchester. We saw bands. James were starting up a few streets away in Whalley Range, The Smiths were getting a big following very quickly and we saw them in the students’ union where Mick Hucknall (soon to be of Simply Red) strutted with what we thought was unwonted importance. I visited The Hacienda and listened to music in a place that was aware something special was happening. My contribution was busking and was far from special. To survive financially I’d found spots on Market Street, St Anne’s Square and a shopping centre in Charlton-Cum-Hardy where my clattering versions of Bob Dylan and Neil Young brought in more money than they ever deserved. I contributed not a jot to the new music that was happening all around me but this was a city with music in its bones and the people’s generosity kept me going. Without the busking money I would have had to give it all up and return to the endless toil of the non-career jobs I’d come from. I thought I’d made good money back then as I sat in The Shakespeare or The Trevor (both pubs and regular haunts) and tottered out an odd assortment of silver and bronze (with more than the occasional foreign coin) to pay my round before the real band came on. I’ve earned quite well since getting that busking supported degree so that makes the real takings from my versions of After the Gold Rush and Mr Tambourine Man more than substantial.dsc_0158I’ve enjoyed my post graduate career and owe most of it to those cold busking days and all of it to Manchester. Which is why nostalgic moseying is how I most like to spend my modern Manchester days. Buildings are now shinier, restaurants are much better as my pocket stretches further. This is a hell of a city. They used to say that what happens in Manchester today will happen in the rest of the world tomorrow. It was true in my case. What began in Manchester in 1982 has flowered and continued to flower ever since. And there are still buskers on the streets. Some of them are bloody good. All of them get the Johnson pound. As Hector says in Alan Bennett’s play. “Pass it on boys! Pass it on!”


To follow: Historic Manchester and Modern Manchester.