Manchester, Cottonopolis, was a great Victorian city. The city of Cobden and Bright; the cradle of liberalism, and free trade. Gladstone addressed 6,000 people at the Free Trade Hall. Before Victoria ascended the throne the Peterloo massacre was enacted yards away from that hall (now a posh hotel) and, round the corner, at the Midland Hotel, Rolls met Royce. It was a great Edwardian city, too.
In the post-industrial world the city’s fortunes waned. It was never an attractive place, despite those handsome Victorian buildings, and postwar Manchester was grim. Pea-soupers crested the Irwell, which helps to separate Manchester from Salford, and the city, begging Auden’s pardon, seemed to wear its tribulation like a rose. Ewan MacColl wrote Dirty Old Town about Salford but it was really Manchester by another name.
That there has been a transformation is beyond doubt. With its gay village, trendy ‘northern quarter’, and the annual flood of students attracted by the promise of a young person’s ‘lifestyle’, Manchester has become fashionable. Hotels go up every month. Restaurants are full. Boddington’s brewery, in the shadow of Strangeways Hotel, may have gone but City and United are the dominant forces in English football, a game that has always animated Mancunians. Even Old Trafford, the great if ageing cricket ground in Stretford, has been converted into a stadium.
The transformation has come at a price. Modern Manchester may strike the outsider as a place that is extremely pleased with itself, and even a few natives might recoil at the creation of the ‘Manc’, a type that did not exist a generation ago, not even in Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club. You can trace it back to the ‘party people’ atmosphere of the late Eighties and the music scene that produced such intellectual titans as Liam Gallagher. Oasis were never a patch on The Hollies.
Mancunians used to laugh at the cocky manner of Liverpudlians. Now the sensitive ones are more wary. Coronation Street, which used to have such lovable characters, is now an issue-led shouting match conducted by unpleasant people with horrible voices. As for Shameless, the title gives it away. Mancunians could be more careful about the way they present their city.
There is always something more worthwhile to celebrate. With its Jewish community to the fore, Manchester has always looked outward. It was the Hallé Orchestra that lured Hans Richter, who conducted the first Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876, to the old Free Trade Hall. And it was there, in December 1908, that he conducted the first performance of Elgar’s First Symphony, and pronounced it to be the greatest symphony of the age, ‘and not just by an Englishman’. The Hallé plays now at Bridgewater Hall, a stone’s throw from the Free Trade Hall, and under Sir Mark Elder, music director since 2000, is playing better than at any time since Sir John Barbirolli 60 years ago.
For a Manchester story of outstanding musical achievement look no further than the Hallé. But there is more to Manchester musical life. The BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Camerata share the Bridgewater Hall, and the city also has a specialist music school at Chetham’s, as well as the Royal Northern College of Music, which has a concert hall of its own. Outside London no city can boast of such resources.
As Richter and the Hallé were performing Elgar, a lady named Annie Horniman was creating the first repertory company in English theatrical history at the Gaiety, which opened its doors, after a redesign by Frank Matcham, in 1912. It used to be said that Manchester sees today what London will see tomorrow, as so many shows came to Manchester before moving into the West End. The theatre scene remains lively, with the Palace, the Opera House and the Lowry Centre in Salford bringing music, dance and drama to the city.
Manchester’s great theatrical tradition is best expressed by the Royal Exchange in St Ann’s Square. Established in 1976, out of steel and glass, in the old cotton exchange that was called ‘the biggest room in the world’, it was set in motion by Michael Elliott, one of the great heroes of English theatre. The IRA bomb of 1996 led to the temporary closure of this remarkable building but all is well again.
Since 2005 there has been a biennial International Festival in Manchester, the next in 2019. But that is not the only time the city comes out to play. From 5th to 21st October, Manchester will stage its own literary festival. This year’s speakers are yet to be confirmed but Simon Schama led the list of authors last year. Don’t expect it to be like Cheltenham, the most fêted of literary festivals. It will be rougher round the edges, with an emphasis on the young urban experience.
Manchester’s position in the visual arts was recognised last year when Maria Balshaw, director at the Whitworth Art Gallery, accepted a similar position at Tate Museums. Not everybody thought her work at the Whitworth was of the highest quality but she certainly put her stamp on the place.
What would those great Mancunians of the past, Neville Cardus and Anthony Burgess, make of the city? Although they were born in poverty, they were both high-minded men whose writing enabled others to understand the worlds of great music and literature. They had no time for the flimsy or self-regarding. Mancunians, on the whole, don’t, and even though they left town, Cardus to London and Sydney, Burgess to Rome and Monaco, they never forgot their earliest days.
Do young men haunt the bars of the northern quarter as Cardus sat in the old Lyons Corner House on Oxford Road, discussing Richard Strauss and Hindemith over a mug of tea? They take their pleasures differently today. ‘The Caribbean slum’ of Moss Side, as Burgess called it, is still there, and still a dangerous place – as witnessed in Saturday's horrible shooting – but now the schoolchildren in Moss Side and neighbouring Rusholme, home to a hundred Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, go on trips to the Whitworth.
The late Michael Kennedy, journalist and music critic, was a true Mancunian, happiest when watching cricket or listening to the Hallé. He found beauty in his city, on the greyest of days and the foulest of weather. A Manchester romantic, you could say. They really do exist, and are numbered among the righteous.
The best place to stay remains the Midland Hotel, with Bridgewater Hall 200 yards away. Diners will head for the curry mile in Rusholme, but most of the restaurants and ‘sweet centres’ are busy. In town the Yang Sing, the Chinese restaurant on Princess Street, is popular as ever, and Mr Thomas’s Chop House on Cross Street offers English grub. For a Manchester experience try the Circus Tavern and the Grey Horse, two cosy pubs next to each other on Portland Street.
Out and about
- Manchester Art Gallery
Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL
- The Whitworth
University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER
- John Rylands Library
150 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3EH.
- The Hidden Gem, aka St Mary’s Catholic Church
17 Mulberry St, Manchester M2 6LN
- Lowry Centre
Pier 8, The Quays, Salford, M50 3AZ
- Imperial War Museum North
The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester M17 1TZ