I am often asked questions such as ‘why aren’t you studying in London?’ and ‘Would you move there after you graduate?’ as well as ‘Surely London where it’s at?’. There is no doubt, London is an enthralling city. There is the thrill of going seeing ‘the sights’, being a ‘tourist’ or perhaps even the promise of ‘business’: all in apostrophes, the enclosed package the city serves up. In fact, to be in London invites the sensation of being a spectator – watching something significant happening without really being part of it. Conversely, in Manchester, you aren’t spectator, but creator.
'Make history, rather than being an onlooker'
I am proud of Manchester. Proud of its unpackaged, unapologetic nature. It’s a Beta World city, in the global rankings as a major economic system, yet rather than voicing it, it is a place which prefers to hear your voice. This is the city where you can be part of the projects – whether they are artistic, academic or other – which make history, rather than being an onlooker. It was easy to see this taking place recently in the form of ‘The Stone Roses’ posters flying up all over the city (every poster-putter creating their own kind of art) at the beginning of November, to celebrate the bands’ announcement of tour dates for next year. The iconic ‘lemon slices’ from their first album were slapped across shops and signs – the lemon itself inspired by lead singer Ian Brown’s reputed experience with a French rights rioter, who had told him that lemons were an antidote to tear gas.
Lemons are also a fitting symbol for Manchester I think. It’s a zingy, bright place to be on so many levels. It’s got pith to it, layers of interest. Yet many people judge it with bitterness.
I often hear arguments against it, such as it being a ‘dump’ and ‘grotty’, references to the cramped carriages of ‘Northern Rail’ trains and of course, rain. Yet it is the city’s resilience – under-funded transport and all – which makes it relatable. Rather than changing its skin like the snake of the south, reappearing every few months with a whole new avenue of glass, Manchester maintains its dark underbelly, its nervous energy and secret spaces. Largely a product of the industrial revolution, rising as well as falling with it, businesses had little other choice than to cram themselves into already-existing industrial units. Because this is a place which just gets on with it.
And it doesn’t just have ‘it’, but ‘grit’ too. Every day you can see people working, and filing, and chiseling away at their craft until it finally shines. It is visual hope. For example, The Kitchens project on the Left bank at Spinningfields – what seem like trendy, yet also gutsy street-food venues to grab some grub – is the outcome of sheer hard work and enthusiasm. Unlike the corporate kudos of London, Manchester offers businesses you can relate to, coming along in their various stages. This city offers the interest of shoots and saplings (with central pop-up shops and great street markets) whilst in London you are looking at big growth: shiny and often silent.
And Manchester certainly doesn’t keep quiet. The ‘Madchester’; scene of the 80s and 90s pushed music, and boundaries – perhaps why the ‘mad’ of the title. The city has served as the catalyst which commanded to the masses: even if you are struggling, you can still make something of yourself. There wasn’t any hierarchy as such – people meshed together, the roadie for the Inspiral Carpets went on to become the songwriter in Oasis, as just one example. Boys from surrounding towns became bands thrown together in improvised studios – Joy Division, Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Fall, just to name a few. There was hope for all then and it carries on. Still now, you can throw yourself into open mic events, pub nights and the rest, without the need to feel like a ‘local’ or ‘legitimate’; You are welcomed, and that is what matters. This is the city where you really can feel living, without having to live here. If one event doesn’t work for you, or you mince your words? You’ll be welcomed with opened arms at another.
'In Manchester everyone is thrown together'
Compare this to London, where there are the ‘in crowds’, the (often extortionate) art schools, the assumption that students have their own area, tourists another. In the quest for ‘success’ people have their designated areas, there is competition. In Manchester everyone is thrown together. Take this; I recently went to the opening of an art exhibition at Common, a bar in The Northern Quarter. It clearly wasn’t just the opening of an exhibition, but expression too, for everyone was encouraged to get involved in floor-to ceiling, moving artwork and wailing protest music. In London, as much choice as there is, there seems a pressure to have to ‘fit’ a place in order to ‘participate’ in it.
It is relatability which puts the ‘man’ in Manchester. It is a human city, a friend, a pal. There are the quiet spaces you can easily escape to – whether it be through the corridors of The John Rylands Library, a walk into Castlefield or a cup of something in the Earth café before the lunchtime rush; there is something for everyone. Whilst the ‘quiet’ or ‘secretive’ spaces in London seem marketed as so, therefore developing their own kind of pretence, in Manchester, these spaces find you. It is this sense of belonging which seems central to the results of the ‘Global Liveability Ranking 2015’ – which showed Manchester in the top 50 of ‘most liveable’ cities, and the only one in the UK to be so high up. Whilst Manchester was at 46th in the world, London trailed at 53rd.
'The city is in your face'
Manchester offers ‘home’ to a number of initiatives too, so it not only offers a place to rest heads, but is a place that gets them thinking too. For example, cathartic.co is just one case of a social enterprise and website which is making progress from a strong Manchester base. An online resource which is there to take the anonymous stories and worries of others, it communicates again this theme of ‘living ‘and therefore, hope. This is a place which celebrates life in its many shades all in one place – rather than a segregated city of zones and professionals. Magazines and publications including Nous Magazine, I Love Manchester and The Skinny all work here to capture a consciousness composed of various people, shapes and sizes – yet all joined by one thing - Manchester.
The thing about Manchester is that you feel, you are living it, whether you actually ‘live’ there or not. With venues such as Home, ideal for culture and cinema, which opened in 2015, and also the performance venue Contact, on Oxford Road – even the place names speak of comfort and closeness. This is seldom felt in London, especially not in the central areas. There venues are ‘sites’ and ‘spectacles’, but in Manchester the city is in your face. And that’s where it should be – not in the mind’s eye or imagination.
Manchester is close, personal and hopeful. And isn’t that refreshing?