Day Off, Manchester
I wander off in early afternoon, sniffing out a few local recommendations. The first thing I do is buy a second hand suit in Afleck’s, an indoor boutique market akin to the old Kensington one. It’s a 1960s Hepworths designed by Hardy Amies. I have at least three things styled by him, they always have quaint little kinks — an extra seam here, another button there — not too much but just right. It’s a dark brown pinstripe which will make shirt choice tricky but a rich pink would do. I still have one somewhere if it didn’t get jettisoned during the last charity shop pogrom.
I take repast in a breakfast meat emporium, sitting outside in the slightly sullen light. It’s one of those gaffs where you order everything via your phone. The clientele are forty-something urban home owners wearing clothes ten years too young for them. They sup craft ales and Bloody Marys but don’t appear to be eating. I realise why when my food is served — a hideous smorgasbord of incinerated meats and denatured vegetable matter. It’s truly repulsive and I trowel it into my gullet with an alacrity born of a desire to see the whole ghastly affair over with as quickly as possible. I wash it down with weak tepid tea poured from an over-designed malfunctioning teapot you’d take straight to Oxfam were you to receive it as a wedding present. On the way back to the hotel I climb a steep flight of stairs to a strange little high-ceilinged bookshop where I buy a 1960s hardback edition of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and a new paperback of Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues. The proprietor has an old Fender Mustang bass propped up against an amp. He hands me my change with very long-fingernailed hands, like a dark stranger from a fairytale. I wonder what on earth to do next.
I dump my shopping in my room and decide to go for a walk along the canal from Piccadilly Basin. I end up in a little housing estate on the edge of the centre and turn back through New Islington, a substantial residential development around Cotton Field Park on the waterway. It’s pretty successful as a piece of town planning; peaceful, well designed and pedestrian friendly. Much of Manchester’s new building is excellent and the verve shown in mashing it right up against the old red brick industrial and mercantile architecture is admirable and frequently pays off spectacularly. There are new residential areas right in the centre that are a little like Venice, others like Hamburg or Amsterdam. A breeze is picking up now, drifting through the city like a search party. I order a coffee at a pavement table and watch two thirty-something gay guys share a bottle of red wine, giving a homeless bloke a cigarette when asked. I hear snatches of talk about clubs and dancing coming and going on the air. A dolled-up trio of women sit down pushing their sunglasses up into their hair and take out their gold coloured phones. Everyone is having a hair-of-the-dog but me. I’m a stray circling the encampment.
The next afternoon I slink out for an hour, retracing some of my steps, for we are nothing if not creatures of habit. I have some delicious vegan breakfast in a café with wall-to-ceiling windows that look onto beautifully restored 19th century red brick and tile buildings. The man next to me has the cutest dog I’ve seen for a while — a small, cartoon dog, perfectly proportioned and sublimely well behaved. My reaction to it is another sign of age and its attendant sentimentality. Old men, eyes teary as they contemplate the past — we’re fucking wankers.
After the (remarkably lively) show I go looking for late-night sustenance. It’s after eleven and the pickings are meagre. I go into a bizarre fast-food purveyor called Players. It’s dazzlingly lit like a child’s sugar-rush fever dream. The menus behind the tills are animated and the names of the dishes pulsate as if I’ve taken acid. I have the same argument as always in such establishments — I want two pieces of foodstuff but no drink — and this does not constitute a “meal”. I ask them to pour the drink away but they take pity on me and find a special button that allows me a “meal” without fizzy shit in a cup. I carry my paper sack of cheap carbohydrates through the drunks, junkies, students and night workers milling around Piccadilly at midnight, happy amongst my fellow waking humans, weaving away from the suspicious when necessary.
In the morning we load up after our three night Manchester stop, sorry to be leaving, heading directly east to the Peak District, suddenly in the countryside. We pass through the sandstone ex-cotton mill town of Glossop making for the famous Snake Pass affording a spectacular view of Manchester behind us, lying monumentally in its bowl of smog, its dark satanic mills now slim shining towers. We wind through the woods and dales, over the flat summit and snake down into Sheffield which is crawling with university freshers. It’s still summertime warm and I go for a stroll to find some interest only to get snarled in the huge campus with its faceless accommodation blocks. Like so many cities in the UK, Sheffield has thrust upwards in the last ten years. A lot of these new edifices are pretty woeful but there are a few nice structures. I sit in the Peace Gardens facing the splendid Victorian town hall where a a spurting water feature creates a forest of pink columns looking like a liquified hen night. An American tour guide with a Hallam University T-Shirt leads a group of new students through the local sights. A young man with the ruddy face of the dipso stares bleakly into his green bottle of Eldorado. I wonder if he’s waiting for company. He sits on a wall in the centre of the park, still as a stone, as the clock hands of the city wheel around him.