Friedrich Engels described the scene in the centre of Manchester on a Saturday night: ‘Intemperance may be seen in all its brutality. I have rarely come out of Manchester on such an evening without meeting numbers of people staggering and seeing others lying in the gutter.’ The habits of the citizens of Manchester are unchanged. Going out is still a high priority; so is intemperance. The night life in the city has even become a tourist attraction. A few years ago you’d see coaches from Stoke, Leeds and London lining the streets outside the Hacienda, a cavernous old warehouse and Manchester’s most famous nightclub. Working as a DJ first at the Hacienda, then at the Boardwalk, I’ve met Americans, Germans and Australians drawn there by Manchester’s reputation.
The Hacienda is no longer dominant in club culture, but night-clubbing remains as much a part of the cultural life of the city as the Hallé Orchestra, the cinemas, the theatres. The recession has hit hard, and for many clubbers the precious few hours on the dance floor on a Friday or Saturday are the highlight of the week. For excitement and camaraderie, the disco sure beats the dole office.
Manchester’s theatres have had a more difficult time in recent years, but there’s a new initiative which might reverse this trend: Manchester City of Drama 1994. Claiming to be ‘the greatest celebration of drama ever’, no less, City of Drama 1994 is to present a year-long festival embracing professional and amateur groups, youth theatres and visiting international companies. At a press conference at Manchester Airport in January, it was announced that the Airport was donating £300,000 towards the cost of staging City of Drama 1994. Celebrities were introduced and speeches were made. Mr Gil Thompson, Chief Executive of Manchester Airport, cited James Agate, Asa Briggs and J.B. Priestley on the splendours of Manchester’s cultural past. Mr Thompson didn’t quote Engels. Nor, understandably, John Ruskin: ‘Manchester can produce no good art, and no good culture.’
Despite the presence at the press conference of John Thaw (alias Inspector Morse), the good news announced at the Airport failed to make the front pages of any of the local newspapers. Manchester City Council had its own announcement to make: a £51m crisis, resulting in widespread cuts in jobs and services. Four hundred teachers’ jobs may be lost, and youth training schemes dismantled. The £6m cuts in social services are likely to put the disabled and the elderly at risk and pre-school provision for the under-fives is in turmoil. The Council says that the cash crisis has been forced on them by reduced government funding and rate-capping threats.
These contradictions – money being found for prestige projects while citizens suffer financial and social deprivation – have been evident in the last few years in cities like Glasgow, Sheffield and Birmingham. City-centre development in Manchester has grown apace recently, led by the Central Manchester Development Corporation, a body set up to dole out European and government funds to private companies in the area. Old warehouses have been turned into posh flats and derelict offices into luxury hotels; the British Council has a beautiful new building off Whitworth Street, and the Hallé Orchestra is getting £22m from the Council for a new concert hall. The new landscape is a result of a mixture of public and private-sector money and enterprise. But what it says to the citizens who don’t use luxury hotels or visit the Hallé is this: there’s a lot of money about, but the people who need it most aren’t getting it.