Bringing Down Chunks of the Ceiling

Andy Beckett

  • Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City by Dave Haslam
    Fourth Estate, 319 pp, £12.99, September 1999, ISBN 1 84115 145 9

On Tib Street in the centre of Manchester, in the part of the city keen to promote itself as the Northern Quarter, a new delicatessen recently opened. According to its website, Love Saves the Day is ‘an integrated, licensed, food and grocery store for urban living’. It has a mostly glass façade, and two different logos, and packages its goods with almost fetishistic attention. One brand of coffee comes in a metallic silver bag, with the following information printed down one side in varying sizes, colours and typefaces, as carefully laid-out as a magazine centrespread: ‘Northern Quarter Blend … Slack, smoky, complex, 24-7, domestic bliss … A cosmopolitan blend of coffees from each of the major growing regions, combining rich Indonesian complexity with sparkling Latin American fizz, and sunny African fruitiness, truly the world in a cup.’

The owner of Love Saves the Day used to be a pop musician. Chris Joyce was once the drummer for Simply Red, one of Manchester’s most internationally profitable and enduring bands. In one sense, his new enterprise is entirely appropriate: Simply Red’s music is the perfect sound for a certain sort of shop or restaurant – very upbeat and clean, assembled at some effort and expense, and keen to suggest luxury and good taste. You might hear it in the background as you reach for a shelf of cashmere sweaters, or see your food approaching on a big white plate. In Manchester these days, such pretend utopias are part of the landscape. Moderately prosperous people, and those who would like to be, can spend wet Saturdays as if they were in Milan or Madrid, consuming and coffee-sipping and practising their discernment. And in every other big British city, people will be doing the same: buying boots in the Italian Centre in Glasgow, bottled olives at Harvey Nichols in Leeds – little foreign treats lying in wait, behind thick glass, in repaved shopping precincts. It is hard to see this as entirely bad, but it might be making these cities blander.

Dave Haslam sometimes thinks it is. Towards the end of Manchester, England, a history of the city’s popular culture when it still could be described as unruly and unique, before it became comfortably Europeanised, before the delicatessens took over, he has a few sentences about the kind of life Manchester may be leaving behind: ‘This street culture is not about civic pride and marketing initiatives … It can, and will, thrive in crappy coffee bars, under leaking roofs or down unlit roads. It’s uncontrollable, uncomfortable and never far removed from the problems of everyday living.’

Haslam’s book is about Mancunian music and nightlife and intoxication, and all the rituals and subcultures the city has built up around them. It is not just local history: at times here, Manchester is Britain in microcosm, at others, a laboratory for modern leisure. Nor is it just extended music journalism: its story scrambles back into the 16th century, and loiters in the 19th. The quick, jittery pages attempt to chronicle and explain a collective sensibility: Manchester’s famed cheekiness and hedonism and aptitude for cultural invention. Haslam himself has been a participant in and observer of all this for two decades. He has been a big-name local DJ, a fanzine publisher, a face people recognise in Manchester’s tight grid of record shops and nightclubs. He can remember the days when Chris Joyce just made albums.

Haslam is not sentimental, though. His introduction starts in the smashed-up skeleton of a mill in the ex-industrial suburb of Ancoats, with a German TV crew wandering beneath the old walkways, looking for grimy shots to go with a three-minute guide to the city. Haslam patiently plays along (this is only for a satellite channel), steering them past a guard dog sign and deep into the rubble and silence. Then he gets his reward. The TV director gives him a quote which announces one of the themes of this book: ‘In Germany we know about the music and Manchester United, but when we think of how Manchester looks we think of this.’

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