Monday, June 29, 2009

Larking about

I was showing friends round town the other day and it struck me, yet again just what I like about living in Manchester.

There are plenty of big towns and cities with remnant Victorian and Edwardian infrastructures and architectures. And very fine they are, too. I like them. I'm a Mancunian but I like Liverpool, even though they've knocked down some of my favourite second-hand bookshops. But I prefer Manchester.

I don't want this to be a scouse-knocking piece: it gets to be a cliché and diverts us from the proper purpose of life, which is to take the piss out of the Cockneys. Having said that, I think the public spaces of the two cities reflect the differences in their character. If you visit Liverpool, once you negotiate your way out of the modern horror that is Lime Street Station you get a vista of Big Buildings. And they are truly splendid buildings and I like them. And I like the equistrian statues that litter the city. All of them cry out a warm "harrumph" to my inner brogue. And all out of keeping with the earnest, "laugh 'cos I'm a scouser and I'm funny" scally wit of legend. With the exception of the odd festival piece like the lambanana it's all a bit po-faced really. We should be grateful that the new statue of Ken Dodd has redressed the balance a tad. Thank God for Doddy!

At first sight Manchester is similar. No different to the 'pool or Leeds or Glasgow come to that. But if you take the time to look the mask quickly slips.

Take Piccadilly Gardens, for instance. I regret the passing of the original sunken gardens and the bus station (especially in the wet weather when you can't pretend that "Piccadilly Bus Station" is anything more than a not-so-glorified traffic island). And I hate that whacking big concrete wall that runs alongside the tram lines. But the joy is the fountain. This is set up on a three-part random sequence: you don't know which jets will go off; the interval between jets; and the height of the jets. You may just get the soles of your feet wet with a jolly little gurgling spring. Or a nine-foot tower of water may knock you off your feet. The kids love it. As do the grown-ups. I've seen workmen in donkey jackets playing in it in their lunchtime, egging each other on in games of chicken. The corporation has to switch it off at night during the winter lest some poor daft beggar goes down with hypothermia.

Thomas Street is a grubby backstreet of the city centre. Which may be why there's a big metal statue of a dustpan and brush. And down at Deansgate Station, opposite the G-Mex tram stop and in between two bus stops is a big statue of a bicycle. It was originally a celebration of cycling but those of us who commute to work have applied a subtext.

Manchester's universities are famous for pioneering work in atomic physics, computing and the sciences. Walking through the statue park outside UMIST you'll see Archimedes in his bath having a eureka moment. You'll see monuments to magnets and moebius strip cables. Poignantly, there is Alan Turing with his deadly apple. And, pride of place and the most striking thing you notice as you pass on the train is...

An eight-foot tall wooden bottle of Vimto. Really.

You see this stuff all over. The giant steel windmills opposite The Triangle because people though the new building for Marks & Sparks looked like a sandcastle. The exotic avifauna sitting for no apparent reason on brackets high up on an abandoned building in Red Lion Street. A friend and colleague insists that the statue of William Ewart Gladstone in Albert Square depicts him as "the king of the hokey-cokey." City Centre Manchester is a big soft kid's playground.

And therein is the difference in the temperaments. Liverpool is an essentially conservative city trying a bit too hard to seem to be friendly and chirpy. Manchester went through a bit of a phase of that in the Madchester years but has now settled back into its natural ways. It's a respectable old gent who should know better but is too busy playing with the grandkids to care much less.


Jimmy Bastard said...

It wasnae until 1993 that I realised that Liverpool was a city, and not Manchester Zoo.

I just loved the 'Twinned with Serbia' city sign as you approach the very first burnt out police car on the slip road.

Scarlet-Blue said...

Can I come and play in your fountain?

Gaw said...

I've always liked Manc. It always seems to have a buzz about it. It also seems more outward-looking than a lot of other cities. I've always put this down to it being on the western side of the country and linked to the sea: like Bristol but in contrast to Brum, Leeds and Nottingham.

KAZ said...

And talking of Archimedes - did you know they dug up John Dalton's bones from a cemetery in Ardwick to make a playing field for the school where I worked?
They are now in the ground near John Dalton building of MMU.
Alan Turing sits on the bench outside the other place where I worked.
Yes - it's a joy isn't it?
Pity they took the cows away.
(wv = talin - that's nice too)

Kevin Musgrove said...

Jimmy: don't encourage me!

Scarlet: you don't need to ask my dear.

Gareth: I think you're right: ports, even artificial ones like Manchester, always have a different vibe to inland cities.

Kaz: I'd forgotten that, thanks.

They still have the three cows on the grass by the Urban Splash apartments next to the canal at St. Georges.

Madame DeFarge said...

My in laws live in Manchester, so I've always given it a bit of a bodywerve, but you paint it in such a fine light, that I may have to give it a try.