On the Manchester Eye

Note: the text below was originally written in February 2008, but I delayed publishing it for one or another reason. It is somewhat strange really – because much of what you are about to read was originally written in Russian in 2007. Still, two years after its composition in Russian, and a year after I drafted it again in English, the text has finally made it to your RSS readers.

So, I’ve finally made it to the Manchester Eye. I say “finally” because the construction has visited Manchester for the first time in 2004, if I am not mistaken, but I never got to ride it until recently. I went there after a lovely Chinese lunch at the White Lion. After the lunch I went into a grocery shop in Liverpool Rd where I saw the old scales and an equally old till. The shopkeeper swore by the perfect mechanisms of the two, which “never lied“. Upon leaving the shop, I took the shuttle bus and while going past Arndale Centre I realised that 1) I’ve still not been on the Manchester Eye and 2) the weather was good enough to go. And so I went.

Riding the Eye is an interesting experience in that one can see exactly how much Manchester has grown. They say this impulse for growth has been injected by the IRA back in 1996. I’ve only visited Manchester for the first time in 2002, but when I came a year later, in 2003, the city has changed immensely, thanks to the Commonwealth Games. By the end of 2004, the Victoria University and the UMIST have merged into one University of Manchester, and in 2005 Oxford Rd saw the demolition of the Math Tower and the renovation of the façade of the Royal Northern College of Music. The talk of the town throughout 2005 and 2006 has been the Beetham Tower that sticks out over Salford as the symbol of Manchester’s burning desire to assert itself and to outdo others. This is the symbol of the passion for growth, a phallic symbol indeed. What is life, after all? The play of passions for sure, and the show will go on even if the supercasino never sees the light of the day.

Below all these towering structures and shiny façades the ages of Manchester lay cramped: a Roman fort in Castlefield; the Ordsall Hall that stood on its ground since the 14th c.; the Manchester Cathedral that dates back to the 15th c.; the mid-Tudor Old Wellington Inn where, sitting on the second floor and drinking a pint of bitter, one can observe the Tudor timber work; the 18th-19th c. edifices of the Exchange Building, the Manchester Town Hall, the Victoria Station, the Triangle. All these objects (except the Roman fort and Ordsall Hall) one can see from the Manchester Eye – as well as innumerable building cranes. Even relatively modern districts look swamped or squeezed by the sleek and imposing glass, metal and concrete structures.

It is interesting that I observe this now, when I live away from my native city that is experiencing exactly the same processes of pushing the past further in the shadow of the future. I cannot advocate the opposite, nor can I prevent anything from happening. Will it be correct to say that, as an historian, I am in the most enviable position? I know that whatever happened and is yet to happen has already taken place in previous centuries, in other countries, in different cities. I appear aloof thanks to this knowledge, no matter what feelings I can have otherwise. In the end, I’m looking forward to the future. But the Old Wellington Inn is not just a piece of the English or Mancunian past: it is my past, too, because I specialised in Tudor. The streets and buildings in the city centre are no longer just Manchester’s past – they are my past, being the part of my life since 2003. No foreknowledge or foresight can save one from realising how time flies – your personal time.

It seems like what I wrote about Manchester’s growth sounds critical. It is indeed so, to an extent. When I read Pedro Almodovar’s Self-Interview 9184, it struck me how similar his observations of Madrid were to my occasional impression of Manchester. The interview was published in a collection called Patty Diphusa Stories and Other Writings (you can check the contents on Queeria, the Serbian queer web portal). The book was recently translated into Russian, so once again I’m relating Almodovar’s thought instead of quoting.
So, Almodovar asks himself if he likes what is currently happening in Madrid and replies that he feels very uneasy about it. The serious danger, he says, is in that Madrid is becoming self-conscious, thus losing one of its main traits. People who lived in the city before never had special feelings for the place, let alone were rooted in it – unlike in Barcelona. No-one defended the city, no-one identified themselves with it. By 1984, however, they began to talk about Madrid’s “culture”, which was being defended or compared against other cultures. They began to take pride in living in this place – but this wasn’t the way to be, as far as Almodovar was concerned. One stops understanding one’s self in order to merge with the city. This is a kind of a narcissistic mirage, whereas “you are but you, and you are absolutely alone”.

“Alone” means “unique”, “inimitable”, “lonely”. What is unique about Manchester? How many places called Manchester are there in Britain? Alas, this rarely seems to be enough, so what else? Its role in the Industrial Revolution, perhaps? Its John Rylands Library that preserves the oldest manuscript of the New Testament? The Old Trafford? The Haçienda? Apart from the name and the revolutionary past, the rest is but the garments. The Haçienda has gone; the Old Trafford is dear to you only as long as you’re a football fan; and the New Testament MS is an object of professional, historical interest if you are not religious. The Manchester International Festival, where they debated whether or not London was bad for Britain, only confirms that there is a “Mancunian culture”, whatever that means, and it wants to have the way.

Someone may say that Almodovar’s quote is not quite appropriate. Madrid was the capital city, so it was bound to change, whether Almodovar liked it or not. Manchester isn’t the capital, but it is bound to be changing as well. Again and again throughout the years I’ve sensed, seen and heard this desire to assert itself against London – as if otherwise Manchester may disappear from the map of Britain. Sadly, Manchester is nothing but a name on the map, and it’s not going to disappear. The rest is people: they erect buildings, preserve the manuscripts, play football. It is people who take pride in the place where they live. The danger is in that they begin to mould Manchester into the northern London, the northern New York, etc. – because for one reason or another they couldn’t find a place for themselves in the original London or original New York, and yet desperately want to be there. This is detrimental for the city’s culture more than anything else. Think of a provincial Paris on the shores of the Irish Sea, complete with the copy of the Eiffel Tower; or a Welsh Naples once favoured by Lewis Carroll and his Alice. Pretty, enigmatic but almost lifeless places.

More often than not people take to preserve what they perceive as the city’s spirit, putting the genie in the bottle and selling it from music shops and travel agents. Alas, the genie dies the moment you catch it; and usually it successfully eludes you. Want to see Manchester as the ever-evolving, breathing space? Let it go. It will come back not once.

An interesting discussion about the recent Capture Manchester contest and exhibition that reasserted some of the points in this essay.

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