Red Bull & Smarties [16/8/15]
Manchester City 3-0 Chelsea [Etihad Stadium, Premiership]
Peterloo day. Banners and liberty caps by the steps of Manchester Central, as the names of the dead were read out over a rustling public address system.
A huddle of cranes prayed over the guts of Victoria Station, above the fifteen clean white ribs of the brand new roof support. Along Cross Street and up towards the Town Hall workmen laboured behind cages, excavating trackbed for the Metrolink as diggers dithered by heaps of virgin aggregate, piled as primly as a luckless man’s casino chips. All summer, the centre of Manchester had been like a labyrinthine zoo, the streets turned inside out by the roadworks, to become a maddening maze of chain-link prohibition, forcing you to sidle edgewise along the pathways, second-guessing the dead ends fifty yards hence, as you tried to negotiate the new kingdom of visual noise and negative space. The scars ran up through Hanging Ditch, along Corporation Street and up Withy Grove, down Mosley Street, across Princess Street and Whitworth Street West: out from the wounded heart like poisoned arteries furred and swollen beneath the surgeon’s steel.
The city had never seemed to be in such a flux: construction, demolition, protests, plans. Only yesterday, the Oxford Road precinct bridge had come crashing down, another Seventies street-in-the-sky from the visionaries who had dreamed up the walkways of the Hulme Crescents and the drawbridged consumerist latrine of the original Arndale Centre. No more, then, the flying subway on Education Mile: demolished to make way for the commercial development of the business school. Doubtless, by pump-priming the business brain better shopping precincts would eventually trickle down.
Up the road, past the brickheap remains of the old BBC building, the Cornerhouse cinema, bastion of the Bulgarian rom com, had earlier in the year been shuttered, its entire operation jump-zoomed into a shiny new multi-use arts utensil called HOME at Tony Wilson Place. In its cobbled wake, just back from the road, were left fears that the Salisbury pub, beloved of bikers and student snakebite drinkers, and Grand Central, a hook-up for metalheads skulking front-side on the Oxford Road Corner, would fall victim to the kind of grey gentrification that had befallen parts of Whitworth Street in recent years. Everything hinged on the plans of the city council for a new train station approach, and so far the planners were saying nothing.
Further in, Library Walk was lost: the whorling thoroughfare between the town hall extension and the haunch of the Central Library, allowing access between Albert Square and St Peters, had been plugged by the great glass embolism of a new annex, despite a strenuous campaign to have the move nixed. The alleyway had offered one of the few elegant perambulations to be enjoyed amid the civic centre, but, cut off from view at either end, it had been used all too often as a muggers’ haunt, lovers’ lane and pissoir. A mass repurposing by Rangers fans, when the Scottish side faced Zenit St Petersburg at Eastlands in the 2008 Europa Cup final, had marked a tipping point in its reputation, and after that it had been living on borrowed time.
Such matters were small beer, of course, compared with the unsleeping imperative for new apartment blocks, office spaces, hotels and retail units. The Doozers were everywhere: hard hats pottering above the eye-line; headlines in the Evening News with each new proposal. On Corporation Street it was the weathered punks who had lost their band night, as the Ducie Bridge pub fell victim to the on-going NOMA development centred around One Angel Square: a deluxe, three-cornered ice bucket of a building plonked down on what was long ago the slums of Angel Meadow, as if set for toasting the cut-glass citadels which the architect Ian Simpson had clinked down across the landscape in the years since the IRA bomb. Up the rise in New Cross there were plans for another microwaved neighbourhood, to be cooked up around that giant lobster-telephone double act of the Wing Yip supermarket and the Royal Mail sorting office. Even Pomona Island, the verdant dockside interzone serviced by the Metro stop that nobody used – untamed and wildlife-rich, so campaigners claimed – was due for an apartment build by the suspiciously-held Peel Group, owners of the ship canal, City Airport, MediaCity, the Trafford Centre, and probably the Imperial Death Star too.
Was this a boom or a bubble? How come all the cranes, given the edicts coming down from Whitehall about cuts and austerity and belt-tightening? Didn’t the council used to be service and social care providers as opposed to some kind of Albert Square Oystons for property developers and billion dollar real estate investors? Or was this the way to go in order to Red Bull the recumbent metropolis? What, then, of the suburbs and the outlying regions, given this relentless spend on the centre? No doubt, these were questions that would take a long time to gestate into solid answers. But one facet of all this activity which was assuming increasing prominence – for the purposes of our own enquiry, at least – was the presence of football money in the midst of this rapidly changing cityscape.
You just had to follow a vein out to the east of Piccadilly, to see the situation in microcosm. There you would find the shell of the old Ancoats Dispensary: older than germs, familiar as prayer, recorded by Mrs Gaskell, painted by LS Lowry, austere and unlovely, a hospital without wards, saved from demolition by popular campaign amidst the fervour to hang on to the old in the face of the new. While in Chorlton-on-Medlock the Friends of Victoria Baths were now letting the halls for wedding parties and as a location for TV production companies; and by Piccadilly the Friends of London Road Fire Station were holding out for news from its proprietor, Britannia Hotels, that something useful might be done with the building within the span of their all-too-fleeting lifetimes; the Friends of the dispensary were still at the beginning of their journey to find a suitable purpose for its future in what was now called, somewhat aspiringly, New Islington. A fragile, roofless husk, it stood only with the aid of a scaffold exoskeleton so thick the structure itself could barely be spied, like a housefly wrapped in gossamer quivering on the web.
Surrounding it was a landscape like the production floor of a children’s TV programme, built on the site of a particularly spiteful nuclear blast. The stalled development from Tom Bloxham’s designer regeneration company, Urban Splash – the stacked wedges in Smarties colours of its signature ‘Chips’ building; the twerpish Mediterrania of the houses on the nearby ‘FAT’ estate; the abundant dreck, rubble, concrete, twisted metal, lost canals, cute lines and fizzy tones – was preparing to roll again after years of hiatus caused by the crash, bolstered now by the imminence of the Manchester Life project, a major house-building scheme brought by the council in partnership with Manchester City football club. No less than six thousand new homes had been promised by the club’s Abu Dhabi owners: of a piece with the new Mill-E-Clean Makeover to come to Ground Zero of the Industrial Revolution.
Would this, at last, be an answer to Manchester’s housing problems?
Back in the centre there was more football money on the table. In the suspect St Michael’s district – no one had ever heard the name ‘St Michael’s’ before now – around the old Bootle Street police station, straight-talking Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was looking to expand his burgeoning property portfolio with a whole new parish of posh flats, hotels and shops. Along with four other members of the so-called ‘Class of 92’ – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and brother Phil – and the Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, the get-ahead former United captain had already snapped up lowly Salford City football club, with plans to steer them into the Football League, and opened the high-rise Hotel Football by Old Trafford earlier in the year. Having had a taste, the consortium was evidently now looking to draw from the Community Chest and pile the little plastic houses on Jackson’s Row. The mooted closure of the two hundred-year-old Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, where the spirits of Peterloo victims who sought refuge there in 1819 were said still to be regulars, pointed up another old lag that stood to be fitted-up as a consequence of the development.
Meanwhile in Moston, to the north-west, residents of the Miners’ housing estate were still cussing over the funky new football stadium which had been erected in their midst, in the teeth of strident, and sometimes angry, local opposition. This morning, as volunteers lovingly tended the banks, beds and hedges around the new ground, a passing muppet slowed to yell “Munich!” from the window of a van in muffled Doppler along Lightbowne Road. Later, Councillor Paul Murphy, the new Lord Mayor, who had stuck his neck out to back the controversial build, pulled up in a small Peugeot car – no vestments, just polo shirt and jeans, silver hair, round paunch – to chat to the self-styled Diggers as they clipped the hawthorns and weeded the scrub and attempted to make nice for their new neighbours.
Overlaid upon all these schemes were plans to revitalise the city’s transport links: distantly on the horizon a high speed train service to London; in the shorter term an electrified ‘Northern Hub’ to be opened up by the ‘Ordsall Chord’, a stent to finally cross the streams and link the two major stations at Piccadilly and Victoria. Sprucing itself up for this bright new future, with the light pouring in through its box-fresh, brand-new bubble roof, Victoria’s famous ceramic route map had been spit-shined to a gleam, and the glasswork on its wrought iron canopy re-leaded with the names of its familiar long-haul destinations: Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, Scarborough, Hull. Well, you wouldn’t dream at the threshold if they spelled out the local ones, would you?
As the sunny season stalled, a tented village of the homeless was being blown around the streets like the cares of a troubled mind, taking with it the castaways who’d fallen through the cracks in the register at the hostels on Downing Street and Scarsdale Road and Booth Street West.
There were rumours of a killer on the loose, dubbed the ‘Pusher’, in response to the statistical spike in bodies given up by the city’s waterways.
And just this week a sinkhole had opened up like a portal to the underworld on Mancunian Way: just like that, a beckoning vortex in the ashpalt, thirty feet across, and who knew how deep?
Was it the end of days? Or new beginnings? Or was the city simply swallowing itself with the weight of the work?
Back in May, the Cameron victory at the general election had taken the whole country by surprise. As ever, Manchester voted Labour, though as usual there was no little apathy about it in the heartlands. Manchester Central, beneath whose ploughed streets lay the blood spilled at St Peter’s Field, had returned Lucy Powell with the meagerest turnout in the land: voted-in like a car dealer from a ballot list full of con artists. Attitudes were left-leaning, but in some quarters lukewarm, in a municipality which had learned to make a virtue of finding common cause with Tory government – and no less so than now. The city, so we’d been told before the vote, was to become the beating heart of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’: an ambitious plan to unloose the potential of the region as a whole. There would be a devolved healthcare budget to cut the sclerosis of provision imposed centrally from Whitehall; a new £110m arts centre to be named The Factory on the site of the old Granada television studios; funding for science projects such as the National Graphene Institute and the new SKA radio telescope headquarters at Jodrell Bank; plus upgrades to the rail system and the eventual arrival of that liberating HS3 train.
The condition for the deal – whispered up on the QT by city chiefs Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese and Chancellor George Osborne in the months leading up the poll – was the inauguration of an elected Mayor to be accountable for the purse. The fact that the city had rejected such a move by referendum in 2012 was sticky, but for the main players seemingly negotiable. As the dust settled on their victory the Tories had hit the ground running, with the Chancellor losing no time in appointing the newly-ennobled Baron Jim O’Neill of Gatley to oversee the delivery of the plan. The economist and former Goldman Sachs executive, once a director at Manchester United and later figurehead of the ill-fated ‘Red Knights’ bid to acquire the club from the Glazer family, had been labelled variously as a “rock star” in the technocratic world of currency markets, and a heavyweight champion inventor of acronyms. Now, he was to be midwife to the North’s revival, the untarnished banker from the company that bet on the crash, the Burnage Comprehensive boy made good.
As an outflanked Labour party struggled to come to terms with having its fox so skilfully snipered, the candidates in its ensuing leadership election could be found making earnest visits to the city along the course of the campaign trail. At the Town Hall, amidst the splendour of the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, Yvette Cooper, having won the endorsement of the city fathers, talked up female advancement to a strong contingent of professional women sitting in on their lunch breaks. In the Atlas bar beer garden, beneath the shadow of the Deansgate railway arches, where once Bernstein, Bloxham, Simpson and their gang had spitballed the re-pencilling of the city’s skyline over cappuccinos, light bites and blonde wood, Jeremy Corbyn denounced the politics of austerity before a crush of polytechnic beards, fervid frocks ‘n’ docs, and busily bestirred vendors of socialist newspapers. At a Withington children’s centre it was cameras only as Liz Kendall bounced like a brick on an inflatable castle, as she struggled to achieve some lift-off in the opinion polls. In the morning, Andy Burnham was due at the People’s History Museum, no doubt hoping to win back votes from the burgeoning left, perhaps with a little product-placement of the accoutrements of struggle.
Of the contenders, only Corbyn – the awkward squad club mascot with the reputation for Londoncentricity – had addressed the Northern Powerhouse issue head on, posting a policy document online entitled ‘Northern Future’ and denouncing the plan as a “cruel deception” masking a “devolution of cuts”. He looked on course to cinch the contest from the back of the field, and his critique may or may not have been prescient. Was it a con, as he tweedily claimed? Would the plan foment inequality between competing cities? Or was his just a kneejerk rejection of the other side’s localism?
Down the drip-tube at the Etihad Stadium, Clayton, the cranes had been working more of their magic over the summer: a new tier having been added to the South Stand to bring the capacity of Manchester City’s arachnoid mother-ship up to fifty-five thousand. Its undulating, toroidal roofline, slung like a tourniquet around the arena, seemed now pulled just that little bit tighter by the tie-ropes hoisting it in place.
Today’s ticker-tape celebration, marking the new development, might have been seen as a risible gesture – excitable exhortations over the public address system, fifty foot banners held up by helium tethered to the pitch as though we were in thrall to Pink Floyd’s North Korean tribute act – but as the synth horns strained and the confetti rained down at the tunnel walk you couldn’t help but reflect that the club’s determination to lay on a spectacle was as laudable as it was occasionally toe-curling. They’d be damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. Certainly, they seemed to have the march on rivals United when it came to presentation and polish, these days. And the noise…a rousing thunder which rang in the purlins at the top of the stands, the splayed capillaries spread out like crows’ feet up in the Gods.
It was louder, the Etihad, than Old Trafford, it had to be said.
The afternoon didn’t peak with the paper-blizzard, either, as the home side – last season’s runners-up in the Premiership title race – meted out a ruthless three-nil foot-roasting to champions Chelsea in the match that followed. Goals for Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho effected the warming, as new £50m signing Raheem Sterling shone and the Londoners’ talismanic captain John Terry was ignominiously withdrawn at half time, seemingly off the pace.
It was the opener which proved the adrenaliser – in the stands and across the city, in the pubs and hotel bars and Sky-dished suburbs and designer pads, in Ashton and Stalybridge and Stockport and Salford, where the medium and the message were Super Sunday – as Aguero stepped inside his marker to slot the ball past Asmir Begovic with insouciant calm; but then we’d come to expect that from the Argentine hit-man: an instinct as sharp as a needle, a finish cool as a saline flush. As faithful Citizens streamed forth from the stadium’s sky blue turrets into the concrete spaceport of the surrounding campus, there was that heightened sense of self, of solidarity, of being alive. Peterloo day. The end of summer. The new football season, and the road ahead. That’s what people voted with their feet for and set the blood pumping.