What’s your name?
What do you do?
I ‘facilitate learning’ in Film Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. I’m there because I ran away from reality and went to university in 1991 when I was 27. The ‘90s was a decade when absolutely nothing of note happened so I ended up staying at university until 1999 by which time I’d accidentally specialised myself out of all usefulness. My job is almost entirely teaching and admin-driven lunacy but I’d rather be working here at Oxford Road Comp. than down the road at the Chorlton-on-Medlock Finishing School for Daintie Gentel-folke. Every now and again I accidentally stumble into a meaningful teaching-related encounter.
Where do you live?
In a small off-white box in the dormitory-‘burb of Hulme. Newsflash: Hulme lacks charm. It is reassuringly bland, aside from the bile-green luminescence of Asda. After ten years I still can’t find my way around but I don’t think I’ve missed anything. I’m being mean: it’s handy for town, I sometimes see the sparrow hawk whooshing over the university, and last month I belatedly discovered ‘Kim by the Sea’. The pizza was good, the drinks were good, the décor was good, the clientele looked ‘characterful’. It’s a fab place: check it out.
Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.
I finally left Newcastle in 1999 when I got a lecturing job in Bangor. I thought I liked the countryside. I still miss a lot about North Wales and I go back there all the time, but the ‘Bangorness’ of Bangor caused me to seek out Manchester, it being the nearest place with anything worthy of the name ‘shop’. A gradual relocation happened – just weekends at first – and I’ve been based here for about a decade now.
What’s great about this city?
When I settled in Manchester I thought I’d found the area I wanted to live my life in. I loved the splurging Gothic buildings, the wide streets, the mess (Newcastle is a more classically-restrained gem). I loved the size of Manchester, it seemed manageable: small enough to get about on foot but big enough not to be able to do everything in. I used to have a theory that since London is a city-state unto itself and since it is easily the least English place in England, that Manchester exists as the greatest English city. I love its Northernness too. When you come from Newcastle you are taught that Geordies are (a) everywhere, (b) special and (c) the friendliest people on earth. All I can say is that I lived there for thirty five years, during which time not a single stranger enjoined me in civil conversation. When I moved to Manchester and used to do Saturday morning grocery shopping in Stretford Arndale I had to factor in an extra thirty per cent of time for chatting to women about frozen peas.
What Manchester does best is probably music. For gigs of all sorts, in so many diverse venues, it’s hard to beat. Even at the posh end it has two full symphony orchestras, and when Mark Elder is conducting the Hallé you won’t find a finer orchestra on the planet. There’s been a cluster of club nights over the last ten years which have meant quite a bit to me. I loved being in dank smoky cellars dancing forever while second-hand sweat dripped off overhead pipes. I loved not being able to find my way about at HomoElectric in Legends. I loved it when Club Suicide ran out of beer. Recently I’ve loved nights at Kraak. None of these places were ever my natural habitat though. I don’t go to gigs as often as I used to and I tired of damp cellars – without the smoke you can only smell the mould and the toilets. It’s nice to know these places are there though, and I still get excited for other people when I see them wandering, vaguely lost, down Oxford Road, looking for the Academy.
Most of these feelings hold firm but I sometimes find Manchester a bit limited. I’m often scuttling around the city at a loose end, pining for London (which I find more relaxed, more playful, less psychotic). Conversely, I sometimes find Manchester a little too big and crave somewhere rustic with sky, trees, birdsong…
What’s not so great?
Dear Manchester, your theatre’s rubbish. I’m not sure I’m allowed to say this, perhaps native Mancunians have a reverence for it knitted into their genes ab initio, but (and it pains me to say) The Royal Exchange is fingernail-pullingly rubbish –or to be more precise, dutifully mediocre. The space is awful; it’s almost invariably badly used; the programming couldn’t be duller; and in ten years of patience I’ve seen only two worthwhile (i.e. memorable) productions there (Twelfth Night and the damn-good Matthew Dunster’s Macbeth). It was after an arduous production of Dr Faustus a few years ago that I pledged to never set foot in the place again. A fit of pique perhaps, but my god it was awful. Go to the Liverpool Playhouse/Everyman instead, one of the most exciting regional theatres in the country. Or if you’ve got about twelve hours to spare, engage with the eastward evening traffic and head over the hills to Sheffield. Go to Leeds even, the ‘South of the North’, and try the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Even Stratford is do-able. Let’s hope the revamped Library Theatre will kick-start something. Remember, this city was once home to Annie Horniman and Joan Littlewood!
Piccadilly Gardens. Okay, maybe Manchester isn’t meant to be attractive as a whole; individual buildings are breathtaking but it’s flatly featureless – a City on the Plains – and it’s the dirtiest, most litter-strewn place I can think of, where men piss in the streets with neither anxiety nor regret. But seriously, what collective mental meltdown happened at the Town Hall the day they signed off Piccadilly Gardens? Concrete over most of the only patch of grass in the city: saves on mowers, bulb-planers, pruners... Build a drab office on part of it: it’s a way of grabbing cash and Kro needed to go somewhere, so appealing is Danish cuisine. Stick what I think is a fountain there: it might be the only wash that some of those feral spawnings ever get. But I can’t imagine anywhere in the world, from Albania to North Korea, has anything as unremittingly bleak as that concrete wall. Palestine, maybe? The pissoirs say it all: are they for weeping into? If I ever had a soul, Piccadilly Gardens has destroyed it. Did any of you see Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang at the Manchester International Festival? Did you hear the collective tear-inducing, bosom-clenching gasp of nostalgia from ladies of a certain age when they screened Kodak slides of Piccadilly Gardens in the 1950s? Those flowers survived the Luftwaffe but like foot-soldiers they fell under the lumpen philistine boots of Manchester’s governors. Shame on them.
Do you have a favourite Manchester building?
I paused a week before answering this, and it needed a walk around the city before the reply towered before me. It’s The Town Hall. It’s vulgar, it screams, it’s obvious, it’s magnificent, and life’s too short for anything other than magnificent, screaming, obvious vulgarity.
Do you have a favourite Mancunian?
This is a tricky question now the Market Street Mincer has minced away, and obviously I never actually spoke to him. An acid-spangled madman with thinning hair and a baggy vest used to turn up on his own and dance ‘uniquely’ everywhere I seemed to be. He was another sight for glad eyes but I don’t know who he was. Google turned up a few good folk, namely Thomas Beecham, John Dee and Alan Turing. Alfred Wainwright gave me the Lake District. Tony Wilson only ever made my spirits rise. I miss hearing his voice. I chatted to him once about biscuits. That said, long-cloistered consideration leads me to the conclusion that this city’s greatest contribution to world happiness came in the squat and lugubrious shape of a comedian, decades ahead of his time; a poet, a craftsman, and a joy: Mr Les Dawson.
What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?
This is the hardest question. I’ll name-check Chorlton and Sale Water Parks, they make my heart skidaddle nicely. None of the venues or restaurants I can think of tick every box, though if Greens was around the corner I’d be there weekly. Port Street Beer House and the Molly House are the places I’d take a visitor. Because it’s topical and because it’s the place I’ve been most often I have to mention Legends. It would be sad if it left us but I really do believe that a building is just a building, that there’s always another building, and that people maketh the venue.
What do you think is missing from Manchester?
Manchester is the world’s only arctic monsoon district so it would be fantastical to suggest ‘relaxing beer gardens serving gastro-food’. For my money what Manchester needs most is a nice park in the city centre. We only have about four trees. It’s also missing a sensible transport policy (why people voted against the congestion charge is beyond me). Can we please have no private traffic on Oxford Road and an integrated bus service?
If I was Mayor for a day I would...
I wouldn’t seek this position out, but were civic puissance thrust upon me I’d give generous grants to Nick’s Fruit and Veg Stall on Oxford Road and to any outlets selling only vegetarian food and/or second hand clothes and to anywhere screening films made for grown-ups. I’d give Manchester a permanent weekly open-air market-place and double the rates on every litter-producing fast-food shit-hole. And I’d sort out the Old Fire Station travesty on London Road, at gunpoint if necessary.
Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?
Bren O’Callaghan at the Cornerhouse.
Andrew’s book Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces is published with I.B. Tauris. He is also co-editor of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-maker (BFI). He is currently writing a book on gay cinema.