'Time was on a Sunday you’d have more chance of getting a bottle of poppers or a rare white label 12-inch than a pint of milk...'
What’s your name?
Jerome de Groot, or if you want to be picky about details, Dr Jerome Edward Gerard de Groot, BA MA PhD FRHist … (ha!)
What do you do?
I teach English Literature at the University of Manchester where I’m also Head of a Graduate School, and I’m Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Manchester Literature Festival.
Where do you live?
Slap bang in the middle of everything, just behind Debenhams, edge of the Northern Quarter, having been there from when ‘Northern Quarter’ was just a phrase dreamt up by estate agents and the city marketing department. Time was on a Sunday you’d have more chance of getting a bottle of poppers or a rare white label 12-inch than a pint of milk. That said, the place is still hopping and I’d struggle to live anywhere else. There are new bars, cafes and oddities every week or so, and the place has yet to suffer the kind of corporate bl/rands that somewhere like Hoxton or the Lower East Side or parts of Berlin (all places that are pretty similar – cheap, warehousey, marginal, urban spaces) have succumbed to. I blame / applaud the financial downturn from 2008 for saving the place from Revolution and Costa Coffee. Look at Spinningfields to see how a place can be drained of any semblance of character. The Northern Quarter is relatively unique in the UK – if you go to other cities, particularly in the North, you’d struggle to find anywhere like it. Everywhere you see places (Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool, even Hull) struggling to ‘make’ a similar thing happen, with limited success.
Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester
I came to Manchester twice, both times pretty much by chance. My profession is deeply competitive, there aren’t many positions so you go where you’re lucky enough to get work. I had a temporary job at the University of Huddersfield in 2001–2 so I lived off Whitworth Street and commuted across the Pennines. Ah, Manchester a decade ago, so innocent and full of fun… I used to go to Sankeys, the Cornerhouse, Mr Thomas’s, Legends, Temple, Tampopo, Rainbar (!) … well, not much has changed I guess. I mourn City Life and the Bridge and Zumbar and Spirit and Manto and Fat Cat and Music Box and Le Petit Blanc and Love Saves The Day and the Green Room and Atlas when it was good and Man City when they were rubbish, but it’s surprising just how much abides (some of it against all the odds …)
I got my job at Manchester in 2004, having taught at various other places (Keele, Bangor, Dublin) so I was pleased to be able to settle down a bit. My girlfriend is a Professor at the University of Salford so we’re solid in the city (even this is pretty unusual amongst academic couples). I’m astoundingly lucky – my department is brilliant, my students are great, the city is awesome – and I could have ended up anywhere from Leeds to Brighton to Aberystwyth to Dundee. Good places, all of them, for one reason and another, but none of them holds a candle to this city.
I’m interested in the fact this series is called ‘Residents’ – the kind of peripatetic feel of the city (despite strong ties) is one of its strengths. There are people from around the world here doing fun, crazy, challenging and innovative things. It is also a problem, maybe. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of ‘proper’ Mancs I know well and I’m not sure that I have any real sense of the city – its sprawl, its horror, its violence. You only have to cycle North, East, or West of the city centre, or just visit a hospital, to see a set of communities I have very little contact with or common ground with. It’s a pretty grim place to live for most people, and the shocked reaction of most city-centre (read: middle-class or at least on their way to it) ‘residents’ to the riots last year demonstrated this pretty well. The dislocation between those who find themselves here by choice and the fragmented, alienated local communities is set to get worse as gentrification continues (although, again, if you look at the disaster that was the CHiPS Building/Ancoats development then again maybe the credit crunch wasn’t the worse thing that happened to the city…)
What’s great about this city?
Having said all that….!: radicalism, history, mayhem, not-giving-a-shit, brashness, elegance, generosity, friendship. I love how this, above nearly all cities I know (apart from New York I guess) celebrates itself – where else would you go to a neighbourhood café with pictures all over the wall of entirely local musicians, or be berated at every turn about how much Manchester ‘hearts’ itself? Even the cultural institutions, from the People’s History Museum to the Museum of Science and Industry to the Manchester International Festival to Urbis (as was), are predicated on the fact that Manchester is uniquely important. Moreover, they’re RIGHT! Without Manchester (see below) you’d have no feminism, Marxism, urbanism, pink pound, computer, indie music, railway, cooperative movement, radio telescopes, dance music. I may be stretching this a little of course but as Steve Coogan / Tony Wilson says in 24-hour Party People, I suffer from an excess of civic pride.
All this might be seen to be good and bad in maybe equal measure but it’s pretty unusual to say the least. I’ve lived in Liverpool and Newcastle and Dublin, all top cities, but none of them as open to a stranger’s right to civic pride, and none of them nearly so brash about it.
Also: brilliant people willing to support stuff from the Hallé to Kraak to the Literature Festival to the Contact to HomoElectric to Pride to the Jazz Festival. It is about as diverse a place as you can find in the UK.
What’s not so great?
No parks in the middle. There are some brilliant parks (Heaton, Platt Fields) but the centre is just cluttered and a bit grim at times. Where do you cycle/run/sit in the sunshine? Piccadilly Gardens, as everyone who lives here knows, is hilariously horrible. Culturally: the theatre is pretty shocking here, art has fallen way behind Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle (not to mention London).
Do you have a favourite Manchester building?
Not a building, a statue. The Lincoln Statue in Lincoln Square is lovely and stirring, but the reason for the statue is even better. It’s there to celebrate the support that the people of Manchester – a city dependent on cotton, remember – gave to Lincoln’s cause during the American Civil War. While there is evidence that the businessmen of the city weren’t so keen on the conflict (they looked to source cotton from increasingly far-flung parts of the world to keep their industry going) the idea, which might just be made up, of celebrating empathy and solidarity, as well as abolition, in the face of economic necessity and hardship is AMAZING. It’s something that’s in the DNA of the city and should be celebrated; it makes me well up every time I walk past it.
Other favourite statues are Gladstone in Albert Square doing his John Travolta dance, Victoria in Piccadilly, Robert Owen outside the Co-Op, and Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park (itself controversial, and already moved once – the rumour is he’s coming back into town). The fact there isn’t a proper memorial to Peterloo or the first Suffragette protest is just shocking.
I like Joddrell Bank, too, but it isn’t as mawkish/cool. I like Victoria Station and the CIS Tower, the Imperial War Museum, and Central Library, and the Town Hall, and the Palace Hotel. I’m being greedy…
Horrors: that Wall, the Light House, University Place, the Mark Addy (though it has a kind of grim charm), the Lowry and The Lowry Hotel, the Hilton, that odd bar in front of the Great Northern, Old Trafford (but then I would say that), 1 Piccadilly Gardens, etc. etc. etc. …
Do you have a favourite Mancunian?
Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst / Alan Turing / Elizabeth Gaskell / Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels / John Dalton / Morrissey and Marr / Chris Ofili / Jeanette Winterson / Joan Littlewood / Ian Brown / Chris Hoy / Sarah Harding / Robert Owen / George Best / Christopher Eccleston / John Dee / Bernard Sumner / C. P. Scott / Jackie Kay / Mark E. Smith / Anthony Burgess / Shelagh Delaney / Ernest Rutherford / Maxine Peake / Charles Halle / A Guy Called Gerald / Mike Leigh / Ian Curtis / James Prescott Joule / Shaun William Ryder / Les Dawson / Caroline Aherne / Val McDermid / Bet Lynch / Ewan MacColl / Harold Evans / Amir Kahn / Can I have Bob Dylan and the Pistols, too? [no] / Thomas de Quincey / John Cooper Clarke / Joan Bakewell / Sheila Rowbotham / Alison Uttley / John Thaw / Paul Abbott …
Okay, not all are born and bred Mancs (and some are from Salford/Bolton / Stockport / Bury), but that’s kind of the point of this place, right? A special shout-out to Tony Lloyd MP, who is principled and kind and funny and astute and left-wing and everything a Labour MP ought to be.
What’s your favourite pub / bar / club / restaurant / park / venue?
Mr Thomas’s and Sam’s Chop House, Common, HomoElectric , Keep It Unreal, Charlie’s, Legends, The Bay Horse, Drunk At Vogue (I have to say that, right?), the Ritz, Ho’s Bakery, Tampopo, the French Restaurant at the Midland (hilariously expensive but lots of fun), Cornerhouse, The Castle, Hunter’s BBQ, Leo’s Fish Bar (the one on Oldham St, I’d be lying if I denied that I spend much time there), Red Chilli, Bugged Out, The Hillary Step, The Gas Lamp, Greens, Academy 3, Kraak, Corridor Bar, Oklahoma, Castlefield Arena.
I’ve mentioned parks already. In terms of outside-ness the canals are equally lovely and horrible. I go to the Sand Bar a lot after I play football every week. But it is also about things changing – I just went to this newish Korean place (Ban Di Bul) by the Town Hall and it’s great. More please!
What do you think is missing from Manchester?
Decent social housing, joined-up thinking (although the council does pretty well in many things, to give it its due, and in present circumstances is making a decent-ish job of telling the government to go fuck itself), more green space, bike lanes, a good Jewish deli, a Biennial.
If I was Mayor for a day I would….
Put up a memorial to Peterloo and knock down the building next to mine that blocks out the sun.
Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?
You won’t get them, but: Tom Bloxham (CEO of Urban Splash), Chris Oglesby (CEO, Bruntwood), Peter Marks (Group CEO, Cooperative Group), Sir Richard Leese (Leader of Manchester City Council). No prejudice, I’d like them all to explain what they think about Manchester without the usual platitudes and havering – most of them are the folk that really have an influence on the fabric of the city.
In their – probable! – absence, Maria Balshaw (Director of the Whitworth Gallery) or the one and only Matthew Frost.
Jerome's book Consuming History is published by Routledge.