Saturday, 7 September 2013

‘Manchester: In Residents’ … #26 Hayley

‘I'd open all of the closed doors of the city…’

What’s your name?

Hayley Flynn

What do you do?

I used to work in finance, then advertising, then I realised I couldn't do any of those things for the rest of my twenties, much less the rest of my life so I quit and started to write about the unusual architecture and history of Manchester. And so my blog Skyliner was created, and now I do everything else that goes hand in hand with that; researcher, curator, location scout, and I've just signed a book deal too.

Where do you live?

Whalley Range, on that kind of periphery some people like to call the ‘Chorlton Border’. The house I'm living in right now is owned by a dentist so we have a dentist chair in the dining room, and from the bathroom window I can see the beautiful old college (now the British Muslim Heritage Centre) poking out amongst the tree tops.  I still can't believe such a behemoth of a building exists in the suburbs – I like to pretend I'm living in the shadows of a castle.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.

As a child I was very studious and loved to learn, I never lost that love of learning but I rebelled against the enforced structure of school and I guess I went a little off the rails and did pretty poorly in my exams. All my choices from then on were a reaction to that; I chose a college course that seemed the most likely to end in a sensible job but which ultimately I hated – I failed to turn up nine times out of ten and I was kicked off the course a few months before the end. I lied about that then landed an office job but I could never shake the nagging thought of ‘you have to do this for the rest of your life’. When my dad died when I was nineteen I used the little inheritance I had to go to Australia for a year. Manchester was just the first place I secured a temping job on my return. Nothing clicked when I got here; my work still made me unhappy and I was in a bad relationship but those things prompted me to go back to college in the evenings and do a course that stimulated me, not one that had the promise of a job at the end of it – and what do you know, I got full marks on almost every exam. That was when I realised I had to do what made me happy or I'd fail, and that's when I became a kind of student of the city. You have to live like a tourist in your own home or it's wasted on you.

What’s great about this city?

It's tiny so you take the time to appreciate every part of it, the suburbs as well as the city. I love how the Salford border lies just behind Deansgate, there's something quite alluring about the River Irwell and that side of the city. Parsonage Gardens is an oasis and it's really what St Peter's Square (a conservation area) should be like – timeless, peaceful, and surrounded by stunning architecture. I love the stillness and almost dystopian feel of Pomona. I'm generally enamoured by wasteland spaces and the alternative countrysides of a city.

What’s not so great?

It's being bulldozed into oblivion – the council do not value our heritage. Century House is being demolished because the windows are too small… ummm, I beg your pardon? Surely making them bigger is the better option but instead they're going to demolish the entire building to replace it with an Ian Simpson greenhouse. Compare our skyline to that of Liverpool. Which one would you proudly show off to a visitor to the UK? This is going to be a very sad-looking city a generation from now.

The divisions of the city baffle me, the way people stay in the same part of town. I'm trying to open people’s eyes to the beauty outside of the Northern Quarter. I think the spread of a few new bars to the Peter Street area of town will help. I love the roof and the intricacies of Barton Arcade, and yet it's little more than a ghost arcade, it should be our version of Leeds' Victoria Quarter. Something is amiss when we can't put a location as pretty and as central as that to good use.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

I'm far too capricious to have just one, so to choose at random I'd say the former Refuge Assurance Building (now the Palace Hotel). The building is decorated with lots of symbols of refuge such as castles and boats, but it's the maze-like interior that enraptures me. You can walk around in there all day and never see the same room twice – that’s something you don't really get in modern buildings, and even the hotel owners didn't know there was an orchestra pit in the basement when they bought it. There's a tiny roof terrace that I like to go and sit on at dusk and watch the bats circle the clock tower. There's a room you can cut through to get to the bedrooms that's full of old wooden safes, and once upon a time the building had a series of pneumatic tubes used for delivering messages. It's wonderful. It's my favourite place to waste an hour or two.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

I'd like to cheat a little here and name my favourite type of Mancunian and that is a building concierge who loves their building. There's nothing better. They're excited to share what they know and love with a new audience, they lie dormant waiting for someone to say, ‘Show me around, tell me what you know!’, and then they spark into life as tour guides. They're a rare breed, you're more likely to find the other kind, the ones that eye you with suspicion for even showing an interest and scornfully shoo you away, but they are out there and they won't work forever so go and find them, question them, and record what they tell you!

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

I've been waiting a long time for the Lower Turks Head to reopen and they've done a lovely job so that's a current favourite, and The Cornerhouse is very special to me (I hope the stories I hear of it being demolished when they relocate aren't true).

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

I've always thought it was odd how Chorlton doesn't have a little independent cinema, that's my lottery winning plan, to set one up. There needs to be a film academy for teenagers, more internet cafes, hostels and places for a younger tourist market. We focus on football tourism too heavily. I'd like a little more life bringing to Ancoats too. Of course, we need a council that doesn't want to flatten the city first, but I suspect I'll be wishing for that for a long time to come.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

… fire a lot of people in charge of Manchester heritage and then I'd visit artist studios around the city and nominate their residents to take care of the city's planning department. Then I'd open all of the closed doors of the city.

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

Paul Costello, the lifelong concierge of the Mercure Hotel.

Hayley runs semi-regular tours looking at street art, hidden art, unusual features of the city and secret locations, including tours of the Godlee Observatory for Manchester Science Festival. New and exciting locations and tours are coming soon. Hayley is forever on the lookout for new collaborations with photographers, artists, writers, and anyone with interesting stories and information about Manchester. Check out her award-winning Skyliner blog.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


Tuscany... even the word is a kind of dreamy homophone for ‘dusk and honey’ – and honey is near enough a decent simile for the light too. There’s something about the way the sun meets the earth there that lets you see ‘the shape of the day', as our wonderful host Claudia put it. But the light… it's the light that my Aunt had told me she couldn’t describe, and here I am, not describing it for her…

But first, Rome…

On my previous trip to Rome, the tour guide delighted in telling us that we’d arrived on the rainiest weekend for fifty years.  Everything was sticky and grey, and even the Trevi Fountain couldn’t make itself heard above the torrent. There was a certain romance watching rain douse the sides of the Colosseum but mostly it was a false start for me and Rome.

This time though, the sun is out, and twenty four hours of hot Roman holiday await. Katie and Eddie meet me off the train, already looking like accomplished locals, all shiny and brunette. We are borrowing a beautiful apartment for the night which is stuffed with Proust in Italian translation and shelves of orchestral vinyl. Our street is just by the Michelangelo-designed Porta Pia, a sixteenth-century gate in the city walls that was commissioned by Pius IV. It is a very important gate in Rome because it leads you to the street where you encounter the best ice cream of your life. For me this was mascarpone and latte in one scoop, pistachio in the other, a topping of freshly whipped and sweetened cream that tasted of nougat, and all presented in a crisp, waffle-textured cone that was filled to halfway with warm, melted dark chocolate.

The Trevi at dusk works its magic this time, though the mass of people make it feel like the entrance to a particularly lovely stop on the Metropolitana. Al fresco pizza, red wine and an early night. We’re up bright and early to beat the crowds to the Colosseum. You have to imagine the roar of the throng as you walk through the stone entrance. Inside is both partially constructed and pleasingly derelict. The audio guide is a good way to go about things, especially if you’re adept at reading between the lines…

The history of the Colosseum is also the story of the Empire itself. Current affairs were acted out in the amphitheatre like dramatised newscasts. When a whale beached up on the coast, a wooden whale was hastily built to be paraded around the stage. Before the astonished crowds it opened its mouth and out tumbled dozens of live bears. The subsequent fortunes of the Colosseum mirrored the changing Rome and all manner of bloodshed and worship, theatrics and morality plays,  squatters and gay cruisers (not on the audio guide), found a home inside its walls over the centuries. Preservation and audio guides seem a tame future in comparison.

On the train to Arezzo I start reading A Room With A View. It’s my first (and so far only) Forster, downloaded in a hurry to the Kindle, but it could not have been better chosen. Almost immediately the sensation of being in this part of Italy is there on the page (or rather, on the screen). From the station we drive through lush country and into the hills that border Tuscany and the oddly English-sounding Umbria. The first view of the house is a thrill and I’m already drafting some or other novel about an impossibly spoiled girl and her Italian summer of self-discovery.

In the morning I open the shutters to a fug of lavender and a little hornet bouncing off the window. His buzz gives way to a guitar being tuned somewhere which mingles with the hum of farm machinery from across the valley. Everything is like this – musical and hypnotic. It’s hard to remember ever being tetchy and cross back home. I am very lucky to be here.

Forster fever peaks on a day trip to Florence. We pass the ‘View’ of the title and the probable location of the pensione. I have already learned that our hosts and friends once stayed in the room in Paris where Forster worked on the novel.  Not only that but they are also a family from Tunbridge Wells, as in the novel, though infinitely less prickly of course. The tourists move in packs of forty and fifty through Florence, it is a difficult town to negotiate, but there is more ice cream and coffee to be had, and all the greatest Italians are in the ground somewhere and in the atmosphere.

On my morning run next day I meet a deer that rattles its antlers on the tree when it sees me. When I dive into the pool back at the house to cool off, there is a tiny frog doing lengths. I write the first draft of this piece on the terrace at the back of the house, looking down past the swimming pool and over the fields to the town of Montherci. There is a very precise little lizard poised inside my discarded sandal and the cicada that lives in the tree above has started its mechanical chirrup for the evening. When it goes dark we can see a firefly in the foliage, lonesome and hovering. It is the same colour as Venus, the brightest thing in the sky.