Manchester is a city of contrasts. Located about 3 hours northwest of London in the middle of the country, Manchester is a blue-collar town with incredibly up-market shopping. It’s a city of tatty terra-cotta-clad Victorian hotels, standing next to even tattier 1970’s concrete-block office towers. It’s a city that fancies itself as the Chicago of Britain, but is really more like Albany.
To historians, Manchester is important as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels visited here before they wrote The Communist Manifesto. Indeed, this is the only place I’ve ever been that has a pointedly left-wing “worker’s rights” museum. Aimed mostly at grade-school kids, you get a ballot card as you enter the People’s History Museum, and as you wander through the exhibits, there are voting machines with yes-or-no questions like “Will people have better working conditions in the future?”, “Does it take a special type of person to affect change?” or “Do you trust everything the government tells you?” In the setting of a museum dedicated to organized labor, there are clearly some “right” and “wrong” answers to these questions, and it’s not surprising that the tote board in the front shows a bias toward the left-leaning responses (although not as strong a bias as you’d expect). A frightening number of folks answered “no” to “Is it important to gather all the facts before you make a decision?” But, that does explain a lot about the world.
More recent history is marked by two more contrasts: bombs and pop bands. (Not to mention pop bands that bombed.) On the “bomb” front, the IRA exploded a bomb in the middle of downtown in 1996. Unlike al-Quaeda, they were gentlemanly enough to issue a warning first so nobody got killed. But there was a lot of property damage (and a few injuries from broken glass). The town has been rebuilding it’s downtown ever since, and quite frankly, they’ve made so many glorious improvements that more than one Manc has suggested that the bomb was far more affective as a force for urban renewal than as a political protest.
On the pop bands front, you can blame Manchester for all of the following: Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, The Chemical Brothers, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Fall, Simply Red, Take That, Oasis, Badly Drawn Boy, and yes… Morrissey.
To everyone other than historians, Manchester is known for two more contrasting things: Football (“soccer” to you Yanks) and gays. (Not that there aren’t any gay football fans out there.) The city is of course home to Manchester United, as well as Manchester City. Man-U is essentially the New York Yankees of British football, the team that always attracts the best players and has the biggest following. Man-City is more the local team (although they still have a huge fan-base). On the weekend we were there, Man-U was playing Chelsea for the premiership. They lost, 0-3. And, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth (not to mention binge drinking).
Over on Canal Street (which is famous in the opening-credits of the British version of Queer As Folk for having the leading “C” rubbed out), the party mood was unchanged. Manchester has the largest gay population in the UK outside of London. When we stopped into the city visitor’s bureau, we were handed a map with the city broken down into color-coded sections… “Chinatown”, “Central Shopping Area”, and plain-as-day, “Gay Village”. If a Communist-leaning labor museum was hard to believe for an American, this was even weirder. It’s so matter-of-fact. Not like Greenwich Village in New York. The was the Gay Village, no other name needed. For a town so wrapped up in macho football-hooligan bravado and “chav” culture, finding the gay population clearly outlined on a map was a little surprising. But I suppose it’s just as in-your-face as everything else in this city. As for the clubs, I’m sorry to report they’re all getting overrun with gangs of drunk straight women who want to be able to ogle and drool over hot guys without worrying about getting hit on (or any other “straight guy” consequences). Suddenly, I understood why the clubs in Vancouver, BC have a door policy that requires women to be accompanied by men. They’re taking over!
In any event, Manchester was a lot of fun. The museums were hit-and-miss. The people were loud and rather “American”. And the shoppingwas kind of Vegas. All-in-all, an amusing side-trip, but not somewhere to go out of your way for… unless you’re a gay, Commie, pop-singing football hooligan. Then, it’s heaven.
More info: Visit Manchester