Manchester is dead, long live Manchester

You either mythologise or demythologise the place where you grew up, or you do both at different times, and/or both the same time. I was aware in the late nineties that my birthplace was somewhat cool in the eyes of outsiders, the media, and in a more complex way, of its own natives. The era was a sort of fake sixties in the sense that the provinces and the working class attracted consideration and patronage. Most of the real things still happened in London, but there was an increasing awareness that things had happened and could potentially happen again in places like Manchester. People went there to see what it was like; they came from down south to go to the university, or from other parts of the north, to reinvent themselves without spending too much money in the process. You went to London to find fame; you went to Manchester to find…cheap records and cheaper beer, mostly.

I used to buy a child ticket on the Metrolink, (or sometimes ‘jump the tram’) and go exploring; this involved talking to tramps near Market Street and Piccadilly Gardens, loitering around the stalls of Affleck’s Palace and the Coliseum, reading books  and pamphlets in Central Library, going to pubs while underage and – strictly during the daylight hours, an expedition to porn and pet-shop strewn wastelands of Tibb Street. Of honourable mention are The Queer As Folk era Gay Village, with its tourists and bitter old queens, The Curry Mile when most of its customers were still students and even Deansgate, when the well-dressed, striding people there were still a bit tipsy and/or coked-up and not at all perfect or health-conscious. My activities were limited by my age, disposition and imagination, but I did get a taste for the ‘characters’ of the place post-Britpop but pre-gentrification.  There were the guys who lived (back then, voluntarily) in tents near the canal who tried to chat me up, and they guy who ran a stall selling prints of his own ‘sensual’ artwork (a bit like Klimt if he lived in Hebden Bridge instead of Vienna) who tried to chat me up, the paraplegic comic book collector and his cross-dressing friend who bought me cups of tea and tried to chat me up, the serene goths in Grand Central (who can still be found) the alcoholic early-afternoon karaoke crooners who tried to chat me up, and the guy who ran a military bookshop where poets and journalists would gather to drink cups of tea and gossip about all the other local ‘characters’ (who had far too much class to try chat me up, which is nice because I was fifteen-years-old). It was all men in filthy macs, lost souls coming down from the other night’s rave, people in the SWP and other cults: all those little bands, businesses and personalities amounting to a beautiful, rain-soaked insubstantiality. Later on, I’d return there on leave from the University of Leeds and see the Crazy Bus Lady, the Albino Rabbit Guy and a lot of quite derivative bands (again). It would involve ‘crashing’ in some undecorated but spacious, shared Victorian house in the south of the city, while frazzled, failing to connect with the man I was ‘seeing’, and wondering what all of this would make of me.

The take home was that it’s very possible to waste a lot of potential for a long time. This made me panic; how do you work out what to do when nobody else (interesting as they are) seems to know what they are doing? Then as I got older and more employed, I learned something else: people with a lot of money and confidence will act and bring in their own changes while the more interesting people are busy faffing about.  That is what has happened to my city, the place where I have ancestors who were there at the same time as Thomas De Quincey.

And so on to the hipsterfication of what was once seedy and slightly dangerous about Manchester. This change has not been wholly negative, although at first it seemed as outrageous as your dad getting first tattoo at nearly sixty years of age, or your strait-laced friend getting into swinging and MDMA. When you walked around the Oldham Road/Tibb Street area and saw all the beard grooming parlours, shops selling ethical furniture and restaurants selling diner food and craft beers, the initial reaction was one of mourning. Well, at least it was if you had any emotional attachment to bohemian Manchester as it used to be. Everything and everyone seemed so safe; they avoid eye contact, they elongate the letter a, (The Castle Hotel firmly became the Carstle Hotel) they have oversized tattoos and their shoes cost the same as your monthly rent. You think they would look at you like dirt if you were relevant enough for them to look at you. Except this is all in your head, you remind yourself; they are young, probably insecure because everyone is, and they are away from home. Like the British expats in Lanzarote or the Costas, they are doing what they need to do to feel comfortable – or rather, their money is following them and doing it for them.

Still, how dare they do this to Manchester, of all places! The birthplace of socialism, women’s suffrage, the computer and 90s girl group, Cleopatra! How dare they bring their beard oil up from Hoxton and rub it all over everything you love! The highlight of this outrage for me was Chorlton Beer Festival 2014, where everything I saw made me want to stick people’s heads down the chemical toilets, throw their dogs on the barbecue and where every beer tasted like pure, unfiltered hatred brewed especially by Satan Himself. If this sounds hysterical, my normally easygoing Mum met me for lunch there are year ago and she said, ‘it’s like you’re not even in the north anymore, let alone Manchester.’

There has recently been a change, though: as of 2016, our times are more interesting, so the even the boring, bourgeois youngish people are more interesting. At a craft fair recently, I walked past stall after stall of the most earnest cakes, samosas, keyrings, candles and houseplants. There were rainbow unicorns, Day of the Dead skulls, woodland creatures carved from wood and posters with the Factory Records typesetting in every corner. These have become the joyful cliches of hipsterism; they are rather like the sequined dresses, pyrotechnics and lyrics that have been run through Google Translate at the Eurovision Song Contest – meant to be embraced with the tacky glee with which they were produced. There were all these entrepreneurs who were obviously doing it out of love of craft more than love of money or for their ‘branded’ selves. I thought, ‘Was it really all that good in the old days? I mean a lot of the bands were just vanity projects and many of the eccentrics were people with mental health issues.  It was probably highly intimidating to those who did not regard it as the natural muck from which genius may (but mostly did not) spring.  I remember it being democratic in the sense it was the same rubbish that was available to all, but was it really inclusive to people who were not basically rough?’ There is possibly more creativity in the Northern Quarter now than fifteen years ago, if you define creativity strictly as people creating things, rather than as people taking substances and messing themselves up.

Yet there is plenty of that, as well, unofficially. As the rate of homelessness in Manchester has soared, the Northern Quarter has been the stage on which a tableau representing the uneasy contrasts of late capitalism is arranged.  Artfully-ramshackle people with considerable parental means walk upright, with only their lower bodies moving, and their faces full of the type of determination you mainly see on portraits of Lenin or Jeremy Corbyn, straight past the near-cadavers lying in many of the doorways. Thanks to the artificial cannabinoids known as Spice, these homeless men and women often seem to be circling oblivion like spat-out mouthwash going around a plughole. This spectacle is troubling enough in a space like Market Street, where every category of Mancunian and visitor makes an appearance, but in the Northern Quarter it takes on a special resonance with regards to the future for Generation Y and large chunks of Generation X. What will we make of this city and this country when it is finally passed down to them, if this is how polarised they are in material and social terms?

The most chilling form of hipsterism is not unique to Manchester at all. Kyle Chayka, writing for The Guardian, refers to it as AirSpace, which is a globalised hipster aesthetic informed by the wishes of an international set of people who often stay in Airbnb properties. He says the AirSpace style is characterised by ‘an easily recognisable mix of symbols – like reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting.’ These symbols are intended to reassure and flatter a class of people, the youngish bourgeois of the ‘creative industries’, that they are in their own natural territory, and that their desires for both familiarity and the impression authenticity are being accommodated. These desires seem to be in conflict until you realise that in this globalised world of surface impressions, merely the impression of authenticity is sought, and merely the impression of anything is all that is recognised. Inauthentic authenticity is the perfect aesthetic of our current crazy house world, and if Manchester is to become the international city it aims to be, it shall have an ample serving of this style.  The reason this is worrying is because it is the generic pall of globalised fashion and globalised inequality, where once there was local, regional gaucheness and admittedly-ineffective attempts to achieve if not equality, at least inclusiveness.

Still, as the ‘Tuck Frump’ graffiti is flung upon the brickwork, as the latter-day artisans make harvest mouse-shaped lamps out of old radiators, and as the many-gendered, pastel-haired couples hold hands on the cobbles, the watermarks of counterculture are beginning to reveal themselves. Hipsterism is not one thing and its defining generation is as complex as the times in which they live. Spring is coming, the shit is hitting the fan politically, hipsters are becoming an established part of this grand, shabby city and we will all have to learn to coexist despite a social climate that insists we cannot. My generation, hipster or otherwise, are going to have to not only fight for the choices to which many of them have always felt entitled, but also analyse what those choices mean, and whether or not they were the ones who actually made them in the first place. When they do this, they might just earn the right to occupy my former stomping ground.