Midday in Manchester; streetlamps lit. The overcast gloom was a mental association, acquired thanks to Morrissey and co, satisfyingly confirmed as I was transported through a city whose psychogeography was already etched deep into my mind and which was later reinforced by Valette’s magnificently bleak canvasses. Names like Strangeways, Rusholme and Salford all held specific emotional resonances despite my never having visited them; but this was about to change thanks to the happy alignment of dirt-cheap Ryanair flights and two weeks school-free because of the Herbstferien. I trundle along on a Metrolink tram. Used to the depersonalised tannoy assertions of “Nächste Haltestelle x” in Hamburg, I’m warmed by the comparatively wordy announcements delivered in here in an authentic Mancunian.
Some part of me needed to justify this trip on grounds more solid than the convergence of variables. Although I regard myself tolerant and open to diverse cultures I’m not particularly travelled. How can one fully accept/reject or comprehend what you’ve never encountered first hand? It was a struggle for me to accommodate a visit to the UK within this philosophy – it seemed more motivated by sentimental notions nurtured in me through devotion to a band. Well, I thought to myself, it might be possible if I considered England foreign, but as much as I might like to, I don’t fully feel that, on a personal level, to be the case. I shy away thinking in terms of ‘foreign’ generally, preferring to think of people as citizens of their own nations rather than incomprehensible outsiders, of which I think the term carries connotations.
As Scots we know the English; they are not us, but they are not foreign. When we talk about someone who is foreign, it is usually because we can’t place where they’re from, but they give off strangeness in their speech or ethnicity. Besides this, culture can also make someone a foreigner, and this, unlike political institutions, can take generations to shift. Culture, in this context, I take to mean a guiding underlying ideology common to the majority of citizens of a particular place – not high art. At the moment I believe Scotland and England share a culture in this sense, which is markedly distinct from a German or a French one. It operates tacitly, subconsciously affecting decisions, designs and our day-to-day interactions with one another; most importantly, it can only be noticed through comparison. This shared culture may be diverging, but it could take the next generation to determine this. Anyway, this is a topic for another day. In the end I managed to come up with two solid reasons:
- I might as well actually see some of the UK before I dismiss it altogether, and I don’t think being driven along the length of it on a school trip behind bus blinds really counts.
- I’ve not seen much of England apart from passing through on the way to other places and an anomalous weekend in Bournemouth.
Upon arrival I was immediately antagonistic. The ticket machine wouldn’t accept my banknote and the patriot in me screamed, “It’s legal tender!” at the bastard. Later, in an attempt at de-escalation it was suggested to me that this might be because of a shift towards plastic cash. The UK’s change had changed, I noticed as I was handed a shiny handful of new pound coins, the old having gone out of circulation this month in my absence.
Seeing with different eyes, I observed the ubiquity of self-service in a service-based economy. In Germany there is almost a total lack of this option, except for travel tickets. The supermarket is a stressful (items must be packed as quickly as possible and paid for with exact change) but less lonely experience. Perhaps forced contact with actual human beings in the purchasing of Lebensmittel helped me out in the long run by giving me confidence to visit restaurants and cafes on my own where I’d normally have been put off by the necessity of direct face-to-face interaction.
The first place I visited, once my tram finally reached the city centre after a protracted crawl through suburbia, was the central library. Its featured exhibitions were on the world of Harry Potter and its medieval precedents in terms of the subjects taught at Hogwarts for the 20th anniversary (meh), and the relationship between the twinned cities of Manchester and Leningrad to mark the Russian revolution’s centenary. Entirely free of charge and not requiring a card or membership to access, I was able to explore the vast reading room. Not wanting to spend too long in somewhere overtly academic, I managed to see the music section, which houses pianos in wee alcoves for anyone to play; this had me grinning from ear to ear and praising the great municipal spirit that permits such things. Later Mia told me they had rehearsal rooms for other instruments too, including drumkits and DJ decks – imagine starting a punk band in a library!
Then I saw the gallery. It was laid out in a pretty similarly to the National one in Edinburgh, with different time periods for different rooms, although there was probably more of a thematic distinction here as well. One of my favourite pieces was a Japanese feature garden kitted out with hidden synthesisers in the undergrowth playing ambient, sequenced noise. Early 20th century impressionist artist Pierre Adolphe Valette also caught my eye for his masterful depiction of Manchester’s urban gloom.
After nabbing a copy of the new Ibibio Sound Machine album in the Northern Quarter, I sat down for an indulgent strawberry milkshake with a slice of Victoria sponge. Waiting for what seemed like an inordinate length of time, I was presented with my milkshake. The wedge of cake was balanced on top of the drink, secured by two wooden skewers with just enough space to slot in a straw; a skirting of white chocolate was fused around the rim. Although the golden fork was a nice touch it didn’t really help me tackle the immediate problem with any more dignity. I had no companion to advise me, so was forced to set about the task with all the inelegance one might expect, and after all that the cake was dry and in some parts undercooked.
That night I saw Fickle Friends at Gorilla. They were supported by a Norwegian trio whose name escapes me, and Google’s not proving fruitful. Their exuberance in triggering samples failed to quite match the music they were playing but their clunky literal translations into English did amuse me. Fickle Friends had taken a different direction since I’d last seen them at Electric Circus in Edinburgh, which is probably a plus because their older material is so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable from track to track – luckily, it’s a good song though.
After a blissful night’s sleep in a (sorry Germany) proper double duvet, I visited HOME whose name kept making me think of that vapourwave artist every time I saw it, not helped by its insistence on all caps. In front of the entrance stood a strident statue of Friedrich Engels, co-writer of the Communist Manifesto who spent the best part of two decades in the city; this effectively signalled another exhibition exploring the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. This time there was more of a pressing focus on the present, examining the idea of when a dream of the future becomes the past. Probably the most affecting thing I saw was a photography display depicting Ukraine’s so-called ‘Leninfall’ from 2014 onwards – later I learnt that the statue outside was actually transported out of the country by artist Phil Collins, and was the source of some controversy. These images were conflicting to look at. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what went on there, but it seems pretty drastic to suddenly abolish 70 years of history in the space of a few months, even if a part of that was unimaginably horrendous manmade famine and when the population is up against an intolerable Putin-led Russia, who is unfortunately symbolically conflated with the iconography of Soviet communism.
Manchester’s main museum reminded me surprisingly of Stromness’s with its extensive natural history collection of taxidermy. I didn’t spend too long there before I moved to the Whitworth Gallery of modern art. My kind of modern art is the big installation sort, and with its vast space the Whitworth was able to play host to sprawling sculpture and immersive 3D concepts. A highlight was a room with two walls covered in clocks whose hands pointed to words like ‘euphoria’, ‘guilt’, ‘ecstasy’ and ‘depression’ instead of numbers. Above each clock was the name of a city, although alongside genuine place names were “fictional” metropolises such as Atlantis, Shangri-La and Babel.
As the afternoon drew to a close I met up with Mia, who I met in second year through The Student’s music section and who encouraged and inspired me to start my own radio show on Fresh Air while she was head of music there. Footage, where we met, feels very much like a student union and it’s located on Oxford Road, home to several universities and colleges on this street alone. Choked up from a lingering cold she talked about her masters in journalism and the opportunities to be had in and around Salford’s Media City, and I my work at Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, during which I had to account for the randomness of my appearance in Manchester. We moved to a restaurant and had the pleasure of sampling the niche cuisine of Nutella fries. Abhorrent? Perhaps. They tasted divine.
Mia helped me find the right trams and we said goodbye. I was off to another ‘pre-booked whim’ – Reggie Yates was launching his debut book about his career in documentary making so far. I’d been to a couple of book launch events before, the one that stands out though is probably Margaret Atwood’s for her novel Hag-Seed – a re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the front row and sat next to incredibly beautiful phenomenon of nature, also attending on her own, I spent the evening awestruck from several angles.
This was quite another experience. Reggie, and I’m calling him Reggie, not out of disrespect or lack of authorial prestige but because we all know him as that through his work on Radio One and CBBC, does not inspire the same goddess-like reverence as Atwood. He is essentially straight up, quick and to the point while never abrupt; he possesses a manner ideal for talking to difficult people about difficult subjects. This lies in contrast to Atwood’s supremely measured, dry wit and tantalising enigma, which one is never likely truly to understand.
Reggie’s certainly had a varied career and he was refreshingly candid when it came to questions of money, relationships and his own vanity. He stressed a dislike of industry jargon, but his natural slippage into the corporate shorthand he allegedly wanted to avoid made me question his commitment to reforming the culture. At the end of the event, and unlike at Atwood’s where we were handed out pre-signed copies of the book, we were given the chance to meet him personally and he’d autograph it there and then. This was done highly efficiently – you handed over your phone to a guy who would snap for the obligatory Instagram post and it was all over in about 10 seconds, most of which I spent spelling my name!
The most interesting aspect of the evening was probably meeting a guy in the queue who handed me a copy of his self-published novel in exchange for a review on Amazon. It reminded me of my younger, more naïve self who had embarked on something very similar in the past (although it must be said I never printed a physical copy). Anyway, he seemed nice enough, but I tried to advise him in the nicest way possible, after he revealed to me the number of downloads he’d had, to keep trying for publication through a literary agent or competition win as this was, as harsh as it may seem, the only real route to serious, or for that matter even moderate, success. I sat reading the book in the airport with mild amusement and frustration in equal measure (feedback: overuse of italics) as the passengers for flight number xxx to Kirkwall via Edinburgh were called to proceed to gate for immediate boarding.