Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
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The Changing Face of Manchester

To Manchester: But Why?

Went into Manchester for the first time for ages - there've been a few special supplements in the Metro freesheet, about all the changes made since the bombing, presumably to attract shoppers, but it still looks a mess around the Cross St-Market St area, with plenty to be done before all the damage has been restored.

The main difference that struck my eye is that where once all the main thoroughfares were dotted over by white splots of discarded chewing gum, now they're dotted over by black splots. I gather the plan to remove the offending splots by burning has not been too successful. And the makeshift platform for the trams, installed immediately outside Lewis's, has now been sensibly moved to the middle of the road, where it serves trams in both directions.

I wandered into Habitat to claim a free catalogue (and wondered why, when I got home and studied it!), then visited Waterstones in search of a book for Marion (which they hadn't got in), after which I'd had enough of the Big City. Is it really a couple of years since that IRA bomb went off? I wonder if the place will ever really recover. ■

Letter to Brian Varley, September 1999

Back To Manchester

Went into Manchester again on Saturday, to pick up Marion's book. And, inevitably, bought a few more... Well, I did go with an intention to check on whether the autobiography of Ravi Shankar, plugged with an extract in last Saturday's Guardian, had yet been published. It has apparently but they hadn't yet got copies on the shelf at Waterstones, so I left them with an order.

While there, I noticed a copy of Cat's Cradle, now added - belatedly - to my Vonnegut collection, and was moved to enquire after his collection of early short stories that got a mention in a recent Saturday Review.

"Oh, you'll - find it downstairs in the hardback department" I was told; it seems to be part of the recent reorganisation that the SF section now sells only paperbacks. (Come to think of it, the Guardian item appeared under the heading of 'Paperbacks' - I suspect they're all just trying to confuse me.) So I arrived home with that, too.

Incidentally, have you spotted this "Millennium SF Masterworks" paperback series put out by Orion Publishing? They've been putting out two "classic" SF a month since the start of the year, and I've been catching up with stuff by Philip K. Dick, Bester, Stapledon etc. which I'd like to reread, and feel should be on the shelves anyway. Not bad value at £6.99 if you can't locate 'em at the library!'

When I went to the station it was more showery than sunshiny, but by the time I arrived at the Big City, the clouds had blown away and the sun was strong. The place was crowded, no traffic was flowing along Piccadilly as a vast digger was noisily wrecking the road surface. Must have been creating a lot of dust, which early showers had converted to mud on the pavement all the way to the Arndale. And there seemed to be a superfluity of amplified street musicians competing with the melodic spill-out from the HMV store and the yapping of stray dogs along Market Street.

The new M&S building, all glazing and steelwork, gleams emptily in the sun, though the effect is spoilt by the semi-demolished remains of the buildings that have made way for the vastly extended store. (These buildings escaped the blast from the bomb, but have suffered because of the changes on the rest of the site, while Corporation Street is still in a mess and virtually closed and looks like continuing that way for a long long time yet).

Noticed that the Royal Exchange Theatre are advertising monthly Sunday night jazz concerts - shows featuring the likes of Stan Tracey, Julian Joseph, & Jacques Loussier - but regrettably the late train service in and out of town is non-existent at weekends...! Ho hum. So I'll just have to console myself with music at-home.

Piccadilly station is aglow when the sun shines through the crystal of the newly-glazed roof, (though it's hard to read the indicator signs for the dazzle!), and work continues on platforms 9 to 14. The platforms we use have been cleared of all the obstructing scaffolding at long last, and while there's now room to move, they're bare and still (hopefully) to be refurbished - we need some seating returned for the comfort of impatiently-waiting passengers!

* * * * *

Monday's Guardian brings a reminder of Eric Laithwaite (my favourite lecturer from the Royal Institution Christmas progs of the '60s & '70s), inventor of the linear induction motor (magnetic levitation), and delver into the mysteries of the gyroscope. I never understood why he was cold-shouldered by the government here when Japan and other countries were so interested in maglev trains.

Now, several years after his death, NASA is developing a maglev drive as an economical way of launching space craft.

So it goes... ■

Letter to Brian Varley, September 1999

Went into Manchester again, with Marion, on Thursday...

WE got our timing wrong, alas! When we got to Cross Street, we were amazed to see vast numbers of workers in hardhats and yellow plastic jackets, busily engaged in yanking down barriers, clearing away junk, directing a stream of vans, rolling out cables, or just standing around waiting to be directed to the next job. There was a feeling of bustle, though it was not immediately obvious just what they were trying to achieve...

And to add to the tumult, the giant diggers had been moved from the Piccadilly area and were operating full blast at the entrance to St. Anns precinct. In the background, the demolition of the buildings behind the new M&S emporium was proceeding apace, with revving trucks and clouds of dust...

We tried to get away from the racket and dodged through to Waterstones to pick up my Ravi Shankar book, and then wandered round Habitat's first floor display, weighing up the tables and chairs, looking for a replacement of our extending Utility Antique, that would cope with our routine threesome, and meet the need for 8-9 places when the Nottingham Turners visit. No decisions reached on that point as yet.

Elsewhere, Christmas decorations were going up ready for the Great Shopping Spree, but somehow I don't think we'll be joining in the festivities.

When Friday's Metro arrived we learned that the Queen is visiting Manchester this very day, arriving at Victoria Station, and likely to pass the spot where we'd seen all the frantic activity on our visit. Curses... fancy missing the opportunity to meet Her Majesty!

Though I find it hard to believe that everything could be swept clean and tidied up by the time she swanned through... must pay another visit some time to see if they made any significant changes.

Marion was not impressed by her visit to post-bomb Manchester. Must confess that apart from the Town Hall area, it becomes increasingly difficult to find familiar surroundings. The places I haunted in my Guardian days are changed beyond belief... even monumental bank buildings, stone edifices that seemed destined to survive the next millennium or two, are gutted and awaiting the demolishers, and vast signs and logos plastered on other one-time anonymous buildings is an indication of changing occupiers and standards.

Further afield it's worse: one-time jazz haunts are carparks or new offices. The site of the old Smithfield Market, once the place where I haunted the barrows in search of US sf supplies, is now preserved only as a facade of an entrance wall, a relic now standing isolated amid small cloistered garden plots and the odd seat for the weary pensioner.

No sign of the vigorous commerce I knew; just odd piles of stones and rubble amid the park-type greenery. And routes from the centre that used to be crammed with shops – along London Road, past Ardwick. Green, down Stockport Road, Hyde Road – have been so mangled by crossing motorways and pokey little new housing estates, that you can walk for ages without passing a shop. I now find it hard to recall how the place looked in my younger days.

We were once a nation of small shopkeepers: but no more. Not here at any rate. Little remains of the city I grew up in: ever since the end of the war, grandiose plans are produced periodically but apathy always seems to strike before anything solid and lasting is achieved.

Manchester has been in a state of continuing transition as long as I can recall, and it's been hard to see any signs of real improvement during my lifetime. Though, having said that, I did notice on Thursday that the toilet-type tiles that smothered the exterior of the Arndale Centre (and roused much rude comment) before the bombing, are being replaced by a glazed frontage. Suppose anything's an improvement there...! ■

Just been reading a feature in the Metro on the “city centre's next giant leap forward". Seems we are now to get a New Cathedral Street along the rear of the new M&S building, linking st. Ann's Church with the Cathedral. This is where all the activity was concentrated last Thursday, and it seems the buildings being demolished will be replaced by a complex with a four-floor department store, and row of shops, together with a "12-storey glass residential tower on the corner of Deansgate... which will dwarf the cathedral tower", providing "80 homes ranging from 2-bedroom apartments to luxury penthouses with roof-top courtyards, and is likely to set new record prices for city centre apartments".

While not expected to be completed until 2003 it is hailed by the chief executive of the city Council as "another major step forward to rebuilding Manchester city centre".

I feel overcome by a profound sense of deja vu... ■

Letter to Brian Varley, September/October 1999

Must say that I've lost track of bookshop take-overs

When on our trip to the Big City, we did notice that in St Ann's Square, the building housing the old Sherratt&Hughes emporium, taken over by WH Smith (and ruined) some years back, is due to be rebuilt.

Dillons, in the same locale, was taken over by HMV about the same time, and my account card cancelled, so I tended to lose interest. Some time later, HMV seemed disillusioned about trying to run book shops and could have well sold out to Waterstones, who have been revitalised of late, with this big "live-in" store in London, and expansion of the Manchester Deansgate shop - they've taken over the top floor of the rest of the shops in the block: you can get lost wandering round the shelves on the first floor (which is no doubt the intention).

They have a full rota of visits and signing sessions by authors, and even open on Sundays, in case the locals are desperately short of reading matter... In Stockport, Dillons occupy a large corner site bang in the middle of the Merseyway shopping centre and appear to thrive, while the smaller Waterstones shop languishes on the shopping fringe in Princes Street, which has suffered a considerable drop in prestige after the planners drastically altered the road plan in that vicinity.

Must confess that since I gave up my regular visits to Manchester, I've lost track of the changing fortunes of the big booksellers, having fallen back on mail-order (that way I concentrate on what I need, without the distraction of impulse buying upsetting the budget). I still have an account card for Blackwells, who have a busy bookshop in the Manchester university precinct, but forget when last I used it over the counter it's so long ago! ■

Letter to Brian Varley, October 1999

Weather on Saturday proves to be gray and nondescript: it's dry, with a kinda hint of rain lurking around, as I catch the train to Manchester and the Poetry Festival. Must confess to finding the city more unwelcoming than ever: the streets to the Library seem increasingly lined with new blank-faced impersonal buildings or familiar facades cloaked with plastic sheets and scaffolding, undergoing some mysterious transformation.

The City Art Gallery has disappeared under plastic, with huge signs proclaiming that a New Gallery will ultimately emerge... The Reference Library is cocooned within a voluminous shroud and and I have difficulty locating the entrance under a tunnel of scaffolding.

It's not much better inside, the once spacious foyer has been filled up with infra-structures and displays, and I stagger up the stairs to a completely redesigned first floor, with the exhibition area now taken over by a vast number of computers providing internet access - all seats occupied by enthusiastic devotees.

Wander up to the second floor, pass through a vastly enlarged arts library, spot one or two jazz books that I decide I must investigate some time, drift out into a corridor and eventually track down the poets, this year confined to a couple of rooms, but with no sign of the worthy representative of Hilltop Press.

Return to the Arts library to satisfy my immediate curiosity about those jazz books and by the time I get back to the Poets Room, Steve has arrived and is busy arranging a display of his wares. Things are quiet - I suspect many intending visitors are probably lost in the circular maze of the library corridors; last year displays were arranged on the reading tables in the arts library, so people were passing by all the time and things were pretty lively.

Now they've radically reorganised the arts library: most of the tables have disappeared - not sure if this is to make more room for all the books they've acquired in the interim, or if the library has just been squeezed into less space to allow more offices to be fitted on the second floor. Anyway, as it was quiet, it meant we had a good chinwag catching up with things... ■

Letter to Brian Varley, November 1999

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