I was up in the Pennines last week, visiting Hebden Bridge, and overnighting in Heptonstall…
I am high above the valley and the streets are cobbled and steep. The sun is shining through a gentle drizzle, and a mother, holding a child in one hand and pushing a buggy with the other, stops for a moment on the slow uphill to the school. They are the only people in sight.
Round the corner is the octagonal Wesleyan chapel (no corners for the devil), a place of worship for 260 years, but not beyond the end of May after which there will be no more regular services. The grave of my great-great-grandfather rests alongside one wall.
All a far cry from street demos in France and Israel, the immigration bill in parliament, a new leader for the SNP. A far cry you would think from anywhere. But not with the help of public transport, of a train line which opened in 1840, from Manchester.
Down the hill and in half an hour I’m on my way, arriving just 45 minutes later, in a spectacular downpour. Manchester is associated with drizzle. Not today. I’m close to the site of the IRA bomb of 1996. New build everywhere. Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, and the vast and overwhelming acres of indulgence of the new Arndale Centre. Along Deansgate and King Street, and many back streets, Victorian Manchester is still looking good, but not so Chancery Place, where my father as a solicitor ran his practice for fifty years. They’ve demolished the soot-blackened stone and the gargoyles I remember and in their stead they’ve squeezed a sixteen-storey all-glass abomination.
Manchester today has a confidence all its own. Morrissey, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Joy Division, Oasis, and more… they’ve all helped. United and City (in that order) likewise. Also good local governance, and a mayor, Andy Burnham, who leads from the front. It’s reclaimed its old sense of purpose, which it had all but lost when I was a child. Having the BBC over in Salford has helped.
Born and bred in Bramhall, just outside Manchester, it is my city, and it’s been my calling card, my way of establishing my credentials, in many conversations in many places around the world.
My great-grandfather had a tailoring business in Hebden Bridge, with branches in a number of Lancashire towns, and a base in Manchester itself. The train journey I took last week to and from Manchester was in every sense his lifeline, connecting to his suppliers and indirectly to the world.
I’ll let Manchester have the last word, the Manchester of my great-grandfather’s time. I’m quoting David Ayerst, biographer of the Manchester Guardian, as it was, writing fifty years ago:
‘Edwardian Manchester was still in an economic sense something like a city state. The ties [of its merchants] with New Orleans or Alexandria; with Constantinople, Hamburg, Calcutta and Shanghai were in many respects closer than with Birmingham or Newcastle… a still growing proportion of mankind were clothed from the stately warehouses that lined Portland Street.’
I’m inclined to think that given the disastrous failure of London to chart a course for the UK in our modern world we need to look again to Manchester.