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The Best People in the Best Place

May 24, 2017

After my dad died when I was 5, I moved from Edinburgh to west Lancashire  a year or so later. First we lived in a country village called Euxton; its nearest neighbours included, Croston, Chorley, and Tarleton. It was a perfect introduction to the north of England for a wee boy who had lost his dad, and I quickly acquired a suitably local accent whilst I explored the woods and lanes,  and made new friends.

Two years later we moved again, to Southport, on the coast, and, again, I was fortunate to live in a friendly, welcoming,  town, and to make lots of friends.

So from the age of  8 till 18, my nearest cities were Preston, Liverpool, and Manchester.

Thanks to Beeching’s cuts, there was no direct railway  line to Preston from Southport in the early sixties, so Liverpool became the most familiar of the three. I went to school in its suburbs, my mother’s family were there, and there we went on our earliest shopping expeditions – mostly for records, but eventually for clothes. The mid sixties wasn’t the worst of times to be a teenager in Liverpool! The Cavern, The Grapes pub, NEMS record shop, and Frank Hessy Music were still places we shopped in or passed,  rather than destinations on a heritatge tour. I travelled to school sports fixtures on the Wirral on the iconic Mersey Ferries – because they were cheaper than the underground or buses.

From the perspective of the 21st century, I suppose I got to know Liverpool just as its glorious mercantile history was finally disappearing. At primary school, the lads whose dads were dockers or shipping line employees could still tell us which big ships were due into the busy docks, and, exiting the long gone Exchange Station, there was a definite air of excitement and business,  the air heavy with the industrial tang of Tate and Lyle sugar refining, breweries, flour mills and engineering, and ships’ sirens floating over the buildings from the docks.

And what buildings they were!

Every bank, insurance company, and head office seemed to be a masterpiece of Victorian architecture. Outside they loomed over you, no decorative effect too expansive to be left off cornices, ballustrades or red stone masonry. The streets were canyons of commercial success, every building constructed to display its owner’s outrageous business acumen and financial probity.  Inside they were all long gloomy corridors, frosted glass doors, and dark wood partitions.

The Kardomah cafe, just along from Epstein’s NEMS shop was a kind of distillation of what the city was about. Fifty years before Starbucks and Costa, this was the place to go for a cup of tea or a coffee in their distinctive glass cups. The scent of coffee in the place was such that you could imagine them dumping bags of beans in the back shop, off wheelbarrows just pushed up the hill from the docks. The decor was mysteriously “eastern” and it was easy to remember you were sitting in one of the world’s major ports.

And, soon enough, Liverpool became the venue where we attended “pop concerts” as they were known. To celebrate my pal Steve’s 15th Birthday on November 1st 1967, we went to Livepool’s Empire Theatre to see a classic concert line up of the times: “The Who, Traffic, The Tremeloes, The Herd and Marmalade. It was a brilliant venue – long witness to variety, pantomime and musicals; the show was compered by Michael McIntyre’s dad, Ray Cameron, and, if you’d gone to the toilet you may have missed two groups and six top ten hits, such was the speed at which it passed, with two shows each evening on the tour.

We didn’t mind – it was our first concert, we were with our mates from school and we were finally part of “the sixties generation”, which we’d read so much about, but until that point had not managed to join. For all of us, it was the start of a lifetime of concert going and appreciating music. It was a special moment in our lives. Liverpool continued to be our venue for concerts and theatre productions throughout our school days, a comfortably  familiar place of entertainment.

Manchester was different. It was further away and not as easily accessed.

I first went there to see Lancashire play South Africa at Old Trafford cricket ground on September 1st 1965. It involved the excitement of a train from Southport and then the Altrincham bus from the city centre to the top of Warwick Rd, and going to Old Trafford to see international cricketers was a big thrill as well – it would be the South Africans last visit to England until 1994, though of course we were ignorant of that at the time. Still, Manchester had been visited and soon there were repeat visits for the cricket but also, via school, for drama, and we attended a number of events in the tiny and atmospheric Library Theatre. Again, we probably didn’t realise the part the basement theatre played in the 60s drama revolution, but it increased our familiarity with Manchester, as did occasional school trips to the huge fairground at Belle Vue.

Gradually as we approached school leaving age and some were able to drive, Manchester became a regular alternative venue  for our gigs. Steeleye Span, the Who, Tom Paxton, Fairport Convention and others were seen at the atmospheric Free Trade Hall. We didn’t know it had been built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, nor, I suspect, that it was the home of the Halle Orchestra, but we knew there were great concerts there.

It was where a fan shouted “Judas” at Dylan as he introduced his electric set, not a gig I was at myself, but a landmark in musical history, and, as the years passed, Tony Wilson, the Hacienda, and the whole Manchester scene blossomed to the joy of a later generation.

I had a  musical landmark of my own in the Free Trade Hall on July 11th 1971, when, again with Steve and the lads, I saw James Taylor and Carole King perform there. This was within months of them releasing the epoch making albums “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James”. It was one of those rare gigs where, even as we sat there,  everybody  just knew it would be a special moment in our lives, long remembered, and proudly mentioned in the years to come.

After I’d returned to Edinburgh and was teaching, we brought  pupil groups down on a number of occasions to do the “Granada Studios Tour”, and, while they walked in awe over the famous Coronation St cobbles, I was able to buy “World in Action” merchandise – imagine a time when investigative journalism was popular enough to sell its own merchandise!

Meanwhile, my pal Steve had become Editor of “World in Action” and moved to greater Manchester – more reasons to visit the city, and a chance to visit the WiA studios: more excitement in Manchester. His house became a place of great hospitality and we felt we had a “Manchester family” in the affection that had continued to grow through the years, and the joy of watching our children grow past the age we had been when we first became friends.

Another school pal and gig going mate, Mick, also ended up in Manchester, and it’s a joy to still be in touch with him, to have schoolday friendships affirmed.

I’ve never become familiar with Manchester in a geographical sense; I can’t find my way round without a map, and I would struggle to point to anywhere I could identify as “the city centre”, but it’s  become a part of my life.

And, when I heard the tragic news from the Manchester Arena on Monday night and watched the events unfold, it occurred to me that, in my whole life, and for the many reasons I had visited that city, I could not recall a single time when I had left the place feeling anything less than joyful; I realised I associated Manchester with happiness; it was not so much a geographical entity for me as an emotional venue, a place I went to and came away feeling good. And it was about the people as much as the place.

Such a realisation only added to the emotional reaction to the loss of so many young lives.

Just last month, Steve and I had attended a Who concert in Glasgow, in an informal but affectionate attempt to celebrate 50 years since that first Who gig at the Liverpool Empire. We’ve both continued to go to gigs ever since, occasionally together, more often separately, but part of our lifelong dialogue has been about who we’ve seen, what they were like, and how was the venue. Like millions of other friends, music, especially live music, has been part of the glue that has kept our relationship together, and reminded us at regular intervals of our shared and long history as mates.

At that recent concert, we were trying to remember the exact site of the “longest railway platform” in Britain, which, like the world’s first railway station, was in Manchester. It turns out that it  ran from Manchester Victoria Station to Exchange station –which closed in the seventies, and is now the site of part of the Manchester Arena complex.

Apart from the needless, pointless loss of life,  and the gut wrenching pain with which so many parents and children were going to have to meet their loss, I felt angry at what had been taken away from so many children – whether killed, injured, or traumatised on Monday night.

I thought of all the gigs, all the music, all the joy, all the shared memories. I thought of how the music provides a cocoon from the realities of life, that the best of live music transports you, takes you out of the every day, and into a place to which  you hope you will be able to return again and again. I thought of the innocence that is possible at live music concerts, the thrill of “actually being there”, the single minded attention, the tickets, the posters, the tee shirts, the programmes, the date circled on the calendar for months, the breathless retelling of the night to parents and friends, the humming in the ears – and in your heart.

Surely all this is part of life at its best: a kind of distillation of what it is to be young, which can carry you through the succeeding decades. What a thing to snatch from the young, what an ache to leave with the old.

As “Cottonopolis”, Manchester was a city  built ruthlessly on trade, slavery, exploitation of foreign and indigenous workforces, and it was an architectural monument to commerce and profit. Liverpool’s buildings were a testament to a working port, Manchester’s, on an even grander and more impressive scale, spoke of a world headquarters, a place of power and overwhelming wealth. And yet, for all that, Manchester somehow has always been about people –the Suffragettes, the Chartists, and all their descendants – people who refused to be crushed by enterprise or profit, and the modern day music, art and drama creators – who have transformed the city’s profile. I couldn’t help but also think of the late Victoria Wood’s representation of the city in that wonderful musical “That day we sang”, based on a true event in the Free Trade Hall in 1929, linking Manchester, music, and joy.

And there was some small comfort, even as the horror of Monday evening was growing in its random awfulness, in the knowledge that people will out; just as there is no manufacturing without creativity, there is no city without people, and no progress without humanity.

Those small towns near my first English home – Croston, Tarleton and Chorley –  were the places were the first two announced victims at the Arena, Saffie Roussos and Gina Callandar, lived and went to school;  the fact that so many at the concert should have been embarking, as Steve and I had done all those years ago, on a lifetime of gigs, and music, and sharing, added a further resonance.

On Tuesday, a number of people on social media, struggling for a reaction, posted John Maddon’s iconic picture of “Ena Sharples looking out over Manchester”. At first, it seemed like a strange choice. It was, after all, a fictitious character from a fictitious street, and there was nothing remotely fictitious about the horror of Monday night. But, somehow, it seemed to work – at least as a paradigm for a city.


“Ena Sharples” and “Coronation St”, in the beginning, owed their popularity to  the humanity, brought into what might have been just another soap opera, by Violet Carson’s acting and Tony Warren’s writing. “The Street” portrayed not a city but its people – and it worked for the viewers because, despite its strong sense of place, it possessed a universality that transcended television and dramatic fiction  – much as Granada television  under Sidney Bernstein and The Guardian under  CP Scott  held a resonance for millions far beyond Manchester, because they dealt in recognisable humanity. Two more people who made Manchester definitively special. More opportunities for the humanity of the place to be displayed.

Tony Walsh – Longfella, whose poem “This is the Place” spoke so eloquently for Manchester at Tuesday’s memorial meeting, quoted Coleridge tonight, describing poetry as “The best words in the best order.”

The hope for Manchester, after Monday’s horror, is that history has always proved that,  in that city,  they seem to have the best people in the best place.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Siobhan permalink
    May 25, 2017 8:28 am

    Thank you for your eloquence at such a dreadful time for both my city and humanity x

    • May 25, 2017 8:31 am

      Thank you Siobhan. My thoughts and love are with all in your great city x

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