Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Manchester trip, knoworramean?



Has it really been a month since I last posted? Yes it has. Really? Yep. I don't lie (unless it is to an official). Dun't time fly, our kid?

Well, it has been busy: new book, talks, radio and all. I'll do a post about that stuff soon enough.

As I approached the final edits for Cold Fusion 2000 I decided that a trip to Manchester, where the novel is set, would be useful. I could do some fact checking and extra scene description. And so I spent 1st-4th December back in the city in which I was born. I'd left in 1998, just prior to the start of the story in Cold Fusion 2000. Set out into the world to seek my fame and fortune.

Caught the wrong train and got stuck in Aberystwyth. C'est la vie.


I'm so organised

For this trip I rented a city centre hotel apartment and decided to take my family too. The day before we set off I felt like I was getting a cold. "Nooooooooo!" I yelled, swinging into action. Extra drops of echinacea in my fruit juice; hot water bottle shoved down my jumper; scarf round neck and Karl's Flu Hat (TM) plonked on head. A nip of whisky and it went away. I was fine to travel. Yaaay!

On the train I taught my family to play hearts. It's my favourite card game, something I used to play a lot at university with my two closest friends. Whole evenings just playing hearts, drinking raspberry leaf tea and listening to music. Don't knock it, they were good times. Cheap, too. The thing with games is this: games aren't really about the game. They're about the social interaction. Doing things with people. Getting to know them. Having a laugh when unexpected things happen. One of those friends isn't alive any more, so the memories of the games are all the more precious.

The city, innit? View from the balcony. That's Affleck's Palace at the bottom.

The place was quite plush. Clean, with free wi-fi. The Light Boutique Aparthotel. We were on the 11th floor. My mum and nephew used the lift, Aly and I used the stairs whenever we could. Raced to the top. I won. The apartment rooms had a balcony with a great view of Manchester once you get over the vertigo.

I always use the stairs in hotels. We all need to get fitter. I was a bit disappointed that, as with many hotels, these stairs weren't even signposted - they were hidden behind one of many unmarked doors beyond the lifts, unmentioned by the staff. I had to ask where the stairs were. They're the outcast cousin, and need to be brought in from the cold, loved, treated, allowed to be the centre of attention.

I set out to wander the streets, making notes as I followed the route taken by one of the characters in the novel. Along past canals, down Oxford Road as far as the 8th Day. I used to eat there years ago, prior to starting a shift in Manchester Metropolitan University's All Saints Library, opposite. 8th Day was always good, but it has changed: for the better! Much larger shop, bigger cafe, I was impressed. As luck would have it they were doing evening meals that night, and I couldn't resist. I'm glad. The food was gorgeous.

Braised tofu, mushrooms on creamy winter mash, port gravy (there was also a side dish of roasted potatoes and parsnips, carrots and sprouts). Yes, I'm a food tourist, GET OVER IT.

The hotel had a gym. We used that a few times, and usually had it to ourselves. Bonus. There's nothing like getting to play with big mechanical toys to make me happy. And a definite pleasure in getting sweaty then showered. It's like leaving the dirty patch in your house until it gets really bad before cleaning it. The before-and-after contrast is much more satisfying. That's what I tell guests, anyway.

On Sunday 2nd I caught the 256 bus to Davyhulme, where a lot of the novel is set. Where the protagonist lives. I lived there too. I am not the protagonist though. Please don't mix up reality and fiction. Of course, any positive aspects of the protagonist are probably really parts of me. But any bits where he's a nob are complete fiction. Obviously.

I did lots of walking and making notes. I walked past Wycombe Close, where I lived in the 70's with my mum, dad and sister. I was only a sprog then. A man was outside the house I lived in, drilling into the wall and putting up an illuminated Father Christmas. His son watched him proudly. I stopped to speak to them. Told them I lived there when I was a boy. Pointed to the window of my old bedroom. Talked about the ice cream vans that used to come. It was nice, but it made me feel old. There were trees growing on the green, where there used to be just grass. I liked that. Something has grown instead of being lost.

Other areas were more depressing. In two places there were housing estates where there used to be fields. A green path mentioned in the novel - Bent Lanes - has fields on one side. There was a planning notice. People want to build there too. Fields replaced with houses will lead to children who grow up around bricks instead of trees. So they stay indoors. And they grow up without a connection to nature.

I visited pubs mentioned in the novel to drink whisky and make notes. The Bent Brook. The Fox & Hounds. The Nag's Head. I chatted to more people. Strangers. It's not like me, but I felt out of time.

Bistro 1847 - the poshest chips and tofu I've ever seen 

The beany tomato bit was spicy! Great for a cold, dark night.

That evening, back in the city centre, we ate at Bistro 1847, near the City Centre Art Gallery. Yum! This is what cities do well. Loads of choice for vegetarians and vegans. It's why I like visiting them before retreating back to smaller places to recover in my shell. 8th Day. Bistro 1847. Remember them. If you go to Manchester, support them.

(And bring me a doggie bag, please).

Manchester Museum

On Monday (3rd) my family left. I was alone to continue my research. Back down Oxford Road, again following the routes taken by characters. Some things have changed since the year when the novel is set. The huge BBC building is now a pile of rubble. The Odeon cinema has closed down. Memory had to overlay perception in an augmented-reality biological superposition. I had a chocolate brownie and smoothie in the 8th Day, to keep energy levels up. That was second breakfast, as a hobbit might say.


I spent time in the Whitworth Gallery, but it seemed smaller than I remembered, and there weren't any of my favourite paintings from the historic collection.

Back when I used to work in Manchester, I used to have an afternoon off every week (in exchange for doing a long shift). I usually spent it in art galleries. My favourite was the main City Art Gallery, because of its impressive collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings. They meant a lot to me. I once showed them to someone who meant a lot to me. The gallery reminds me of love. And sadness.

I also visited The Whitworth sometimes. I loved one of Rossetti's drawings there, La Donna della Finestra. It meant so much to me that I incorporated the gallery and that drawing into the novel, making them central to the love affair, to the images of the past and present colliding.

While writing the novel I've had tremendous support from many sources. I had hoped to incorporate a small image of La Donna della Finestra into the cover, on a postcard held in a woman's hand as she left the gallery. The Whitworth Gallery refused permission, unfortunately. They refused to give any reasons and ignored my follow-up letter. It was disappointing at the time, and left the impression of a sniffy administration that doesn't want to associate itself with creative endeavours that they don't see as prestigious. Good things came from it though. I contacted other organisations with Rossetti drawings, and was pleased at the support from the famous Harvard (USA) galleries, specifically the Fogg Museum. They gave me permission to use Rossetti's finished painting of La Donna della Finestra and have been lovely to work with: genuinely interested and supportive. Likewise the School of Art at Aberystwyth University, which also gave permission to use a Rossetti drawing with an interesting history, and where the curator has been incredibly helpful. And so it was that a sour grape turned out to be a lovely wine.


The day was not over. I caught the Metro to Sale. I used to be a student at South Trafford College of Further Education, September 1989 to July 1992. Amongst other subjects, I had to take my maths GCSE, which I'd missed because I went on holiday to Butlins with my first girlfriend instead of turning up for the exam at school. Before I went to college I was not a model student - too rebellious - but that soon changed and I ended up as a mostly grade-A student at the college, where I got three A-levels and various GCSEs.

South Trafford College eventually merged with North Trafford College, and thus 'Trafford College' was born. Since the protagonist is an FE lecturer in a fictional college I thought it would be nice to wander round the college I used to study at, and possibly pick up some ideas to use as additional description. Russell Thomas is the college's Marketing Co-ordinator and was kind enough to spend time with me and show me around. It was a memory dissonance at first, since the building I remember was knocked down and a new, modern college was built on its site. Something for the current age, not the past. I kept picturing the prefab where I studied English literature and we read out parts from As You Like It and an amazingly pretty girl once blew me a kiss while everyone else was reading; the canteen where I played Streetfighter 2 (Blanka, always) and first decided to investigate what a vegan was; the library where I spent my evening waiting for my night-school philosophy class with a lecturer who was once a stand-up comedian by the name of Derek Saliva ("The name on everybody's lips"). I would sit in the library reading Toni Morrison's books, or Asimov, or works about Sartre. I discovered Red Dragon on the fiction shelf and was so engrossed on the bus home that I nearly missed my stop. All gone. All replaced with something more functional, geared for quality education. I'm glad the students nowadays have impressive facilities in which to create their own memories. I'll just carry mine with me.

I had a whisky in The Pelican down the road before catching the Metro back to the city centre. It was dark and raining. I hadn't finished yet though. There were more places in my novel, more places to visit, gotta catch 'em all.

Looking towards Piccadilly Gardens. I remember when Piccadilly Gardens was actually a huge garden with bushes and flowers and grass and everything. Then the council covered it in concrete. Then they restored a small fraction of it and built on the rest. I preferred it when the name meant something.

Into The Cornerhouse, where the kind staff showed me the empty cinema and talked about novels. The pubs I wanted were closed so I went back to the flat. I rang one to find out when it opened. It was now open. Back out again, more walking and wetness. The Temple of Convenience was first, a pint of beer and notes and thoughts about what a cool bar it is, and wishing I'd been there more often. I knew how lucky I was as I drank - this was research! Work! And it felt good. Then on to the Lass o' Gowrie for a whisky and more notes. There was vegan food thanks to Mod's Cafe so I tucked in, great vegan pub grub, couldn't resist cake too. Cities can be unfriendly places, but I was having a great time chatting to people.


By the time I got back to the hotel I was too tired to do much editing. So I watched TV, got up early, and caught a nearly empty train. The rest, as historians say, is history.

Yes, it was a lot of time and expense when the novel was already 'finished', but it was because this book is a labour of love. Quirky, like me. Rude sometimes, like me. Intelligent and requiring careful consideration of the subtext, perhaps like me. Mancunian and honest (except to officials), straight from the heart but with a few rough edges and scratches. I hope some people will appreciate that. Thanks for reading.

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