Friday, 14 November 2008

Manchester nonsense

"I just have a sneaky feeling that everything we do is nonsense."

I made these comments, reluctantly, to a new colleague in my old job. She was new and enthusiastic and I was being portrayed as a grumpy, cynical veteran. I was trying to clarify my position because after a long time at Greater Manchester's tourist board, I'd not seen much to convince me that our work was worthwhile. In fact, the word 'nonsense' became so over-used, I got sick of saying it.

I now work for a different tourist board and my usage of the word has decreased considerably. However, I recently met some old colleagues for a few drinks in Manchester and guess what word came back with a vengeance? Yup. Nonsense.

I've lived in Greater Manchester all my life. I've lived in the City of Manchester for about 18 years. It's not one of the world's great cities. While London may be in the top five, Manchester may be in the top 200. Having said that, it has a good history and has made some valuable contributions to national identity and international culture. But for me, what has happened in Manchester and its 'renaissance' over the last 10-15 years is problematic. And a perfect illustration of this is Manchester's 'North Pole Bar' - the reason for the return of the 'n' word last Friday.

Behind Urbis (one of the biggest millennium white elephants outside of Greenwich), events agency Ear to the Ground have pitched Manchester International Festival's pavillion. This large white teepee/wig wam/Hershey's Kiss-shaped tent has been decorated with some Christmas trees, illuminated with some colourful spots and been re-named 'The North Pole - Manchester's Winter Bar'. The website (and I'll give you the job to find this poorly optimised effort on Google) gives the impression of something like the Absolut Ice bar in Stockholm. Believe me. It's nothing like it.

It's a beer tent. That's all. It's a nice enough idea but it struggles for atmosphere and the service at the bar is appalling. (Read the North Pole Bar reader reviews on Manchester Confidential). And yet it will be marketed and photographed to give the impression that it is 'something'. The secret of Manchester's renaissance has been its ability to convince people that it is 'something'.

I once heard the sixties described as 'a great decade but always happening to someone else'. In other words, you turn up to party expecting something good, everyone looks kinda cool and the music sounds good. Then you realise that there's nowhere to go and the only people of interest are the ones you came with. Manchester's a little like this. Take the Northern Quarter, for example. All these sad bastards turn up with drainpipe trousers and Pete Doherty hats. They give their identically co-ordinated sad bastard mates some cool greeting and wait for something to happen. And for as long as Manchester attracts imitators, nothing is going to happen.

Imagine having a choice between a city of Elvis and the Stone Roses, or a city of Cliff Richard and the Charlatans. Which would you choose? Manchester these days is much more like the latter.

I'll be honest. I'm not a cool guy. Every once in a while, and I mean very rarely, I'll do something cool. It's usually accidental and generally speaking, people see straight through it. So when I drink in a cool place, I want the DJ to be cooler than me. I want the bar staff and clientèle to be cooler than me. There are too many bars in Manchester where, on balance, I'm at least as cool as the next guy and definitely cooler than the dickhead in the trilby.

I've written about this before (see my Anthony Wilson blog) but it's no coincidence that there haven't been any really good Manchester music movements or bands in the last 15 years. While Manchester has been attracting marketing types, event organisers, self-consciously cool bars, Liam Gallagher fans and Pete Doherty hat-a-likes it hasn't produced anything original. It's a little like Harry Lime's famous Cuckoo Clock speech from The Third Man.

In the Thatcher years, Manchester produced The Smiths, The Stone Roses and The Chameleons (and a few more lesser groups). Liverpool also produced a raft of great pop bands. Sheffield too. But while Manchester has been booming in the nineties and noughties, the innovation has died.

I hate to sound negative. I don't want to echo Homer Simpson's "Trying is the first step on the road to failure" but nor do I want to be directed to a "arctic wonderland with seasonal drinks, food and music" and find a beer tent with some upside down Christmas trees. What good can come out of a beer tent? What legacy can it have? I want something real.

I have a friend who knew Anthony Wilson. My friend describes Wilson as an 'enabler'. By this, he means that Wilson gave people the chance to do something - and to do the best they could do with what was available. From these simple foundations, something good can emerge.

Maybe the Manchester International Festival tent should been used as an unsigned band stage? Or maybe a stand up comedy tent? Maybe not an open mic/free-for-all but an accessible platform for people to have a go. Instead we get nonsense events that are designed to make everybody feel like they're in a cool city. The kind of events where Manchester's hacks, event organisers, property developers and marketers can air-kiss each other and be momentarily fulfilled.

There is nothing like nonsense to kill innovation. Love Manchester as I do, there's one thing it has become very good at. Sadly, that's nonsense.

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