‘There are children playing in the street.’ That is the first stage direction for the first scene of a new television serial aired on December 9, 1960, Coronation Street. There’s a sort of haunting quality to that period of Northern drama: the lights are low, the accents are rich, and there’s always a sense of exact experience, lived for the camera. (“That new pullover’s turned out a treat,” Ken Barlow’s mother says.) The characters are steeped in the present of their own predicaments, deep in Manchester, but they also eternal, living now in the permanent mind-set of a work of art. I feel the same when I watch English films that came out around the same time. Salford, in A Taste of Honey, might be on the brink of change, but it lives in that film like a piece of knowledge that can never be erased. Maybe it’s a working-class British version of what Marcel Proust was always on about: the sense that a perfect form of life existed familiarly in one fleeting moment, a model of home.
When I was a teenager, Manchester was the gold standard. We lived in Scotland, in a suburban new town 25 miles from Glasgow, but we spoke about Manchester like it was a mythical territory. It was Xanadu and Avalon, Nirvana and Brigadoon, yet just about reachable for £9 on the National Express. Glasgow was a world of dancehalls, and we’d heard about Northern Soul – a whole universe of Saturday nights – and the idea that men and women could dance as equals and rip up the rules. But for my generation it was Joy Division, it was Factory Records in general, then The Smiths, that gave you the feeling that Manchester was a secret weapon in the fight for selfhood. We loved the vibrancy, the patter, the irony in the songs, the sense of working-class glamour, the films, the non-London-ness, and we took to it like a host of mayflies that had recently hatched over the Pennines.
When you’re a novelist, as I am, you begin early in your life to recognise the sort of material that has the inner stuff, the right kind of power, to make an original story. I can’t promise you I knew it at 18, but I sort of did, and I always knew a day would come (if luck would have it) when I’d write a Manchester novel. The seeds were truly planted the weekend of July 18, 1986, when we came down for the Festival of the Tenth Summer, a huge bash celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. A bunch of Scots lads aged 18-20 on the rampage in Manchester for a weekend, loving The Fall, drinking up a storm at the Britannia Hotel, visiting the International Club, and attending a huge, unforgettable gig in the newly-opened G-Mex. If that’s not the stuff of a novel, I don’t know anything about the art-form. The joy of youth. The mad, full pelt of being, with the best soundtrack there has ever been. Come on.
The boys on that trip grew up and fell away, but we kept in touch and we never forgot what happened that glorious weekend. It was a Manchester of the mind, and a high point for boys still recovering from the Miners’ Strike, to feel you could love the place you were in and take that love into your character for life. Mayflies became the story of those boys, and it goes on to pick up the story 30 years later, when bad news arrives for one of them. Spooling back in time, I wanted to find us again and what I really found, apart from a lifetime of love, was the permanent shine of Manchester and Salford. The book became a tribute to the exact experience I’ve been talking about. I still dream of it, that Manchester – the orange buses and the long clear light of the afternoon, knowing there would be more drink, more laughter, with the future held at bay. And when the future comes, I said to myself, it will include this clear light and this feeling, distilled in Manchester. And the music will play on, and it will always say – this was yours, and these streets, too.
By Andrew O’Hagan
Main image: Andrew O’Hagan 2020. Credit: Jon Tonks.