The Positive Side of Manchester

People who read my books might get the impression that I don’t like Manchester much, as I always write about the shady side of life. I tend to focus on that aspect of Manchester because I write Manchester based crime thrillers. Really, though, it’s no reflection on how I feel about Manchester. Sadly, every city has its share of crime. However, Manchester also has a heck of a lot going for it and I’m extremely proud to be Mancunian. So, I thought I would dedicate this blog post to things about the city that are worth celebrating.

Sports

As well as having two famous football teams, Manchester City and Manchester United, Manchester also has many other sporting facilities. These were vastly improved following the hosting of theNat Football Museum Commonwealth Games in 2002 and include:

Manchester Aquatics Centre – one of the biggest swimming centres in the UK and the only one with two indoor 50 metre pools.

The City of Manchester Institute of Gymnastics – run by qualified gymnastics coaches who train gymnasts up to Olympic standard.

National Squash Centre – seats 1,200 spectators and hosts tournaments at national and international level.

A J Bell Stadium – Home to the Sale Sharks, one of the UK’s top rugby union teams.

Chill Factore – an indoor ski centre with the longest indoor skiing and snowboarding slope in the UK.

National Cycling Centre (The Velodrome) – The first indoor Olympic cycling track in Britain, which houses the headquarters of Britain’s governing body for cycling. The track’s regular users include Sir Chris Hoy and Laura Trott.

Arts and Culture

Manchester has a good selection of art galleries, theatres and museums. Here’s a list of 10 art galleries that are well worth checking out: ten Manchester art galleries. There are also many smaller art galleries outside the city centre, and private art galleries in the Northern Quarter and elsewhere.

There are many museums in Manchester, some of them housed in historic buildings, and several of them themed, such as the Greater Manchester Police Museum, the Gallery of Costume, and the Manchester Jewish Museum. One of my favourites is the Museum of Science and Industry, which is a great day out for children because of its interactive exhibitions.

Theatres are abundant and tickets are a fraction of the price you would pay in London. You can expect to pay around £30 – £50 for a city centre performance of a well-known play or musical. However, I enjoy visiting local theatres in towns outside the city centre where you can watch lesser known plays written by local writers with tickets costing as little as £8.

Architecture

According to Wikipedia there are 236 Grade ll* listed buildings in Greater Manchester and 48 buildings are Grade l listed. Here are a couple of examples of the city’s architecture:

Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral is a grade I listed building, which has a rich history. It is built from locally sourced sandstone with floors made of limestone from the nearby Peak District. Although the cathedral has been redeveloped and added to over the years, there is evidence of an early Saxon church. The cathedral has a small carving of an angel with a scroll in one of its walls. It’s called the ‘Angel Stone’ and dates back to around 700 AD.

Sinclairs & Old Wellington

The Old Wellington Inn and Sinclair’s Oyster Bar are both Grade ll listed buildings. The Old Wellington Inn was built in 1552 and was the residence of the Byrom family from 1554. Writer John Byrom was born there in 1692.

Following the Manchester bomb in 1996, and the regeneration of the city, these two old pubs were dismantled and rebuilt on a site 300 metres away. They now form part of an area known as Shambles Square which is located near to the cathedral.

The modern buildings which I have shown in this article are located near to some more historic buildings. Yet the city is designed in such a way that the various periods of architecture sit comfortably alongside each other.

Music Scene

Take That, James, Oasis, Simply Red, Stone Roses, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays, New Order, Inspiral Carpets and Joy Division are just some of the big name bands to have come from Manchester. Although the days of Madchester and the Hacienda are now over, Manchester still has a vibrant music scene. As well as big venues such as the Manchester Arena and The Apollo, which host international artists, Manchester also has many smaller venues where local, unsigned bands play.

Nightlife

In some ways it’s a pity that my partying days were in the 80s because Manchester is so much busier than it used to be, and there’s something for everyone. Whether you want pubs full of old world charm, trendy nightclubs, bars that cater to office workers wanting to unwind at the end of the day or bargain priced cocktails for students, Manchester has it all. You can go out in Manchester on any night of the week and it will always be busy, unlike the recession-hit early 80s when Fridays and Saturdays tended to be the only really busy nights of the week.

Then there’s the world famous Gay Village, a collection of gay bars and restaurants centred round the pedestrianised canal street. The Gay Village holds the annual Manchester Pride carnival as well as other annual events.

Gay Village

Dining

As with nightclubs, there’s a vast array of places to eat, and almost every type of cuisine you can think of. China town has been around for a long time as has ‘The Curry Mile’ but following the redevelopment of the city centre, there are more and more restaurants springing up all the time. There are also newer developments where several restaurants can be found concentrated into the one area such as The Printworks and Spinningfields.

ShoppingHarvey Nichols

Manchester is a great city for shopping. Apart from the Arndale Centre with over 200 indoor shops, there are several department stores: Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Debenhams, House of Fraser and Marks and Spencer. There are also smaller shopping areas including The Royal Exchange, Barton Arcade, the trendy Affleck’s Palace, and The Triangle. The latter contains mainly upmarket shops. The Arndale Centre is Europe’s third largest city centre shopping centre, and is the eighth biggest UK shopping centre in terms of floor space. However, just a few miles out of the city centre, we also have the Trafford Centre, the UK’s second largest shopping centre.

For independent, boutique stores you could try the Northern Quarter, also known as the creative quarter. As well as individual shops, the Northern Quarter is the location for the Manchester Craft & Design Centre and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art.

Manchester Arndale

Media City

Just outside the city centre is Media City, a relatively recent development aimed at the creative and digital sectors. It is home to BBC North and ITV, and has one of the biggest HD studio complexes in Europe. It’s a thriving and expanding area of the city which includes offices, retail space, apartments and restaurants.

Transport Network

If you’ve grown up in Manchester you probably won’t realise the advantage that the city has over many other parts of the country. It has an excellent road and rail network, regular bus routes to most parts of the city and an ever-expanding tram network. It does suffer from some problems caused by increased traffic flow, which the additional tram lines are designed to alleviate. Manchester also has an international airport with three terminals.

Others

I’m sure there are many more things that I haven’t thought of and no doubt they’ll come to me after publication of this post. However, just to make sure I haven’t missed anyone’s favourites, here’s a fun article I found: 27 Excellent Things Manchester Gave the World.

In upcoming blog posts I’ll be looking at some of Manchester’s wonderful, historic libraries.

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Alexandra Park, Moss Side, Manchester – An Historical Landmark

Alexandra Park in Moss Side, Manchester is another of the locations featured in my forthcoming novel “A Gangster’s Grip”. Its reputation has suffered in recent years due to violence and crime in the vicinity. As recently as 12th May 2015 there was a report of a stabbing in a street next to the park, which left a man in his 20s in a critical condition.

It’s sad to think that Alexandra Park hits the headlines due to violence in the surrounding streets because, actually, the park has a rich and significant heritage. Not only is Alexandra Park the home of the Manchester Caribbean Carnival, a colourful, vibrant event that has been taking place for over 40 years, it is also Grade 2 listed and has been declared a place of national importance because of its heritage.

ParkThe Park was opened by the Mayor of Manchester on 6th August 1870 and was named after Princess Alexandra. It covers an area of more than 60 acres and is one of the most complete Victorian parks in Manchester. In fact, it was considered the showpiece of Manchester’s Victorian parks, boasting a lodge designed by Alfred Darbyshire, male and female gymnasia, a cricket ground, the Serpentine lake, a walkway and terrace designed for promenading, and Manchester’s first sunken bowling green. Later additions to the park included a bandstand, propagating houses and refreshment rooms.

Alexandra Park also has connections with the Suffragette Movement. Emmeline Pankhurst was born on the Alexandra Park estate only yards from the Park. Thousands of suffragettes marched to Alexandra Park on 24th October 1908 where they held a political rally called the “Great Demonstration”. In 1905-6 a large glass house was built inside the Park to house the impressive cactus collection bequeathed by Charles Darrah upon his death. The bombing of the cactus house in November 1913 was attributed to the famous Suffragette, Kitty Marion.

In December 2012 a programme of restoration began for Alexandra Park after decades of neglect. A total of £5.5 million has been invested using money granted to Manchester City Council by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Big Lottery Fund and various sporting bodies in addition to some funds from the council itself. The improvement work has now finished and includes:

  • Restoration of Chorlton Lodge to be used as a community area downstairs and office space upstairs.
  • New cricket pitches with markings for two lacrosse pitches.Football
  • Restoration and extension of the pavilion to encompass changing rooms for the cricket pitches, a larger community space, public toilets and a café.
  • Four new tennis courts.
  • Renovation and/or demolishing of depot buildings to provide views into the park and a community room, and improvement of the existing depot changing rooms for the tennis courts and football field.
  • Extensive landscaping including a flower garden, flower beds, the planting of additional trees, repair and/or replacement of footpaths, replacement of street furniture, improved drainage and restoration of the drinking fountain and flagstaff.

Following completion of the work Alexandra Park now looks stunning. You can see some images of the Park, including some taken during the refurbishment phase, at: http://www.alexandraparkmanchester.com/.

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Surviving Manchester’s Tough Council Estates

I love Manchester! I’ll always be the first person to tell you that, and I’m proud of the many positive things that the city has going for it – sports, music, theatre, art galleries, eating out, magnificent architecture etc. etc. The city centre also looks stunning since it has been regenerated. However, like many major cities, it has less salubrious areas.

As part of the research for my forthcoming novel, “A Gangster’s Grip”, I read the book “Gang War” by Peter Walsh because it is about the drugs gangs in Manchester during the period in the 1980s and 1990s known as Gunchester. I was interested to find that there is a chapter on “The Longsight War” in the book, as Longsight is one of the locations I have chosen for my novel.

In the book, “Gang War”, the author describes a particular estate in Longsight as, “a cheerless patch of low-rise dwellings isolated between the major A6 Stockport Road on one side and a railway mainline and stockyard on the other”, and, “yet another planning mistake”.

 Estate

I was shocked to read these quotations because the estate that the author refers to is, in fact, where I spent my teenage years. Seeing it described like that in black and white made me question whether it was really that bad and, on reflection, I came to the conclusion that, well yes, it was. I apologise to anyone from Longsight who may be offended by this article but my views are based on my own personal experiences. The experiences of others may have been different.

I lived there during the 1970s. I already knew that there were a lot of problems in the area, including shootings, during the 1990s because of gang related violence, but I wasn’t aware until I read the book that the estate actually became the gang’s headquarters.

Although I lived there over a decade before the gang wars took a hold in the area, I don’t have fond memories of my time there. Many of the other kids used to persecute me. The reason? I preferred to study rather than hang about on the streets getting into trouble. I used to feel intimidated every time I went out of the house. The kids would line up and shout insults at me. One of them even threw a banger (firework) at me one day, which missed me by inches. I used to spend time planning the best routes to the bus stop, trying to keep away from the abusive kids while at the same timeDog avoiding the wild dogs that used to prowl around the estate. Sometimes I would walk for miles out of my way just to evade them.

I can remember the police chasing cars around the avenue near to my home, and hearing their brakes screeching in the middle of the night. Sometimes they would bypass the road out of the estate and cut across a grass verge and walkway that led to the main road. (The walkway was actually known on CB radio as “Mugger’s Alley”.) We would see the heavy, muddy tyre marks leading to the main road the following day. This, in fact, gave me the inspiration for a particular car scene in my forthcoming novel, “A Gangster’s Grip”.

Fortunately I and my two oldest brothers were already in secondary school by the time we moved to the estate. That meant that our school was a bus journey away and we had our own set of friends there. My two youngest brothers weren’t so lucky and had the misfortune of attending the local junior school, but that’s another story.

So why would I want to revisit one of the unhappiest times of my life through my writing?

There are a number of reasons. One is that it was an eventful time. It’s difficult to write about anything cosy when you have strong memories of a murderer living at the end of the row and a prostitute next door. Although I’ve had a lot of good times in my life as well, the bad memories will always emerge sharper and more dominant.

There’s also an element of morbid fascination, which I think a lot of us have. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be such a demand for books and films in genres such as crime, thrillers, horror etc. Despite my unhappiness during the time that I lived in Longsight, I remember that there would be an excited buzz if we heard somebody fighting or arguing outside after the pubs shut. This probably wasn’t the Gossipcase for the adults but we were only teenagers at the time. We would peep from behind our bedroom curtains to see what was happening. Then the following day my mother’s friend would call round to bring her up-to-date with the local gossip. I would excitedly listen in on this adult chat while pretending to be busy doing something else.

Writing is also cathartic. In a similar way to counselling, it gives you the opportunity to revisit the bad times and work them out of your system. Once you’ve revisited them, then, metaphorically speaking, you can shut the drawer and put it to one side.

Another reason why I write what I do is because I’ll never forget where I’ve come from. People are sometimes too quick to judge those from council estates. It’s important to note, though, that we aren’t all bad. There are a lot of good people that come from council estates; people like Rita who is the main character in my second novel, and also plays a strong role in my debut novel Slur.

Rita swears like a trouper, she’s brash and she’s feisty, but she’s basically a good person. That’s why I leave all the bad language in my books, because I want to keep it real. I want to show that people like Rita exist. They take all that life throws at them, then come out fighting and emerge stronger. A friend like Rita will always have your back. She’s fiercely loyal, caring and stands up for what she believes in. So, in a way, my second novel is dedicated to all the Ritas in the world.

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I would like to thank author Peter Walsh for his permission to use quotations from his book Gang War: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004RUZQUI or www.amazon.com/dp/B004RUZQUI.

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Cheetham Hill – Manchester’s Most Culturally Diverse Suburb

This is the second of my blog posts, which explores the background to my forthcoming novel, “A Gangster’s Grip”. For this post I thought I would focus on Cheetham Hill, a suburb to the north of Manchester, which is featured in the book.

Here is a quotation from “A Gangster’s Grip” describing Cheetham Hill:Church

“…this vibrant multi-cultural area where new architecture mixed with old, and industrial units, furniture stores and car showrooms stood alongside churches, mosques and synagogues.”

In 2013 a newspaper article described Cheetham Hill Road as “Britain’s Most Diverse Street”. Its eclectic mix includes Irish pubs, Arab sweet shops, Polish delis, Jamaican hairdressers, Asian wholesalers, fast-food outlets and many others. Information from the newspaper report stated that English was a second language for 48% of the residents, and that Cheetham Hill Road has the most nationalities of any road in the UK.

It has long been known as a place for Sunday trading, which took place even before the Sunday licensing laws were passed. Many wholesalers are based in the area and it isn’t always necessary to be a registered business in order to buy from them; therefore many people are attracted by the low prices. The area has also become renowned for the sale of counterfeit goods as highlighted on TV documentaries including the recent “Kyle Files”.

To explore the roots of the town’s ethnic and cultural diversity, it’s interesting to take a brief look at the history of Cheetham Hill. It has been an industrial district for a long time and has attracted groups of immigrants since the 19th century. The Irish arrived in the middle of the 19th century after fleeing the Great Famine.

GlobeThe next group of immigrants to arrive were the Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Amongst them was Michael Marks who, together with Thomas Spencer, opened the first branch of Marks and Spencer in 1893, which was originally situated on Cheetham Hill Road.

During the 1950s and 1960s people from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent settled in the area. Since then there have been various groups of immigrants from the Far East, Africa and Eastern Europe. This mix of nationalities and cultures is what gives the area its great diversity.

There is evidence of the town’s rich history in some of its monuments such as Manchester Jewish Museum and The Museum of Transport. Cheetham Hill also continues to be a wholesale and retail area with a modern shopping complex as well as the traditional wholesalers and multi-cultural retail shops that have existed for decades. It is certainly a place with plenty of selection and somewhere you can find goods that you would have difficulty finding elsewhere.

Sunday mornings are a good time to visit, when the centre of Cheetham Hill is lively and full of enthusiastic shoppers on the lookout for bargains. With the colourful shop fronts and aromas from the many cafes, restaurants and delis in the area, it’s a place where your senses can really come alive. During the week it’s still a busy area but people are more focused on carrying out business then catering to shoppers. I used to work in the accounts offices of a leather goods manufacturer about 25 years ago on the edge of Cheetham Hill, which was an area with an abundance of wholesale warehouses.

Sale

In the 1980s and 1990s a Cheetham Hill gang became involved in a gang war with another gang in Moss Side. The two gangs had previously been on good terms but for some reason they had a major disagreement, which resulted in an escalation in gun violence in certain areas of Manchester. This is only one facet of Cheetham Hill though. I worked in the area during the Gunchester period and didn’t see any evidence of gang culture so I suppose it would depend what part of Cheetham Hill you visited. It’s quite a large area; Cheetham Hill Road is 8km in length and Cheetham Hill had a population of 22.5 thousand according to the 2011 census.

My group of novels called “The Gunchester Trilogy” covers the Gunchester period. Book 1: Slur is currently available from Amazon and Book 2: A Gangster’s Grip, which covers the inter-gang rivalry between Cheetham Hill and Moss Side, will be available from September/October 2015.

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1980s Manchester – The Setting for my Debut Novel “Slur”

To get a feel for what 80s Manchester would have been like for the lead characters in “Slur”, here are a few of my own recollections.

The Music
I can remember that it was a time of big change on the music scene. On the one hand you had clubs that played mainly soul and disco music, and then were those that catered to the alternative music scene. My preferences were mainly soul and disco with Luther Vandross, George Benson and Whitney Houston amongst my favourites. However, I also remember listening to 80s Bowie, the Human League, Brian Ferry and the 12” version of Tainted Love in my friend’s house or mine while we experimented with make-up. We found some shiny purple eye shadow that my mother had discarded years previously and adopted it as lipstick. Bang on trend!

As we got towards the end of the 80s and into the 90s, Manchester started to develop its own music scene, known as Madchester. The emergence of groups like the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets are linked to the Hacienda nightclub. At one point ‘Stone Roses’ was scrawled on virtually every wall in the city centre.

Music

The Clubs
As for the clubs I used to frequent, I started in my late teens with Rotters, a converted cinema with a beautiful interior, and occasionally Tiffanys, which later became the Tropicana. At that time Pips and Placemate 7 were the places where the cool kids went. Placemate 7 was so called because of the 7 different dance floors, with each dedicated to a different style of music, so you got a real mix of people including New Romantics and Punk Rockers. In my 20s I moved onto Saturdays, Fridays and Sachas.

Out of all the clubs, Rotters and Saturdays were my favourites, mainly because they played a good mix of music – usually soul and disco but with some other genres thrown in, which suited my eclectic tastes. Another club I enjoyed was Legends. This was one that my brothers introduced me to and we were fascinated by the laser beams and strobe lighting. Occasionally we also went to the Ritz in the 80s and 90s. It had a bit of a bad reputation and the dance floor used to bounce if there was any particularly energetic dancing taking place.

One of the alternative venues I visited was Corbieres. This was a wine bar that hosted live bands and I went there with someone I was seeing who was into alternative music and dress. In an attempt to fit in I wore the trendiest outfit I could find. Acid Brights were really big that season so I turned up in my bright orange dress complete with matching white accessories. I was mortified when I descended into a dark cellar full of people dressed in black. I also went to The Venue, which I found a bit weird, and the famous Hacienda. The Hacienda was quite casual and full of student types who tended to dress down.

Disco dancing

The Fashions
There were so many fashions that came and went throughout the 80s and often what you wore would be linked to the type of music you preferred. I can remember feeling really daring going out dressed in mini-skirts and white stilettos. It seems that the mini-skirt re-emerges every decade. And yes, I did wear leggings the first time round; the original ones didn’t even have Lycra and they used to sag around the knees and bum by the end of the day. We also used to dance around our handbags in nightclubs – cringe!

Manchester also had its fair share of drugs and violence, as many major cities still do today. These are both evident in my book. In fact, it was due to drug problems that the popular Hacienda had to shut down. Because of this connection I have chosen to feature it in my novel.

The 80s were a great time for me as it was the time of my youth and I can honestly say that I never witnessed any of the crime that is featured in my book. I once saw a handbag snatched and I’ve seen a few nightclub brawls, but I’ve never witnessed a murder. I could go on reminiscing but that alone wouldn’t make a good novel. That’s why I decided to write a crime thriller. I’m hoping that readers will, like me, prefer something gritty and hard-hitting. I’ll be following up with an excerpt chapter from the novel in the coming weeks.

If you remember the 80s please feel free to share your memories in the comments box below. If you’re too young to remember the 80s, I hope you’ve been entertained by the reminiscences of an old dinosaur.

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