…they tried to break my City. They attacked us, killed the young among us, expecting us to bend and shatter. They had no idea who they are dealing with. We are Manchester. We do not cower from you, we will never kneel to you, we will not change for you, and in the end we are too many and too much for you. We are Manchester. We will stand side by side. We will laugh in your faces and if you dare try to do this again, we will have you. That lot down the other end of the East Lancs Road say ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Cross us once more, and You Will Never Walk Again. We are Manchester, and you don’t mess with us, mate.
Stop me if I’ve told you this before.
I remember a Friday night after work, back end of 1979, going for a drink with a guy I’d gotten friendly with where I lived in Nottingham.
The conversation turned to music, and I explained one of the things that I saw as a glory of the Punk/New Wave scene. Punk had rejected the standard Seventies rock meme about paying your dues, namely the gigging night after night, small venues, on the road, honing your chops.
Instead, bands were forming out of nowhere, bringing sometimes no more than crude enthusiasm and energy, and minimal technique, and independent labels were putting their records out without that two years of grind.
And some of those records were brilliant. Two to three minutes in which everything the band had got was concentrated into a moment that was awesome. Maybe/probably the band could never do it again (I cited The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’, their only release at that point, as an example of a band who would probably never produce anything else worth listening to…) but so what? We had that three minutes of brilliance.
Why did it matter that we didn’t get the boring, predictable stuff? Some bands only have three minutes of brilliance in them.
I know virtually nothing about Omerta. They were a Manchester band who were around in the mid-2000s. Very popular live, expected to be big, released three singles and disappeared. ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ isn’t even an a-side, that was a song called ‘One Chance’. I never heard them, or heard of them, when they were live. It’s only because I’ve researched this that I’ve discovered they involved into the equally highly-respected and longer lasting Slow Readers Club.
I found out about ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ when it was used as background music to a short video on the FC United of Manchester web-site. I thought it was brilliant. Thankfully, someone before me had asked what the music was and it had been identified, which enabled me to rush to YouTube and hear the whole thing immediately.
‘Synchronise your Smiles’ is one of those songs that’s a marriage of rock and dance/electronica. It begins shyly, slyly, with some beeps and tweeps, an almost rhythm, to which a solo bass that grows in regularity, cymbals dancing quickly behind, over which the lead singer(s) croons the title and follows it with the purely Mancunian advice that ‘you look so dumb’.
The electronica pulses throughout the song, which gathers in tempo as guitars and drums cut in, and suddenly, from a standing start the song is flying along on a yearning melody that drags the listener in its wake. The song becomes a rush of sound, the vocals mixed down so that the lyrics can’t easily be distinguished, except in certain moments, such as the chorus. which feels as if the song is accelerating: meet me down the (something) of Justice, don’t stand in line and they’ll see through all your bullshit lies in time, where has it all gone wrong?
And whilst that seems to be the key line, the one that repeats, the one that ends the song as the music fades to leave only that electronic riff that has underpinned the entire song is the fantastically optimistic I will see you again. Loss, pain and hope, whether justified or denied, in a three minute sugar rush.
I’ve no idea and I can’t begin to guess. I only know that this is just short of three minutes of brilliance, that this is in that sense you can’t define in words but can only know from living here, completely Mancunian. This couldn’t have been recorded anywhere else and sound like this and be like this. I don’t know what brought Omerta together and what drove them apart. I just know that here was a band that had three minutes of brilliance in it and here it is.
Where has it all gone wrong?
Courtesy of word being passed on by my mate, John, I paid an unscheduled visit to Manchester City Centre today, for an open-air exhibition in Albert Square, outside our closed-for-refurbishment-until-2024 Town Hall, to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the RAF.
I’m not usually into military things but just as the E-type Jaguar is the sexiest car ever made, so too is the Spitfire the sexiest fighter plane there ever will be and the chance to see an actual one, up close, was irresistible.
It wasn’t the the only plane on show: there was part of a Lancaster Bomber:
I usually title my dodgy links to articles in the Guardian ‘Crap Journalism’ but this one demands a completely different category.
Each week, in the Weekend Magazine, the paper spotlights a different place and puts it forward as an area to consider moving to. This time, I had to look twice to believe that I was reading ‘Let’s move to… Openshaw‘
Openshaw. East Manchester. Run-down. Neglected. Isolated. No facilities. I lived there until I was eleven, went back often. It’s a hole, even now. It’s not a fashionable place where you can get ahead of the smart investors. It never will be, or if it ever becomes that, then the world will have changed in ways of which we cannot imagine. This can’t be serious. The comments can’t believe it either.
But this is a serious and long-running feature.
Somebody has got to be having a laugh, but if they are I’m hanged if I can tell the punchline.
A year on.
I wasn’t there. I only know one person who was there, a work colleague, who has still not returned to work. But it happened here, to us, and when you attack one of us we all stand against you, to show you that we will never let you win. You cannot beat Manchester. To steal the title from the Treme season 1 box-set, Won’t Bow Don’t Know How. We look after our own, we come together, we sing and laugh and dance and you cannot make even the slightest dent against that. And we will honour and remember our own until the world’s end.
She’s not my kind of music, but then she was never meant to be, but after what happened nearly a year ago, and how she has responded to that, Ariana Grande has become one of us: a Mancunian. Read this and understand why. Respect.
It’s time for another expedition, though this one was more of a midday effort by the time I got sorted. I’d been contemplating inertia after being out both the last two days: writing that needed doing, essential shopping only, but a phone call and an unplanned visitor spurred me into action. I needed to shave and shower so, after that effort, I might as well go out.
Business done, I was off to Stockport to wait for another 23A in the Bus Station (which I have learned, this week, they plan to demolish entirely and move somewhere where it’s not right in the centre of Stockport and convenient to everyone, not least me). The sun is high, the sky blue, such cloud as there is is wisps, thin, pale, a change in shade, no more. It might be July, except that we no longer have Julys like this any more.
I wasn’t going anything like as far as Trafford Park today, no indeedy. I was going to check out that bookshop behind Didsbury Village, plus one other old haunt I haven’t visited in years.
There was no old history to recall until the bus had gone through East Didsbury. I lived round the corner from here for twenty-three years, my time in Nottingham excepted. Three corners are changed irrevocably and long-tme: the Metrolink station, the Tesco’s Superstore, the Parrs Wood Entertainment Centre. The fourth corner is still a green island in this complex junction.
Didsbury Cricket Club were preparing for a match, the wickets proud in the pale strip at the centre of the emerald turf. The Village itself was bustling. Even from the bus it had the look and feel of a place that is hip, if it is still hip to describe things as hip, and cool, if it is still cool to describe things as cool.
I let the bus take me round into Barlow Moor Road, not realising how far it was to the next stop, at Hesketh Avenue, and left myself a long and hot walk back. Still, it was better than Trafford Park.
The bookshop was actually part of, and reached through, The Art of Tea, a decided;ly hip and cool place, dare I say it, even artisanal. None of which mattered once I got into the back. I haven’t been in a proper paper-and-ink secondhand bookshop for years, and I’d forgotten just how comfortable it feels. Immediately, I spotted a book, A Treasury of Disney Animation Art, a sequel to The Illusion of Life, on which I dropped £25 brand new, over thirty years ago. It was way above my impulse buy budget, even when I got into conversation with the owner, Bob, who’s got to be at least ten years older than me and admits to running this as a hobby, and he knocked £2.00 off for me. Reader, I bought it.
Enter an old acquaintance, Mike Don, who sells second hand books, originally as mail-order and now mainly through the internet, as Dreamberry Wine. Mike still lives on Maine Road: I was taken there once, my a mate who was a part-time comics dealer, back when the Bitters still lived there (hack, plew!). My mate spent ages dithering over a set of Patricia McKillip’s A Riddle of Stars trilogy, hardback in immaculate dust jackets. Playing scrupulously fair, I kept schtum, fully intending to grab them if he decided against: he bought them, and it took me thirty years and eBay to amass them.
The Village was still busy. It’s not like Wilmslow, I didn’t feel so out of place and unwashed here, but there’s a line drawn in invisible sand, between those for whom the Village is run, and those of us who remember it from forty years ago, when it was just a place for those who lived round it.
The big white building on the corner of the lights used to be the Cavalcade, or just the Cav. Me and my mate drank here often. It was old, and didn’t care, basic but comfortable, a place to sit and drink. Then, one Sunday night, we popped in to meet one of my mate’s colleagues,. who lived locally. It had changed out of all recognition: bright and brittle, chromium and glass, its name changed to something quasi-military that I can no longer remember. I hated it on sight and ordered a half, so that if she arrived immediately, I could bolt it down and we could leave straight away. Never set foot in the place again.
Now it’s CAU, which stands for Carne Argentina Unica, a restaurant it seems, serving Beunos Ares food.
I needed the loo, it was hot, I went in the Crown and ordered a half. It was cool, and so was the drink, which I gulped down in three goes, wishing I’d ordered a pint. I can’t remember if I’ve ever been in there before, I think not. It looked and felt unchanged. Except for the big TV’s, showing Sky’s lunchtime match.
Back outside, I crossed the road, not because there was anything I wanted to see, because there wasn’t, but because, further up the Village, there was an odd little cobbled street where Morten’s Bookshop used to be sited and, Madre de Dios!, it’s sill there!
Of course I went in, I was nostalgia-tripping, wasn’t I? It’s a completely different type of bookshop, mostly new books, mostly paperbacks. The old instincts kicked in: in Bookshop, buy Book. There was a table of signed copies, a table of Bargain books, but I lingered longest over Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, which I noted was published by… Mortens.
There was a bus stop over the road, outside the Library. Once, I could and would have walked it, but time, age, knee, hip, heat. It may be short, but it’s two buses. Actually, if I had walked it, I’d have missed this lovely girl who stood at the stop: tall, slim, long brown hair, wearing a floaty denim dress that buttons up the front. The deep plunge neck indicated clearly that she was braless, whilst the dress, buttoned only to midthigh, was biassed to a long expanse of leg. A delightful sight.
Two stops on this bus, three on the next, or rather not. It only runs once an hour and I was almost exactly halfway between, so I had to walk it anyway. Fog Lane used to support two alternating services, West Didsbury to Droylsden, every ten minutes, regular as clockwork.
Mention of Fog Lane should clue those who know their rock history in to the fact that my second destination was the legendary Sifters, secondhand records, regular haunt of the Gallagher brothers and me. After decades of visits at least every month, this was only my second in the past eight years, for this place is a bugger to get to by bus.
It hasn’t changed a bit. I clicked through CDs, chatted with Pete, came out with Van Morrison and Carole King, £2.95 each, no postage. It might as well have been a week or two since my last visit as the more than five years it actually was. I even recognised the majority of artists, for this was a traditional pile-em-high-and-sell-em-cheap Pop and Rock shop and there was no alienation in there.
I’d had to keep an eye on the time so as not to miss the next bus, and I was ten minutes early – the usual paranoid cushion. The bus was late – naturally: I’m waiting for it – but only by three minutes, and I was the only one on it, apart from the driver.
This used to be the province of the 169/170, services that ran this route since God’s dog was a pup, but that was then. This was a 171: at Green End Roundabout it took the Errwood Road exit, the old 170 section. This was the least changed part of my journey. These are the wide grass verges, the set-back semi-detached houses, Cringle Fields, that I went past on the bus to school in 1966. Levenshulme Girls School is still there on one side, but not McVities Biscuits on the other.
Here was where I met Linda again, five years after we’d both left Elysian Street for Senior Schools. She was tall, slim, short-skirted, mature, self-confident, long blonde hair, and not quite 16. I was ten weeks younger than her and none of those things.
She (re)introduced me to old mates who’ve been friends to this day, but we knocked around a bit only for about ten months before drifting apart again. On Stockport Road, a little further on, we met up again, after another decade. Her father had died, I’d written a letter of sympathy, we’d arranged to meet one Tuesday night, at a now long-demolished small Sports Centre, where she and a bunch of her colleagues played badminton every week.
Typically, I got it wrong and went straight to the little pub adjacent, where they had a drink afterwards. She rushed in after me, looking worried, went straight past me at the bar. Not without a little trepidation, I took up my pint and followed her: this time she saw through the beard.
She was married, she was a computer programmer, she wore her hair short (I never saw it long again). We were friends for fifteen years. She named her first son after me, I thought of her as another sister: she was certainly closer than my actual sister was. But after she divorced her husband, she became distant: when she moved to Leeds and re-married, that was it. I haven’t seen or heard from her in two decades.
Apart from a half mile of Mount Road, the rest of the journey used none of the old 169/170 route until I got off in a much-changed street at the back of the Gorton Tesco’s. This was the last stop, in intent and energy. One final bus journey on the 203, the fifth of the day, eventless and thought-less until I’m home, where I relaxed and watched Manchester United win their FA Cup Semi-Final. They’re playing the Final opposite the Prince Harry/Meghan Markle wedding: I wonder which one I’ll watch?
But it’s true: I should get out more often. Travel stimulates the mind. I remember so many things when I visit places I no longer go. There are miniature autobiographies in bus-routes.