"Need a Big Issue, our kid?"
"Need a Big Issue, our kid?"
I shake my head. Well I don't need one, do I?
The seller is gat-toothed and philosophical. He is working an untried pitch, the windy spaces of the just opened Exchange Square, where something else used to be, though it is hard now to remember what. I ask his opinion of the refurbishment.
"Aye, it's right enough," he says. It is like a voice from another age. That's how northern enthusiasm used to be. Grudging. Taking its time. Ask me again in a hundred years and I might tell you. But that's not how we are any more, not even up here. Now we whistle and stomp, and wear writing on our clothes. Avid consumers of the new leisure.
New new new. Welcome to Manchester, New City of the New Age. Millennial Manchester, married to money, Man United, the most mega of all Marks & Spencers, and alliteration. Join me in Schlock City, home of Shopping and Funning.
Forgive me if I sound prim. Manchester is my town and you always like your town the way it was. The IRA bomb put paid to some of the old Manchester, though by then it was already devastated by the accursed Arndale Centre, thrown up in the late Seventies at the expense of eight city blocks, a wealth of secret alleyways, and the associations of all our lifetimes. A greedy, heartless, sprawl of bile-yellow tiles, built to house still more Dixons and Top Shops, the Arndale Centre became quickly known to Mancunians as the biggest toilet block in the world. Behold the ingenuities of civic pride: ugly we may be, but our ugly's bigger than yours. Though after the IRA bomb, everyone's secret regret was that it hadn't gone off on the other side of Corporation Street and taken out the Arndale Centre in toto.
Among the eccentric amenities sacrificed to the standardisation of Manchester was the second-hand book market in Shudehill where, if you arrived early enough on a Saturday morning, you could pick up such treasures as the complete novels of Edward Bulwer, 1st Lord of Lytton, printed on vellum and bound in leather, for 10 bob the lot. "Not more books!" my father used to shout, catching me trying to smuggle another boxload into my bedroom. "When are you going to read the ones you've got?" A question I now ask myself whenever I espy those 30 volumes of Edward Bulwer, 1st Lord of Lytton, on my shelves.
It was a bookish experience, growing up in Manchester, that's my point. I recall a marble statue halfway up the steps to the great domed reading room of the Central Reference Library, a braided nymph, clad only in a sheet, reading. From some angles the sheet could be seen to slip dramatically, giving a young man a glimpse of more breast and buttock than he needed when his mind was meant to be on literature. Myself I always fancied it was my book, the book I hadn't yet written, in which the nymph was so engrossed she had forgotten to dress. In this way was sex subordinated to writing.
Ducking into the library to shelter from the rain, I note that she is still there, unbombed and unrenovated, still stuck on the same page. So maybe it's Jeffrey Archer she's reading, not me. I'm pleased that not everything in Manchester has changed. Not the weather neither. It has been a foul re-entry, this return from my southern exile. No sooner do I get off the train than I am struggling to keep hold of my umbrella. "Watch where you're going with that, you twat," a voice from Fallowfield or Miles Platting complains. The sweet music of home. The other familiar sound is that of umbrella spokes snapping in the gale. Like bats with broken wings we stumble blindly into one another, desperate to keep some part of ourselves covered, for the rain too is as it always was, spiteful and needling.
I am staying at a character hotel in Portland Street, once one of Manchester's great textile warehouses, built on the model of a Renaissance palazzo. Something like a hundred people are trying to check in at the same time. To add insult to injury, half of them are from Liverpool. "Bear with me," says the girl at the desk. "Bear with me" is not a Mancunianism. I am simultaneously enraged to be kept waiting and relieved that the inanities of the hospitality trade echo hollowly here. I too am a begrudging northerner and don't want Manchester to be a hospitable place, except to me.
In the lift a couple of local girls, here for a party, are embarrassing a young porter. The lift lurches, throwing the bolder of the girls flat against the boy. "I know him more better now," she laughs to her friend.
The palazzospecialises in cheap windowless rooms, but I have specified a window; the only trouble being that it's at ceiling level and I have to trampoline off the bed to see out of it. A pity, because Manchester is enthralling to look down upon now. What with the bomb and preparations for the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and other wild municipal expectations, the city has been half-cleared, which means you get views of hitherto concealed wonders of the industrial revolution - mills and warehouses and grand Edwardian insurance buildings, red-bricked and terracotta-tiled temples, all vaguely ecclesiastical and morally principled in style but, by a wonderful irony, now serving the new hedonism, perfectly proportioned to be late-night dancing and ecstasy joints.
Waste not, want not. Even the Rochdale Canal is now the setting for waterfront dining in the heart of the Gay Village, where bouncers in zip-up jackets patrol the streets like an early-Victorian police force. It was hereabouts, circa 1956, that I saw my first ever man in a frock and thought he must have been going to a fancy-dress party. I only ever really got the point of girls. And there are girls everywhere in the centre of Manchester, falling in and out of taxis on their Minnie Mouse heels, skipping up and down Portland Street in their slips, rain or no rain. I observe them at the hotel bar, laughing with resolute hysteria, smoking like piston-engines, but never so abandoned as to lose their natural suspiciousness. In every essential they are still the Manchester factory girls of my era, let loose for their annual two weeks' Wakes. The boys are as I remember them as well, except that what was once thought of as Manchester gormlessness is now stylish. Slicked hair and a pasty complexion are the universal look of the hour, and the only true voice of cool has cottonseed and machine oil in it.
What goes around comes around, not excluding the sun in whose presence Exchange Square looks "right enough" the next morning. The Arndale is still the vileness it always was, despite minor tarting up, but an ingenious bobbin-shaped glass and metal bridge attaching it to the biggest Marks & Spencer in the galaxy is fun to walk through. As is the new store itself, a model of airy lightness which might turn out to be too light for the exposed bleakness of Manchester. Those who built heavy here knew what they were doing: against the dead whiteness of the sky and the dejected prospect of the Pennines, they opposed the defiance of solid faÃ§ades with narrow peep-holes - the elaborateness of man against the monotony of nature. How will it be here in the dead of winter? Implicit in the answer of the architects of Exchange Square is the creation of an alternate nature: sandy stone-wall terraces for people to sit and picnic on; lovely giant toytown windmills, swaying like palm trees; and an urban stream fed by three enormous silver taps, which lovers will help one another cross by coloured stepping-stones, as though out on a country walk.
A medieval square has also suddenly appeared from nowhere. Which is fine by me. I always was a medieval boy, fond to madness of a small corner of historic Manchester known as the Shambles, which was moved so many times that in the end nobody could find it; but abracadabra and here it is again - a brand-new ancient cobbled triangle formed by half-timbered Inns and Oyster Bars carted from God knows where. Even better, a shady lane leading to the Cathedral, Manchester's most forgotten landmark, yoked to the life of the city at last.
It's while I am having medieval thoughts that a woman I do not immediately recognise accosts me. "Lillian Ingleby," she says. "From Temple Primary School."
Fragment by fragment, like the rebuilding of Manchester, her face comes back to me. Lillian Ingleby, whose hair I pulled and with whom I was secretly in love. Lillian Ingleby! She is a grandmother now, this little girl of only a year or two ago. And she is here to inspect the Square? No, she is here to play in it. She is a drummer, a percussionist with Sambangra, "Cross-Cultural Drum Dance Fusion". So I stay to watch her drum, a grandmother with sunglasses pushed back into her reddened hair, busking for all she's worth with percussionists half her age. Drumming in the new era. And I am so touched by her Mancunian energy and optimism, her capacity for survival and renaissance, that for a passing moment I wish I had stayed and married her and become a percussionist myself.