...and the most miserable place

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Not even a seat in a bar-room plastered with Bernard Manning photographs could lift the fading spirits at Harpurhey, north Manchester, as the afternoon rain set in and the leaky shopping arcade roof cast a steady stream of water over the locals yesterday.

Mr Manning's World Famous Embassy Club is to be found here, adorned by a huge mural of the big man wearing a tuxedo and a grin, and there is plenty of evidence that the locals employ his famous high spirits to keep boredom at bay. Two regulars will take to the Embassy stage this afternoon to provide four hours of Free and Easy Music, "featuring John Jo on the organ and Mr Nice Guy singing".

But at the bar, George Crowley conceded the place has long since gone to the dogs. "We all used to play out on the old Red Rec," he said, alluding to the local, shale-surfaced recreation ground. "It's not safe for the young ones these days. The safe places have gone, just like the jobs."

The new figures from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister suggest that Mr Crowley had every reason to feel gloomy. They reveal two neighbourhoods in Harpurhey to be among the five most deprived in Britain - and one of them as the most deprived of all 32,000 "super output areas" (SOAs).

The figures suggest that the north-south divide is alive and well. All of the top-10 neighbourhoods are from London's commuter belt while Manchester and Liverpool, with its deprived Abercromby and Everton wards, fill the bottom seven places. Even pronouncing Harpurhey (harper hay) is a struggle to most outsiders - but it has not always been so gloomy here.

From the 14th century days when landowner William Harpour created an 80-acre enclosed area, orhaeg (creating "Harpour's haeg"), the place has borne fruits - from fish in the River Irk, to profitable 18th and 19th centuries dyeing, bleaching and engineering works and culinary delicacies.

No one adored the local delicacy of cow heel pie more than novelist Anthony Burgess, another son of Harpurhey.

Local butcher Eric Pimlott still sells white cow heel at £2.45 a kilo but says he has measured the district's decline in the changing shopping patterns during his 34 years of trade here. "Once, when there was work, you'd find it quiet in the week and busy when the workers were around, at the weekend," he said. "Now every day is much the same for people. The sense of purpose has gone."

For 23 years, Mr Pimlott traded from premises on a local council estate. Then the jobs went and the rot set so he moved premises, 11 years ago. "Most of the working people were moving out of the estate because there were drug addicts hanging about," he said.

"I couldn't leave the shop for five minutes without someone breaking in to it." Outside, Fred Dyson, a retired wedding photographer, dodges the leaky shopping-centre roof as he scurries home. "Facilities - that's what's missing," he said. "You might laugh at the idea of Boy's Brigade, boy scouts and church - but they all gave us something to do." These days he just spends time saving his pension for trips to Portugal. "Get's me away from the place."

The shops beneath the arcade's peeling paintwork say everything about the affluence of this place. There's William Hill, Quicksilver's casino, Supercigs and Shoe Express. Bill Brown's Fresh Fruit & Veg haslong since been boarded up, along with a pet food shop and jewellers.

The Independent's search for some agents of neighbourhood renewal was equally depressing. No one was available at the Harpurhey Neighbourhood Project, none of the three local city councillors was around and the only available source of information on job creation was the buildings manager at the local Employment and Regeneration Partnership. The focus here was on 16-to-19 year olds who leave school with no formal qualifications at all, he said. This might lower the 6.4 per cent local unemployment rate.

Manchester City Council, which has considered Harpurhey to be one of its priority regeneration needs for several years, accepts that its challenge is to stop locals moving out once they have benefited from the economic renaissance Manchester city centre, five miles to the south, is undergoing. "The city centre's accelerating economic growth has seen migration as people have power to exercise the choice," said the council's deputy chief executive, Eamonn Boylan. "We want to invest so economically active people remain."

The fruits of this strategy will be revealed next week, when a £17m district centre including undercover market, leisure centre and expanded shopping arcade opens.

A 500-pupil sixth form centre is also planned for the site of the former swimming baths.

The Embassy Club regulars remain sceptical.

Derek Roberts, 67, talks about a neighbourhood spirit which is as strong as ever - "Look at what happened when this place burned down. We all chipped in to get it rebuilt again," he said - but he thinks the new police station is a joke. "You know it's closed on Sundays don't you?" he said.

It seems they all need a good dose of Mr Manning to lift their spirits. The comedian has some unprintable gags about the days when it was six to a bed in the Harpurhey back-to-backs but he was rendered quite emotional yesterday by the suggestion that his manor had gone to the dogs.

"In the days of poverty, when everybody had nothing, we used to walk to the football at Manchester City," Mr Manning said. "I can't see the kids doing that these days. We've got shops and a petrol stations, the houses are lovely and the curtains are clean. What more could people want?"

HARPURHEY

* Population: 8,834

* Number of schools: 2 primary

* Violent crime per 1,000 population: 25.5

* Mainline station: Picadilly and Victoria, Manchester

* Residents with University degrees: 8.6%

* Unemployment: 6.4%

* Detached and semi-detached houses: 36.5%

* Celebrity links: Bernard Manning, and his Embassy Club. Les Dawson, below first performed in Harpurhey with Manning, in the Lee Road Social Club.

Syd Little and Eddie Large also started their comedy careers in Harpurhey.

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