Straight people love Manchester's Mardi Gras. But will they spoil the fun?

Manchester's Mardi Gras festival next weekend, and the Canal Street 'gay village', testify to a vibrant hedonism. By Tony Naylor

The storm-troopers of hedonism are still going strong. Scrawny, topless boys, cheeks hollow, eyes bulging, gyrate atop the tables. Trannies transformed from Jayne Mansfield to Cruella De Ville by the rigours of the weekend cling to one another, and the odd fag hag, for comfort. Here and there, a spotless muscle-bound queen preens. Someone collapses, more drugs are contemplated, people laugh in the weak morning light, bewildered by the state they're in. Slurred conversations and the odd shriek of thanks to the DJ mingle with the relentlessly euphoric hardbag beats.

A (mere) 72 hours after the Mardi Gras festivities began and Manto, a cafe-bar in Manchester's gay village, is a scene of utter carnage.

Six years ago Manchester's gay Mardi Gras was no more than a few stalls outside The Rembrandt bar raising money for Aids charities over the August Bank Holiday. This year it will attract hundreds of thousands of gay and gay-friendly visitors to a four-day fund-raising celebration, and commemoration, of gay life.

In the Fifties, long before anyone dared amend Canal Street to 'Anal Treet', Manchester's gay community was served by just one pub, the 'Rem'. Until, so the story goes, the pub's entire clientele, on hearing that it was to close for a re-fit, marched down Canal Street and colonised the New Union. Later they were joined by a handful of pubs, tucked away in the red-light district behind Chorlton Street bus station and barely acknowledged by the rest of Manchester.

Today, at the Piccadilly end of Canal Street, the prostitutes cling on to their last strips of tarmac after a decade of making way for the gay village. In the early 1990s two pivotal events transformed the area - the opening of Manto, an elegant and unapologetically gay, glass-fronted cafe-bar, and the council's decision to gentrify Canal Street. Suddenly the gays cavorting in the Hacienda had somewhere out, proud and comparably chic to call home.

Walking from Manchester's city centre into what even the Tourist Information Centre now refers to as the 'gay village' is a magical experience. The filthy neglect around Piccadilly is a poignant contrast with the serenity of Canal Street, with its hanging baskets, the Rochdale Canal - it's dirty, but it's still running water - and the profusion of cafe-bars and gay shops. It feels civilised - very European. The village's backdrop of Granby Village, Lancaster House and other city-centre luxury apartment blocks offer up a vision of post-millennial Manchester for those lucky few able to afford it.

On sunny Saturday afternoons outside Manto, Metz and the New Union, young gay Manchester meets up, shows off and kisses in the street. There's no sense of licentious rebellion, it's just everyday life, vicariously lapped up by straights drawn to friendly bonhomie with their pint. If much of the partying in the village is partying for its own sake, tagged later with political significance, it is impossible on days like this to deny the liberalising messages such scenes subtly disseminate through the city.

Come nightfall the roar of conversation outside Manto drowns out the music. Pretty, tanned boys in Dolce e Gabbana vests giggle with other pretty, tanned boys. Those with intricate piercings and affiliations to stranger designer gear are more subdued. Here and there, raucous straight- looking gay 'lads' in football tops and gangs of punk-lesbians in Vans trainers and combats mill about. Occasionally a gaggle of trannies will breeze through in a hail of kisses and melodramatic greetings, leaving straight girls marvelling at their legs. Overworked adjectives like 'vibrant' and 'relaxed' are given new life by the realisation that you have actually escaped the boorish aggression commonly tolerated as part of 'British nightlife'.

Those foolish enough try to drive down Canal Street take ages to ease everyone out of the way with a carefully applied bumper. The only other sort of transport you'll see are rollerblades - on the feet of a 'nun'. This is Sister Marta Immaculate of The Church of the Immaculate Collection, DJ, karaoke host and occasional comfort to Spanish altar boys. She's looking forward to Mardi Gras: "I'm looking forward to all the people if I can get away from watching Countdown. But I'm sure some of those people are a bit strange, you know. Lots of men holding hands, very European. I don't mind as long as there are no people from Belgium."

A few strides up Canal Street brings you to The Rembrandt, where leather chaps, caps and the occasional mini-dress, complemented by a full walrus moustache, abound. Next door, the ever crammed Via Fossa breaks with the primary-coloured, postmodernism of other village bars by mixing High Church with high camp.

Edging the drinkers out of the way you can progress up to Prague 5 bar and - the entirely incongruous haven for the Chanel-clad Cheshire set - the restaurant Mash. Both testify to the increasing encroachment of big business into the village. Mere metres away there are men, buttocks happily exposed to the elements, but there's an increasing fear that the looser door policies of newer establishments are attracting the 'wrong' straights to the village. Incidences of intimidation of gay men, although few, are increasing, and some are warning that the very atmosphere that attracted straights in the first place is now in danger.

The Mardi Gras organisers, The Village Charity, are acutely aware of this problem and are keen to impress on straight visitors, through merchandise and advertising, that they're being invited in to enjoy a lesbian and gay event. "If it's going to be a flagship for the village," says Malcolm Duffin of The Village Charity, "it's really important that we keep telling everyone that it's a lesbian and gay event for lesbians, gay people and their friends. It's an opportunity to party without prejudice. Everyone's welcome, but on those terms."

Extended licences until 1am for most of the Canal Street bars mean the village no longer has any sort of down-time, especially as Manto's Breakfast Club starts at 2.30am. With the added attraction of various open-air bars and several star-studded music and comedy stages at Mardi Gras, not to mention the night-time activities of clubs from Poptastic to the Paradise Factory, you're compelled to party on regardless. "To walk down Canal Street last year during Mardi Gras took 40 minutes to get through the crowds, and that was in the rain," explains Poptastic promoter John Hamilton. "Where else in the world would you get people drinking in the streets in the rain?"

But, in the midst of the revelry, spare a thought for those who make it all possible. "What am I looking forward to about Mardi Gras?" laughs Metz manager Peter Clough. "The Tuesday!"

FACT FILE

Mardi Gras

Saturday 2.30pm: the parade of outrageous floats from the village through the city centre, in front of startled Mancunian pensioners, is always entertaining. The rivalry among village establishments to produce the most flamboyant float is intense.

Monday 10.30pm: the Aids/HIV candlelight vigil in Sackville Park. "I wouldn't call it a highlight, but 15,000 people with candles taking a minute's silence just gives you goose pimples," says John Hamilton of Poptastic.

Clubbing

Saturday: Poptastic all-nighter. Umist Underground (pounds 10). Indie and trash 80s music, cheap beer, guest DJs and their infamous Shagtags. Recommended.

Paradise Factory: the Warehouse Party. Regency House (pounds 10 inc pounds 1 donation to charity). DJs Tim Lennox and Paradise residents, visuals by Temple Decor (Tribal Gathering).

Climax at Paradise Factory, Princess Street (pounds 6/pounds 7 inc pounds 1 donation to Women's Aid). Women only with DJ Just Lisa (Kitty Lips) and others, and kd lang impersonator Jo Davies.

Sunday: Treat in the Street 2. Granada Studios. (pounds 15). DJs from G.A.Y., Poptastic, steel band, live PAs, a New York street carnival, all the usual Granada Studios tour attractions.

Fourplay at Rockworld, Oxford Road (pounds 10). Paradise Factory, SpeedQueen (Leeds), Oi! and React Records.

Drinking

Paul Cons (Flesh, Hacienda) is organising themed events at the stylish Velvet. Metz's Monday morning coffee, liqueur and recuperation session will be an essential pitstop. Manto's DJs will run right through Friday to Tuesday. Check the Poptastic beer tent or Solitaire's hilarious carry- on at New York New York.

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