Paul Vallely: The revolution starts at closing time

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The Independent Online

It being a Monday, I suppose I was the most exciting form of cabaret the evening was likely to produce. I stuck my nose to the giant window of Teasers and peered in. Babes and Beer, said the legend on the plate-glass. Apart from the short-skirted waitresses there were just five people inside the cavernous bar. Two were old codgers who looked as if they would have been more at home in a saloon bar in Salford. The other three were youths in their late teens. They looked just about old enough to be drinking. One of them fixed me with his eyes and stuck two fingers up. It was time to move on.

It being a Monday, I suppose I was the most exciting form of cabaret the evening was likely to produce. I stuck my nose to the giant window of Teasers and peered in. Babes and Beer, said the legend on the plate-glass. Apart from the short-skirted waitresses there were just five people inside the cavernous bar. Two were old codgers who looked as if they would have been more at home in a saloon bar in Salford. The other three were youths in their late teens. They looked just about old enough to be drinking. One of them fixed me with his eyes and stuck two fingers up. It was time to move on.

It could have been worse. It could have been a Friday or a Saturday. On weekend evenings Manchester city centre undergoes a gruesome transformation. Hordes of youths, half-dressed and half-cut, stagger round Deansgate, stumbling over kerbs, vomiting into litter-bins and urinating in shop doorways. Nothing unusual about that, you might say. It happens in most urban centres.

Only not on this scale. Three years ago there were 180 pubs and bars in Manchester city centre. Today there are 450. Between 1979 and 1999 there was a 241 per cent increase in the number of alcohol licences issued; there was also a 225 per cent increase in the number of assaults reported on the streets.

Something else has happened. The way people drink has changed, again. A decade ago the pub-followed-by-club culture gave way to something different, according to my guide to city-centre boozing, Luke Bainbridge, who is editor of Manchester's what's-on guide, City Life.

"It was the time of Madchester, the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, the birth of acid house, the biggest revolution in youth culture for 15 years," he said as he hurried me on from the window of Teasers. The owners of the now-defunct Hacienda realised that their clientele needed somewhere different to congregate before entering the club. "They needed a different kind of drinking establishment, not like the kind of place their big brothers went."

The result was the Dry Bar in Oldham Street, the prototype for the city's "progressive café-bars". Then came Manto in Canal Street, the minimalist bar which transformed the gay village from a seedy closeted meeting place to a self-confident, highly-designed "out" kind of venue. According to Luke, "a new generation of quality independent bars followed. These were places where you could go in and order a cappuccino at 9pm on a Friday night with no qualms."

But the big breweries and chains, worried that their pubs were draining of drinkers, decided to hit back. "It takes time for big businesses like that to do a three-point turn, but by the mid to late Nineties the corporates were trying to imitate the café-bar style too. But they were trying to create something they didn't understand," said Luke, who is in his mid-twenties and therefore combines idealism and cynicism in equally engaging quantities. The result was bars as big as ballrooms. But the vast floor spaces are not for dancing but for shoulder-to-shoulder drinking. "When you drink standing," said Luke, "you drink more."

Indeed. But it is not simply down to the psychology of potation in the perpendicular. We had reached the corner of Deansgate and Peter Street. To the left was an immense Australian-themed drinking house called Walkabout Inn. To the right was a bastion called The Square and beyond it a once-distinguished piece of Victoriana now converted to a branch of Brannigans.

The screaming window adverts said it all. "Bottled Beers and Alcopops - Two For One". "Student Night - how fast can you pull. Win 3 minutes behind the bar". "Shooters, three for the price of two". Inside Brannigans, among its jocular slogans - "warning - you are now entering a cavorting zone" - there was a special promotion on Strong Diamond White. "We play the cheesiest tunes", a sign boasted.

They are not the only ones to celebrate the new hard drinking. The what's-on website Clickmanchester.com outraged many Mancunians when it fly-posted the city with an ad showing two glassy-eyed inebriated students. But others love this world of hen parties in stretch limos, pitchers of vodka and red bull, and the get-it-down-your-neck culture where a good night out ends with either a pick-up or a fight.

"I was all in favour of the deregulation of licences a few years back," said Luke, morosely. "But it's brought about a dumbing-down. What we've ended up with is huge numbers of drunks marauding round the city, crawling along Deansgate Locks not even knowing what bar they're in. We have to find a way of fighting back."

They called it the McEnroe club. As in "you cannot be serious". The you in question were the worthy burghers who had just come up with a new slogan for Marketing Manchester. "We're up and going," it said.

"It was like something off a cycling proficiency badge," said Nick Johnson with withering scorn. Johnson was one of the new generation of independent entrepreneurs. He is a director of the city's hippest bar, Atlas, and also of the punky property developers called Urban Splash who have converted so many Mancunian warehouses into loft apartments that the city-centre population has risen from just 250 to 10,000 in a decade, and less hip developers have actually started to build new "Victorian-style" warehouses so they can convert them too.

The McEnroe club - which included alternative luminaries like Factory records boss Tony Wilson, the restaurateur Oliver Peyton, and the property developer Tom Bloxon - came up with a new smarter campaign and then disbanded. But recently it has reformed under a new logo - Independents. The joining qualification is negative. You have to be a business which isn't part of a chain.

"Independent shops, bars, restaurants and so on are what give a place its distinctive character," said Nick Johnson, whose Atlas bar, with its impressed steel furniture and exotic wheat beer, most certainly falls into the distinctive category. "Without them the soulless corporates and chains make everywhere feel the same. It's about culture, not just economics."

He has a point. The burgeoning of the café-bar society was the perfect vehicle for rejuvenation a decade back. New DJs got their first gigs in the bars, budding chefs their first jobs. The bars were venues for live music, fashion shows, poetry readings, the visual arts and even the showing of short locally-made films. "We need that back," says Johnson, toughly. "A new youth culture is never going to begin in a Hard Rock Cafe."

One good thing has come out of all this. For some time now I have been pestering supermarket managers with requests for heads of radicchio like they used to sell. Ready-washed bags of salad may be jolly convenient, but they are no good for making one of Italy's crowning glories, radicchio risotto. (I got a recipe once from a stallholder in a market in Venice - foodie readers can apply for a copy by e-mail). My local Tesco and Sainsbury are not interested. Which bears out, I told Nick Johnson, everything he says about corporates and chains.

"We have a deli next to the bar," he said. "Radicchio," he shouted to his wife, "there's a request here for radicchio." "I'll get some in," she shouted from the back. Some change, you see, can be for the better.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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