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It took me years to get to know Manchester – now I miss the feeling of being lost there

In the early part of the last decade Manchester became the hot spot for Ageing Labour’s take on urban regeneration.

Until very recently I’d never really got the measure of Manchester, even after 25 years of regular visits and short sojourns. When I walked the cavernous streets of the central district, I might have been surrounded by the dead weight of commercial and municipal Victoriana, yet still the city seemed, for me, to lack substance. I apprehended it as a built environment pushed up into evanescent being: masonry and porphyry surf on a capitalistic wave. In this it reminded me of a Californian mining town dating from the 1850s and at the risk of bringing the chamber of commerce down on my head I’d say that for Manchester, too, it’s after the gold rush. All these stony-faced warehouses and offices were spun into being by the nimble fingers of King Cotton but the industry is long gone, leaving behind a twisted ganglion of canals and a collective stomach knotted with pride.

My usual tactic with an unfamiliar city is to walk or cycle across it. Being forced to orientate yourself and interposing your own physicality invariably renders the strange comprehensible. The Lockean theory of primitive acquisition is that land ownership is achieved by mixing your labour with the soil and human-powered transit effects at least a tenancy of that which is traversed.

But for some reason I had never quite got across Manchester. I walked once from Edale over Kinder Scout and down to New Mills, then entrained to the Manchester outskirts, from where I walked into Deansgate. On another occasion, I cycled from Runcorn and, despite the balls-up of having anticipated that the Ship Canal would have a towpath (duh!), managed to make it all the way to Eccles before giving up and taking the tram.

In the 1990s, when I used to go up regularly to do a spot on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 show, I’d often leave the studios on Oxford Road and, in the company of one ne’er-do-well or another, wander the Stygian inner suburbs in search of unknown pleasures. I remember going to a tower block in Hulme that was completely without power but heavily tenanted by squatters; walking up from floor to floor I was treated to Dantean visions of abandonment and perdition, all lit up by candles and even fires lit directly on the concrete floors. Perhaps it’s this sense of dislocation – not just in space but time as well – that has stayed with me and become ingrained in my sense of Manchester. On one of those mad nights I ended up, at dawn, having a version of sexual congress in the pit that had been dug for the foundations of the new Malmaison hotel; now, whenever I debouch from Piccadilly Station it’s this Kafkaesque burrowing that returns to me, rather than any more orthodox civic awareness.

In the early part of the last decade Manchester became the hot spot for Ageing Labour’s take on urban regeneration: defunct tower blocks were dynamited, streets full of derelict houses were bulldozed and series of new buildings were erected – offices and “luxury” apartment developments characterised by their barcode façades and whimsical cladding. The valve at the epicentre of this attempt to pump up a property bubble is the 47-storey Beetham Tower at the top of Deansgate and wherever you may find yourself in this mostly flat metropolis, you can be sure of regaining the centre simply by aiming for this shiny slab. The tower does Manchester no favours, though; the architects describe the four-metre cantilever at the 23rd floor as giving the skyscraper “definition” – as if it were some buff young thing loitering on the outskirts of the gay village – but to my way of thinking the thinness of the block symbolises the thinness of the finance-capital veneer that’s been applied to this former industrial powerhouse.

Throughout last winter, I spent quite a bit of time in Manchester – almost all of it in a serviced apartment by the Shudehill Interchange in the Northern Quarter. Towards the end of working on a novel I like to go away somewhere and effect a total immersion in the material, grafting almost non-stop for a period of four or five days.

I favour cities I don’t really know too well for these sessions and Manchester fitted the bill perfectly. Over the years I’ve evolved a fixed regimen: the same compositional methods, the same food, the same disordered sleep. I’ve also come to prize the anonymity of serviced apartments: simulacra of what a domestic space might be like were there to be any love. Instead there’s only a middle-aged man typing, unreal visions swirling in his head, while outside the windows is a city wreathed in partial obscurity. Short walks to the Co-op opposite the Arndale shopping centre to buy provisions, slightly longer ones to Chinatown for a meal and one long excursion to the Bridgewater Hall to hear Monteverdi’s 1610 vespers: these were my only outings. I relished my disorientation, even as I struggled to impose a structure on my polymorphous material.

Then, the book finished, I travelled up north again last weekend and this time I did walk across the city – all the way from Salford Quays to Piccadilly. I feel I know Manchester a bit better now but paradoxically it’s a feeling of loss: I want the unknown and illegible city back but that can never be.

Will Self’s new novel, “Shark”, much of which was written as he gazed out at the Shudehill Interchange, will be published by Viking in September (£18.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism