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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.

Illustration: Jackson Rees
Illustration: Jackson Rees

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)