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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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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