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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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories