Northern soul: Manchester

Manchester has always occupied a special place in British culture, says <em>Dave Haslam</em>

The launch of the Manchester International Festival on 28 June is only the icing on the cake of the city's cultural scene. In recent years, established venues such as the Royal Exchange and the successfully relaunched Manchester Art Gallery have been joined by newcomers including the Imperial War Museum North in neighbouring Salford. Manchester nightlife has boomed since the late 1980s. And in recent years, the landscape has been transformed by posh hotels, grand retail emporia and city-centre apartments - all concrete evidence of regeneration. The architecture of the newly constructed, 47-storey Beetham Tower and the 60-storey tower at Eastgate is conspicuous to the point of being embarrassingly attention-seeking.

Manchester has always occupied a special place in British culture. In the Victorian era, said the historian Asa Briggs: "Manchester spoke in the name of the provinces and the provinces spoke in the name of England." From Peterloo to the suffragettes and beyond, Manchester has displayed a sense of independence and a pioneering, do-it-yourself spirit. It has always absorbed migrants from overseas, and acts as a provincial capital, drawing energy from its surroundings.

Manchester was primarily a warehouse city, linked to northern mill-towns such as Blackburn, Burnley and Rochdale, but its hinterland also includes the gentler, more prosperous Cheshire plains. The city is distinctive in the north not only for its size, but also for its cultural mix. In the Victorian era the city was home to a sizeable, Nonconformist, liberal middle class - Mrs Gaskell, the Pankhursts, the Manchester Guardian. Wild popular culture thrived on the streets and in the music halls, but there was also an audience for more refined cultural activity: in 1858, Charles Hallé founded Britain's first professional symphony orchestra. This range is reflected in contemporary TV representations of the city. In the series Cold Feet, the protagonists are couples with city-centre jobs and nannies, while Shameless shows life on the estates, where days are measured out in lots of cigs and trips to the Jockey.

The similarities between Manchester and Liverpool are great, but they belie deep cultural differences. Both cities have a history of cultural endeavour, and both have been blessed with gifted local writers. Both suffered a postwar economic decline that appears to have been reversed recently. Both cities have underachieving football teams that play in blue, and red teams that are internationally known. But while Manchester United fans' favourite players include Eric Cantona and David Beckham (most definitely not local boys), in Liverpool the heroes are Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher; that they are proper Scousers is key to their status. Manchester is fluid, ever-evolving, whereas Liverpool is more like an enclave.

The Beatles have, of course, inspired generations of musicians throughout Britain and the rest of the world. But by the late 1970s, the particular mix of brooding violence and anti-commercial art that characterised the post-punk era had melded perfectly with the Manchester mindset. Bands such as the Fall, Joy Division and the Smiths established the credibility and significance of Manchester's music scene. From the late 1970s through to the recession-hit 1980s, bohemian activity took root in the empty warehouses and the run-down centre. The Hacienda was a prime example - an empty warehouse became the first superclub of the rave era, and provided a focus for a high-profile music scene in the 1980s that made a great contribution to the city's rebirth.

The Hacienda has since been demolished and replaced by a block of plush apartments. Big business and the property developers are now in control; there are almost no spaces available for pioneering, low-rent creatives to colonise. Regeneration has created a tamer city. The Manchester International Festival and official beacons of Manchester's cultural status - the Bridgewater Hall, Urbis, Imperial War Museum North - aren't examples of culture as a means of self- expression; they don't give the city a voice. They are a "product" in the slightly tawdry competition between regional cities to divert attention and resources from London. Culture is a servant of civic boosterism. While Manchester's prestige projects sparkle, the unsexy parts of the city are falling behind. Where communities are ravaged by drugs and violence, opportunities are few, and the prevailing culture is one of despair.

Nevertheless, Manchester's history, size and sense of possibility still draw people in. I've recently met a band, called the Clerks, who came to Manchester to pro gress their musical career. They moved from Paris, one of the great capitals of the world, to a rented house near the biscuit factory on the 192 bus route. They have done several gigs and have self-financed a single release, and some of the band have branched out into video-making. I'm not sure it's going to happen for them, but, for now, there's something in Manchester to sustain their dreams.

Liverpool or Manchester?

Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records

"I'm very proud of what's been going on in Manchester. As for Liverpool, the Beatles are the most important group in history, but the Liverpool scene lasted for three years, whereas with Manchester, the scene lasted for 20 years, from 1977 to Oasis."

Roger McGough, poet

"I live in London now, but I'm a Scouser at heart. The thing with Liverpool and Manchester is that in Liverpool we always felt like we used to miss out - like when Granada went to Manchester, we missed out on the investment and the money. Liverpool always feels like it's out on a limb, which I guess it is, in a way. But the relationship is often more co-operative."

Jude Kelly, director, Southbank Centre

"When I grew up in Liverpool, it was at a cultural high point - the Beatles had already become world-famous; there was the Playhouse, the Philharmonic, the Mersey Poets; and it was a fantastic scene for all the arts. It took an incredible battering economically, but the wit and ingenuity of Liverpool meant that it came springing back into life.

"I think Liverpool hit a point of no return and decided that it needed to pull together and start really trying to rebuild the community from within. It has become much less isolated - it's looking at international partners and it's thinking of itself as an international city.

"Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds all need to think of themselves as places that generate culture, rather than being on the receiving end of London's creativity."

Candie Payne, singer

"Both cities deserve attention for their creative achievements. It's in a Scouser's blood to love music: it's the Irish and the Italian heritage that makes it an instinctive thing to us. We've got the Zutons, the Coral, the Dead 60s, tonnes of bands - but maybe it's true that it has been difficult to get them out of the Liverpool scene. We do ourselves a disservice, in that we don't push it very much; we're not very concerned with what the rest of the country thinks!"

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis