Dirty old town
Dave Haslam Fourth Estate, 319pp, £12.99
When you think of Manchester, what comes to mind? Man Utd, pop music, Coronation Street, Boddingtons beer, Strangeways prison, L S Lowry, incessant rain? Not forgetting the misery and violence. Perhaps Dave Haslam's study will help to revise some of our prejudices. Subtitled "The story of the pop cult city", it is a strut around the streets, from the hard-drinking music halls of the 1840s through the protest and grind of the 19th century to the hard-edged, cosmopolitan life of today.
But don't expect a eulogy. This book isn't about a cocksure regionalism. Instead, as Haslam writes, his study is "both a celebration and an obituary", and it's this willingness to detail the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a city in transition that makes for such a balanced and informative read.
As a former DJ at the world-famous but now defunct Hacienda nightclub, Haslam is well qualified to chronicle what he sees as the city's "unrelenting hedonism", and the chapters dedicated to the "Madchester" and rave culture phenomena are alive with anecdote and insight. Here, we're offered individual band histories, the important venues and the key players, and we're shown how these came together to forge the "mad for it" mentality. The Happy Mondays, for example, "looked more likely to be stars on CCTV than MTV". Most of all, Haslam is keen to reflect on the role of popular culture in the city's wider renaissance. Without pop music, he says, "the modern city of Manchester would be dead".
This may sound like the pop-romanticism of a music journalist, but he has a point. Manchester's prospering night-time economy attracts important investment, and the rave scene helped rejuvenate previously derelict areas of the city, even if Haslam criticises one or two of the building initiatives. Of the Bridgewater Hall, the new home of the Halle Orchestra, he writes, "the social health of Manchester doesn't lie in piling up shiny new halls". Is he suggesting, then, that the Halle should have gone elsewhere?
A vague sloganeering is sometimes married to outbursts of pop philosophy, and, not surprisingly for a DJ, he is fond of remixing his metaphors. He likes the odd pun and song lyric, too. "Dedicated followers of fashion" is smuggled into the text at least three times. Even so, he gets away with it because his research is comprehensive and his selection of material shrewd. There is a wonderful description of the "Monkey Parade", a turn-of-the-century ritual where young men and women patrolled the streets for a partner, and there's a lively account of early 1960s coffee-bar and dance-hall culture led by the Manchester-based DJs Jimmy Savile - yes, that one - and Dave Lee Travis.
Engels finds his place, too. While making notes on the exploitation of the local workforce for Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844, Marx's collaborator found time to drink in the Golden Lion, enjoy a relationship with a local Irish girl and supervise his father's factory. It's a fair treatment as far as it goes but it leaves you wanting to read more than a pop-history permits.
Dave Haslam is perhaps at his best when writing about the black community in Moss Side. He offers a brief but vivid history, thoughtfully handled, and a real attempt to question the area's woeful representation in the media. By listening to the city's storytellers and "accidental entrepreneurs", Haslam has captured something of the Mancunian spirit of invention and defiance. And that's not bad going for a guy who comes from Birmingham.