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21 June 2016

From Soap Street to the Arndale Centre: a disappearing act on the streets of Manchester

While I’ve no truck with nirvana, I am a true believer in the power of deep absorption into the spirit of a place.

By Will Self

Soap Street in Manchester is filthy. A thick, decades-old deposit of soot and grime coats the old warehouse buildings, while underfoot there’s rotten fruit, discarded takeaway cups, broken glass: all the casual droppings of the urban herd. At its westerly end, the street – which is really little more than an alley – dog-legs right, and in the crook of this bricky elbow, beside bulging wheelie-bins, This & That resides. A local institution for rising thirty years, it offers a selection of three curries and rice, for a modest prix fixe, either to take away, or to eat in on melamine-topped tables.

Or at least the tables were melamine when I was last in Manchester; now, horror of horrors, This & That has had a refurb, such that through its gloomy windows I see clean white-and-blond-wood surfaces. A shiver runs down my neck: Soap Street is in the increasingly hip Northern Quarter, where new-builds and conversions continue apace. True, it’s surpassing difficult to imagine this great, raddled old Victorian city being given a complete, luxury-apartment-and-barcode-façade-office-block makeover – but New Labour began it in the late Nineties and, ever since, the wild horses of speculation they unleashed have been snorting up and down the Mancunian streets. You could be forgiven for thinking they won’t rest until all Salford looks like Media-bloody-City.

People such as myself, who loosely style ourselves psychogeographers, can often appear as insensitive voyeurs on the urban scene. We seem to valorise in particular locations such as Soap Street, which for us are productive of reveries we prize. Surely, our desire to maintain these zones of desuetude and dereliction is proof positive of our disconnection from economic realities – while our ecstatic embrace of the buddleia bursting from the perished brickwork is surely nothing but nostalgie de la bou; in this case, a bou we ourselves will never have to touch. Well, I understand it may appear this way, but in what follows I hope to convince you that the lather Soap Street provokes in me is a rather more interesting phenomenon – a state of mind accessible to all, one that both liberates and empowers.

I stand enfolded by the crook of Soap Street’s elbow, looking up past peeling posters to the fire escapes. The ones to the right are ornate, decorative, the last gasp of the vegetative in the airless, anthropic world, as Walter Benjamin characterised the Belle Époque. But the fire escapes to the left are more angular, with a smoothly kinking and curving balustrade: these are streamlined, interwar flights, for hurrying on down towards the Modern. I hold myself in this declivity between decades and façades, eyes roaming window frames and brickwork. I sense the relationship between the two buildings as longer and more intense than any I’ve ever had. I may have been penetrated and penetrated in turn for – oh, moments, these two have knitted together over the years in a mucilage of mortar . . .

. . . and all at once I’m no longer in the city as prosaically conceived – no longer in Soap Street, in the Northern Quarter, no longer in Manchester. These purely human designations have no currency as I sense the city as a strange sort of biota: a layer of stuff that includes sewer systems and cabling ducts, canals and railway tunnels, stuffy office units and basement Chinese laundries. And the entire colloidal mass heaves and ripples down the ages as it interacts with the morphology of the land in which it is implanted and the fantasies of the myriad species – human, canine, insect, avian, feline – that infest it.

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This sense of being disjointed from place and time sustains as whoever-I-am wanders distractedly around the corner, past an estate agent’s selling blond-wood-and-white surfaces by the square metre, across the road and into the Arndale Centre. You can’t blame Tony Blair for everything; the unreal IRA has to take some responsibility for the weird atmosphere in the Arndale: for the massacre of innocent fish and fowl going on in the food court, the jitterbugging along the central concourse. The sites of terrorist outrages bear their psychic scars – the bomb that demolished the adjacent Marks & Spencer in 1996 is still sending its shock wave howling down the years; I see it in the faces of the shoppers as they stream past me, feel it in the slow and clammy shudder of my own skin.

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Not that I’m that embodied yet; it will take me another half-mile or so of my own streaming before I re-coalesce in my social identity. For now, I remain a flux, a shadow in sunlight, a smirch on a shop window. I pause by the wall alongside the Quaker Meeting House on Bootle Street. Every time it fools me: the venerable tree spreading its boughs over the ancient brickwork seems to beckon to some secluded garden, but there’s only a scrap of car park behind the wall. Or is there? H G Wells wrote a story about mystical experience that takes its title from a nondescript green door off the Cromwell Road which acts as a portal for his protagonist’s trip to the Other Side, and while I’ve no truck with nirvana, I am a true believer in the power of deep absorption into the spirit of a place; it liberates, imaginatively empowers, and can make of a half-mile’s walk across Manchester a journey deep into inner space.

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink