Thursday, 8 July 2010

Manchester - still wet

My recent trip to Manchester was great. I lived there for 6 years as a medical student about 50 years ago, and although being a medical student is great fun wherever you are, Manchester itself, as a city, in the 1950s and 60s was less than wonderful.

It had been wonderful in its Victorian heyday of course. The memory lingered on in some of the magnificent monolithic buildings such as the Town Hall, the Refuge Assurance building, the LNER Railway station and the John Rylands Library, and there was still considerable civic pride. After all everybody knew, did they not, that "what Manchester does today, London will do tomorrow". This was where John Dalton, the father of modern chemistry had discovered the atom, and Manchester University had at one time been the world-centre for atomic physics research. The industrialists with their steam engines and Spinning Jennies and coal and cotton and drive and energy had led the world into the 20th century, and some of them were among the richest men in the world. And everybody knew that the 'Manchester Guardian' was the world's best newspaper which shaped London's, and therefore the civilized world's, opinions.

But by the 1950s the memory was fading. Britain had been hammered in the Second World War, the cotton trade had declined, and austerity was the rule for individuals and cities. It had been true for Manchester and the whole of the North that 'Where there's muck there's brass' but when I first went there in 1958 the muck had lasted but the brass had dwindled. There was no Clean Air Act, and the huge factories of the Stockport to Salford conurbation and thousands of rows a small terrraced houses belched out clouds of black smoke by day and night.

My memory of Manchester was of a dark grey city, cold in the Winter and chilly in the Summer, with incessant drizzle interspersed with regular choking fogs. One woke to the sound of sparrows coughing. Sometimes it was even foggy in the lecture theatres. Coming out of a lecture at 4pm in November there would be impenetrable black fog (called 'smog') and the only way to get home would be to memorize and follow the edges of the pavement. Visibility was down to about 2 yards, and the few buses that were still running had a conductor walking just in front of them waving his lamp backwards to guide the driver who was following him. On one famous occasion the bus to Didsbury followed the conductor up the drive of a large house and ended up in the rhododendron bushes, where the passengers had to disembark and grope their way back to the road as best they could. The hospital wards in the Winter were full of people with chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, who died in their hundreds.

It was said in those days that the quickest way out of Manchester was a bottle of gin. Les Dawson, our very politically incorrect Manchester comedian knew little of Moslem religious factions at that time, but if he had he would have said, in short, that there were only two types of weather in Manchester, it was rarely Sunni, but it was often Shi'ite.

I once asked a student friend of mine, who was Chinese, with an imperfect grasp of English, how he liked Manchester. To my surprise he said it was velly, velly good. Why is that? "Because wherever I go next (pause and smile) it will be better".

Well I am pleased to report that Manchester is now very, very much better. And did it rain? Of course it bloody did!

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