I am remembering Manchester: we are trundling round town and I’m telling Simon about my first foray into the city.
‘I remember standing beneath the viaduct at Castlefield, listening to music ricochet off all that industrial architecture and dancing with the Dpercussion masses. I couldn’t imagine any other city in Britain pulling it off.’
Simon nods as he steers the buggy along Whitworth Street. I remember, too, stumbling along this same street years ago, on my way to the station after a job interview, entranced by the buildings looming up: all those textile warehouses built in homage to the god of commerce.
But now that I live here, the place strikes me as little more than a village. It’s not so much six degrees of separation but one. This is a city where you can sit in a café or a pub and talk about some bright idea and not long afterwards you’ll have found a loose group of people who can help you make it happen.
‘Like who?’ asks Simon, and I begin to reel off a list: the blog awards, Rainy City Stories, No Point Not Being Friends, In The City, Club Brenda, Unconvention, Sounds from the Other City, Futuresonic, the Literature Festival and even Dpercussion. This is what keeps me in Manchester, I think, the sense that, creatively speaking, we’ve never had it so good.
We head to Urbis for some art and grub. Inside, Milo plumps for a toasted cheese sandwich which, when it arrives, he promptly tries to chuck on the floor.
‘But Milo,’ says I, ‘it’s got dead flies on it. Don’t you want to eat some nice crispy dead flies?’
The boy peers suspiciously at the black sesame seeds that dot the top of the toastie, then demolishes it, only stopping to mumble ‘dead fly’ occasionally before shoving in another mouthful.
Flies ingested, we head up to Videogame Nation, where Milo plays with pixels and I remember why it is I hated Pacman. We dip into the Best of Manchester exhibition, too, me marvelling at just how beautiful Natalie Curtis’ pictures are and Simon, for someone who is almost always deeply unimpressed by The Youth, reasonably impressed by the collective creative talents on display. Milo, for his part, just wants to drive his cars up and down the benches. We hang out at Urbis a fair bit and he knows the score: he gets to eat dead fly sandwiches and play with cars; mummy gets to drink coffee and play at being an art critic.
Urbis has had its faults: its rocky start in life, as a museum of it-didn’t-quite-know-what, has been well documented. But in the past couple of years Urbis has turned itself around – with exhibitions like Emory Douglas, Videogame Nation and the soon-to-open British Hip Hop show. And, although I have worked for Urbis in the past, I remain a critical soul: I like my art to be good and I like the places I hang out to be worth it. Urbis is not by any stretch perfect. It still has a way to go. But I thought it could get there.
It appears it’ll never get the chance: Manchester City Council wants to offload this particular financial burden onto the private sector by turning it into a football museum. For a city that is so good in so many ways, that has finally started to ‘get’ culture by investing in things such as MIF, and that has recently put itself forward as one of the UK’s first cities of culture, it seems a strange decision. Why should it be one or the other – why pit culture against football? Why not have both?
I ponder on this as we wander back downstairs. And as we leave I wonder whether I will be coming back here quite so much when Milo is a bigger boy; whether the Council’s grand plan will simply reinforce Manchester’s shopping-and-football stereotype, and whether or not the newest, edgiest art and cultural commentary won’t be found in this so-called original and modern city but elsewhere. Further south.
Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Yes, one of my favourite in the city centre. Good kids’ selection of both hot meals and sarnies. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Free. Worth it? Yes. Until they turn it into a football museum (no date yet but I’ll keep you posted), this has some of the most interesting exhibitions in Manchester. They generally have an eye on what kids need, too: there are usually activities and interactives for all ages, plus, during half terms and holidays, daily workshops and soft play in the foyer (workshops around £3). A welcome respite from city centre shopping: go now before it’s too late.