Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why Manchester Needs to do Better

It might seem a strange time to be saying that Manchester needs to do better. After all, the eyes of the country have been on us this week, with the ongoing Labour Party Conference; and this coming weekend "The Manchester Weekender" highlights the confluence of festival delights in the city such as the Food and Drink Festival and Abandon Normal Devices alongside other great things going on.

And yet, at the same time the Manchester Evening News is finally moving out of the city centre to Chadderton, an inevitable result of it's sale by Guardian Media Group to Trinity Mirror. More than that, you look at the new political landscape, with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and now an equally young Labour leader, and the centre of political gravity seems ever more in London. We now have career politicians in charge of all 3 parties, and it's almost impossible to be a career politician (or a career publisher, or a career TV producer or many other jobs)outside of the capital. Wherever their seats are, their lives - and their families - are London focused. Add in forthcoming storm of public sector cuts, which will surely fall heaviest on the North, and the hyperbolic snowball that will be the 2012 London Olympics, and one wonders if Manchester's ability to retain and attract talent, will continue as it has over the last decade.

The literary debates of the moment seem to come from a resurgent capital. Despite the strong creative writing departments at each of our universities, the large crowds expected for visiting stars like Frantzen and Heaney, and the many writers - this one included - still based in the city; I get an uneasy sense that the move away of literary life from the metropolis that began perhaps twenty years ago, is not a done deal. With hardly a commercial publisher outside of the south east, Northern publicly supported presses like Carcanet, Arc and Bloodaxe which have done so much to be both locally based but internationally focused, will surely face more difficult times in the years to come.

For writers, the lure of the capital can only increase. Pleasing as it is to see the media interest in Tom McCarthy for instance, one wonders if a northern-based writer would have had such wide access to the media? I've seen a few creative talents head south - or further - over the last few years - and I fear that Manchester has not yet done enough to rescue it from being, if not being culturally provincial, a cultural province. In the last few years of Urbis as a cultural centre they came up with the brilliant idea of a "best of Manchester" - a culturally confident identification of next generation talents. With the building's closure, so went, it seems, the awards.

Ironically, some of the worthy initiatives of the last two decades, for instance, around a more inclusive literature, also seem to have fallen away. The establishment has a habit of re-filling the space if the pressure on it recedes. Literature may not be as "hideously white" as other parts of the arts, but if there was once was a cultural thirst for new voices, and new experiences - it seems to have been sated. Forget "long tails", mainstream culture has a habit of expanding right up to the margins.

But this is just an observation, rather than a obituary. I was driven through the city the other day, and saw how areas such as Wythenshawe, Harpurhey and the city centre had been improved over the last dozen years, with new schools, new houses, better public services. It didn't look like the city I first came to in the late 80s - far more than a table of statistics, you can see progress and improvement - and modernity - all around the city. I can't believe that this is just a facade - the city's streets are buzzing with the many languages and accents of all major European capitals. Yes, the BBC can move to Salford, yes, our economic future can be bet on hi-tech, and green-tech; yes, an audience will always exist here for the best of the world's talent - whether Kraftwerk or Seamus Heaney - but we need to continue to find ways, grass roots, DIY Mancunian ways if necessary, of developing the city's art, theatre, music, and finally, literature. As football managers at both United and City have found out over the years, to stay where you are, you have to get better.


Vaughan said...

The Best of Manchester survives, thanks to CityCo. We're only doing fashion this year, and will be looking for partners to work with next year in other areas.

Adrian Slatcher said...

That's fantastic news. It was something I was meaning to ask you about sometime! It just seemed one of those simple ideas that should really worked. Anything I can do to help in future years, let me know.