Manchester. Tall buildings 'n' stuff.

I've been working on 2000 Tunes, a companion novel to Cold Fusion 2000. Both are set in Manchester in the summer of the year 2000. And, just as I went to Manchester to do research for the first novel, I have done the same thing for 2000 Tunes. Then it's taken me days to type up my notes from my trip to Manchester. But I did it in the end, and here it is! All 4,794 words of it.


Make mine a builder's tea. There's a right good view from up here.

Thursday 18th July
I arrived to find that the city was scorching. Which is perfect when you're writing a novel set during a hot summer. My 11th floor apartment at The Light Boutique Aparthotel (nice place to stay) overlooked Afflecks Palace again so I stood on the balcony to cool down. I rang the Ministry of Justice and continued the dialogue I'd started with them. They told me they had no problem with me visiting Strangeways where some scenes in the novel are set but they needed to clear it with the Governor first. I also rang Vince Vega again. He's Bez's agent (Bez from the Happy Mondays) since I wanted Bez to appear in the novel as someone who gives advice to the protagonist.

The fire next to Afflecks.

The road outside Afflecks was blocked off. There'd been a fire in the building next door and a brave fireman had died trying to put it out. Police kept people away for 24 hours a day during my time there, and white-suited fire investigators brought out barrows full of material to be combed through for forensic evidence. Both tragic and fascinating.

Not much research to do on this day so I had a lovely meal in Bistro 1847.

Bistro 1847: Posh vegan 'fish' and chips. Tofu fried in batter!

And desserts.

I then went to the Fab Bar on Portland Street. In my novel there's a scene set in here, a bar I used to like when I worked in the city centre. It has a full-sized dalek and a cyberman. I remembered a mechanical spider that lowered itself onto unsuspecting punters at the bar leading to many shrieks, and it is something I wanted to include in my novel.
"That was a Thatcher Spider," the bar staff told me.
"Thatcher Spider?"
"Yeah, it had a picture of Margaret Thatcher's face stuck to it. Was there for years."
So I once felt Thatcher's hairy legs tickling my face? It's enough to give me nightmares.

The place is dark, a grown-up kid’s toyroom, prized possessions highlighted with fairy lights. Reds the glow of engine ports, greens of alien birth chambers, blues of distant ice caverns. Painted girders and pillars combine 60s kitsch with steampunk engineering. I noticed that a lot in Manchester - girders, steel frames, arches, pillars - you see how things were made, bones laid bare, skeletons out of the closet.

Friday 19th July
The hotel had a gym so I tried to use that at least once a day. I had it to myself every time. That's a blessing for other gym users, since I get a bit technophobic at times and would rather do pull-ups on a tree than stare at a screen while running. Even the TV and music in gyms is distracting. I made sure I turned the TV off each time. 

I have some scenes set in a garage in the Manchester arches, so that was my focus for the morning. I took a Metro trip to Shudehill, as my novel's characters do, then walked from there. Billboards advertised chicken, perfect smiles, expensive running shoes that were better than ever before (if that was true every time a new running shoe came out, why can’t people run any faster than they used to?), insurance, new homes. This area is mostly car parks, car show rooms, car repairs. Lorries and dirty white vans roar past down the main road bordered by wasteland behind railings, piles of earth and brick and sickly brown weeds. Turning off to the arches takes you down lowering roads, like an under-city, beneath riveted iron bridges that echo with traffic. Bricked-up arches, spiked security fences with rusting barbed wire on top, crumbling brickwork with plants growing out make it feel like the place is forgotten. Piss patches and litter and fag ends under the arches. Stack of flyers for an event blew along in the gutter.

My Facebook comment was: “Great shop, Colin the owner is a good guy.”
One joker’s response: “Soho movies?”
Ha ha, I hadn’t even noticed that.

On the way back I discovered Vinyl Revival. The place was perfect - just what I wanted for a scene in the novel. Posters for Joy Division, The Hacienda, New Order, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Smiths etc. A haven for the music that forms a core of my novel. Colin White is the owner and the shop's been there over 16 years. He was happy to make a guest appearance in the novel. He's a cool guy. As with all the good places I mention in this blog post, please go along and support them next time you're in Manchester. Maybe go to all these places, it could be some kind of tour one day if I get famous (for my writing, rather than for wearing a mankini on hotel balconies and having my photo taken by tourists thinking Borat's come to town).

8th Day. Not all the food was mine! I had the salad (left) and cake.

Lunch time at the fantastic 8th Day. I've been going there ever since I worked in the library opposite. It used to be a small place where I'd get stew and crumble before work, but now it is like a supershop above a cafe - so many great things going on there. Every cake (apart from one brownie) was vegan! I was spoilt for choice. In the end I had a yummy blueberry and vanilla slice, but I should have bought more to take back to my hotel room.

It was Liefmans - but it's mine now.

Stopped off at Joshua Brooks on the way back, since I have a scene set here. A dumping scene. In the sense of two people splitting up, not the toilet kind. A really nice bar. The friendly and beautiful girl behind the bar looked like a young Radha Mitchell and I had my first ever pint of Liefmans' fruit beer - expensive (£6 I think) but a real treat. The danger is that it is so drinkable, it goes down like fizzy berry juice at a kid's party. I'm glad I had it. Never deny yourself the occasional luxury.

The rest of my day's research was in Afflecks. I needed to draft a scene where the two main characters explored the place together, with the hint of it being a date. Twisting corridors, multiple staircases, mirrors, drawings, it all adds up to an eclectic funhouse maze. A ghost train of shops.
The place has been recovered, revitalised, repurposed, adapted. Beauty and chaos, everything used with the same sense of creativity and mix-it-up mayhem.

I enjoy walking round Afflecks but it was a bit strange this time - I kept getting accosted by stall owners and security, because I was making notes. I told one security guard that I was making notes for my novel, intended to praise Afflecks as a part of Manchester's cultural history; I wasn't noting down prices or anything like that, just my impressions.
"You need permission from head office to do that."
"Really? I need permission to walk around Afflecks and jot down all the nice things about it?"
"Yes. Without that permission you'll have to leave."
A bit of a sour note, there. It's a kind of bugbear of mine. If you go into a supermarket or big chain store and take a photo of anything they'll make you leave the shop (even if you were taking the photo to text to your family to ask which item they wanted). Yet the store records your every move with security cameras. A bit unfair, methinks.

The whole issue vexes me. Laws are quoted at us, but we don't really know the law. The legal system is designed to obfuscate, to keep it from us, to require paid intermediaries. It's in their interests to keep it that way. The ideal of a simple system of law every citizen is entitled to refer to won’t happen. I once reported some abandoned trolleys twice to my local B&Q - if just ignored they inevitably end up polluting the river. The B&Q didn't collect them. I went into the shop and reported the trolleys again, and said I would maybe write to my local paper if they didn't collect them this time. The manager told me if I did that then B&Q would prosecute me for slander! Could they? Was it a bluff? I was shocked. I asked her to repeat what she'd said and I turned on a voice recorder, at which point she called security. I asked if it was usual to threaten customers with legal action in order to stop them telling the truth. At this point she picked up phone and rang the police. So much for doing a good deed. B&Q ignored my follow up letters and complaint, which shows how shit big companies are. Support your local independents instead! The point is that the law is a confusing mess to most of us. Are the following legal or illegal? Taking a photo of the meal or pint you’ve bought; taking a photo of a poster or sign with a URL on to save writing it down; taking a photo of a place as a memory; a photo of a crowd? I've heard varying views on all these things. Sorry, it's a digression, I'll end that rant.

"No, Mr Bond. I expect you to relax in the manner to which you are accustomed."

Saturday 20th July
Lots of walking around, just absorbing impressions of the city, and places the characters explore. I started with the location of the Conti Club on Harter Street. The club has long gone, but was a hidden gem of a place. I had a rather mad night there once, and some elements of it have been fictionalised for the novel. It's down sidestreets near the canal where the crumbling converted warehouses and gated-off industrial remnants towered over us, turning us into pleasure-seeking specks burning brightly for only a span.

Then I took a canal walk. Weeds and poppies growing up between old stones, under low bridges with dangling mould and web, remains of a fire in the corner, have to duck your head to the side as you walk under. No railing between me and the water, brown, opaque, reflecting muddy walls. It feels like decay down there. Orange lichen spreading over the ground even gives the stone an appearance of rust, to match the jagged bits of metal and pipes jutting out of walls, remains of something practical, now just mysteries. It's peaceful when no-one is around. There's a sense of danger when someone is. Dogshit and broken glass. Over the water was a cardboard city, three bare-chested skinny men lay in filth and dirty blankets, near a dark bridge. One sat up, stared. Started to stand. I walked quickly, listened for the lock rattling if someone crossed it behind me.

I visited where the Hacienda used to be, Whitworth Street West. I remember one time I'd planned to go there with friends, but on the night everyone backed out. "Right," I thought, "I'm not going to let that stop me." I went anyway. Drank and danced and spent all my pocket money, but in turn gained some confidence - it's possible to do things on your own, you don't have to depend on other people. The novel opens with a scene outside the Hacienda.

Being a Saturday there's lots to see on the city streets. Dried remains of stomach acid and bits of food. Patches of dried red, ketchup or dried blood. The Metro rails are full of cigarette dimps like metal-edged ashtrays. Pigeons flap off as you approach, flicker flack and only a feather left. Eroding pavement and road, you can see patches on top of patches as the pattern of erode and repair keeps on going.

Always new car parks. Flat dead land or levels, grey, no history. The history is being buried. Whoever makes money off it doesn’t give a shit about what we see, or they would add trees and bushes and flowers. The city’s ancient history is disappearing behind modern shit that’ll need pulling down in 20 years for even bigger modern shit, with the old beauty it fences in relegated, left to rot by a culture where you get bigger profits from knocking down than maintaining, grants to destroy.

Mod's Pub Grub #1.
Cooked breakfasts are too good just for breakfast time.

On to The Thirsty Scholar for some vegan pub grub from Martin the Mod. I interviewed him about the music scene and some ideas for my novel: together we worked out some more realistic ways of getting them to work. In return for his time I went shopping for him, picked up some frozen vegan slicing sausage for the all-day breakfast. The wooden benches in Thirsty Scholar make me think of a rockin’ church for music and beer. Head to the lights to get your communion lager. The place is built into an arch and vibrates when trains pass overhead; you feel the train’s motion in your arse as it presses on the seat.

That night I had a full itinery as I headed out onto the city streets, alone with my pad of paper, a pen, and copies of my book.

First was Via (Via Fosser back in the year 2000). In the heart of the gay village, I sat with a whisky and scribbled away, notes for an important love scene in the book. Via's got a decadent church interior, chandeliers and velvet sofas, thrones. Dance and boyband pop blare from speakers, cheers from pissed groups at the choruses. Mirrors and flashing lights combine with mazelike walkways on different levels to make the place feel bigger than it is.

On to The Temple (Temple of Convenience back in 2000). Gated steps run down below the ground, a middle of the road location but not a middle of the road venue. I didn't make it inside the bar on that first attempt - it turned out my whole evening would be spent talking to people. First was an Australian sports-clothes entrepreneur. We talked about marketing techniques, writing, selling products and trying to make a name for yourself. He was cooler than me, with his goatee, shades up on his head, shorts and tanned skin. It was nice that there was so much crossover in our different careers. Then I got talking to the lovely Heather and Tom. They said I had a soft and persuasive voice and should use it to sell my books. Heather reminded me of my first girlfriend. They were both funny and friendly. Guys - say hello in the comments below if you read this and I'll send you the pics we took.

Heather and Tom.

I had to leave because I had a meeting with Matt, the manager of 5th Avenue indie nightclub. He showed me around before the club opened to the public, and we discussed how it used to be when I was a visitor, and which of those things would affect the scene I was setting in there. Also the drinks from back then. Castlemaine XXXX bottles and Hooch; Vodbull (vodka and Red Bull) for a quid. At the end I was shown out through the back door.
"I've never been through this door," I said.
"Good. If you had been, it would have meant you'd been a naughty boy and the bouncers had to throw you out."
"That's not me, I can't stand trouble-causers. I was always just out to meet people, make friends, dance and have a good time."

Still true.

Back to The Temple again, and this time I actually got inside. The man behind the bar asked if I was "the writer guy". Yes. Yes I am. This is the location for a scene right at the end of the novel, and appeared in Cold Fusion 2000 too (as many of these places did). This bar is like one of the characters in my new novel: unconventional, rock, cool, all in a tidy package. Oh, and the toilet graffiti is not far off her filthy mind. Candles flickered in red jars.

On to The Garratt. Here I met Ash and Krack. Hi guys, I'll email you the books I promised, I'm finally catching up with my piles of paperwork! They were avid readers and recommended the sci-fi authors Peter Hamilton and James Corey.

Ash and Krack, sci-fi-loving scallywags.

My last port of call was the Lass O’Gowrie, where a few scenes will be based (and the location of Alex and Jane's pivotal meeting in Cold Fusion 2000). I mentioned what I was doing to the bar staff. “We get lots of writers in here,” I was told. Big shelves heaving with old barrels and jugs line the walls. There's The Snug, a carpeted and curtained side room with a fireplace. However, I sat outside in a T-shirt, writing and thinking and observing. It was hot every day of the trip. So hot I never wore any of the long-sleeved tops I took. It's impossible to plan things perfectly in life.

Watching people is fun. Nods and arm waves, point and look, smile, hunch forward to hear, it’s all about humour. Smile, smile, smile, laugh, a pattern of music repeats, this beat of human communication. 1114 – a social pattern, we’re all aiming at it, make music together, a group thing, because the cymbal clash of a laugh is the pissed affirmation of life that keeps us going. We recount jokes, tell tales with punchlines, mix words to startle, we need the reaction as much as we want to create it in others. Music adds to it, an external beat to time ourselves with.

Sunday 21st July
One of the main places I intended to visit on this trip was Manchester Prison (Strangeways). Two scenes are set there, where the main character visits his father, a violent criminal. The scenes are already written but I wanted to get details of procedure and location correct. I also wanted to discuss a plot element with the staff, to make sure it both seemed plausible to the reader, but didn't give away any real ways to bypass prison security. I always prefer to work with people and come up with description that they're happy with. I had gained permission for the visit from the Ministry of Justice press office (following numerous letters to the prison itself which had been ignored). The MoJ said they'd asked the prison to allow the visit, and told me that the prison would be in touch. However, on Sunday morning I got a phone call from the prison. The prison Governor refused me access. Bugger. They didn't explain whether it was because they are incapable of having an escorted outsider come in and still keep the prison secure (which is worrying) or if they want to prevent people from seeing what it’s like inside (also worrying).

The tower of Strangeways sees all. 
One does not simply walk into MoJdor... oops, sorry, wrong place.

Oh well. I gave them the opportunity to work with me on it, I will just have to use vivid imagination for the scenes. If the prison comes out looking worse than reality due to their lack of co-operation then so be it! I am now free to have walls dripping in spaghetti and duck feathers stuck to guards' faces.

I visited Strangeways anyway (aside - a colleague recently told me I belong there, but I think that was a joke about me being a bit bonkers rather than implying that I am a violent criminal). There are public roads around it so you can wander around the outside, watched by security cameras and regularly-passing unmarked police cars. I made sure I put my notes away every time they passed. I couldn't face any more interrogations about what terrible things I might be doing with a biro and some paper, and having to show them the full horror and security risk of what was on it (usually a doodle of a duck, or the price of a packet of spaghetti).

You can't get in here without a pass.
Or being a criminal.
Or being a friend of the Governor.
Or having the one true ring.

As you got near the prison it's all tight roads, shuttered doors, rolls of barbed wire on all nearby yards. Always the brown balconied Strangeways tower overlooks the area, watching you. Warnings everywhere: Do Not Approach; Caution Razor Wire; Proceed With Caution; No Parking; It’s An Offence To Help Inmates Escape.

I'd had enough of imagining people going over the wall. Instead I walked to Band on the Wall, which is another important place in the history of Manchester music. It was Martin the Mod's recommendation to set one of the scenes there. One of the staff members, Adam, helpfully showed me around and talked about the history of the place. I asked why they had pictures of Ena Sharples from Coronation Street up, and was admonished that it was a picture of (oh no, I've forgotten), the famous music person. In my defence it does look like the Ena Sharples picture from the Lass O' Gowrie, and it is a writer's job to make connections. See them both below, you decide.

The Lass logo

Band on the Wall logo

[30th July: An update from Gawain, the incredibly helpful member of staff at Band on the Wall.
"Ena Sharples is a new one on me, but I see what you mean - people have asked whether it is Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly or Steve Morris (who owned Botw in1975), actually it is Dizzie Gillespie and dates from 1982 when the now Manager of Simply Red adapted it from some artwork."]

V Revolution. Yum!

New discovery! On the way back I visited V Revolution. They started doing food since my last trip, and they are my kind of place! 100% vegan comfort food. Get your burgers, sausages, cakes and coffee and feel like a king. I had sausages and cheesy mushrooms. Yum! I resisted the ice cream sandwich dessert. Great place. "We only do vegan junk food." They showed me a burger in bap pile they did yesterday, over six inches high. I then chatted for ages about horror films and books, and offered them the rights to film Turner for 50p or a vegan sausage barm (offer still stands, guys). A cool place. I was advised to read Jasper Fforde’s books.

Piccadilly Gardens? More like a friggin' borstal nowadays.

More research. I wanted to find out about a bar that didn't exist anymore. I'd even forgotten its name. Cue getting talking to a leather-jacketed 65 year old having his fag outside his regular pub, tattoos almost turquoise with age. He informed me the name I wanted was Kicks Bar, and we went on to discuss the history of Manchester. He accused me of being too young to remember Piccadilly Gardens when it was proper gardens, but he was wrong, I used to sit there in the sun, back when I had long hair for moshing to The Prodigy. When I was going he asked me a bit about the book I was writing. When I told him he scratched his veined nose, and said, “Yer an educated bastard,” before patting me on the shoulder.

I suppose I am.

I was on the final stretch now. I went to The Footage to take notes and chat with the manager. It used to be called The Flea and Firkin in 2000. The building also used to be a huge theatre. Inside you look up to a green and cream decorated balcony which reminds me of Aberystwyth museum, you can imagine rich people of the past watching shows, laughing, gripping hands with loved ones at times of emotion. History is there if you look and think. If you sit by the window you can watch Oxford Road roll by, but the outside is less interesting than inside. All it has going for it is the sun. Up above, red stained-glass windows with spider web diamonds transmute sunlight into the glow of a fire, the burning warmth of drama. This is how it should be. Use the old buildings, appreciate them, keep the older stuff alive so it's not swamped by the new.

Then I needed more food. Back to The Thirsty Scholar for more vegan pub grub and another chat with Martin the Mod. He's an institution. DJ, chef, nice guy who tells it straight. If I lived in Manchester I'd have his pub grub and a pint once a week.

Mod's Pub Grub #2

Lastly Wetherspoons (endless tables, fruit machines, and the smell of chips) and The Shakespeare (black and white wood and flower baskets; just off the main drag to the Arndale, opposite the sky-blocking solidity of Debenhams).

I'd done it! Visited all the places I was legally allowed to go to, anyway. +50 points and level up!

Monday 22nd July
I met a friend for coffee at 8am. We worked out it was the first time we'd met up in nearly fifteen years! I tell ya, life shoots by. Blink blink, it's gone. Be as happy as you can, make other people happy too, tread lightly on the earth, spread peace and love, look after animals (human and non-human), enjoy the outdoors, and remember to dance. Often. Plus, your mental state affects the world, so try and look at things positively whilst still being an agent for change.

It was time to catch my first train, from Piccadilly train station. Echoing, semi-intelligible muffled robotic announcements. Decorated pillars supporting massive arched roofs, a warehouse that goes somewhere. Engine thrum and grumble away. Sweaty people dragging cases on wheels, bags, kids, a sense of panic and urgency, benches full, trolleys with cases on being pushed past, hurry, hurry, bewildered-looking people asking for directions and attempting to decipher timetables and trying to remember the final destination of whatever train they mean to catch so they can find out what platform to go to. Ah, the joys of travel.

On the journey home my train from Shrewsbury got cancelled so I was put on a bus. It was all a bit chaotic, and of the 70 people waiting for a train only 14 got on the bus. What happened to the other 56? Abducted by the residents of Ynys Diawl? The driver didn't ask for tickets, or even check that people were on the right bus (there was more than one bus, going to different places). So about an hour into the journey when he went round, finally asking people where they wanted to get off, I said "Manchester". Stunned silence and horror as people realised I must have got on the wrong bus. “Only kidding. Aberystwyth,” I said after a few seconds.

Yeah, I know how to make friends.

No reply from Vince Vega, about Bez being in my novel, despite originally seeming interested. All my emails and phone messages since then have been ignored. No reply from Shaun Ryder's agent either. It's disappointing. It doesn't stop me writing the novel as I wish, since currently there is no law against a character in a novel thinking about a real person. Again, I would have preferred to do it in conjunction with them. I did everything in my power to achieve that, so at least this way I don’t have to get their acceptance of the representation.

The closest I got to them!

There were a few places I'd have liked to have visited if I had the time, where characters in the new novel live.
  • Withington
  • Didsbury
  • Stretford
  • Eccles
  • Sale
Have any of you lived in or visited these places? If so can you give me a pithy summary or your thoughts about it, a line of description, or an infodump on the feel of living or going there? Either by email or in the comments below.

Anyway, the trip was mostly a success. The only full-on failure was that I took a pile of my printed books with me, which were pretty heavy to lug around. I didn’t sell any, so had to bring them all back! I won’t repeat that mistake. Looks like there will be giveaways in the coming months...

If you made it this far then congratulations, or llongyfarchiadau as we say in Wales. That was a mammoth read, almost epic, maybe as difficult as walking into Mordor... Oh, I'll just stop there. Peace and happiness, people!