City of Myth and Concrete by Steve Hanson

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I took a walking tour around Manchester. This was a fringe event that coincided with The British Sociological Association conference in April 2017.

We began on Oxford Road, by the University of Manchester. We stood outside the Rutherford Building. Inside is what became known as ‘Rutherford’s Room’, the office Ernest Rutherford used during research that led to the splitting of the atom.

University staff who inhabited rooms to the sides, above and below, claimed to have developed cancers caused by their proximity to Rutherford’s Room. Whether or not these claims are true, this building and the room inside stand as an example of how myth and concrete are entwined. In Manchester, they are in constant dialogue.

 

This was the main theme of the walk, although each stop covered a site of the many different walks I could have planned, the science walk, the occult walk, the pop history walk, the politics walk, the conflict walk, the slum walk, the gentrification walk…

 

We paused by a red plaque, which commemorates the fifth Pan-African congress held here, in 1945. This Congress, due to the upheaval of the times, was the first since 1927. Amy Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s estranged first wife and W.E.B. Du Bois were among the delegates. The only newspaper to cover the event in Britain was Picture Post, which dispatched John Deakin, a photographer known for associating with Francis Bacon and his Soho circle. Deakin was a great photographer, when he could stand up.

 

I showed Deakin’s images on an iPad, of the Pan-African congress delegates, in a dusty hall, all wartime austerity and weak light. But one delegate, with a fairly low-key presence at the time, Kwame Nkrumah, returned to the Gold Coast in 1949, pushed for and won Ghanaian Independence in 1957.

 

These are the stories of Manchester, as much as they are of Ghana, and to present them as ‘other’ is wrong. The red plaque itself shows this othering as it tries to correct it. There are red plaques to food riots in Manchester, and the Pan-African congress, and of course red and blue have other significances in Britain: Myths cling, they stick to stone like chimney smoke, or are sandblasted clean; a concealment that also reveals what it conceals. Manchester’s hip hop scene in the 1980s is only just beginning to fully emerge as a story, which is incredible when you think of the time that has elapsed.

 

Aa13 hulme footbridge albaker10.93
Image by Al Baker

We then walked out through the MMU campus to Hulme and Epping Walk Bridge. There have been campaigns asking the city council to rename this bridge The Ian Curtis Bridge, as it is located near to where T.J. Davidson’s rehearsal studios used to stand, which Joy Division used regularly. Those rehearsal studios were where the band shot the video for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Nearby is Royce Road, where the Russell Club used to stand; home of Tony Wilson’s night ‘The Factory’. This is where Joy Division launched their career. The studio and the Russell Club – like much of the landscape here – have been demolished. The bridge is the only thing that remains in the area. Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, after listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and watching Stroszek by Werner Herzog.

 

I am surprised the renaming of the bridge hasn’t been agreed yet, as the city council are known for their collusion with business and cultural myth. Manchester City council was in many ways a prototype for New Labour governance and statecraft, as it was the council that out of sheer desperation began to throw its lot in with developers and other capitalist players in the 1980s.

 

The Hulme Crescents that once stood here have also been demolished. Some of the old flats in the area can still be seen in the Kevin Cummins shots of Joy Division. The aesthetics of the Cummins photograph show the band, and Manchester, as bleak. The photograph has a cold war feel to it, suggesting a darker, northern English version of the European motorways of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’. There’s a strong connotation of post-war Europe to the image. Perhaps we should not be surprised then, to learn of the existence of a Cold War-era Soviet map, that plans for troops to invade via Princess Parkway below.

 

If Epping Walk Bridge speaks to the idea of Manchester as a post-industrial, cold war city, an idea that has become a lightweight trope in many ways, precisely through the simplistic idea of Joy Division as a ‘post-industrial band’, the clearance of Hulme Crescents speaks to the violence of capitalist accumulation.

 

We took in the Free Trade Hall, then sites associated with de Quincey, whose romantic myth is always pasted over the racist de Quincey, friend to dodgy Craniologists. We walk to the Royal Exchange, where Engels noted the behaviour of traders, becoming transfixed by commodity prices, rather than the complex physical chains that produce them. We then ended the tour at Chetham’s, sitting at the desk Marx and Engels wrote and researched at.

 

Marx Desk
Image by Stephen Jones 

My intention was to show that in just a couple of hours it is possible to see how a city is a mesh of concrete form and myth. Thanks to all the participants who took time out to come along and make the event such a special one.

 

Steve Hanson is a writer, researcher and lecturer. He completed his MA at the CUCR before going on to a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Twitter: @drstevehanson

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