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NEWSLETTER FEATURE: THOUGHTS AND REPORTS ON NEW MILLENNIUM MANCHESTER

Thursday 6 January 2000 11pm

Well, after all the countdowns, the hype and the hysteria, it's arrived, in fact it's already six days old. Millennium, Year 2000, Y2K- the thing that's been on everyone's lips for the past few years - is now a reality, and if you believe the hype, we should all feel like we're riding on the crest of a millennium wave, soaring sky high at this unique climax in history - looking forward emotionally and expectantly to the next thousand years, having crossed the threshold into a new era of hope and joy, leaving the drab, boring old twentieth century behind us like a distant memory....

As ever Eyewitness in Manchester has an alternative view on these things, and it's as follows: What a load of poppycock!

As mentioned in a previous newsletter feature, I've been sceptical about this whole millennium thing right from the start. I don't consider 2000 to be an emotional and awe-inspiring event at all.

Far too much significance is given to number combinations in the years. We think in terms of decades, and have a tendency to apply simplistic labels to them. I notice in the present day, an increasing lack of awareness of what things were really like at periods even in the recent past.

A graphic illustration of this is an advert I saw recently. Each decade is represented by a picture, and labelled with the first year of the decade - 1950 is a rock'n'roll dance, 1960 a hippy woman, 1970 a pair of glitter platform boots, and so on. "Make 2000 a year to remember" it says. Yes, quite, because whoever created that advert seems to have completely forgotten what it was like in 1960, seven years or so before hippies came along.

The point I'm making here is that history is a continuum, a gradual evolution, and not a series of rooms separated by walls. Decades, centuries and millennia are markers of time, not significant events in themselves. What we see around us - especially in a place like Manchester - is the legacy of past eras, like layers in the tree trunk of the present. In Manchester in the year 2000, the past is ever present.

This is why, for me, the year 2000 is not a giant leap into a new era, rather a time marker on either side of which things are almost exactly the same.

I must admit, I often get frustrated with some aspects of the present era, and wish I could get into a time machine and return, say, to Manchester in 1933 to see the opening of the Central Library (above right), 1848 to discuss the state of the proletariat with Friedrich Engels, or AD79 to have a look round the Roman fort and take a few photos. I'm sure I'd discover lots of amazing things, though at the end of the visit, I'd still want to return to my home in the present. Unfortunately, time travel isn't an option, though it's possible to visually construct the past in our imagination thanks to photography, drama, painting and other types of media.

On New Year's Eve, still suffering from the after effects of "millennium flu", we made our way down to Castlefield to share in the festivities there. We saw a show organised by Manchester City Council, and presented amongst others by "Eye in the Sky" radio presenter Jo Blakeway. It took place at the outdoor arena in Castlefield Basin - A stage was set up on top of the canal, and there were lots of lights and tv cameras.

The highpoint of the afternoon was when none other than the Millennium Bug himself made a personal appearance, as part of a panto-style performance which I'm sure I would have enjoyed more if I was nearly 12 rather than nearly 42! City Centre Supremo Councillor Pat Karney, in his trademark red patterned tie, circulated through the crowd - he played a key role in the planning of this event, and due credit should go to him.

We left after a couple of hours to catch a certain TV soap (not Coronation Street). TV, in fact, was one of the highpoints of the millennium for me, particularly the BBC's coverage of the events worldwide. Thanks to the wonder of television, I was able to see what was happening as midnight arrived in all the time zones. Manchester probably wasn't the place I wanted to be. I'd love to witnessed the events in each of the time zones across the world, but, like time travel, jetting round the world in synch with the movement of the earth isn't currently possible.

Later in the evening we went to a private party organised by Filipino friends in Chorlton-on-Medlock, just next to the Mancunian Way. We watched the tv coverage, and then at 11.30, I set off on foot for Albert Square. A stream of mostly young people were all heading to the traditional venue for new year festivities in Manchester. When I got there I found a large, though not overwhelmingly huge crowd of people - in fact, the main focus of the millennium festivities was not here but in Castlefield. I can't tell you what that was like - I wasn't there - but according to newspaper reports, it was a truly emotional and awe-inspiring event.

 

 

What I witnessed in Albert Square was altogether more low-key - hardly any different to any other new year celebration. As midnight came people cheered, some fireworks were let off, there was a bit of handshaking, couples kissed, and policemen got lucky as girls threw their arms around them, but compared to other places around the world, this event felt decidedly muted.

By ten past twelve, people were already making their way home, and the streets were thronged with cars, taxis and some buses. By half past, I was back at Chorlton-on-Medlock, relieved to be inside again. Driving home a couple of hours later I could see the stars. It looked like the first dawn of the new millennium would herald a fittingly bright and clear New Year's Day.

When I woke up and looked out the window at around 9am, I was surprised and amused to see the trees and houses enveloped in fog - the type of fog we only get very rarely here, and which I like very much as it's possible to take atmospheric photos. It felt as if nature was playing a trick, making New Year's Day in Manchester look more like a 50's pea souper or smoky Ancoats in 1888. I went out and recorded the reality of how things looked on New Year's Day. See my foggy new year's day 2000 picture selection.

This desire to see into the past, and at the same time, capture the present for the benefit of people in the future, is the main reason why I'm interested in photography. I also love watching old documentary films, and excellent tv re-creations of the past, like Heartbeat, Inspector Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

But let's come back to the present, and have a look at what happened during the Millennium festivities in Manchester, referring to local media reports, which are uniformly upbeat. The reality of New Year 99/00 was somewhat different, though not without its good points.

After a quiet and misty New Year's Day, Sunday the second was clearer, and the main focus in Manchester was on the "Coming Home" parade in Manchester city centre. We arrived at around 4pm and found a variety of floats lining up behind the Free Trade Hall, with the ubiquitous Councillor Pat Karney in attendance.

The most amazing sight was the alien robot monster, with the Lord Mayor of Manchester in his palm. The other floats were colourful and amusing - representing some of the cultural communities of Manchester (but not the Filipinos! Maybe they should have one next time). My only criticism was that it didn't last very long. After some of the very long parades I've seen in Manchester in recent years, this one was all over too quickly.

The final event of the millennium festivities was the unveiling of an art work in Albert Square with shoes signifying absent friends and relatives. Each pair of shoes carries a tag with a message from people who couldn't be with their loved ones at the millennium.

So that's it, the festivities are over, 2000 is underway, most people have returned to work, so what's the state of Manchester in the new millennium? Much as it was in the old millennium, with lots of positive things happening. The economy is buoyant, there's a sense of confidence, and a feeling that things are improving. The Commonwealth Games is set to happen in two and a half years time, with all the benefits they'll bring. Construction is booming, new cafe bars are opening all the time, and lots of expensive designer apartments are being built in the city centre

You'll detect a note of dissent here, particularly regarding the three items just mentioned: Construction may be booming, but a significant part of the original character of Manchester is being lost: For instance, the Hospital for Skin Diseases, built around the turn of the 20th century, has just been demolished. The city centre is being turned into one extended cafe bar, it seems, aimed mainly at a youthful clientele. In the past, manufacturing was the main industry in Manchester, now it seems to be "eating, dancing and cavorting", as you'll find written above the door of Brannigan's . And as for the expensive designer apartments, the city centre looks like becoming the exclusive preserve of the younger high earning set. More needs to be done to protect local heritage, and to open up Manchester for a wider range of workers and residents, both in terms of age and income level.

There are also serious problems with local government: At the start of the 21st century, Manchester's tightly drawn city boundaries are a legacy of the nineteenth century, with many negative consequences - There is a preponderance of deprived areas inside the city boundaries, so the council is constantly short of money. Due to voter apathy, only a tenth of City of Manchester residents have voted for the present Labour council, which nevertheless enjoys practically one party rule, as the Lib Dem opposition is tiny. There's a lack of proper debate on local issues, particularly in local media.

I won't go on any more, only to say that instead of wall to wall millennium hype, a dose of reality might do a lot of good.

Perhaps one of the best things about the millennium is the fact that many people have lived to see it who thought maybe they wouldn't, and congratulations to them. I remember as a child, imagining what life would be like in the year 2000 - we'd all be jetting around in rocket cars, Manchester would look like a giant Piccadilly Plaza and we'd be taking holidays on the moon. It hasn't quite worked out like that, in fact the most striking thing about life in the year 2000, now things have settled down, is the triumph of normality - no riders of the apocalypse, no alien invaders - not even any major problems with the millennium bug. In fact, from last week to this week, as far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed - Happy New Year!

I'll leave you with this superb example of how an artefact of the past can be renovated and given an exciting future- it's the Corn Exchange in our impressive neighbouring city of Leeds. Very soon, Manchester's former Corn Exchange, renamed "The Triangle" will be opening - I wonder if it will be measure up to this one.

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