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THE MAGIC OF MANCHESTER, Music of the City, Nostalgia, Imagination and Time Travel - Inspiration for Eyewitness in Manchester

The Magic of Manchester 2002 calendar Cover photo by Aidan O'Rourke

THE MAGIC OF MANCHESTER is the name of the Manchester Evening News sponsored calendar to which I have contributed photographs. The title, and the pictures it contains are a tribute to the recent resurgence of Manchester, my home city.

But for me, to find the true magic of Manchester you have to go back to an earlier era, my childhood years, an experience influenced by music and the transformative power of the imagination.

In this article I reveal how a musically inspired vision of Manchester, gained at a very early age, would be the creative driving force for the photography and writing I do today.

Ancoats with view of Victoria Mill miles Platting, captured in 2001 the scene recalls the 'old' Manchester.

The North West of England as it was when I was born on the 9th of January 1958 is a place we remember in black and white, a region which had changed little in since before the war, and was still burdened with the heavy atmosphere of the 19th century. Manchester, scarred by the blitz, still smoky from coal fires and steam trains, is part of a Lancashire landscape of mills, factories, chimneys, railway viaducts, hills, and moors, with Liverpool, Southport, Blackpool and Morecambe on the coast, and the Lakes in the far north. To the south, beyond the Mersey, is Cheshire, a county seemingly unchanged for centuries, a place of meadows, meres, unspoilt villages and ancient churches, with the upland area stretching into the Pennines to the north east, and the Wirral extending to the Irish sea to the west.

As a child my immediate locality - the suburb of Cheadle Heath, Stockport - was my world. With three railway lines close by, I could hear the huffing and puffing of the steam trains at night, the growling of the buses as they started up early in the morning. In winter it was cold, there were power cuts and icicles on the insides of the windows. In summer the trees outside my window were heavy with bright green leaves. I spent my days playing out on the street and in the back gardens of friends and neighbours.

My mother, my father and me Edgeley Road Stockport Cheshire 1963

As a small child discovering the world for the first time, everything was exciting. The quarry beyond the railway line was another planet. The park playground five stops away on the bus was a far away land. The woods at Bramall Park were full of enchantment, and the nearby River Mersey was a dangerous new frontier.

Images seen for the first time leave an indelible impression - I was captivated by the ringing pinks and purples of flowers in the park, the smooth shiny red and cream of a passing double-decker bus, the oily, soot-covered black exterior of the steam engine, with a fleeting glimpse of the orange inferno inside the firebox.

Every day I it seemed I was bombarded with a deluge of images. At night these images would hover and dance before my eyes.

And there was music in the air, the music of a new and exciting era. It emanated from car radios, from snack bar juke boxes, from loudspeakers in boutiques and records stores, from transistor radios, and from the old valve-powered wireless on the sideboard. Much of the music wasn't played on the radio, but you could hear it on record players and older teenagers heard it in nightclubs.

This was a time of change. After a decade and a half of post-war austerity, Britain was about to be transformed by a new white hot wave of modernity, a world of new possibilities, technology, shiny silver planes and space travel.

The Manchester depicted in the police thriller 'Hell Is A City', starring Stanley Baker and Donald Pleasence (1960 director Val Guest) is the Manchester of the 50's. It's interesting that the film score by Stanley Black is upbeat American-style jazz, with a Mancini-esque theme tune. The film attempts to overlay the pace and feel of an American city onto smoky Manchester with its bombsites, Wolseley police cars and regional accents.

'A Taste of Honey', starring Rita Tushingham, Murray Melvin, Paul Danquah and Dora Bryan (1961, director Tony Richardson) has an abstract, playful score written and conducted by John Addison, full of zigzag pizzicato strings and sombre pensive chords played on wind instruments. The nursery rhyme 'The Good Ship Sails on the Ally Ally Oh' features in the main theme. The score has little to do with Manchester, but the nursery rhymes recall the children who played out on the street, a familiar sight at the time.

This was a world without the Beatles - it's difficult imagine now - and the world was about to change. As the decade would progress, new strains of music would fuse with the time and the place, conjuring up a sense of magic never experienced before.

'Telstar' by The Tornadoes captured the mood the space age - the quivery electronic voices of the 1962 instrumental, recorded in a north London flat by legendary producer Joe Meek, are mingled with the excitement of my first visit to the newly opened terminal building at Ringway Airport, situated on the southern tip of Manchester with a view directly south over Alderley Edge and Cheshire. With its shiny new automatic doors, TV information displays, chandeliers and panoramic views over the apron, it was like travelling in a time machine into the future. You could look out at the silver Viscounts, Argonauts, Britannias and Vanguards through giant glass windows at the front, or from rooftop viewing terraces, which extended to the very end of both domestic and international piers. Ringway Airport was a magical place, the gateway to exotic destinations abroad, places I looked forward to visiting as a grown up. Burt Bacharach songs like 'Walk on By' (1964) and 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose?' (1968), sung by Dionne Warwick, were a link with California, now just a few hours flying time from Cheshire.

Alderley Edge, site of the Armada Beacon, plaque paid for by émigré local. Symbolic link between Cheshire & California

Yet Ringway was untypical of the northern urban environment, which seemed mostly old, rickety, and smoke-blackened. On a coach excursion through Manchester and Lancashire I remember looking out the rain-speckled window of the bus, and seeing an endless succession of red brick terraced streets and chimney stacks, until the scenery changed and I caught my first glimpse of the cold dark waters of Windermere.

The song which echoed from the radio on that day in 1966 (I can now place the date of the trip I've checked the 1960's music charts to find out when it was a hit) was 'River Deep Mountain High' by Ike and Tina Turner - the association with rivers and mountains was obvious - Phil Spector's echoey wall of sound was as big as the bank of clouds about to empty another downpour onto the Lancashire landscape. When the coach arrived back at Bullocks coach depot in Cheadle I left my Beano's and Dandy's on the back seat, something which still upsets me today.

On shopping trips into Manchester I had my first taste of the big city, and Manchester really did have a big city feel, which the surrounding towns lacked. The big buildings, the new office towers, the department stores, the busy streets, the strangely-shaped flat wheel hubs of the trolleybuses all caught my eye, as did the brightly coloured tulips in Piccadilly Gardens and the grand food hall of Lewis's department store. At Christmas, the gardens held a special magic, with their dimly illuminated Christmas gnomes and the piped Christmas carols in the background. To a five year old, this was a truly magical experience.

Piccadilly had many bright lights at the time, especially at the Market Street corner, where there were adverts for John Collier tailors and others. A song of the time, which in my mind became closely associated with Manchester, especially Market Street and Piccadilly, was the 1965 hit 'Downtown' by Petula Clark. The song depicted the city as a place tingling with excitement, where you could escape the drabness and worry of normal life. For me, 'Downtown' means riding on the top deck of a double decker bus driving around Piccadilly and down Market Street, and peering into the brightly lit windows of the shops on either side of the street.

Another song of the time, with a strong feel of the city was 'Anyone Who Ever Had a Heart' another Bacharach David song recorded in 1964 by Cilla Black, from nearby Liverpool.

The centre of Manchester was exciting, with its big city buildings, maze of back streets and shops of all descriptions. The red of the Manchester Corporation double deckers was juxtaposed with the green of the Salford Corporation buses, which parked at the Salford bus station across the murky River Irwell.

Buses seemed to play a very big part in my life, both riding on them, looking at them from the front window of the house, and waiting for them at bus stops. Little wonder that the song 'Bus Stop' (1966) by local group The Hollies became closely associated with life in mid-Sixties Manchester. By contrast 'Strangers in the Night' by Frank Sinatra, reminds me of waiting at the Number 11 bus stop in London under the old fluorescent street lights - it was a number one hit around June 1966.

Manchester's 89, 92 and the 74, my direct link from doorstep to Piccadilly, and the North Western 71 from Stockport to Altrincham, were my companions. By day they were a welcome and reassuring sight pulling up to the bus stop, with a cheerful and whistling bus conductor. At night they were like brightly lit ships, ferrying shoppers, day-trippers and workers back to their homes. But like friends they could let you down when they were either full, late or didn't come at all.

Talking of ships, the magic of Manchester was also the glimpse of a brightly lit superstructure belonging to one of the ocean-going ships moored in the Manchester Docks - actually in Salford, and just within sight of the clock tower of Manchester Town Hall. Having ocean-going ships in the middle of an inland city was a true marvel and something we in Manchester were very proud of. I was fascinated by ships and how they looked, their red funnels, rusty railings and brightly lit portholes, like strings of Christmas lights reflected in the oily waters of the canal. The drama and peril of the sea was brought to life by an obscure ballad entitled 'They Called the Wind Maria', taken from the 1951 musical 'Paint Your Wagon' which had a galloping rhythm and ghostly vocals. I believe Joe Meek produced the version I remember, but I haven't been able to track down the artist.

Approaching Irlam Locks on the Manchester Ship Canal

In 1967 my mother took me to visit the Royal Navy submarine Grampus. I stood in a long queue along Trafford Wharf and eventually, helped by a crew member, climbed down the narrow hatch and into the bowels of the submarine, which had an overwhelming smell of fuel oil. As well dials, periscopes, pressure gauges, torpedo chambers and control panels, I saw my first girlie pictures pasted on the bulkhead next to the bunks.

Two songs held sway, which to this day bring back the magic of a visit to the submarine in the Manchester Docks - 'The Last Waltz' by Engelbert Humperdinck, number one in August 1967 and 'The Green Green Grass of Home' by Tom Jones, a hit around December 66 and Jan 67, the latter song with obvious associations for a submarine crew.

It wasn't just popular music which entered my consciousness. Many of the more affluent areas around Manchester area had an overwhelming aura of the past, a Victorian life which seemed to ooze out of the brickwork. One of these places was Bowdon, the residential district of grand mansions, rambling gardens, tree-lined roads and croquet lawns. It was full of old English quaintness, and had a quality far removed from the mills and terraced houses of nearby towns. In fact it was more like a place from the south of England transplanted into the north.


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