The Learned Pig

Art – Thinking – Nature – Writing

We Were Strangers

We Were Strangers

A friend of mine passed away a few months ago and, although we were never especially close, his death affected me deeply. For a time afterwards I found myself impelled, on my lunch breaks, to leave the office block in central Manchester where I work and spend an hour walking – briskly yet purposelessly – through the city.

It was during one of these walks that I found myself standing outside Manchester Cathedral where I’d stopped to catch my breath. It was a bright and warm afternoon and all around me was busy. In and out of the Corn Exchange, an Edwardian trading hall which now houses an assortment of brightly lit chain restaurants, fellow office lunchers milled in their suits. In the near distance teenagers skateboarded across Cathedral Gardens, a patch of grass (‘park’ would be too grand) ornamentalised with ziggurats of aimless steps and platforms, a squat water feature, and gnomic blocks of dark stone, all ideal for tricks, it would seem. Young people with their parents wandered around with maps, exploring the city which will be their home while they’re at university, getting to know the area and, in this instance, its tourism spots.

Busy, and yet here I had found a strange, quiet stillness, as I’ve found often emanates from church buildings, regardless of the locale.

The cathedral itself is relatively small. It dates from the early 1400s and, although it’s clear just by looking at the building that many of its composite aspects were added at various later dates – the nineteenth century in particular – they all make an attempt, largely effective, to repeat the conservative gothic style of that time. And yet the entire building is itself an addition – was once new – supplanting something built earlier.

For instance, if I were to have headed inside the cathedral and perused the brickwork, I would have found embedded in the wall of the south porch a small carving of an angel, dating from early in the eighth century.

If I were to have walked around to the other side of the cathedral I would have been able to see the remains of the Hanging Bridge, a truncated archway which can be spied under a café, peeking over some paving slabs at the bottom of some stone steps. Built in the medieval ages, the Hanging Bridge, originally constructed over a ditch, was gradually built over throughout the following centuries until it sank first from usage and then from sight. With a zeal that feels typical of Manchester it was rediscovered by the Victorians, carefully excavated and examined, and then once again built over.

Like other cities, Manchester is often given to dreams of itself, to self-belief through self-mythologising…

But I didn’t move. I was looking at the cathedral, at the small number of graves in its circumscribed outer grounds, and contemplating the twin themes of such places: oblivion and permanence. I thought too about Marcus, my friend who had passed away: now gone from the world for good. Yet – as I say, we were never close – he seemed to me more present now than when I had known him.

Such thoughts were interrupted by the recognition that it was precisely here, outside the cathedral, where Joy Division once posed for a photograph during a 1979 shoot, one I’ve seen many times but had never mentally placed before.

For the uninitiated: Joy Division was a band from Manchester. They consisted of Ian Curtis (vocals, lyrics), Peter Hook (bass), Stephen Morris (drums) and Bernard Sumner (guitars, keyboards). They formed in 1976 and went on to record two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Curtis suffered from depression and epilepsy and committed suicide in May 1980, aged 23. The remaining members re-formed under the name New Order, achieving global commercial success and critical acclaim.

Is ‘posed’ the right word? The image of the band outside Manchester Cathedral doesn’t strike the same iconic note as the one of them on Epping Walk Bridge, taken during the same shoot, in which the four figures stand in the distance, the snowy surface of the bridge dominating the foreground. That image is now famous – it forms the cover of Joy Division’s Best of and, much like the entrance to Salford Lads Club where The Smiths were once photographed, the bridge has become something of a site of local pilgrimage, with students regularly staging cheery recreations – in no small part because it acts as a visual approximation of the Joy Division sound: spare and cold and oblique.

In contrast, the image of the group outside Manchester Cathedral is touched with human awkwardness. The band members, four men in their early twenties, stand alongside one another in thick snow. Curtis and Morris, both smoking, are caught mid-conversation, slightly blurred. Sumner looks on, huddling furiously into his coat. Only Hook, his hands in the pockets of his jeans holding open his unbuttoned coat, stares into the camera, a moody rock-star veneer seemingly immuring him from the surrounding cold. Behind them tower the cathedral’s windows of stained glass and its stone pinnacles. The bare branches of a tree claw across the top of the image.

As I say, although I’d seen this image many times, and had passed by the cathedral many times, it hadn’t occurred to me to put the two together. Now that I did I was struck, as I’d often found I was during these lunchtime walks, by the sudden convergence of the past and the present.

I puzzled over this odd, knotty sensation, trying to unpick it. Here I was, in front of a building in which the past is a kind of compound jigsaw, one composed of brick, vision and exertion from eras now passed – Victorian, Restoration, Elizabethan, Medieval, Norman. It stands, gothic both in the architectural sense but also in a quasi-literary one, as a monument to the past’s capacity for intruding onto the present.

My thoughts were derailed by a loud halloo. A young woman with bright red hair and a fluorescent green t-shirt had appeared, all demonstrative pleasantness – cocked head, smiles, attempts at eye contact – as she rounded the church, heading in my direction, half walking, half swaying, trying to slow down some of the passers-by.

A chugger. Inadvertently, I had allowed our eyes to meet. I quickly popped my earphones in and turned away, heading back into Cathedral Gardens at a pelt, avoiding the skateboarders this time, but moving through the flow of families, freshers with their parents, heading towards the entrance to Chetham’s Library. On my phone I selected Unknown Pleasures – I had been commissioned to edit a book about the album, which turns 40 next year, so was listening to it a lot at this time – and played it on shuffle. Although it had been a warm morning, a cold breeze now cut through, causing pedestrians to pull their coats around them, leaves skittering across their paths. ‘Interzone’ played as I moved past the bustling entrance gates and turned a corner.

It was here at Chetham’s in the summer of 1845 that Friedrich Engels, then a would-be journalist from Germany pressganged by his father into running the family’s cotton firm in Manchester, sat down with Karl Marx, a 25-year-old fellow German ex-pat, at a large desk still found in a window alcove in the reading room, to research what would eventually become The Communist Manifesto. At that time the windows in the alcove would have looked out onto the edge of Angel Meadow, one of Manchester’s largest and poorest slums,. The library itself, originally a priests’ lodge built around the same time as Manchester Cathedral, lies on the site of a Norman mansion. Today, aptly I suppose, it forms part of Chetham’s School of Music.

‘I walked through the city limits,’ Ian Curtis sang, ‘attracted by some force within it.’

Many cities have their own particular literary legacy, but an unusual aspect of Manchester is that its most enduring post-war cultural contribution has been its pop music: The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Elbow. Pop acts which have attracted a cultural weight that, cumulatively, occupies the same space in the collective imagination as a writerly heritage. That began in earnest, it could be argued, with Joy Division, one of the first pop groups who seemed serious about their music in much the same way authors tend to be serious about what they write.

Like other cities, Manchester is often given to dreams of itself, to self-belief through self-mythologising, particularly its brief moments in the limelight, Madchester and Britpop enjoying parity with English radicalism and the Industrial Revolution.

Yet there’s something muted, unwitting almost, about the way in which Joy Division are revered here. Unknown Pleasures is treated much like the classic novel of a great resident writer would be in another city. The band are as much a part of the psychic landscape as the decrepit mills, many of which I passed as I left behind the sights of the city and embarked on a familiar network of side streets and ginnels, their dark and high walls crowding out the bright sky.

Manchester’s industry blackened its skies, and its newfound purpose – supercharged mechanisation, supercharged commerce – reconfigured the world.

All cities are necessarily historic. But the process whereby Manchester came into being, in which a small and quiet market town was suddenly propelled, outwards and upwards, into being the UK’s third most populous city, has left with it a singular cultural climate. Over the course of a single century the local population increased 700 per cent, from under 330,000 in 1801 to almost 2.5 million by the turn of the century. The landscape accordingly terraformed, with workplaces, housing and amenities sprouting like carbuncles. Manchester’s industry blackened its skies, and its newfound purpose – supercharged mechanisation, supercharged commerce – reconfigured the world.

All of this feels so aberrant, indeed vaguely frightening, even by the standards of our own technological pace, as though a sleepy backwater had been selected at random for invasion by some alien knowledge. I had the sudden sensation that I was perhaps an alien myself, an otherworldly figure walking down an empty alley which was also the dead holy relic of another civilisation. The temperature had abruptly dropped and the sensation – fantasy and the material world seemingly in union – made me feel rather unwell, a touch panicky. I recalled with an impulse of genuine horror the simple phrase in which Engels, while roaming the streets in search of class injustice, had summed up what he saw: ‘Hell upon Earth’. I stopped walking and removed my earphones for a moment. Then, keen to elude these thoughts, I pressed on, earphones back in.

Inevitably, there followed a period of decline for Manchester. Those who came here in the twentieth century found themselves living in the aftermath of this great rupture. W.G. Sebald, another German writer, relocated to Manchester in 1966 to live, as he put it, ‘among the previous century’s ruins’. In The Emigrants, the first of his books to be translated into English, he provided a description of his early impressions of the city: ‘I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see… Even the grandest of the buildings, which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades or theatrical backdrops.’

As my culvert of dark backstreets mercifully segued into those populated with office blocks and retail units, it was hard not to think of Sebald’s description as something of an overstatement – traces of anthracite having been gradually erased from prominent spaces, replaced with a glinting regimen of glass, steel and cladding – but for those who inhabited the city prior to the extensive regeneration it underwent in the 1990s, Manchester with its landscape of dilapidating warehouses really was a kind of living museum of its own past, one whose theme was collapse – collapse of progress, of prosperity, of the grand promise they once held.

Finally I emerged onto St Peter’s Square, home of Manchester’s Central Library and Town Hall, but also a space atypical of the city in how open it is, untainted, for the time being, by the usual street food gazebos, development hoardings or industrial regalia that comes with Manchester’s frequent public events. People looked around as a police siren started up somewhere nearby, loud but reverberating across the high city walls, obscuring the origin. Grey clouds were moving in, beginning to fill the sky. ‘Interzone’ gave way to ‘New Dawn Fades’ as I passed the library and turned onto Peter Street and I was reminded that, as well as Unknown Pleasures turning 40 next year, another local anniversary awaits us.

In August 1819 around 70,000 people congregated here, to demand economic and parliamentary reform. The army charged on those assembled, injuring hundreds and killing 18. The subsequent public outcry spurred on further demonstrations and riots which spread across the north, with protesters becoming increasingly organised in the face of government opposition.

Passing through the site, such import seemed unlikely and – I stopped to cross the road, a Caffè Nero to my left, Matador News, a newsagent selling vaping liquids and I Heart MCR keyrings, to my right – such carnage improbable.

If I had turned back I would have found The Midland, the baroque hotel where Sebald’s narrator of The Emigrants ends his journey, imagining as he turns in for the night – although he knows such a thing is not possible – that he can hear an orchestra tuning up in the neighbouring Free Trade Hall, whose grand entrance I now passed, looking at the plaque which commemorates those killed in the 1819 protest.

Oblivion and permanence, progress and amnesia – how does one begin to tell such things apart?

It was also here, inside, where Bob Dylan, newly converted to the electric guitar and psychedelic imagery, performed in 1966 – it seems unlikely that Sebald was in attendance – infamously attracting, in a moment between songs, the shout of ‘Judas!’ from a member of the audience, aggrieved that the voice of their songs of protest had betrayed their communal vision by going raucously individual. Ten years later, the Sex Pistols, then a little-known London group, played at the same venue. Among the small, transformed group of spectators were those who would shortly go on to form the bands which would define Manchester: The Smiths, The Fall and Joy Division.

The sky was now grey and darkening. ‘New Dawn Fades’ had ended and another track had begun. ‘Where will it end?’ Ian Curtis intoned. ‘Where will it end? Where will it end? Where will it end?’

Once again I left the main road to make my way down a side street and passed the Sir Ralph Abercromby, a small pub which also happens to be the sole surviving structure from the site of the Peterloo Massacre. It was recently threatened with demolition in order to clear the way for a block of luxury flats. Following resistance from locals it has now been saved, at least in a sense, incorporated as it has been into the redrafted plans for the construction.

I thought about Marcus. His funeral service had taken place a few days earlier and, presumably, he had now been buried. I imagined him under the ground, expunged from the terrestrial world of the living, untouchable now in the murk of history. Would his grave eventually be built over? Or perhaps incorporated into some future development? Would people walk unwitting and carefree across where he lay? How long before all memories of him died out?

I abreacted, abruptly walking faster, as though I could physically outpace my thoughts, raindrops beginning to speckle the pavements, the sky darkening still. But of course they persisted. The Free Trade Hall is now a Radisson Blu. The Hanging Bridge is concealed. The slum opposite Chetham’s Library is long subsumed into office blocks, its mass graves disinterred to make way for redevelopment. Where will it end? Where will it end? Where will it end? Oblivion and permanence, progress and amnesia – how does one begin to tell such things apart?

As I entered the brightly lit foyer of my office building I thought briefly about how music, more than almost any other human endeavour, has the capacity for immortality, or at least something resembling it. No-one can know with any certainty what truly remains of us once, like Marcus, we pass on, but certain things – systems, artefacts, memories – outlast us. In the lift I imagined all life had somehow been extinguished – the city unpeopled, its buildings empty, its beds and desks abandoned – but that the soundwaves of this pop song, ‘Day of the Lords’, remained, unheard but here, on CDs, records, MP3s, available to whatever future beings might access it: ready. A curious testament.

I entered my office to find there had been a power cut in my absence. I sat down at my desk and listened to the final few seconds of the track. The sound faded away, yielding to a curious office hush which surrounded me – none of the usual typing or phone calls or electronic humming, but footsteps on carpet, a teaspoon clinking in a mug, the rain outside.

I had an undefined sense that all of this was somehow not the present but the past, that I was in a museum piece from the future, a frieze of humdrum metropolitan life in autumn 2018 that lovers of history would one day yearn to recreate, to inhabit and understand. And that those historians too were bound to an era that would itself end, borne away by the pull of time, like the last traces of the day’s diffuse light now retreating imperceptibly from the office interior, leaving the photocopier, the gunmetal filing cabinet, the serried PC screens in dimness as the sun sank, another day despatched for the living, and the dead.


Richard V. Hirst is the editor of We Were Strangers, an anthology of new stories inspired by Joy Division’s 1979 album, Unknown Pleasures, featuring brand new fiction from Sophie Mackintosh, Eley Williams, Jessie Greengrass and others.

Image credit: maruska93


The Learned Pig