Superficially, Belfast and Manchester have much in common – both former mill towns; magnificent Victorian architectural heritages squandered; city centres blown to bits by the IRA and latterly ‘rejuvenated’ with shopping centres; rain every 20 minutes; a fair chance of getting into a fight in any given pub.
For me arriving in Manchester in 1987 as a gauche 18 year old, the two couldn’t have been more different. Some of that was, of course, to do with leaving home and all that entails, but there is much, much more.
Belfast was parochial, 110% white, dangerous, unfriendly. All the local rock bands aspired to sound like Simple Minds trying to be U2. Everyone had a mullet. Everyone wore those fleece lined flight jackets that even Bono stopped wearing in 1986. You couldn’t buy any records YOU wanted – you had to risk sending a carrier pigeon to occupied France to get them. The whole city centre was derelict and/or on fire. Everything smelled of damp. Off-licences were shut on Sunday. Helicopters clattered over my house all day and all of every night. Pubs were windowless, with formica tables and were lit by 100w strip lights, directly overhead. Anyone who was gay, or black, or effeminate, or ugly, or Catholic, or atheist, or who didn’t have a proper haircut, or wasn’t sporty, or who didn’t like Chris de Burgh was immediately beaten to death with pool cues, with extreme prejudice, and dumped in the old quarry up the hill. Everybody spoke in harsh, guttural, clipped profanities. A fug of cigarette smoke and cumulonimbus hung in permanent oppression over everybody and everything.
Imagine a 17 year old Jane Birkin whispering sweet nothings in your ear, in French, as you drift together along a sunny canal, in each others’ arms, whilst she feeds you grapes (seedless). Then imagine the complete fucking opposite of that. That was what Belfast was like.
Manchester, by contrast, by quite fucking strong contrast actually, was cosmopolitan, liberal, left-wing, racially diverse, nuclear free, dangerous, friendly, exciting, vast, un-gentrified, beautiful and cheerfully lawless. Within about 24 hours of arriving there I realised that all my precious so-called alternative music was anachronistic and pointless, that I was a pointless anachronism, that life could actually, just possibly, be enjoyable after all, and that I was never going home again.
This otherworldly record from one of Manchester’s many noble sons was everywhere at the time. The video for this is actually quite what it was like – the colours, the faces, the dancing, the people. I AM LIVING IN THE FUTURE, I sometimes thought as I stood in a club (I seldom danced), staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed. I DO NOT BELONG HERE, I sometimes also thought in my not infrequent more self-loathing moments.
It still sounds futuristic today. You can’t really say that about Silent Running*.
I watched this live at the time on the legendary™ Tony Wilson’s ‘seminal’ late night show The Other Side Of Midnight. The bloke the Gerald had drafted in to do his MCing had sat beside me some days previously at college. Shortly after that I met Tony Wilson outside my local kebab house. I took all this for granted. That is how amazing Manchester was. It was the centre of my universe.
But karma was to get me in the end.
* Randomly selected example from numerous tremendously, staggeringly awful 1980s Belfast bands.