A few years back, a newspaper editor traveled up north to witness the property boom that is reshaping the city center and skyline of Manchester. Andrew Spinoza was given the responsibility of being the tour guide for this excursion.
Spinoza, author of Manchester Unspun, describes putting someone on a Metrolink tram from their hotel to Salford Quays. This ride highlights the striking blend of Manchester’s past and present, with old and dilapidated buildings being juxtaposed with sleek and modern ones. The ride also offers a stunning view of St Peter’s Square, Castlefield, and the Lowry Centre, serving as a great advertisement for the city’s revitalized urban center. Manchester Unspun has been so well-received that it has been quickly released in paperback form.
Spinoza would likely recommend a visit to Aviva Studios, an extravagant £242m arts center recently unveiled on the former location of Granada Studios. The opening production, a dance adaptation of The Matrix overseen by Danny Boyle, pays homage to the cultural legacy of the Republic of Mancunia – featuring a soundtrack by New Order, nods to Alan Turing, and visuals of yellow trams approaching the expanding Deansgate towers. This is Manchester, also known as “Manc-hattan” with mixed feelings.
Using a graceful blend of personal experiences and the city’s history, Spinoza captivatingly describes how Cottonopolis has reinvented itself. It seems that the main reason for writing Manchester Unspun is simply amazement at the immense changes that have taken place.
In 1979, when the writer came to the university from the southern region, the economy in the city center was struggling. From 1972 to 1984, Manchester experienced a loss of 207,000 jobs in the manufacturing industry. The city center was becoming less populated, deteriorating, and in certain areas of its previous industrial hub, it was even dangerous to visit. Quoting urbanist David Rudlin, Spinoza describes the desolate landscape he experienced while starting his studies in the same year, where “we walked through six miles of continuous abandonment, from the heart of the city to its outskirts.”
Tony Wilson is introduced as the co-founder of Factory Records, who is credited with spearheading a cultural revolution in the 1980s. Spinoza’s argument is that this movement paved the way for an economic resurgence. The Factory aesthetic, which drew inspiration from Manchester’s industrial history, foreshadowed a future where entertainment and spectacle would take on the role of traditional production methods. The influential presence of bands like Joy Division during a time of economic recession, the notorious Haçienda nightclub, and the hedonistic “Madchester” era all contributed to the city’s appeal, which was then capitalized on by council leaders Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein.
Rejecting the idea of implementing municipal socialism in a country dominated by the Tory party, the top two politicians in Manchester opted to open the city to private investment in the 80s and 90s, which sparked controversy. This move was seen as highly beneficial, with the “24-hour party people” becoming a central part of Manchester’s image, according to Spinoza. This helped the city gain recognition globally and secure the privilege of hosting events like the Commonwealth Games. As a result, many young professionals moved into newly constructed apartments. Factory Records and the Haçienda were credited with revitalizing a declining city and setting off a sequence of overconfidence, scandal, financial gain, and political power that is still unfolding today.
The statement could be somewhat exaggerated. Leese, who was extensively interviewed in the book, shares this opinion. However, Spinoza, who has strong connections and has been a part of Manchester for a long time, is in a prime position to support this claim. After completing his education, he launched the magazine City Life, dedicated to the arts and events, and later became an incredibly well-connected diary editor for the Manchester Evening News.
After founding his own public relations firm, he became involved in several significant construction projects in the city. He witnessed numerous exaggerated design failures, including the poorly planned Urbis building. In one particularly memorable incident described in the book, he was abruptly fired by the typical modern Manchester resident Gary Neville after a disagreement regarding PR tactics for a potential high-end hotel. A compassionate property advisor informs him: “Gary highly regards the opinions of his consultants, as long as they align with his own.”
Neville is just one of many characters featured in Manchester Unspun, which documents the city’s transformation over the past four decades. While some have welcomed this change, others have criticized the gentrification process that has altered the atmosphere of the city center. Spinoza dedicates attention to these critics. With a growing emphasis on corporate interests (such as the original plan for Aviva Studios to be known as “Factory International”) and the outsourcing of east Manchester’s future to Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners, it can be difficult not to long for the wilder days when Wilsonian boldness ruled in what locals still refer to as “town”.
During the 1980s, Factory and New Order collaborated to open a high-concept bar on the neglected Oldham Street. Granada Television then sent a young Stuart Maconie to inspect the designer urinals. While Shaun Ryder and Liam Gallagher defended traditional Mancunian values by throwing a bottle at the bar’s mirror and smashing an expensive vase, there was another clash of ideals when the Haçienda hosted a seminar on situationism in 1996 – a philosophy that influenced Factory’s approach. When challenged by a heckling Mark E Smith to explain the concept, Wilson admitted he couldn’t and simply enjoyed the slogans associated with it.
Spinoza retells these stories with a clever enjoyment. In his teenage years, he traveled north, influenced by Manchester’s history of political radicalism and the writings of music critics like Paul Morley and Jon Savage. He ended up witnessing the remarkable transformation of the city over the next forty years. With a calm and informed perspective, as well as an engaging narrative, Manchester Unspun accurately portrays this journey.
Manchester Unspun, written by Andy Spinoza and published by Manchester University Press for £12.99, explores how the city of Manchester has embraced music. If you would like to support the Guardian and Observer, you can order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may apply.