Author Q&A: Alan Kidd and Terry Wyke

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Manchester Metropolitan University academics Alan Kidd and Terry Wyke have joined forces to edit Manchester: Making the Modern City (Liverpool University Press, £14.95) – a coffee table history book about the reinvention of the post-industrial city.

Why is now a good time for this book?
The book does not coincide with any particular anniversary but provides the opportunity to take the historical pulse of the city. The book is aimed at the general reader. By no means all aspects of Manchester’s past are discussed but the authors provide wide-ranging surveys of key developments that have contributed to the making of the modern city.

How has Manchester changed in the last 10 years in particular?
If we are to understand how the Manchester of today has emerged we need to go back farther than 10 years. There has been a sustained effort over the last 30 years to find a new role for this former industrial giant. Manchester was arguably the greatest trading city created by the first industrial revolution. For over a century and a half until circa 1950 it was a world-renowned centre of commerce and industry, the hub of the world’s trade in cotton goods and a major centre for engineering and chemicals. The city began to lose its grip on the cotton trade after the First World War. By the 1950s decline became collapse. Cotton mills across Lancashire closed for good and the economy of the region was hit for six. Manchester’s docks, which had made it the fourth most important port in the country, ceased operation. Successive recessions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s left the city’s economy in a parlous state. The collapse mirrored developments elsewhere as industrial towns and cities experienced the effects of the twin processes of de-industrialisation and globalisation, which hit the big northern cities that had relied disproportionately on heavy manufacturing and exports. There was some recovery from the mid-1990s, contraction after the 2008 recession, and then a recent upturn in the city’s fortunes.

Faced with seemingly irreversible historic forces, the former industrial cities of the north, like Manchester, initially were seen as problems, facing a set of apparently insoluble challenges: high unemployment, shrinking populations, social deprivation and unrest (especially after the riots of the early 1980s). By contrast it is today generally accepted that cities are the solution, not the problem – it is they that drive regional and national economies.

Part of the changed attitude is political, both locally and nationally. In particular local government has pursued a partnership with private investment that has seen the city centre and some of the peripheral areas (East Manchester, for example) regenerated by a series of prestige building projects, starting in the 1980s but greatly stimulated by the positive response taken by the city to the devastation caused by the IRA bomb of 1996. The almost constant presence of cranes on the city skyline is a potent symbol of this regeneration.

Is there any single story, image, building or event in the book that really encapsulates Manchester’s history for you?
Manchester has been at the centre of many of the pivotal movements that have shaped the national story. No single event was more important than the meeting on Monday 16 August 1819 held on St Peter’s Field, an open piece of land which took its name from the nearby church of St Peter’s. On that day a massive but peaceful crowd of ordinary working people, possibly over 60,000, met to call for basic political rights. The magistrates’ order to send in the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry to arrest the principal speakers resulted in some 15 deaths and hundreds injured. This was the Peterloo Massacre, an event that galvanised radicals in their long campaign to obtain political democracy. Over the generations the city’s attitude to Peterloo has been ambivalent, and efforts to raise a monument unsuccessful. It is to be hoped that the current campaign does not suffer the fate of previous attempts to recognise the national significance of Peterloo and that a substantial and appropriate memorial is finally raised on the actual site.

Has Manchester found the right balance between honouring its industrial heritage and forging a new, more modern image?
Manchester’s industrial past can be a problem for a city that wants to be seen as forward looking and unremittingly modern. Yet the fact that our book was supported by Corridor Manchester suggests a recognition that this heritage remains part of what the city is and how it is perceived by others. It is an inevitable feature of its face to the world. Just as Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony celebrated that past as a key part of British history and instrumental in the UK’s impact on the world stage, so Manchester’s central role in that industrial heritage is key to the city’s identity. One way to preserve that heritage is to find appropriate uses for historic buildings. A former era might have demolished redundant sites like the Central Station or the architecturally impressive warehouses. Bombing during the Second World War damaged the Victorian cityscape, and developments in the 1960s and 1970s were often less than sympathetic. Hopefully lessons have been learned, although plans to nominate the city’s historic canal network and commercial warehouse district for Unesco world heritage status came to nought in the face of fears over the impact that conservation might have on development. Tall glass buildings are symbols of the successful entrepreneurial modern city yet they are only part of a story of a city that was a key player in world history.

In celebrating Manchester’s successes, is there a danger of forgetting that there is still a lot of poverty and inequality in many areas?
As industry declined from the 1970s, inequality grew and several neighbourhoods displayed levels of social and economic deprivation substantially above the national average. Much of this is beyond local political control yet attempts have been made. The problem is recognised in Manchester City Council’s area regeneration policy from the 1990s onwards. This focused on promoting economic development and investment in some of the city’s most deprived districts. There have been notable successes, such as in Hulme, yet deprivation and social polarisation continue to be a feature of the city. Measures of deprivation between the early 1990s and 2010 show little change. Thus, despite successful regeneration in areas like East Manchester, relative deprivation remains stubbornly persistent. Social regeneration has proved much more difficult than physical and economic regeneration.

Femke Colborne

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