Where Legends Play Ball

Beyond the football madness that draws people to the city, the real contours of England’s Manchester come alive.

Written by Susmita Saha | Updated: October 7, 2018 6:00:33 am
England Manchester, Legends Play Ball, George Best, David Beckham Inside the neo-gothic reading room at the John Rylands Library. (Courtesy: VisitBritain/Simon Winnall)

Wait till you play here one day, son,” whispers a club official into the ears of a young boy of nine. “Buy your Momma a Ferrari then!” I am standing on the edge of the Old Trafford turf, nicknamed Theatre of Dreams, where superstars like George Best and David Beckham have scored for Manchester United — one of the world’s most famous football clubs. Around me are Manchester United devotees, craning their necks at odd angles, trying to take selfies against the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand.

The group’s youngest member, the future Ferrari customer, has already pulled down the Man U jersey over his head, intensely eyeing the emerald patch in front of him. Meanwhile, girls on their summer breaks from college are falling over each other to ask questions about Beckham.

An hour later the same morning, the city of Manchester seems to come alive, very much like match day at Old Trafford. Just last evening, as I took a train to the city, known as Cottonopolis across the globe in the 19th century, I registered mostly pastoral landscapes flying past my window — fields with tightly pressed bales of hay, each strand twisted and teased into giant knots, mimicking a perfectly executed chignon. I caught glimpses of train stations with quaint bakeries and advertisements peddling shows at the Barbican Centre, UK’s eclectic arts venue. “Last train home? Why not jolly up your journey with four cans?” screamed a beer advert from a station cafe.

But as I set about navigating the city this morning, Manchester wipes out all traces of a bucolic dream with its brazen energy and effervescent street life. Architectural quirks, disguised as modern office and retail spaces, watch over the bustling Mancunians as glass-fronted double decker buses glide in and out of the main thoroughfares.

I snake around the Palace Theatre at the exact juncture of Oxford street and Whitworth street, to check out thoughtfully-designed posters of musicals, opera, ballets and what have you. There’s Matilda, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical, too, based on Roald Dahl’s much-feted book.

Manchester has had several past lives. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century was the lattice upon which commercial enterprises like cotton thrived and transformed the fortunes of the city. “When you talk about Manchester, people either say Manchester United/Manchester City, or, it’s wet,” says Pauline Lloyd of Manchester Guided Tours, who I meet next morning on a walk around the city centre, “Cotton mills took root here because of its damp climate, perfect for spinning cotton.” New factories and mills sprung up eventually, resulting in both economic prosperity and exploitative labour conditions. There was a flood of migrants from the countryside, but poor city planning compromised their living conditions, leading to a cholera epidemic in 1831-32.

Manchester, the economic powerhouse of yore, started sputtering with the outbreak of World War I as the demand for British cotton took a hit, coming to an absolute standstill in the 1980s.

Present day Manchester sits on the spoils of other commercial activities such as business, financial and professional services as well as health and social care. High-tech and media industries too have fuelled the reinvention of the city. Not surprisingly, marquee companies which have recently made Manchester their home include everyone from BBC and Google to Amazon.

In Manchester, my days were dictated by its tempo, which is different in both the new and old quarters. While the sectors with new real estate have their own glitz, the shininess wears off in the city centre which showcases Manchester’s place in history. St Peter’s Square, a stone’s throw away from the Manchester Central Library, has been the site of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, when a rally for electoral reforms was set upon by the local yeomanry. That event would subsequently become a trigger for the birth of the Manchester Guardian in 1821, later rechristened as The Guardian, the British daily.

As I further explored the square, I paused at the Manchester Cenotaph, a World War I Memorial for the British Army designed by none other than the architect of New Delhi, Sir Edwin Lutyens. The cenotaph, if viewed through the prism of time and memory, echoes the spirit of India Gate, another remembrance structure for the British Indian Army in WWI.

Like scores of people who sign up for touristy staples during their vacation, I love seeking out relics of another era. In that sense, John Rylands Library, nearby the square, is a bit of an outlier, even though its ancestry dates back to 1900. Made in late Victorian and neo-Gothic styles, the library has acquired a contemporary edge through its merger with the University of Manchester library in 1972. Today, it houses rare collections from both the libraries, boasting of gems such as medieval illuminated manuscripts and specimens of early European printing, even featuring a Gutenberg Bible. In its reading room, the woody whiff of books or the sound of a fluttering page can draw you into alcoves lit by oriel windows and appointed with art nouveau bronze work.

Later one day, as I sat down for lunch at The Mackie Mayor on Eagle Street, Northern Quarter, I paused to stare at the reclaimed Victorian market hall with traces of an old Manchester. It is now home to a new wave of artisanal food traders, who are reimagining world cuisines in ways that are at once refreshing and radical.

Inside the Mayor, all seats were taken. A crowd gathered around a chef dripping silken hollandaise onto a marbled steak, letting it form a golden pool next to a poached egg and a thicket of rocket leaves. At Tender Cow, one of the scores of stalls whipping up a frenzy, the steak benedict is a must-have. All the eateries make an eloquent argument for top-notch ingredients and sophisticated cooking methods, an indication of how Manchester has stepped up its restaurant game like no other.

When I finally queued up for security check at the airport, a thousand thoughts crowded my mind. I was leaving behind a metropolis that’s narrating engaging economic and cultural stories, leavened with history. While it’s helping its citizens rev up their credit cards through a spate of recent investments, Manchester’s real contours were revealed to me through its lesser-known trails across the city.

Susmita Saha is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.

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