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Tramps and Trains in England’s northern capital

Bury’s bus station is an unattractive place. Not that it’s terrible or anything but I think I’d sooner spend longer in purgatory. I can’t single it out as the most unattractive station in the north west of England either, because in fact they’re all pretty similar. The same hopscotch of greasy chewing gum on the floor, the same rancid smells of unknown varieties and the same pimple-faced teenagers eying you as if you were about to burn down their house. The landlord of the bed and breakfast where I stayed told me that there had been attempts to rid these loitering youngsters from the station by playing classical music through the tannoy system: a novel idea and one which quite clearly indicated that the council preferred pensioners to be hanging round smoking dope and vandalising the benches (Margaret woz ere wiv Archibald listnin 2 beethovens fifth in C minor).
Smiling at the thought of granny graffiti I made my way to the tram platform which was below the rest of the station and accessible via a whirring escalator. Bury is pretty proud of the Metrolink. I didn’t at all know why this was, until I read in my guide that it was ‘a revolutionary concept in the light rail genus’ and realised my mistake.
Before getting on the tram I was obliged to buy a ticket, not from a nice lady behind a counter but from a contrary and vengeful machine. If you think I’m exaggerating you might like to think back to the episodes of your life when a ‘time saving’ device has either grievously injured you, caused you public embarrassment, lowered your self esteem or, perhaps the worst, strewn liquidated food around your home without even the common courtesy of calling it modern art.
The machine clearly didn’t wish me to go to Manchester centre, and suggested instead I go to various other places around the northern hemisphere. This continued for a number of minutes. After a while I stopped sobbing and rose from my knees with the conviction of just getting a ticket to wherever the hell it wanted… Cornbrook. Wonderful.<!–page–>
In an odd way though, I came to like the tram. I liked the way it rolled and shuddered when we passed the gentlest corners, the way the brakes squealed like stuck pigs when we came to a stop and the way the whooshing noises reminded me of the crappy but entertaining sci-fi channels on TV.
Despite the insistence of my ticket, I was making my way to the city centre of Manchester. Once the industrial home of paper manufacture, cotton spinning and printing, the city has recently under gone a major image change and is now become popular with the young professionals, students and party-goers of the North West.
I got off the tram at Victoria Station and was glad to move away from the befuddled tramp who had sat beside me and plagued the latter part of my journey with baffling stories (There’s are man ye know he talks to me through the walls he does he’s in between he is he’s there and Jack stole me pants).
Victoria Station interested me. It was a wonderfully quaint station, big but filled with the charm of many decades worth of journeys. I was surprised to see the entrance to the Manchester Evening News Arena pop its head through one side of the station; plate glass and aluminium defining the passage into its interior. The MEN arena as it is known around here is one of those mammoth concert venues; the kind where if you sit on the back row the band are invisible to the naked eye and the music sounds as if it originated from a tin can.
Outside the imposing entrance to the station the sun laid its soothing hand upon my head and I was delighted to see one of the few remaining cobbled roads in any of the English city centres. Impractical and noisy as they are, difficult to brake on and even harder to mend though they are, I still love their Englishness. Forget the cup of tea; the cobbled road is the English institution. I stepped into the road and crossed, resisting the temptation of a theatrical skipping across of it Wizard of Oz style.
 I walked happily in the unexpected sunshine (I was told that Manchester saw sunshine only on the weather forecasts for other parts of the country) to the ‘Millennium Quarter’ where a large group of teenagers contented themselves with listening to music on personal stereos and falling awkwardly off skateboards. This area was heavily affected by the IRA bombing of Manchester in 1996, but since then it has sprung back to life with enthusiasm.
Where the teenagers sat was the garden section of the quarter, slightly reminiscent of the Teletubbies’ garden: it rises and falls in height with big mounds in some places and shallow troughs in others. Around the garden flowed a trickling stream along a marble bed which for some reason had metal ‘things’ in it. I say ‘things’ because I would really not like to hazard a guess at what they are supposed to be, but they look kind of like a cross between a steamrollered crab and a human brain.
I liked the ‘Millennium Quarter’. I mean the garden is pretty in its children’s television way and the architecture surrounding it is wonderful. On the left the Chetham’s School of music presents its gothic grandeur over the scene while just a little further up is Manchester Cathedral, almost eight hundred years old.
What I love about this place is that opposite these two very old, imposing buildings is the URBIS centre, a hyper-modern museum. Now I know that modern architecture very often has the effect of making you either prick up you nose and jerk your mouth in disgust or simply wet pants with laughter, but URBIS is different. Yes it’s a hundred feet high and shaped like a ship, yes it’s made completely of glass, but it makes no excuses for it. It realises it looks like Winston Churchill at a rave or Satan in a church congregation but it doesn’t care. And if you ask me, that’s pretty cool.<!–page–>
By this time, clouds thick as blankets had formed above my head, so I walked briskly to the Printworks Complex and escaped the first sheets of rain. The Printworks is a pretty impressive place; it took £150 million to turn this former, well, print works, into the entertainment complex you see now, and it shows. Everything is so new and trendy.
I am reliably informed by a ‘you are probably here or we could be joking’ type map on the ground floor that there are 36 cafes in this place, 16 restaurants and a huge cinema. Not only is there a cinema but one of the screens in it, the map boasts, is 26 metres high and 23 metres wide. This sounds fairly impressive I have to admit, but just imagine sitting on the front row. Ouch.
The rain still pelted on the pavement outside so I decided to find a relatively inexpensive café type place and have a warm drink until it stopped. In my ignorance I hadn’t realised that there was neither ‘inexpensive’ things to eat in here nor simple ‘hot drinks’. It’s the kind of place where your bill comes with page numbers and an index and where, if a drink appears too simple, it is livened up by being served in the Holy Grail or possibly a unicorn’s horn.
Having found a small bar which was kind enough to serve coffee in the day time, I sat at a small table next to the window and looked into the rain.
Figures strode stiffly across the square outside. Business men in Versace suits, old people with sticks and buskers with sopping hair and tired guitars. It reminded me again of the mixed identity and appearance of this city and how it all seemed to work, unlike so many other cities where the ancient and modern seem locked in grim battle on the city’s streets.
The only thought to sadden me was that I had to go back to Bury. I had to face the drunken tramps and the scorn of those wannabe policemen and women: the ticket inspectors.
I found some inspiration, whilst thinking about how to tackle these people, next to my cup of coffee. Scrawled into the surface of the table were the words: ‘Piss off!’ Perfect.

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