Reflections on Northern Spirit — Sabah Haider

I am not from Manchester or Lancaster or Blackpool. I am not from Lady Bower or Ramsbottom. Nor am I from anywhere else in Northern England. Actually, I’m not English.

I’m not even British.

I come from a place across the pond and far away where the Queen is on our money but our television is American. Our spelling is British, but our accents aren’t. Our winters are very long, cold and bleak.

Some of my English friends tease me, saying: “Canada is the result of a scandalous affair between America and England. A mutt. England’s step child.” I see their point.

And although I love Canada, my home, from a very young age, the North of England was my fantastical haven. I daydreamed my way through high school in the dull, grim Cambridge, Ontario of the early 90s, praying for the day that I could live my life in peace, in Manchester. Although I’d never been there, I knew all about it.

My spirit, I felt, was already there.

Other teenagers I knew went through phases like rap or punk or hip-hop or gangster or ice-hockey or drugs or whatever

I am the only person I know that went through a ‘Manchester’ phase. I’m not simply talking about music. Because thousands of young people around the world went through the Madchester mania. And of course music had a major influence on me – my first cassette of 1990 was the Stone Roses debut, introduced to me by a girl named Angie who’d just moved to Cambridge, Ontario from Widnes, Cheshire (near Manchester, England) that I had befriended. The album (I made a copy of her cassette) blew me away.

Sure, there were loads of teenagers walking around Toronto in 1989, ’90 and ’91 saying they were into Manchester, but they were specifically referring to the indie music coming out of Manchester at the time —bands like the Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Stone Roses and Charlatans were huge in Toronto and other parts of Canada however, I was actually into the city of Manchester, which, if you didn’t know, is 30 metres above sea level.

I had a picture of a photo of a sign that I had cut out of the University of Manchester undergraduate prospectus (I’d sent away for it three years before my UCAS application would have even been due) on my wall. It read: “And On The Sixth Day, God Created Manchester” next to my bed.

Back then, I could’ve probably given you directions from Stockport to Daisy Nook, as I had studied the map at the library very carefully.

As a teenager, one of my favourite playwrights was Shelagh Delaney, from Salford. Her voice was so Northern, I felt. She wrote about the plight of the Northern working class so well, I thought. Bless her.

I had a pen pal in Blackley (near Manchester). A young woman named Lynette. I met her through a fanzine I found at a Morrissey concert in Toronto in 1992. She was actually American and living somewhere in the state of New Hampshire at the time, but she soon met Darren, some Northern lad in Blackley (through the same ’zine) and moved off to Manchester, England to marry him and live happily ever after. I was so happy for her. Lynette became my precious pen pal (and crucial link to) Manchester.

This is back in the early 1990s, before the internet took over all our lives, and Lynette and I wrote to each other probably every other week for several years. Her letters were precious to me, and she filled me in on her exciting enviable daily life in Manchester, England. And I wrote to her about my boring teenage life in Cambridge, Ontario.

I think Lynette was probably ten years older than me, but she never made me feel that I was in another sphere to hers. She wrote to me about the pubs she went to, the offices where she worked, her husband and married life, gigs she went to, shops she visited and people she met. I drank it all in. We must corresponded for at least five years. But when my twenties arrived, university and jobs and travel and heartbreaks provided me with a multitude of distractions.

If I recall correctly, Lynette and Darren ended up getting a divorce. Regardless, we lost touch.

For the years that Lynette and I were pen pals — and this is years before eBay was even an idea, she supplied me with all the Mancunian and Madchester paraphernalia I could’ve asked for. I had posters from the Royal Exchange Theatre above my desk and a selection of flyers from gigs at the Hacienda and other venues and pubs in and around Manchester wallpapering my room in Cambridge, Ontario.

Unlike any other place in the world, I truly believed that Northern England’s people — all of them — shared what is known as the Northern Spirit. Although I had never been to Northern England, I had read all about it. And I treated the sheer idea of Northern Spirit as magical. And as a proper noun.

That was 20 years ago — and Manchester has changed a lot since then, I’ve been told. Today, Manchester is cosmopolitan and undergoing ongoing regeneration. It boasts designer apartment buildings and gourmet restaurants the Hacienda which was home to some of the greatest influences of my youth, is now a block of overpriced (but rather nice) flats and penthouses.

But, the Manchester I fell in love with, was the poet’s Manchester.

It’s been almost ten years now, but I remember the first time I ever took the train up to Manchester from London. A middle-aged Mancunian man sat down beside me and offered me a Stella, which I politely declined. For the next couple of hours he told me: “It’s important to follow your heart.” He was soon going to sail around the world. He had been waiting to do that his entire life.

I told him I really understood him. “I can relate to you,” I said. I had been waiting for this day that I too would catch a train to Manchester, my entire life.

He smiled, and told me about the ship he would be sailing.

Upon arrival, the chubby teenage cashier at the Sainsbury’s at Picadilly Station, who rang up my bottle of water, supported a tousled Mohawk that fell in all directions over his head. His nametag read: “Jason Lee.” I giggled to myself and asked him if anyone has ever pointed out the fact he shares a name with a moderately famous Hollywood actor.

Nohh,” shrugged Jason Lee without even raising his head to look at me. “Everyone just calls me Pineapple.”

The poet’s Manchester really was a hidden gem — a secret I didn’t want to share with the world. I don’t want Manchester to become any more chic than it has become. And I don’t particularly want Mancunians to sip lattés and discuss the increase in price of sun-blushed tomatoes at the health food store, although some of them do, and that’s okay.

I do, however, believe that the “Briton’s Protection”, is a truly great name for a pub.

I like my Mancunians sipping greasy tea with their roast dinners; devouring their curry, and unwilling to pay more than what something is worth. Proud of where they’re from, and warm, welcoming and curious towards each and every person that comes and visits their city. Those are the Mancs I got to know.

I remember being rather pleased with myself when once I recognized a patron at The King pub, in town, as being a National Express employee from Chorlton Street bus station. It’s a small world, I thought.

I remember the first time I went to Salford, was also about ten years ago. Having been a big fan of The Smiths while growing up, I had to do the obvious pilgrimage of The Smiths ‘sites’. One winter day as a local friend drove me around the Lancashire countryside, upon our return to Manchester (and upon my insistence) we stopped at the Salford Lads Club, so I could visit the site of the cover of The Queen is Dead album.

It was a bleak, quiet and grey Sunday afternoon, but I was grinning. I popped into the newsagent across the road to buy some sweets, and struck up a conversation with the old lady at the counter.

“I bet you’re not from here,” she said.

“No, I’m visiting,” I replied. “I bet you get a lot of visitors here to have a look at the Lads Club.”

“Yeah, particularly in the summer,” she said, adding “They still play here all the time.”

“Who?” I asked.

“The Smiths,” she replied as-a-matter-of-factly. “I hear them in there sometimes.”

I paused to look at the tiny, friendly, and completely senile old woman.

“Cool” I replied, smiling awkwardly.

In person, my Manchester looked beautiful when it rained. The leafy streets of Chorlton, Didsbury and Fallowfield look like postcard pictures when the streets were silent and grey.

I enjoyed rowdy pub quizzes at Ye Old Cock pub, which sat perched next to the wonderful peace and tranquility of Fletcher Moss gardens, where I had some nice walks.

Last Spring, I met a group of very old ladies in the leafy area of Didsbury, who were out for a stroll in Fletcher Moss Park. Their smiles and greetings led to a lovely chat about lots of things. I really enjoyed strolling around the gardens on such a beautiful day, I said to them.

All three ladies, World War II wives, nodded in unison, in approval at the fact I’m Canadian.

“Yes, Canadians are great people,” one said.

“Oh yes,” said another. “You helped us during the war.”

“It’s a real shame you have to speak French,” said the third, and they all smiled and nodded towards me sympathetically.

In those few years I got to know the real Manchester in person, I used to enjoy greasy breakfasts and coffee at Saints & Scholars, and I couldn’t get enough of the Sunday roasts at The Metropolitan. I used to think that The Great Kathmandu is a brilliant name for a Nepalese restaurant with a massive neon sign.

I used to love watching the middle-aged Thai woman known as “crazy Wendy” gyrating and singing Elvis songs, dressed in her elaborate evening gowns and feather boas, at her wonderful Thai restaurant in West Didsbury. I’m sure the King himself would’ve loved her too.

When I got to know the real Manchester, I thought it had the friendliest cabbies in the world. In fact, in one year alone I was proposed to by at least three of them. They all really liked my attitude, they told me. “If I were just 20 years younger …”, they’d say.

There used to be a really groovy ‘Disco Taxi’ in Manchester. I wonder if its still there. It was complete with flashing lights, 70s disco tracks, and a cabbie that truly felt the vibe. That was a riveting experience, and a must-do for kick-starting a big night out in town.

For the record, I had never even heard of a disco taxi in London, or anywhere else for that matter.

My Manchester’s beauty was surreal. I remember one romantic and rainy December evening many winters ago, as I walked by the beautiful Central Library in the centre of town, I stopped and smiled at the bright and ornate strings of colourful fruits (probably plastic) that seemed a hundred feet long, hanging from the high roof of the exterior, draping down the facade to create the loveliest of images.

The library seemed mystical and dreamlike. Filled with secrets.

About 8 years ago, while I was on a journalism assignment in Dubai, I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Rourke, the legendary bass player of The Smiths, after a DJ’ing gig he did alongside Mani, Bez and Bez’s right hand man Tom, at a local club.

I told Andy Rourke a story about Juan, a young effeminate Mexican guy with a buoyant pompadour that I met in Los Angeles a couple of years earlier. Juan, who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to travel outside the United States, was enjoying a pint of Guinness at a popular “British pub” in Hollywood called The Cat and The Fiddle. He caught my eye because he was wearing a T-shirt that read: “England is mine, it owes me a living.”

Andy threw his head back and laughed, amiably. “No it’s not — and, no, it doesn’t,” he blurted.

We both laughed.

Thank God I didn’t tell Andy about the Northern spirit I wore on my sleeve as a 15-year-old in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, thirteen years before I even managed to visit the area.

All people are victims of circumstance, and those were mine.

I have accepted that.

Sabah Haider: is a filmmaker and journalist. Born in The Netherlands and raised in Canada, she is now based in Beirut. Once upon a time she lived in London, England and visited Manchester frequently. In true Third Culture Kid form, now all grown-up, she spends much of her time reflecting upon life between cultures.

Image: Manchester Backstreet, © Ian Livesey, Creative Commons.