The people of Manchester really like Manchester. Like — they really, really, really, really REALLY like Manchester. In our mid-morning walking tour on Thursday our tour guide paused, between narrations about this or that cotton mill becoming a mall or a cute shopping center somewhere, to apologetically enthuse: “I’m just obsessed with Manchester!”, which inspired Emma, Our Fearless Leader, to declare that she also is obsessed with Manchester. I could write this off as enthusiastic humans in the travel/tourism profession doing their job convincingly, and maybe I should, but I don’t want to.
Besides, it’s not just them, it’s everybody. It’s not like in New York where we all love New York but would prefer it if nobody from anywhere besides New York (New Jersey especially) ever visited New York.
In Manchester, they love the city and want you to love the city too. They want you to come to their city and when you get there you are going to fucking love Manchester, dammit, you are gonna fucking love the hell out of Manchester.
Because of the riots, this was especially true the first week of August, which is when I visited Manchester for Pride, courtesy of Marketing Manchester, who covered all the trip’s expenses (with the exception of this really bad egg salad sandwich I bought at a deli at 3am, a new straightening iron to replace the one I destroyed, and several other food items mentioned within) and took great care of us.
When first invited, I was hesitant — to leave the website, to leave the country, to go somewhere with strangers. After being reassured 567 times that the website could survive without me and that I deserved a vacation and that it was real, I signed on. I’m really glad I did — not just because it was fun, but because I’m a lesbian and its not often that marketers reach out to us. In general, travel journalists are often invited on press trips like this one (although corporations with budgets, like The New York Times, prefer to fund trips themselves to prevent bias from the journalist), and many tourism agencies are presently angling for the LGBT tourism market, as LGBTs have been shown to take more vacations and spend more while on vacation. But since the recession it often feels like by “LGBT” they actually just mean “G,” as gay men (or perhaps men in general) are perceived to be a far more lucrative market than lesbians and their publications are generally more visible. As a member of the lesbian media, it does matter to me that we’re seen as a market, too. Marketing Manchester sought us out and I appreciate that. So there. LEZ GO.
On Wednesday the 24th I fly from San Francisco to New York at God Knows When O’Clock, where I meet up with Emma White, our straight ambassador from Visit Manchester, and George, who I believe works for American Airlines in some capacity and is gay, in the Admiral’s Club at JFK. I eat pretzels from a tiny ramekin and drink a free whiskey while we wait for Carlos Melia, a luxury travel blogger who I’m told is “very attractive,” and Matt Mills, Associate Publisher & Editorial Director of Xtra.ca. The other journalist, Ricardo, who lives in New York and writes for MIX Brasil, will join us the next day in Manchester.
Do you like to drink? Emma asks me.
I laugh. I do.
Then you’ll have a good time, George confirms.
An hour later I’m already having a good time because George upgraded us to first class. I’m sitting in a giant throne which transforms into a bed, a recliner, and a spaceship. A flight attendent with hair like a shellacked wave of meringue brings us food with real utensils and drinks.
As we shoot off into the night, I slip in and out of plane-sleep — the kind where you’re never really certain if you fell asleep at all, and your dreams might be really happening, and everyone’s voices sound underwater.
We arrive in Manchester at 8:45 AM Manchester time, which’s roughly 1 AM My Time. My head feels like a carved-out pumpkin and my eyeballs are grapes and my blood is rusty which means that I need a nap. It also means there’s no way my brain is gonna let me nap.
In my room at The Ramada-Picadilly, I spend some time setting up my internet connection, unpack, and then lie on the bed with my eyes closed.
Three hours later we’re dressed in the lobby and ready for our walking tour. I’ve never been on a walking tour ever in my life. It’s brilliantly sunny. In between history lessons, I notice bundles of the Disillusioned Youth I’ve read so much about, smoking cigarettes, holding hands, aggressively toeing the edges of their skateboards like they could flee at any minute.
The idea, I gather during the tour, is that Manchester’s been built by the proletariat, and weathered its share of economic and political storms but has nevertheless triumphed, because of The Mancunian Spirit.
The History of Manchester and How It Got So Gay
Manchester, like so many modern cities, was once the center of flourishing industry and now is the center of other things, including apartments and hotels that used to be cotton mills and warehouses. Manchester’s prominent textile industry goes back over 600 years and really took off in the late 18th century in tandem with the Industrial Revolution. They called it Cottonopolis.
Manchester had a rep for being radical early on — a center of development for education and culture as well as being a leader in promoting free trade, laissez-faire, new religious sects, labour organizations and the Suffragette movement.
The 1950s saw the introduction of The Manchester United football team. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
In 1960, film production companies moved to Manchester and the still-running Manchester-filmed Coronation Street soap opera aired its first episode.
Throughout the early 20th century, Rochdale Canal, the mainline of Manchester’s cotton industry, was in decline. As the cotton industry crumbled, the Canal area was increasingly known as “cotton factories by day and red-light district by night.” But as urban decay hit hard and those factories turned into abandoned warehouses, it developed a new reputation: a place for gay men to meet and have sex. It was perfect because the area was both dark/unvisited and convenient to public transportation.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967, and in 1968 The Gay Village began forming. Not that society had changed that much, exactly — homosexual activity was only legal in private, for people over 21. Police used the canal to creep around and find people acting gay to arrest and/or beat up. The Union Pub‘s owner was arrested in the 1960s for the amount of homosexual activity that happened in his venue. It later re-opened as The New Union.
Bar raids were common throughout the ’80s, and the community was also pushing back against new anti-gay legislation and political hostility. Things began changing in the ’90s, heralded by the opening of Manto in 1990, owned by a lesbian property developer and her business partner. The building was clad with large plate glass windows, which initially resulted in lost business due to fear of being seen but eventually became a tangible representation of the gays’ increasing ability to be out and proud. The owner says, “I didn’t feel comfortable in the places I was drinking in, and they weren’t particularly women-friendly. I felt sick of having to knock on doors and hide.”
And now, here we are, in the Queer as Folk city, gay as the day is long and precisely as rambunctious as promised.
Our tour leader leaves us somewhere between Chinatown and an Art Museum and Emma leads us on to The Gay Village, where we visit the yet-unopened Richmond Tea Rooms, which will be an English-style tea room by day (a well-needed respite from the alcohol-centric nature of gay culture) and at night will get really sexy with cocktails, music and “Tim Burton-inspired design.”
We make a stop to meet the DJs at Gaydio before heading back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. Again I lie down with my eyes closed, have 3-4 thoughts about being the only lesbian on the tour, and re-dress myself for dinner at Brazillian pampas restaurant Nossa Cassa. Carlos and Matt take enthusiastic sips of my devil-water (75% whiskey/25% coke bottle in-bag) and consequently make horrific faces.
At the restaurant, we easily kill four bottles of wine, and we’re joined by Marketing Manchester‘s director Drew Stokes, who’s really excited about the I Heart Manchester Campaign he’s been spearheading for the past two weeks or so. Nobody wants to say the word “riots” (except me, of course, as I find tragedy somehow hilarious within maybe two days of it going down) so instead it’s called “disturbances.”
“The response has just been incredible,” Drew enthuses, passing around his iPhone so we can read comments on the I Heart Manchester facebook page. He explains that most “mancunians” didn’t anticipate the “disturbances” would come to Manchester and they were shocked when they did. At the end of the day he says they barely got hit due to quick police response and, apparently, civic pride.
At this point I’m not only on my 26th hour without sleep and still ravenously hungry, but also wasted (in retrospect), so our drunkity-drunk-drunk crew bumbles down to Taurus Bar on Canal Street for “It’s a Gay Knock Out.” It’s some kind of contest involving racing in stilettos — arguably, an event neither gay men nor gay women excel at — throwing sausages into hoops and hurling handbags at each other. The master of ceremonies is wearing tight booty shorts, a tube top and a blonde wig best described as “bed head.” At one point the host accidentally misidentifies Matt as Mr. Gay Universe, and must be corrected. (It’s Carlos, Carlos was Mr.Gay Universe.)
Like most pride events everywhere, the tightly-packed crowd is about 75/25 with gay men to gay women, so when I see a woman with linebacker shoulders and an ill-fitting blazer speaking to one of the people from our group, I consider making gay eye contact with her and instead just saddle up next to her and say “SO…” and she laughs like she knows what I’m talking about but clearly she doesn’t ’cause about three minutes into the conversation she mentions her husband.
I announce that I’m gonna head home to sleep but Carlos interrupts Emma giving me directions with, “No you’re not. You’re staying out!” and so I do.
More drinks, more bars, and in a display of aggressive comradery, one of the slim-hipped frehs-faced young gay boys who has joined our group insists we hit up girl-bar Vanilla, which on this night is pretty empty but will easily fill up throughout the rest of pride. It’s the only dedicated lesbian bar in the city (although the guy-bars I went to were pretty mixed). We play pool, except we’re all so terrible at pool that we essentially take turns cheating and around something ridiculous o’clock, Carlos and I pick up some strange sandwiches only drunk people buy and go back to the hotel. I’m exhausted and so so so very drunk and also, resolutely, happy.
Obviously, due to Hangover of Death, I sleep through our morning activity and wake up 13 minutes before our afternoon activity, but manage to shower/dress in literally record time and run downstairs still tired, a lot hungover, hungry, and needing coffee. Our fourth “travel blogger” Ricardo has now joined us.
We look out the tram windows to a rainy afternoon on our way to The Quays, location of The Lowry. On our way there Emma points out the big industrial buildings converted to lofts or TV studios.
Salford Quays in Greater Manchester was redeveloped a bit over ten years ago, and The Lowry is its flagship structure. It’s like this massive brightly-colored thing hosting two main theatres and studio spaces for theater, opera, dance, comedy and musical performances — and they’ve got a formidable schedule of events. The buildings remind me of Downtown Disney.
Most importantly, there’s a little coffee shop there where I trade paper for a latte and some coins I still have right this minute. There’s a “Queer to Stay: 21 Years of Manchester Pride” exhibit and also a Warhol exhibit which are all grand accompaniments to my mouth making love to my latte.
Feeling slightly awake, we tram back to ALTO at the Radisson Edwardian Manchester for lunch. We never really get into anything personal but I already feel like I’ve known these people for much longer than I have, which I guess is verging on 24 hours. We’re almost at the point where they learned that my dry sarcasm is dry sarcasm, not maudlin depression.
Back at the hotel, I try to sleep again and I think maybe pull off 10-15 minutes worth and then we assemble for the Media Launch Party at Sky Lounge at the Mint Hotel Manchester. It’s beautiful.
Barefoot Wines is providing the free alcohol and girls walk around with trays of tiny spring rolls and fresh mozzarella on toothpicks. Outside, Drew tells us about the ride they do in Malawi to support AIDS research and as he talks, it starts to sprinkle and we see, across the city, a fire of some kind gathering in the air, a thick dark smoke I identify as the apocalypse and someone else suggests is Hurricane Irene. You never know. We still don’t.
Then we walk to the Gaydar Main Stage Arena‘s VIP tent for Pam-Ann‘s show. Below us are swells of people, a giant arena literally teeming with happy humans who, if they were screaming words instead of just screaming, I feel would be yelling something like FUCK IT WE’RE GAY, and it would be awesome.
Pam Ann‘s set is short, which is good as I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t find her entertaining.
Then the boys go out to the boy bars and I go home, preparing mentally for perhaps my first sufficient night of sleep. But then I start watching Coronation Street and that all goes to hell.
Saturday I am awake like a motherfucker. It’s parade day and it’s still raining because it rains a lot in Manchester. First up is an 11 am “Cocktail Master Class” at The Alchemist. When I first read this on the schedule, it seemed like a bizarrely premature time for alcohol consumption, but by this point in the trip it seems totally normal. “Thank you for the oatmeal I am ready for my cocktail now.”
He leads us through making two drinks —
1. Mojito – Bacardi Superior Rum, lime juice, mint, sugar and L&G Blackstram Rum Liqueur
2. White Cosmo – a frozen white orchid bathed in vodka, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, white grape juice and lemon bitters.
I win the Best Mojito but the worst White Cosmo. Much to nobody’s surprise, I used like three times too much vodka.
This is fun, like really fun, like really the best thing, and it’s something I can’t imagine doing in any other context. The bartender is jokey and kind (everyone in Manchester is really kind) and says he’s surprised when Emma tells him that whiskey is my drink. He says women aren’t usually big whiskey drinkers, and before I say I got into whiskey because my ex-girlfriend, best friend/co-editor and present girlfriend drink whiskey, I just say “well, I’m a lesbian” and it turns out it’s got something to do with the female tongue palate. I dunno.
He fills a test tube with smoke, drops a tennis-ball sized ice cube into a glass, gets that shit mixed up with whiskey and produces a cocktail — one he invented himself — that’s like whiskey making out with maple syrup.
3. Smokey Old Fashioned - Woodford Reserve, maple syrup, Jerry Thomas’ Bitters, oak smoke and an ice ball
I sorta want to stay at The Alchemist for lunch and dinner and make more mojitos, but it’s time for the PRIDE PARADE!