I was in Manchester at the weekend, visiting a friend. Having graduated from Manchester University in 1996 but not having visited since 1998, it was quite an eye-opener walking around the old place now. The massive redevelopment programme that took place after the IRA bombing ten years ago, plus the considerable investment in preparing the city for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, has resulted in a city centre bearing little resemblance to the one that I remember. The grotty old Arndale Centre has been totally refurbished and extended with a fancy new atrium. Exchange Square is a totally new development: pedestrianised, with a big outdoor screen, water features, all overlooked by new residents Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. It’s a bit like Covent Garden, but nicer, minus the tourists and tedious street ‘artists’. When I was a student, Piccadilly train station stank of piss, lager and fag butts. The walk to the station would involve doing the ‘tramp slalom’, where you would try to avoid scary looking beggars with missing teeth and ginger hair hassling you for change so that they could “get their train fare home”. (One chap in particular must have been very unfortunate with losing his train fare, because he was there every time I went to the station.) But now, with its glass exterior and abundance of shops, Piccadilly is more like a smart new airport terminal. Hulme has probably changed the most of all. In my day (“Aye, in my day, it were all fields round these parts”), it was like a cross between London’s Elephant and Castle and Dresden after the bombing of 1944. Imagine a run-down council estate the size of a town, where virtually every deserted building has had all its windows broken and every wall is daubed with crude or illegible graffiti and you’re starting to get there. But now, smart new low-level housing has sprung up all over. There are now bars, restaurants and delicatessens where, less than ten years ago, the only culture was that growing in the broken beer bottles dropped onto the pavement. Meanwhile, the University, my old alma mater, has ambitious plans to eclipse Oxford and Cambridge in terms of academic excellence. This is probably unrealistic, but they could certainly give them a run for their money.
So all in all, I was very impressed. It struck me as a confident and affluent city, quite European in style (but then it always was, with its canals, narrow winding backstreets, public squares and Gothic architecture). For so long Manchester had an inferiority complex. It would often make bold claims to being a great international city, on a par with London – claims that were once really quite laughable. But from what I’ve just seen, such proclamations are no longer ridiculous: it can offer pretty much everything that London has, but on a smaller and more manageable (not to mention affordable) scale.