Preserving the Past

Part 2: Preserving the Past

Today’s slide show: Manchester

The long-abandoned Central Station became the G-Mex exhibition center

Eight years after the bomb, Manchester still feels like a building site. Lime-green construction-worker vests are the urban outfit this season, and although the air breathes clean, the paperbacks displayed near the door of the bookstore in the Printworks complex are covered in a thin layer of construction grit. Most of the new buildings are deluxe downtown apartments, though with all that al fresco dining, clubbing, and shopping to be done, it’s hard to know how Mancunians find the time to work so they can pay for their lofts.

Some of Manchester’s architectural repurposing has worked brilliantly. Among the abandoned Victorian buildings that have been successfully converted are the old Central Station, which became the G-Mex exhibition center, and the oldest passenger railway buildings in the world, at Liverpool Street, which morphed into the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester. Others seem to have pushed up against the limits of the leisure economy: The vast Great Northern Railway Company’s Goods Warehouse on Deansgate now houses a multiplex and a nightclub, but its retail spaces all lie empty.

Of course, renovation has costs that can’t be covered by lottery funding and public-private partnerships. Down near Manchester’s main railway station, a property company is working to rehaul Piccadilly Plaza—a filthy, down-at-heel block that provides many visitors with their first impression of the city. The existing property was accurately described by the local newspaper as an “eyesore,” and the cheap stores and eateries that the developers have targeted for removal offend my delicate sensibilities and expensive tastes (perhaps because I spent my childhood in such places)—but where are the folks who patronize those businesses supposed to shop and eat once they’re gone?

Over at Manchester Art Gallery, which just emerged from its own $63 million facelift and rebranding, a wonderful exhibit on Mancunian “attitude” challenges the city’s new public image. “There’s more to Manchester than shopping, bars and clubs,” it declares. “Manchester is the city of radical thinkers, mavericks and trendsetters. It’s the people that give the city its edge.”

I know I’m thinking like a taxpayer rather than a tourist, but I can’t help feeling that Manchester will be worse off when the poor are banished out of sight. In their efforts to buff up the city’s image, marketers seem to be polishing off the local color—and Manchester’s move up-market has certainly toned down the local sound.

Accents are everything in Britain. Like the soccer team jerseys so many grown men wear around town, they’re a way for people to establish their tribal affiliations, whether they be regional, religious, or class-based. The residents of Cheshire, just a few miles down the road from Manchester, aren’t considered true Northerners by many because they “talk posh,” and I’ve always wondered if the traditional enmity between Liverpool and Manchester has something to do with Liverpudlians having their own dialect—Scouse—which has little connection with the lingua franca at the other end of the East Lancs Road.

The Lancashire dialect that I grew up speaking seems to have vanished from the city streets, though Anne Davies, an adult-education teacher and social-housing worker from Bolton, assured me it’s still alive in pockets of northwest England. “People aren’t living in the same kind of communities any more. They’ve knocked down the old streets, where everybody lived close together. Because they lived in closed communities, they kept the accent and the dialect alive. Now, they move off and get fancy houses in the countryside. Everyone’s trying to do better for themselves, which is no bad thing, but they’ve lost their sense of community and roots.” It’s not just a one-way movement. As people were rehoused or immigrants (from Liverpool, say) moved in, people had to resort to standard English to make themselves understood.

Working to preserve Lancashire dialect might be an exercise in nostalgia, but Davies maintains it’s important: “A lot of children who are growing up now are unaware that it ever existed in the first place, and it’s still history. Etymology is history, the history of language. We should make sure that libraries have something about dialect, along with history and customs.”

Prospective employees of those ritzy city-center facilities might be advised to hide their working-class accents, but the folks who stock museum shops and tourist information centers obviously recognize the interest in local dialects: They always seem to offer a selection of Lanky phrasebooks in the impulse-purchase zone around the till. You might want to pack one of these handy guides if you go to Wigan Pier and get caught in conversation with a local. Tha wunt want t’Pie-yeiters thinking tha’s pots for rags, dusta serry? (Or, as a softie Southerner might put it, “You wouldn’t want the good people of Wigan to think you were intellectually challenged, would you, old bean?)

I suspect that my problems with Manchester’s transformation are biographical. When I arranged to meet Anne to talk about Lancashire dialect, we communicated in standard English. I didn’t ask her if she preferred to meet “morn morn or morn neet” (tomorrow morning or tomorrow evening); when we said goodbye, I didn’t inquire if she were “gooin’ wom” (heading home). My dialect is a dead language. Back in the 1930s, in The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote: “In a Lancashire cotton-town you could probably go for months on end without hearing an ‘educated’ accent, whereas there can hardly be a town in the South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop. Consequently, with no petty gentry to set the pace, the bourgeoisification of the working class, though it is taking place in the North, is taking place more slowly.” Perhaps my nostalgia for my native tongue and my reluctance to say goodbye to Manchester’s eyesores stem from the same source: discomfort with my own and my city’s bourgeoisification.