A lot has changed in Manchester city centre, at least on the surface, but to a great extent it’s still the same city as it always was. My book, Floating in Space is, as you probably know if you have ever visited this web page before, set in Manchester in 1977 and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the city, some 41 years later.
In 1977 there was no internet, no mobile phones and wireless was an old fashioned word that our parents used for the radio. Manchester was a busy and bustling city even back in 1977. People came into the city to shop, visit the cinema, eat at restaurants, drink beer and socialise in pubs and bars, pretty much just as they do today.
I loved my Saturday nights in Manchester. There was a quality of security, of expectancy, a feeling that the night and the future were going to be good. A feeling that you might just meet some gorgeous girl and that even if you didn’t, it didn’t really matter because there was always the excitement of the people and the music, and everything else that made up the evening. Then there was always the expectancy of the next night, and the next, and on and on into the future. The past building up inside you like a great data bank, reminding you, reassuring you, like a light burning in some empty room in the corner of your mind.
The main venue for me and my friends on a Saturday night in 1977 was the ‘Playground’, a small disco bar on Oxford Rd in the town centre. Flickering multi-coloured spotlights rotated across the red carpeted room which, on Fridays and Saturdays, was generally packed.
It had a small dance floor down at street level and when people stepped up to the bar, which was up on a slightly raised level, they could look down at the dancing, gyrating and mostly female dancers. Interestingly, on the same dance floor on week day lunchtimes, a topless dancer appeared at the stroke of one o’clock to translate the soul and disco music of the time into pulsating physical motion, the eyes of jaded office workers glued to her as she did so.
My friends and I used to meet up in the Salisbury, by Oxford Rd station, have a few pints and then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to gain entry, the solitary bouncer was silent, but not unpleasant, and the DJ, who always began the night with ‘Love’s Theme’ by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, (Barry White’s backing band) played alternate sessions of rock, disco and chart music.
We were mad about Jenny, the barmaid. She was lovely. She had a kind of round, open face, framed by thick blonde hair and her skin was a creamy white. She served us Worthington ‘E’ and we melted into the hubbub of people on their Saturday night out whilst the music of the seventies drifted through us.
Those then, are my memories of Saturday nights in Manchester. Beer, music, girls and a kebab or curry before getting the late bus home.
I’m sure there are still Saturday nights like that, in Manchester’s 21st century world. Most of the pubs I used to frequent are still there, repainted, refurbished and in some cases re-named. They may look different but peel away those new outer layers and you’ll find things pretty much the same. Different decor, different music but still very similar people enjoying an evening of drinks, music and chat.
The Salisbury is still there. Today it looks just like it always did. Inside the pub has been refurbished but in a good way and it looks pretty similar to how it used to look. The room where my friends used to sit has gone. It’s now an office or a private room. Still, the same flagged stone floor is there and whenever I step inside the memories come flooding back.
The Playground is still there too, well not the Playground exactly but the building is there. It’s now the Palace Theatre bar and what it looks like inside I do not know. The last time I passed by it was closed but I imagine that the DJ’s booth and the dance floor have gone. Perhaps Jenny passes by and remembers the old times just like me. Perhaps not, perhaps it was just another bar job to her.
Once upon a time in 1977 I was a young office clerk who ate his sandwiches in St Peter’s Square on sunny weekday lunchtimes. All is different there now. Today Manchester looks cleaner and sleeker. Modern buildings of steel and glass sit side by side with traditional architecture and through it all glides the modern tram, toot tooting its way through the city.
Even at the old end of town, things are cleaner, smoother. Warehouses and old buildings have been reformed into trendy bars and restaurants and dance music venues. A short walk from Deansgate Station takes you to the Dukes 92, a lovely and trendy canalside bar but take plenty of money with you, it’s not cheap!
Walking up Peter St from Deansgate, the Café Royale is gone. There is a bar called Henry’s Schloss, a huge Beer Keller sort of place where 2 pints of lager cost nearly ten pounds and large groups of men quaff beer and enjoy themselves. It’s not really my sort of place.
Just round the corner though, is a place that is my sort of place, the Abercromby, actually the Sir Ralph Abercromby, is one of those pubs that is a little like stepping into a time capsule. The decor is authentic seventies with lots of stained dark wood and leather seats and they serve a decent pint. I read on the internet that it was the model for the pub in the TV show Life on Mars. The former footballer turned property developer Gary Neville apparently wanted to knock down not only the pub but an entire block in the area to build two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that the pub dates back to the early 19th Century and is the only structure remaining from St Peter’s Field, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre clearly meant nothing to him. Happily the council planners would not let him have his way.
As you read this on a Saturday morning the cleaners are busy in those Manchester bars. The chillers will be stocked, the carpets cleaned and the tables polished. New barrels of beer and lager will be made ready.
Everything is ready for another Saturday night.