Howard Jacobson Reflects on Manchester, England

Postindustrial Manchester eschews showiness. Julian Deghy / Gallery Stock

There are cities that reveal their charms on introduction, shamelessly, and there are others that give you more time to get to know them, cities which are not voluptuous but viable, easy to get around, good humored, self-effacing without being apologetic.

Manchester, 200 miles to the northwest of London, and just a half-hour drive from its noisier neighbor Liverpool, is one of the latter. It would be incorrect to say it lacks beauty, for the great mills and warehouses built in the days when cotton was king, and Manchester was its Versailles, are on the scale of Italian Renaissance palazzi and can indeed look like Italian Renaissance palazzi on sunny days and when, standing on a bridge over, say, the Rochdale Canal, you are in the mood to see the best in things. Hotels, clubs, apartment blocks now, the old mills and warehouses have made the change well from temples of ceaseless industriousness to palaces of ceaseless pleasure. Victorian neogothic architecture enjoyed a flowering in Manchester too, most notably in the great spired almost fairy-tale Town Hall, a sort of cathedral to commerce that exudes confidence and prosperity yet is not without delight in magniloquence for its own sake.

Moonlight on wet streets, the distant prospect of chimneys made phosphorescent by their own smoke, industrial valleys looking nostalgic in these nonproductive times, and on Saturday nights, whatever the weather, girls with mottled thighs and boys in short-sleeved shirts drinking mojitos en plein-air—such are the city’s sights. But it’s substance rather than poetry that Manchester has always sought to convey, a no-nonsense stolidity reflected in all the public buildings, squares, and statuary, commemorating men of affairs, free traders, and reformers rather than artists or adventurers.

If Manchester wears its cultural achievements lightly, that is because it finds showiness, like its geography—the city is positioned in the very path of wet clouds coming in low off the Pennine Hills—absurd. A hundred years ago Manchester rivaled Berlin and Vienna as a city of music. The Hallé, founded by a German immigrant 50 years before, had become one of the world’s great orchestras. It tells you something about Manchester at that time that a young Westphalian musical prodigy such as Charles Hallé should have chosen to make Manchester his home. A small but active population of German expatriates—some in flight from religious intolerance, others simply doing business—was already established in Manchester, making music, meeting to discuss ideas, encouraging an interest in literature and in art. If the native Mancunian needed this spur to his own hesitant creativity, it is to his credit that he welcomed it wholeheartedly.

Though the Jewish population was small when I was growing up, Manchester seemed a Jewish city to me, so at home did we feel in it and so in tune with its energetic comic pessimism. Foremost among the pleasures of the city today is the Rusholme Curry Mile, a stretch of Asian restaurants a short walk from the university, which, if you were dropped there at night, you might take for a street in Bangladesh or Pakistan. A great city knows it is never more itself than when it can make room for what is different to itself, the corollary of which has been, in Manchester’s case, the adoption by other cultures of Mancunian modesty and sense of the ridiculous. You will hear better Jewish jokes in Manchester, as a consequence, than you will ever hear in London. And I suspect the same holds true of Bangladeshi jokes.

The presiding genius of the place remains, though he died in 1976, the painter L.S. Lowry, famous for his industrial landscapes, canvasses that simultaneously teem with life and express the desolation of the northerner over whom the clouds too rarely lift. It took a while for Lowry’s greatness to be recognized, so determinedly plain about his art was he, so bent on downplaying his gifts. Outside of football—which is a fiefdom of its own—it’s not done to blow your own trumpet in Manchester. People will laugh with you on buses or in shops because they take the human comedy, of which they are no less the butts than anybody else, to be universal. This is not a population of a once fabulously rich cottonopolis making the best of its decline; Manchester’s laconic mirth was always its strength. And you breathe it in on the streets still like a tonic.

Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize in 2010.