Paul Dobraszczyk: Greater Manchester is the flagship urban region in the UK’s evolving policy of decentralising government. This is partly a consequence of Greater Manchester’s longstanding historical importance (principally on account of the cotton industry in the 19th century), but also because Manchester was and still is the flagship city in terms of post-industrial regeneration (and the level of investment that requires).
There’s also the longstanding question of the north/south divide, heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. Putting together a book on Manchester inevitably raises this issue, not least because the UK publishing industry is still very London-centric. What role might there be for a richer literature on provincial cities? And can audiences be convinced that provincial cities are just as interesting as ‘global’ ones like London? I’m interested in how we can put more value on the local, the mundane, and the near-at-hand, not to perpetuate an inward-looking form of nostalgia, but rather to ground ourselves more in where we actually live. Provincial cities are ideal places in which to do this because they are usually small enough to comprehend as distinct places, but large enough to generate the kind of diversity that sustains interest.
Sarah Butler: Because it is a city region we both care about and one which we were interested in exploring in more depth. We wanted to challenge the city-centre-obsessed representations of Manchester, get away from easy categorisations, and beneath the branding. I write this as Andy Burnham has been fighting for more financial support from the government for businesses affected by Covid lockdowns. It’s been interesting to see how devolution has played out in this context and I wonder if the failure of the talks says something about central government’s fear of handing the regions any more power. Whatever is the case, Manchester is a model, or testing ground, for this new localised governance, so how it works (or doesn’t) has implications for the country as well as the region.
You both live in or near Manchester. Did this connection influence your editorial decision-making, and how?
Paul Dobraszczyk: Absolutely! As far as I am concerned, this book grew directly from my feelings about Manchester and the wider urban region. It also came out of a photographic project I undertook in 2017-18 based around an exploration of every single part of Greater Manchester, mostly by walking. I wanted to capture some of the diversity of these geographic locales in the contributions for the book – writing that moves outside of the city centre (the more usual focus) into more everyday locales that are often almost completely unknown to people who in other areas of the city (myself included!).
I am also aware that books on Manchester tend to be dominated by specific subjects (music, football, crime, industrial history) and are mostly written by white men. Even the basic issue of gender is mostly absent from current books about the city. I was intent on at least redressed this, so actively sought to achieve a 50/50 male/female split. I also wanted to involve writers in minority groups as well, but had less success with this in terms of the number of contributions. There are clearly underlying issues here about lack of confidence, biases within the publishing industry, and general lack of support for writers who are not white and middle class.
Sarah Butler: I imagine so. In that we both have our own experiences and obsessions when it comes to Manchester.
How has COVID19 affected the city and what does the immediate future for Manchester look like?
Paul Dobraszczyk: It’s been a bleak year, not least because I have felt very personally disconnected from my city, or rather the people in it – friends, colleagues and acquaintances. More than ever, it’s reminded me that the heart of a city is its people and that we get to know places as much through personal encounter as sightseeing. The more recent second wave of Covid-19 has seen the former industrial belt of northern England not only suffer a greater infection rate than other parts of the UK (both north and south), but also a renewed sense of antagonism between what is regarded as an impoverished and neglected north versus a well-resourced and wealthy south. This could lead to a greater sense of unity within the metropolitan region (something I’d welcome); but, equally, it might result in bitterness and resentment that could create a more unhealthy climate of competition.
Sarah Butler: I’m not sure I can speak for the whole city, but as with everywhere, it has been devastating for local businesses, for the arts sector, for everyone’s mental health. I read something during (the first) lockdown which talked about a potential erosion of civic feeling as we turn inwards, stay at home, avoid contact, and that does worry me. I do think this latest standoff between Andy Burnham and the government is fascinating and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the next few months.
Has the sense of importance you place in cities and communities changed in the last 12 months, and how?
Paul Dobraszczyk: Like many people I’ve spoken to about this, there’s now a pressing need for some diversity in our experience of cities. Where, at the beginning of the lockdown, there was a certain joy in discovering new things in your local neighbourhood, now there’s simply frustration or weary resignation at the lack of opportunities. In the longer term, though, I think we need to find healthier ways of generating the diversity of experiences we all need in our everyday lives, ones that don’t require us to escape but rather which enrich what we already have. It is perhaps time to take more responsibility ourselves for generating the unexpected encounters that enrich us in cities, rather than looking for them elsewhere and in others.
Sarah Butler: I think so, yes. My local community has become even more important to me – the fact that when I go to the park or the shops I nearly always see someone I know and can stop for a brief chat has kept me sane over the last few months. My local street in particular has been incredibly supportive and co-operative throughout the pandemic. In terms of cities – I miss them so much! Miss them as places I can go to without worrying about infection and distancing, places that offer culture, spontaneity, surprise, stimulation. I know there is a lot of talk of people fleeing the city for the countryside now working from home looks like it’s here to stay, but for me, the last few months has clarified that I am an urban soul (despite loving the countryside) – I want that diversity and that energy in my life.
Manchester: Something rich and strange is available to pre-order now.
Paul Dobraszczyk is a researcher and writer based in Manchester and a Teaching Fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. He is the author of Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination (2019) and The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay (2017).
Sarah Butler is a novelist and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, Manchester Metropolitan University. She is the author of Jack & Bet (2020) and Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love: A Novel (2014) and explores the relationship between writing and place through her consultancy UrbanWords.
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