The backdrop was less delightful. A small number – maybe 300 or so – EDL were bothering the city centre. The tiny, ridiculous yet noisy EDL - the so-called English Defence League; not my England, not my defence league so how dare they adopt England’s name. There were police everywhere, fences to corral them and a helicopter overhead. Mostly the EDL seemed interested in occupying Walkabout sports bar and drinking gassy alcohol based on Continental lagers.
As a tour guide the main practical problem was the helicopter. Jeez those things are hard to project over even with a foghorn for a voice - as I'm proud to possess.
The two groups were very diverse, the EDL would have hated them. The Haunted Underworld tour included people from across Manchester but also Aberdeen, the Isle of Man, Romania, Spain and Turkey. The two Spaniards, both women, had settled in Manchester and were respectively an architect and a civil engineer. They were skilled workers doing their bit, enjoying life in Manchester, although they felt Manchester was needlessly demolishing old buildings.
This confused me a little as this isn’t happening so much at present. Century House was the one the Spaniards mentioned but we disagreed about this, after all the adjacent buildings were pigsties, the worst of the eighties. Still the council and the planning department does have to be closely monitored over its ideas about the city centre, it needs to be watched with a beady eye in case expedience is allowed to destroy heritage.
Latest sketchy plans for the area between Bootle Street and Jackson’s Row appear to not include the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, a two hundred and some year old pub, one of two surviving structures from the time of the Peterloo Massacre in the location where it happened.
There was a Chilean couple on the tour with a baby. The man worked at the University I think, or it may have been the hospital, the woman was studying at the University, and they’d been here eighteen months.
“We love Manchester,” the woman had said.
“There's so much to do, it’s a great city to live in,” the man said.
“Our little girl,” said the woman looking down at the baby strapped to her chest, ”was born here. I’m so proud to say she is a Mancunian.”
It was said with such evident pride it made me smile and wonder. Here were recent immigrants who had a clear sense of identity already. Here were two ‘foreigners’ settled in Manchester with a young native in their arms who will share two cultures as she grows.
Meanwhile the streets of the city had been bothered by ‘natives’ of my Britain, people who seem lost and marooned, who seem stuck out-of-time, impotent. The EDL men and women (mainly men) I saw seemed blind to the advantages and opportunities an open and pluralistic society offers them. They’ve turned inwards, turned ‘the other’ into a problem and in the process turned themselves into a greater problem.
The urbane Chileans and Spaniards on my tours appeared to embody what I would consider my British values better than would-be nationalists of my own country. In limited numbers fortunately the EDL moved through Manchester’s Saturday streets, trapped in narrow hatreds, their faces angry, their hands balled in fists, just a mere misplaced stare away from violence.
But they were a hornet on a buffalo's back. An irritant, a distraction. They and that helicopter. Manchester's city centre is back to normal now as colourful and diverse as ever.
One was a huge Manchester United fan. There were three hotels that delegates were staying in and as fate would have it he'd been allocated Hotel Football - the new hotel opposite Old Trafford stadium owned my past Manchester United stars such as Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.
"Do you want a Quays or a Stadium view?" the receptionist had asked when he'd checked in. In his charming accent and imaginative English our lovely visitor said, "I couldn't bloody believe my lucky stars, I fell to my knees and thanked God for this privilege, and shouted so very loudly, "You are an Angel sent from Heaven, please the Stadium view!" I leave the curtains open so the big red neon sign of Manchester United can sleep with me."