Unlike anywhere else, in Manchester fiction precedes fact. Rumours begin with the kids outside the Civic Centre, gain power as they run through the back alleys of Ancoats and Altrincham, the rows of the Stretford End. Did you know that between Princess and Dickinson Streets there’s an entrance to a NATO-funded underground bunker? And that way before the press got hold of the affair, 1970s schoolboys who saw United manager Docherty’s car outside his mistress’ house sang ‘knees up mother Brown’ on match days? It’s impractical, the quantity of stories Manchester sustains: one city holding Marx and Engels, the Pankhursts, the Manchester Guardian, the Busby Babes. Yet if you look any of it up — if you ask the people who were there — it’s all deliciously, headily true.
The Lesser Free Trade Hall seems as doubtful as any Manchester yarn. The fact that the men who would eventually become the Buzzcocks, New Order, Joy Divison, The Smiths and The Fall managed to cram into an audience of forty sounds so unlikely. It has the same feeling of fabled romance that the Left Bank of the early twentieth century does when you’re young and literary: can it really be the case that all of those heavyweights knew each other?
Of course, once you’re older it seems obvious that everyone was in conversation, as everyone is in conversation now — as, indeed, being in conversation is the only way anything gets done. And the truth of Factory, for all its improbable mass, largely hinges on one man. Where I come from, people stand up straighter at the name Tony Wilson; tonight, his ghost haunts the stage as tangibly as if they’d holographed him there, like Michael Jackson or Tupac. The Lesser Free Trade Hall recurs like a leitmotif, or a perfume.
In 0161, legends come first and the truth grows around them.
More than Peter Hook’s How Not To Run A Club or Dave Nolan’s I Swear I Was There, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) gives the truest account of the Factory era. I’ve said that in Manchester myth comes before the facts, but perhaps Winterbottom’s film gets more at the heart of it by ignoring the distinction entirely, except where they might be the source of jokes and cleverness. Steve Coogan’s hyper-aware — impossibly aware — Tony Wilson captures better than realism could the character of a man who seemed to know everyone before they were brilliant. By all accounts, Wilson had the sort of meta-cognizant eye for music any manager would kill for. When Winterbottom has him look into the camera and say he’s ‘being postmodern, before its fashionable’ it’s verisimilitude, not anachronism. 24 Hour’s Wilson always knows more than he could, as befits a man who is today less a real person than he is a spirit conjured by the incantation of a hundred Manchester legends. (The city, too, has always been too clever for its own good.) Of course, there’s a word for this status. It’s iconic.
Tonight’s Royal Festival Hall gig features another icon, in flesh and bone. When John Cooper Clarke slopes into the room after the interval, he’s improbably, physics-defying skinny, with hair like goth spun sugar. It takes a while for your eye to adjust to his proportions, like getting your night vision or finding the image in a magic eye poster.
Razor wit, razor-legged Clarke. He’s introduced as being from Salford, of course: if Clarke’s lived in Essex for so long he claims to feel ambiguous about his hometown, it shows no signs of relinquishing its claim on him. His speech is taut, fast, repetitive, as densely layered as late Joyce or early Pynchon, colliding images hidden in lines like ‘London catchment area’ and jokes like ‘what is occasional furniture the rest of the time?’ He uses the word ‘fucking’ like other people use ‘um’, as punctuation. It’s poetry day – ‘stretched to a week. I blame Kate Tempest’ – but he claims to not participate, for the same reason his dad ‘never drank on Christmas or bet on the Grand National: one day for the amateurs’. On the usefulness of prejudice, he cites Peckham at night: ‘sure, those seven youths walking towards you with hoods, they could be Franciscan monks…’ On New Year’s Eve: ‘in Scotland, they celebrate mahogany. It means more than Christmas to those northern Pagan bastards’. On giving up drugs: ‘Now I can’t go back to Manchester, where drug taking is compulsory’.
Clarke’s gently surreal patter makes the poems feel like a diversion. Nevertheless, poetry is the order of the evening, and several stars from the back catalogue get a Royal Festival Hall airing, including the Sopranos-famous ‘Evidently Chickentown’. ‘She’s Got a Metal Plate in Her Head’ highlights Clarke’s mastery of incremental repetition; a serious contender against The Smiths’ ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ in any ‘works about a girl after a bad accident’ competition. Several shorter poems and limericks are particularly good, with Dr Clarke — as he refers to himself all evening — grinningly telling us that he has ‘subverted the form in order to point out a higher truth’. One, on necrophilia, is almost complete after the first line:
Fed up with foreplay and all that palaver?
‘Bed Blocker Blues’, with its refrain of ‘things are gonna get worse, nurse’ and the brilliant ‘Get Back On The Drugs You Fat Fuck’ show how age has become a focus. References to his memory also crop up, although this seems something of a feint: Johnny Clarke’s ability to launch from anecdote to anecdote has as long a history as Billy Connolly’s, and his late style remains as much barroom standup as it is lyricism.
Things have changed in Salford these days. The tramline which rumbles past Deansgate to the new Media City UK — great idea; baffling name — shows an alien landscape of empty flats. Opposite the Lowry museum, itself not that old in the grand scheme of things, there’s now a Lowry mall to offset the mills (when I took a friend to see the matchstick men recently the shopping centre was one of the few things she photographed, presumably harming Lancashire’s reputation no end). If putting the 6music offices in Salford is undoubtedly a very good thing, the neck-breaking towers of steel and glass are still a bit grim, in the same way as the Haçienda flats or, indeed, the Radisson Blu are.
Of course, this is the inevitable path of the post-industrial city seeking to survive, and the people are much the same as they ever were. But seeing Clarke on the London stage, there is nevertheless a feeling that is just as real for being thoroughly clichéd: they don’t invent them like him anymore.