It was May 1983 when Fred, the sitting MP for the constituency of Withington came a-knocking on the St Clements Road door. A smart move because with eight votes to be had in that house and a marginal seat to be held, he needed all the help he could get. Fred had held the seat since 1974 but even with the Falklands factor he was on shaky ground the way the economy was going. His campaign leaflet is classic 1960s old-school. Minimal text, bold colour and in-your-face photo. His name is in capitals to emphasise his authority and complete mastery of the brief. The tight kerning suggests exemplary fiscal control but the party name is in lower case, just to soften things up a bit. I love the way the printer gets such a prominent position for his credit, but thats the Tories for you, always on the side of enterprise. What no logo? Any central office branding mandarin of today would be throwing up their hands in a fit of apoplexy – ‘the voters will be confused!’ But how could anyone not know what Fred stood for? Solid, dependable, serious, good for business. He’s the man. You could almost see him on the bridge at the head of The Task Force, steaming into Port Stanley, his glacial stare striking fear into the heart of the Argies. Family values? Why not, though no need to plaster pictures of the wife and kids all over the publicity. Funnily enough though, come 1987 he was beaten by Keith Bradley, a man with a beard and a shiny new rose logo.
‘Ere quick! Go on! Get a photo of it!’ I’d just jumped off the bus and was heading into work, swinging my Pentax and nonchalently strolling across Portland Street preparing for another night of picking up empty glasses. The manager of Saturdays Nightclub, a diminutive tyrant called Alan Legend was on the front door with Arnie and another bouncer. He indicated a high-heeled Jerry Hall look-a-like who had just sauntered past the hotel, in a blaze of fur, heels and big attitude. Thinking this was a famous supermodel and seizing my papparazzi moment, I chased after her and got a quick blurry snap. The subject of my attention, at least six foot, two inches tall, turned and sneered at me in disgust, and in a very deep and most unladylike voice, issued a withering profanity and teetered off in the direction of The Thompsons Arms. Legend and his tuxedoed cronies fell about guffawing. He was a bit like the crazed mafiosa played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, a sadist who liked to prey on those he consider weaker. He referred to me as ‘The Lazy Article’ because I worked so hard but I’m just thankful that unlike poor Spider he didn’t shoot me. In the fifties and sixties, this area near the coach station around Canal and Sackville Street was a dark and decrepit mulch of decaying warehouses. It had become a notorious run-down shadowland populated by rent boys and prostitutes, ideal for dimly-lit cruising and prowling. It was still finding its feet when I was there but the seeds of what was to come were being sown and over the next thirty years it transformed itself into one of Europe’s premier league gay villages. A late night coach from wherever would pull into Chorlton Street and the first sound anyone alighting would hear would be pumping-thumping hi-energy Hazell Dean drifting out of New York, New York. Pubs like The Rembrandt, The Union and Napoleons were friendly, lively joints and certainly not no-go zones. A wide range of ages seemed to go into these places and for a while a few of us slipped out of the hotel during our tea-break for a quick drink in the Thompsons which had one of the first video jukeboxes in town. Others had no windows and firmly bolted uninviting doors. The security was understandable, because in 1982 the gay community was under attack. What my Jerry Hall friend had to put up with was nothing. Role models were starting to emerge but this was still a few years before Colin the graphic designer popped up on East Enders – there was AIDS, Chief Constable Anderton and Section 28 to deal with. These were difficult times. Fortunate then that Manchester Polytechnic Students Union promoted a positive and highly-visible gay and lesbian scene which opened the eyes of people like me. Straight outta the South Tyrone bible-belt, and thrust into this highly-sexualised urban jungle, I’m surprised it didn’t shake me up a bit more. Maybe I felt a bit of an outsider myself and could see kindred spirits. Debbie, the President of MPSU was a hard-core dyke right off the Greenham Common frontline. But respect to her, she was at the top of the tree of student politics and when I saw her lead the charge at the Battle of the NCC on Oxford Road, I wanted to be one of her foot-soldiers.
I must have had about eight or nine bedroom-mates in the course of my five and a half year tenure at St Clements Road. It all started with a posh art student from Wiltshire called Jeremy. He didn’t hang around long before taking the well-trodden route to one of the Crescents in Hulme. There was a Geordie called Gordon who introduced me to the pleasures of Bauhaus – the goths from Northampton that is, not the post-modern art school. Dave AKA Barabas, also from Newcastle, was a prototype hairy biker who loved to have the window open at night and seemed to relish the sight of me shivering. Biddy Baxter was a business studies student from Yorkshire. Over-excited and over-groomed, he was already behaving like the young executive he most certainly turned into. Probably my favourite was Richard, just for sheer easy-goingness and companionability. He was just a silly pup-of-a-boy, more Sam than student, but he possibly ignited some early paternal instinct in me. We had a relationship not unlike Ronnie Barker and Lenny Godber in Porridge, the main difference being that we didn’t sleep in bunks or stick pictures of dolly birds on the wall. It was all good-natured banter and chuckles, long chats into the night about girls and summer holidays. He even ended up collecting pots with me. Perhaps the oddest was a nameless bedroom-mate who I awoke one night to find standing naked, hands on hips, urinating on his bed. We weren’t quite sleeping Morecambe and Wise style, but at that stage the two beds were positioned right next to each other so it was slightly disturbing. Whilst in the act, he kept repeating in an agitated voice, ‘The grapes are on! The grapes are on!’ On what, mate? On special offer in Safeway? Two for the price of one? Thankfully in 1985 that particular con hadn’t yet been devised. A few days later there was a mysterious pool of water on the dressing table and closer inspection suggested he’d been up to his tricks again, this time all over his stereo. Incredibly it still worked. Was I nervous? Understandably so, but its held me in good stead all my life. If you can fall comfortably asleep knowing there is the potentiality of being rudely awoken by a warm shower of frothy Woodpecker-scented piss, then none of life’s other minor travails are ever really likely to keep you awake. Sweet dreams.
‘Oh Romany John, Romany John. You are, so more famous than Big Fat Gypsy Wedding Ron – John, John, John Martyn’. Manchester mid-eighties was a curious place to be. John Martyn’s removal van was in fine voice that fresh spring morning, when we first espied it – creep, creep, creeping around Fallowfield’s streets and into Moss Side. Though certainly not bombed-out Broadfield Road, where no ragamuffin man plied his trade for long. As thrusting, and at times brazen entrepreneurs, we had a thirst for any new enterprise. Here came Romany John, cash-in-hand, ready to buy up and personally remove your unwanted bric-a-brac. His van, laden with old ovens, freezers and continental drink-trolleys circa 1970. Rumour had it Mr Martyn and his boys would make local residents an offer they could not refuse. They would even go down the redbrick alleyways made infamous now by TV series like Scott and Bailey or Cracker, alleyways strewn with dog-shite, empty Thunderbird bottles and 49p Happy Shopper orange juice cartons. No matter. As the loud siren crackled like a Beastie Boy boom-box you knew Romany John would wend his way back to Hulme to his ‘Romany Cultural Centre’. Now, as a retired bareknuckle fighter of some repute, John Martyn never got boxed-in. His headquarters were spacious, situated on the edge of a run-down patch of neglected bomb-site, sandwiched between the Polytechnic and Hulme-proper. As I strolled in that day, I felt comfortable. The Kid and I were not risk averse and cold-calling John at the heart of his Romany empire seemed a natural thing to do. The first thing we saw was a magnificent Mercedes 450 SEL with blue leather seats. Top of the range but with the front two tyres up on bricks. After a pint I plucked up the courage to ask the great man whether the Merc was part of his entrepreneurial empire. Quietly surveying his vast pub and disco area, lit up by juke boxes and twinkling gaming machines he said ‘Ah, I like a boy with a bit of the old blarney who comes in shooting of questions. Shenanigans, oh shenanigans! Well now, Paul, see these?’ He showed me his dusters. ‘I was brought up to use these. Undefeated in a 130 matches on the canvas’. He got up and pointed to his hobnail boots. He had a proper boxer’s broken nose, not like Hollywood Brad Pitt. With a second pint of the blackstuff in our gullets, (he drank his like water) he put his arm around my shoulder. ‘All this is mine, Paul. Now, you’re a University lad, so you should know there is a whole world out there and it all needs entertaining. Show me that stuff again Paul’. I reached for my satchel and produced the designs. ‘I will buy the lot of you for fifty quid. Mine to keep though’. The Kid who had fearlessly plotted the raid having dredged a second year project on Romany history, could never have imagined that Mr Martyn would eschew our value-for-money leaflet and distribution package and want to buy his student project. I was reluctant to part with it, but having driven a hard bargain and squeezed three crisp twenty pound notes out of the man, we were ready to skedaddle. On the way out, John told us that Graham Springer of Manchester City Council had been great over the years, truly visionary and revolutionary. On my bike home I reflected upon Mr Martyn. I saw him as a J P Donleavy character, out of The Ginger Man. But in fact, he was as real as the day is long. He understood the power of brain and brawn with political savvy and courage to boot. ‘Oh Romany John, Romany John. You are, so much classier than Big Fat Gypsy Wedding Ron – John, John, John Martyn’.