Many times in the wasteful and mass-commercialised decades since 1984, my mind goes back to an incident which raised my spirits and gave me hope. It changed my perception of our over-consuming society for ever. Nigel was a photographer from Hulme who lived with someone on my course. He was a genial but reflective soul who fitted the Hulme mould and had the industrial boots and big dark overcoat to prove it. He was two floors below us in the Chatham Tower and flitted in and out of our studio and would cross paths in the lift or the canteen. Occasionally we’d all go for a stroll ‘downtown’ to check out the dark side and it was on one such meander that we happened to pass through stuffy St Ann’s Square. Five minutes walk but several light years from the Arndale Centre, this high-end quarter was favoured by bejeweled ladies from Wilmslow with plenty of cash and little else to do but consume. It was a pleasant spring day and what passed for cafe society in the mid-eighties were enjoying the sunshine and taking the weight off their Prada. At one such table outside a swanky patisserie, Nigel spotted a large half-eaten portion of black forest gateau. No one was sitting there and it had clearly been left. Quick as a flash, he was on it, snaffling the leftover grub in a paper napkin and nibbling it all the way back up Oxford Road. I was full of admiration for his act but the tuts, frowns and whispered admonishments eminating from the pursed lips of the customers at the other tables made me think. Why is it ok to pick up someone’s discarded newspaper or hand over money for second-hand clothes and shoes but food is always such a no-no? It might be contaminated! Maybe they’ve spat on it! You’ll get AIDS! All highly unlikely of course, especially from one of the most salubrious eateries in the capitalist heart of Manchester. On other excursions he wolfed down lemon meringue tarts, vanilla flan, whole portions of apple pie and whipped cream. It really seemed as if the eyes of Mancunian cafe society were bigger than their pursed mouths. His one-man patisserie salvage act even became so successful that he never ventured into the city centre without a fork and spoon. He even started sitting down to gobble-up his grub. Only for a few minutes mind, because the stuffynose clientele would usually complain. Of course the staff didn’t mind, to have Nigel lick the platter clean saved on the washing up. Pretty much anything on a plate at a restaurant or cafe was fair-game, but he drew the line at takeaway food. A half-eaten Big Mac or rejected fish and chips were not on the agenda. Sweet rather than savoury seemed to be the general rule. Many times I was tempted to join him but Nigel’s success was undoubtedly through acting as a lone hungry wolf. He knew any kind of group activity would have drawn attention to the act and probably brought the curtain down. In the present era of food-banks and freeganism, where supermarkets throw out half their fruit and veg, he was of course wildly ahead of his time.
We met in church, one of those gargantuan cavernous gothic number which had been turned into a pub. Wine bars at the time were de riguer but this was a proper south Manchester pub selling prime chuck steak burgers with jalapenos and mayo in a brioche bun. It was 1985 and like most other things in Manchester, this place was ahead of its time. The slumbering giant Man Utd had finally awoken under charismatic Big Ron Atkinson – Cup runs and optimism were in vogue. Into this setting ghosted Mr Steven Williams, blond, teutonic and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the dashing Wimbledon-winning aryan blade who had set the tennis world alight. Steve’s gruff northern vowels punctuated the air but I didn’t yet know who this geezer was. Years before, a Spurs and England World Cup winner Martin Peters was nicknamed ‘the ghost’- due to his knack of nipping round the back and scoring vital goals. But Manchester’s Boris Becker had just ghosted into my life and there he would remain. Talking loudly with Kes Finnan, Big Alex and The Kid about United, spontaneously they burst into Stretford End song. So why did I so like the gib of this natural football foe? Munching on my sublime burger in bun, I heard a savvy Mancunian drawl – ‘Hey pal, I’m Steve’. ‘All right, mate’ I replied almost dropping my gherkin. Cutting straight to the chase he enquired ‘Are you a red?’ ‘No, Man City’. ‘Oh, were you born in Manchester?’ ‘No’ I responded ‘Kent’. Boris Becker won three Wimbledon titles in a row, fearlessly hurling himself on the hallowed turf, charming the world, shagging Russian temptresses in shoe cupboards and wowing the media with his natural elan and good looks. Steve Williams’ own life was equally dramatic. After a brief RAF career, he drove a delivery van in Oldham. He was an airline mechanic in London. He studied at Sheffield, Loughborough and a number of other UK academic institutions before settling into his natural profession, logistics. Mirroring my own life work/pattern of thirteen countries with two suitcases in ten years, the boy continued to travel. However ‘Bozza’ as he was now known, always had that crucial element of surprise. In 1990, ostensibly crashing on our Tooting sofa for one night only, Steve joined our World Cup panel. He stayed for two weeks drinking inordinate amounts of Becks beer whist cheering his beloved Germany on to victory. He followed the teuton dream, his championing of all things Deutsch, a refreshing counter to the poisonous Jerryphobic tirades launched by mainstream media everytime In-ger-land lock horns with The Fatherland. Then as Tooting Superstars was in full flow mid-nineties, he executed the most brilliant rant against the Delia Smith corporatised prawn sandwich-eating Sky TV criminals who were ruining his game. Tellingly, so much of what he predicted that warm summer evening came true. Power-crazed foreign owners, World Cups in Qatar, a game strangling itself through its own greed and shortsightedness. Stavanger, Leipzig, Derbyshire and Berlin were his new outposts. Truth be told, Steve, like so many other genuine working-class fans had been priced out of their rightful place on the terraces. But like the other love of his life, New Order, the response was always Hooky-style sardonic resigned wit. Singing along one night to a popular hit ‘Things can only get better’ he drowned the awful anthem with ‘Things will always get worse’. So prescient when dealing with this post-Thatcher/Blair Big Lie Britain. Another time we all met at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Bozza bumped into an old aquaintance, Clint Boon. Very soon we were quaffing backstage with his band The Inspirals and curiously Mark Lamarr who insisted on plying us with drinks. Later Steve blagged a lift home on the tour bus. On another occasion at a friend’s stag do in Madrid, we were watching a young Fernando Torres, when marching up the north stand steps came Mr Williams, literally out of nowhere. He got me to drop off his bag in London the next day. Last year I was having a pint or two with Boris, not surprisingly at Victoria Coach Station. I was ruminating on my Dad’s philosophy of ‘work hard and try to be honest’ when Mr Williams stuck up his fists. ‘My Dad told me to use these, cos life is one long scrap’. Blunt, loyal, dry and as sharp as a razor, the ghost got up and left for the airport. On his way to another hick town, another dollar, on the road less travelled. Be sure of this, we haven’t heard the last of Denton’s great nomadic warrior.
Sundays were not spent in church or in the pub. It was de-tox day for the likely lads of Moss Side. The elegant if slightly neglected Alexandra Park was ideal for a three hour kickabout shaking out all the toxins of the previous night’s excesses. The local crew, Reggae Bernie, Mike Slaven and Earl the Rasta were waiting for their weekly tussle with the rudeboys of Laurel Avenue. Mad Dog excelled on these occasions, running wildly, chasing every lost cause, to such an extent that Chrissie-boy Rowlands could oft be heard muttering ‘Oh no, there goes Sean on another excursion’. Carrying a gashed knee from an earlier feisty challenge from Gorton Garry, Earl shouted at me. ‘Hey, white boy – you bin dissing the Cheetham Hill possee?’ To guffaws of laughter. Then I spied out of the corner of my eye, Mad Dog running with the ball in the direction of Whalley Range. Here on an adjacent pitch, a young boy stood with a man I immediately recognised. He rolled the ball like a guided missile, towards his son who deftly flicked it onto his neck, gently letting the ball float down his back. His Dad barked ‘Two feet son – go to work’. At that precise moment I seized my chance ‘Mr Moses, it is a pleasure to meet you. I am Socrates and a fan of Man City, but I saw you play at Old Trafford’. ‘Thanks son’ he replied gruffly but with a kind look in his eyes. ‘Look after your knee’. With that the supreme midfield ragga icon of the eighties was gone. After the match, walking home, I reflected how during my years of watching Remi Moses for West Brom or Man Utd, we had never once seen a fancy flick or rink-a-dink trick such as the one performed by his son. Remi simply was your archetypal midfield ball-winner in the glorious days when tackling was allowed and football was an honest contact sport. Questions flooded my mind. I stopped off at Mr Singh’s corner-shop for my customary pint of ice cold milk, patched on my dettol knee plaster and pondered life. Why was his brilliant career cut short? Did he live near the Moss? Would his son make it? Did he enjoy a drink with Robbo, Whiteside, Sparky and the boys at Paddy Crerand’s Altrincham watering-hole? Truth be told, we knew very little about the publicity-shy midfield enforcer who was part of Ron ‘Bo Jangles’ Atkinson’s famous FA Cup winners. Back then the Red Devils had all the best tunes. Standing on the Stretford End one sunny day, the crowd suddenly broke out into song ‘Oh Remi, Remi, you part the waves, you part the sea. Oh Remi, Remi. Remi Moses’. The London boys would occasionally come down and play on a Sunday, right up to 1992 and I always hoped to catch another glimpse of Remi and son. However, Manchester’s Moss Side like many other parts of England after Thatcher’s failed social revolution had changed. Sadly not for the better. Teenage boys on bikes, scouts and thugs now menaced these areas ahead of the gangland drug wars to come. A war so heinous and vicious, partly caused by the Grocer’s Daughter smashing-up of old stick-together working class communities. That great social leader and man of vision, Hartley Hanley would soon appear on Granada TV exhorting his people to stop killing each other’s children. No Mr Moses had long departed and I found myself praying that in the words of Mr Ray Davies, ‘Yes, I hope tomorrow you’ll find better things’.
When Bowie, Pink Floyd or Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham were in town there was only one hotel. Boxing glitterati in particular loved this place. Nowhere in the north of England had more of a buzz than fight-night at The Midland Hotel, Manchester. Alick Rowe was the son of Herefordshire pub tenants who grew up at The Commercial, an ancient hostelry near the train station. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, wrote television dramas such as Tripods, Two People, Clare and a film called Morgan’s Boy. He also taught me English, a subject I had now graduated in at Manchester Polytechnic. He invited me to dinner at La Française, the Midland’s finest restaurant to discuss his new corporate identity project. Spiffing Images Design was in full creative flow and had designed a superb package for £140. We dined in the grand salon where Mr Rolls first met Mr Royce in 1904 and despatched the Lendrum brothers to Malaya to provide the rubber to make the wheels go round. After pan-fried frogs’ legs in a delicious but challenging Bearnaise sauce served with sautéed potatoes and baby tomatoes, washed down with ice cold Chablis, Mr Rowe handed over the cheque. ‘Remember David Nobbs, Paul? He and I are match sponsors for Hereford’s next home game. Would you care to join us?’ How could I not. The game was against Shrewsbury, a local derby, with the potential for a bit of agro at the Bull Market End, the gate swelling to 4,000 plus fans. I invited Commie Ken who had never been to a professional football match. However his response was curt. ‘No, Mr Paul. These pointless bourgeoise leisure diversions are a curse on the proletariat’. Yet the thought of actually meeting Winston White, Hereford’s dazzling winger was too alluring. So I jumped on a train. Hereford United were perennial, mid-table fourth division plodders. However when Winston was on form the regular 2,000 crowd in this fabulous old market town let out a roar which could be heard half way across the Brecon Beacons. On a bright blue-sky Saturday we strolled into Duggy’s newsagents on the Commercial Road and Alick purchased his customery pack of panatella cigars and a tube of wine gums. We marched towards the ground, past the players cars and into the VIP lounge area. A pre-match lunch of prawn cocktail followed by chicken-in-a-basket was washed down by a glass of Chardonnay. Besuited players, courtesy of C&A, sporting slick perms and shiny leather slip-ons paraded past our table. The air was thick with cigar-smoke and the odour of Aramis aftershave. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the creator of ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ (possibly Britain’s finest ever TV comedy). The avuncular Mr Nobbs had a kindly and modest demeanour. His ‘A Bit of a Do’ TV series was flying high with regular viewing figures of 14 million plus. We shook hands. He remembered my name and as the match kicked off, Alick’s daughter joined us shouting out ‘Oy Dad, where is your scarf?’ Winston White destroyed the left back and shimmered on the wing like a twinkling northern light. The game ended in a high scoring draw and we adjourned to the VIP bar. Winston, freshly-showered and gelled was now in a plush Saturday Night Fever cream suit and flashed me a Hollywood smile. Shyly I approached the great man. ‘You remind me of Manchester City’s Dave Bennett. Well played’. To which he replied ‘Oh, so you’re a Man City fan? I might play for you lot one day’. Alick played the host magnificently, pressing the flesh, buying rounds of drinks and charming the chairman, who I recall was a dodgy property developer. Sadly Spiffing Images offers of full new corporate re-brand concepts for Hereford United and David Nobbs were politely rejected, though as a sop, we were invited to the Perrin mansions for tea. I lit a cigar and soaked up the ambience as the wine flowed. A good move because I’ve never been in a boardroom since and The Bulls are now playing in the semi-professional league. I lost touch with Alick Rowe who later went to prison in Shrewsbury after an incident with a Hereford Cathedral choirboy. Upon hearing the news, memories of a 1980’s road trip through France with Alick and a Hereford musician, the curiously named Ratty came flooding back. So did my recollections of meeting people like Cheryl Campbell, Kenneth Cranham and the producers of Howard’s Way. Mr Rowe ended his days living in Thailand but his favourite song by The Kinks ‘I hope tomorrow you’ll find better things’ lives on, as does his literary legacy.
Having a name that can be confused with something which sounds very similar does have its advantages. Spiffing Images Design was regularly mistaken for Spitting Image, a very popular eighties satirical puppet show. In fact around 1987 the programme was at the peak of its powers, beloved by people from all kinds of backgrounds, hip and razor-sharp in its wit, with a number one hit record to boot. I’m not quite sure how but we ended up on a mailing list and were invited to a Manchester United Executive Suite Open Day. The brains of the Old Trafford marketing department were clearly under the impression that we were the producers of cutting-edge TV comedy. Funny that it never occured to them why we might be based in a two-up-two down next to Moss Side Bus Garage. In those distant pre-David Gill days the club was still fairly low-rent and hadn’t worked out the best way of fleecing its vast army of devotees. The souvenir shop was basically a wooden shack and Louis Edwards’ idea of a marketing opportunity was parcelling up a bit of sirloin and slipping it under the counter, thank you very much, Missus. But times were a-changing and by the later part of the decade the Thatcher effect saw a bit of money starting to trickle up north. Not that Choccy McClair and the current crop of players were exactly setting the world on fire, but suddenly it seemed like those Executive Boxes all along the top tier of the stadium were worth milking. At four grand a pop, not a bad way to impress your clients and drum up a bit of repeat business. These were the fledgling days of corporate hospitality aimed at what Roy Keane later famously derided as the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. So, on a very warm July afternoon we set out for Old Trafford. ‘Come and have a look, try out the facilities and sign-up for next season!’ We certainly weren’t complaining about the confusion and naturally went along mob-handed. Commie Ken was our Far East Logistics Manager, tasked with ensuring we got the best chinese deals on importing the latex used to make the puppets with. Boris Becker was our European frontman, power-broking with fledgling satellite TV channels across the Rhineland. Mad Dog came up the Chester Road on his bike after putting in a night-shift at Goblin Pies. Coated in sweat and up to his elbows till midday in Louis’ off-cuts, he didn’t smell that good – but if you’re a creative genius in charge of puppet production you can get away with that sort of thing. What a day, fired up by a few lunchtime pints in the Dog and Partridge we were plied with cheap bubbly, supermarket seafood and plates of processed cheese. We kicked back on the red velvet recliners and gazed out at the hallowed turf. It was actually being re-seeded at the time and resembled a paddy-field. A Gill-wannabe eyed Ken enviously, he could clearly see him as the man to sell truckloads of replica shirts in Asia. But for all that, United were still light years away from the slick money-making global beast that they’ve become today and the cheddar cheese and Piat d’Or on offer was never going to get us to part with 4k. Socrates’ Dad had trained him well and he already had a nose for a decent vintage. Even if we had any money in the bank and wanted to show Roadrider a good time we wouldn’t be wasting it on that. Come on, it only cost £2.50 to get on the United Road Paddock in those days. But you couldn’t blame them for trying and they even rustled up a few second-string players to stand around and try and impress us. One was slumped at the bar nursing his lager and looking bored. He nodded at Boris, ‘Any good fanny in tonight, pal?’ Our man on the Rhine counselled him that such a misogynistic attitude would have no place in the game of the future and if he wanted a place on the Sky sofa in years to come he would do well to mend his ways and adopt a more progressive countenance.
Until I came to Manchester I hadn’t really visited a shopping centre. My retail experience was limited to the Thursday market in Enniskillen. Woolworths and an imaginatively-titled rival across the road called Wellworths were about the biggest shops I’d ever been in until I landed up on Market Street and feasted my eyes on the early seventies monster that straddled about seven acres of bomb-site between Victoria Station, Oldham Street and Deansgate – the biege monolith that dominated downtown Manchester, The Arndale Centre. One of the biggest shopping centres in Europe, it fascinated and repelled me in equal measure. I loved the story that in 1974, Man Utd and Glasgow Rangers hooligans fought a pitched battle before their ‘friendly’ using material from the under-construction site, presumably clunking each other over the head with the bile-coloured cladding tiles. I had some great moments in there, slacking off college to go record-hunting, looking at the girls choosing their gear for a night at Rotters or chasing Georgie Best’s autograph in WHSmith, but I would never care to enter its dreary malls again. It just bestrode the city centre in a mean brutalist way, the planning of which now seems quite inconceivable. Much of the exterior was swathed in huge sand-coloured concrete tiles giving the impression of an enormous public toilet. It was opened officially by Princess Anne in 1979 when the Mayor of Manchester apparently remarked ‘I didn’t think it would look like that when I saw the balsa wood models’. It even had a huge seemingly pointless tower, presumably where the management perched themselves. But the whole business of escalators, winking Christmas lights, sports shops selling cheap trainers and every football shirt under the sun, the meat and veg and cheap jewellery and tat in the basement all fascinated me. So did the punters – bored housewives, alcoholics, gangs of predatory moustached teenagers, they were all in there, an escape from the rain, a chance to jump on the early eighties consumer gravy train and live the Viv Nicholson dream. Sprend, spend, spend, everybody. Littlewoods, British Home Stores, HMV, Top Man…there was even a covered footbridge to a glittering Marks & Spencers where we once followed Martin Platt from Coronation Street to see what he was cooking for his tea. It was hot and stuffy with a succession of dead-end malls all bathed in artificial half-light and there was the constant threat of abuse or worse from the roving gangs of casually-attired softlads and lasses. I was once spat on by a drunk whose phlegm unknowingly hung to the back of my jacket until I got home. Attached to one side of it was a bus-station which doubled as a mugger’s paradise and served grim northern satellites to where thankfully I never needed to venture. I probably bought clothes for the first time there, most certainly a watch and a few records. But even then I wasn’t really a proper consumer and soon discovered second-hand and the more leftfield joys of Affleck’s Palace. It seemed ironic that after all my visits to Wellworths, when a security man at the door would rifle through my schoolbag in case I was carrying a bomb, that the Irish troubles caught up with the Arndale in June 1996. The footbridge was destroyed but amazingly the main shopping centre wasn’t so badly damaged. Still it was a good excuse to give it all a major overhaul.
Jester Jane arrived as she departed in a tornadoesque flurry of frisson and anticipation. She was that rare thing amongst the human species, being gifted with spontaneity and a substantial element of danger. We had decided to liven-up our humdrum Chorlton existence with subsidised parachuting. As soon as our instructor Mr Joe Diamond called us a couple of feckless bloody students, we were determined to become the finest paras since Monty Woodbridge of SOE dropped into Crete in 1941. There, on a Shropshire airfield in a corner of middle England, we met Jester Jane. I cannot see her doing any of the training drills now, she seemed to transcend all that. Instead it was her fire-engine red Peugeot 209 GTI with go-faster stripes that caught my eye. ‘Jump in boys, gotta go to Mold first, then Stone’. Roaring down those narrow country lanes with such carefree élan gripped us both inside. Oh it felt so good. Suddenly I realised why philosophers and theologians spend so much time on mortality and why-are-we-here conundrums. It was a rush, a fearless sense of liberty. Jane was going out with an international rower called Richard Fox at the time, but there were clouds on the horizon. ‘Just dashing into the house’ said Jester. Some minutes later she returned ashen-faced. ‘Look at this postcard from that tart to Richard. What is she up to?’ It was from a young attractive tennis player called Annabel Croft. Jester looked perturbed. Seconds later we were hurtling round hairpin bends and slaloming our way through Wem. We were slaves to the rhythm of Grace Jones.‘Pull up to the bumper baby’. After a delicious ploughman’s and pint of Shropshire ale we were back in the motor.’My Jamaican guy, oh oh oh’ blasted out of the boom-back speakers and frozen in a nano-second of time, a joyful cocktail of adrenaline and pure unadulterated happiness coarsed through my veins. It didn’t last. Chrissy-Boy Rowlands joined us in two successful jumps. Out of the blue, there was Shropshire sunshine and a post-para celebration at his Dad’s pub in Rosset that is still the talk of North Wales. Will we ever see Jester Jane again? Glorious student days inevitably came to an end and we all moved into Mad Dog’s twelve grand Moss Side terrace house. A year later we threw a party. Jester had a cool girlfriend, Susan. She had dark hair, beautiful shimmering green eyes and a white BMW 323i. She was a jeweller and the epitome of style. I fancied her from afar. I’d only met her briefly but knew she was way out of my league. Then Saturday came. Fired up on Thunderbird wine and kebabs from Mustafa of Moss Side I was in the mood for anything. Just before midnight, like maniacal pirates,in burst Jester Jane and her friend. They were on fire and electricity fizzed through the tiny terraced house illuminating the cavernous Moss Side bus garage next door. Commie Ken, formally known in the People’s Democratic Republic of China as Mr Shunghua-Xia had been a little edgy all evening and eyed them both suspiciously. The vigilant Mad Dog patrolled his property and followed them into the kitchen for questioning. Not long after there were squeals of astonishment from upstairs. While most guests were quaffing, Jester and friend had trashed the bathroom, spraying shaving foam all over the mirror and walls. Their message expressed their undying love, unbelievably for me. Ken was the first to react. Three days earlier he had been badly stung when after a knock on the door, he naively let in a slimey TV license officer who promptly handed out a £400 penalty. Commie Ken was über-defensive. Mad Dog had been informed of the attack and as the lights came on, Ken announced to a baffled and bemused throng of revellers ‘This is a respectable household. Vandalism is not acceptable’. The room fell silent. Jester and Susan slipped out through a back ally and revved up the car. Before they raced off she threw open the door and furiously beckoned myself and The Kid. Everything froze. For a moment we contemplated joining them and disappearing into the Moss Side night but Jester sensed our hesitation and the door closed. With a furious squeal of brakes they were gone forever and the path to a lifetime of conformity and convention beckoned. In all my life I have never witnessed such a getaway.