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A Manchester of the Mind (December 2009)

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This article was first published on openDemocracy.

J B Priestley wrote an essay about an Edwardian radical family living somewhere in the Pennines above Bradford, and connected with the Independent Labour Party. They kept liberty hall for hill-walkers and suffragettes, would-be poets and young people eager to get away from provincial bullies, the dark of the Nonconformist Sabbath and the awful Birling bourgeoisie Priestley would present in An Inspector Calls. They weren’t wealthy, but what they offered was multiplied by the folk they attracted.

You felt that Priestley had in mind R L Stevenson’s lines, written only a few years earlier:

Home was home then, my dear,
Full of happy faces.
Home was home then, my dear,
Happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright
Glittered on the moorland.
Some tuneful song
Built a palace in the wild.

Guardian people? In my own experience, yes. Encountered often in the early days of the Open University when I was put up (like some ILP speaker, Keir Hardie or Bruce Glasier) as a travelling lecturer, or later when my daughter was educated by Quakers in York, or even the other day when sampling a ‘Community Railway’ Christmas fest at Glossop and a touching memorial to a local environmentalist: a willow aslant a brook, where once there had been Slaithwaite Spa, a would-be West Riding Baden-Baden. It vanished in the 1940s. A line from a local: ‘My other life is as a vampire. Mind you, ah were a part-time, on-line vampire …’ Compulsive inconsequentiality, Michael Frayn wrote, marked the Guardian style.

He wasn’t alone. C E Montague’s novel A Hind let Loose was a Goldoni-like comedy about two grand northern papers in Halland, a fictitious Manchester. The editorials of the Tory Warden and the Liberal Stalwart were written by a single crafty but acrobatic journalist, Colum Fay, whose own loyalties were to old Ireland free. This typified an intellectual generosity whose values went beyond Northern England. J A Hobson’s Imperialism: a Study (1901) was pirated by Lenin in 1916 to argue that Russia was ripe for revolution. CP Scott exerted himself to get Lloyd George right on Ireland when his coalition was disgracing itself with Black-and-Tan violence in 1921, and eased the birth of the Free State. Howard Spring, his ace reporter – Cardiff-Irish in origin – went on to chronicle the place in a sequence of good-read novels that have worn well: Fame is the Spur should still haunt Blair and Brown. The usual disclaimer that fronted his first, Shabby Tiger, in 1934 ended ‘There is no such city as Manchester’ but, interviewed in Cornwall in the early sixties, he and his wife were ‘still Guardian people’.

Michael Frayn bridged the last Manchester and first London years, and his Towards the End of the Morning (1962) celebrates the twilight of hot metal journalism as well as the perilous delights of permissiveness, like sharing a single bed with an energetic girlfriend; followed logically enough by a picture of young journalists slouching towards their deadlines, ‘yawning rebelliously’. Those who stuck around soon got caught up in another Manchester creative spasm: the flowering of Sidney Bernstein’s Granadaland, 1955-2003. In London Frayn’s famous division of the British middle classes into ‘herbivores and carnivores’ – the former  served by Guardian as hutch journal – was elaborated in depth by Posy Simmonds’ Weber family in the more embattled eighties. Prolix George was a more credible campus man than Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury’s history stud. Herbivores, however, generically include Wererabbits. 2003 was the last hurrah on the Salford Quays; ITV grabbed Granada and Carlton and ‘headed south to f*cking London, because that’s where the f*cking media lawyers are.’ Thank you, Tony Wilson, and goodbye.

The Central Committee

So why am I writing this? When I was asked to take part in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ project back in 2005, it seemed a hi-tech resistance movement against this dysfunctional system, worth trading any cash return for. On-line Guardian readers would get a view of the divergent politics that were evolving within the archipelago: centred in my case on a possible Nationalist government in Scotland. The Guardian’s apparent openness, reinforcing the above tradition, contrasted with regional editions of London papers which now had content quite different from the metropolitan one. And so it turned out, once you penetrated CiF’s self-editing system. Then in late 2008 something happened, around the time of the US election campaign. The self-editing system vanished, and in due course so did most, and eventually all, of my own articles. I wasn’t alone. Scotland might become to Westminster the nemesis that Ireland was a century ago, but commentary on it has all but vanished. On the Observer, where there had once been pieces by Neal Ascherson or Arnold Kemp, we now find Kevin McKenna, reading like an implant from the Daily Record. What Andrew Neil, Tom Nairn’s  ‘archetypal Scotch crawler’ always threatened to do to the ‘McChattering classes’ north of the border, the trusted organ of ‘the dissidence of dissent’ has achieved PDQ.

After several submissions disappeared without trace and Matt Seaton, the responsible editor, proved lastingly elusive, I was set right by one Ros Taylor from the Central Committee that seemed to have taken over, in a mail to my secretary:

"I think, to be honest, we found that Christopher's articles didn't quite engage either us or our readership as much as we'd hoped they would. I think that's partly because the Scottish media is quite distinct from the rest of the UK's, and there isn't a huge appetite for Scotland-themed pieces. His pieces were also quite low-key and uncontroversial, and tended to pass under the radar."

The last was what I had thought journalism ought to be about: making the previously unnoticed count and, when up against something nasty, hitting it hard. But then, in the context of Obamania (I remembered Camelot and held my enthusiasm in bounds) and the rise of ‘social networks’, a rationale seemed to materialise. Obama signified, like Kennedy, the politics of glamour and a new elite; and – with half a glance at the Guardian’s complex financial situation – the importance of demography became clear.

The generation of 1970s OU staff and students (and even I am the Private Pike of the Army of Scottish Politics, run by its Senior Cits) is ageing while the kids are into twittering, computer-gaming, and fashioning ignorance into the art form of post-modern irony. This can function in London, where elites met from a’ the airts, and where ‘servitor capitalism’, NGOs, think tanks and Olympics cash give a big enough boost to keep juvenile careers and microbusinesses afloat. As one of my student interns put it, ‘the Guardian is required reading for anyone within a square mile of Kings Cross.’

… and apparently it only sells 6000 copies in Manchester. Certainly its website is deterrent: a couple of news stories and it’s straight into footie and  ‘Guardian Soulmates’. The quality press, at once hip and desperate, eagerly follows the new generation – almost certainly downmarket, as postindustrial youth hasn’t the long-term cash of us oldies. See the possible destination of the Observer – once literate and ingenious, now looking like a Gutenberg version of the mausoleum which was Borders Books. This necrosis seems a UK phenomenon; in Germany Spiegel and Die Zeit remain monuments to literacy and widget-making, fuddy-duddy concerns which have paid off, while Britain’s ‘lighter than air’ economy has crashed like the ‘Hindenburg’.

Serving on Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee has convinced this antique that what the UK needs is heavy instructional stuff about disentangling its metropolitan fixation and enabling us, the various Arnoldian remnants, to reform it. For the press generation the Guardian belonged to was at root didactic. Five years ago it published a critique I wrote on Gordon Brown’s economics – and paid me for it – which became the core of Broonland, my autopsy on the Thatcher-to-Brown years, out from Verso in February. And if I feel at all optimistic about the future it’s because of the liveliness of those ‘Guardian people’ south of the Cheviots, running small presses, co-operative pubs, steam railways, jabbing their elbows into the ribs of the local Labour Party. Because they – we – were right to oppose British deindustrialisation and the flash new world of  motorway, stadium and megamall, around for maybe twenty years before the oil runs out.

The oldies seem on the ball, even on the terms of prudent capitalism. Shrewd entrepreneurs like Club Mediterranee have followed their affluent 1961-73 baby-boomer demography upward, from straw huts and compulsory sex to second-time arounders, silver surfing and politics. Think of Carol-Ann Duffy/Posy Simmonds’ battling granny ‘Mrs Scrooge’, and Duffy is one of those who has come home to the real Manchester, among other awkward folk like Sheila Rowbotham. If the British Council, a migrated BBC, the Council of the Islands, could cohabit there, Manchester could anticipate, and save, the UK.

Comment is Rigged

All of this begins to count constitutionally when you consider the decision of London’s TV oligarchy to run three 90-minute leaders’ debates during the election campaign and exclude any representatives of the political parties which are actually in government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Hardly a reference was made to this by the Guardian (see above) yet the Scottish government reckons this as an attempt to rig the campaign in favour of London In a fundamental constitutional contest, the establishment has waived the conventions that Disraeli saw as basic to British politics.

Obvious material interests lie behind this: metromedia has structured its own rewards round the payoffs and bonuses of the City and the hi-tech world: the Director-General of the BBC – Mr Incoherent who got duffed up by a ninety-year-old – pulls in a salary of £ 834k, four times that of the Prime Minister. The editor of the Guardian gets at least £ 360,000. I have worked all of my life, academic and politician, for an average professional salary, topped up by a couple of thousand a year from books, journalism and broadcasting: useful and at times essential. Most Guardian folk will be similarly placed. The editorial offices of the quality papers are going dark, freelance work is drying up, but celeb culture is the big deal, and presumably the Guardian has to get the ready to pay Russell Brand. A critic who operates on a well-planned best-seller without anaesthetic isn’t likely to have a glut of books to review. ‘By far the rudest’ was the Guardian on my notice of Norman Davies’ The Isles in 2000 – and that was the last I heard from the Independent for years. ‘Low key and uncontroversial, Ms Howard?’ Huh. I would prefer Michael Rosen, then Children’s Laureate, on ‘Missing Louis MacNeice’, ‘What an insightful and touching tribute. Thanks.’

The shareholders of the papers in Montague’s Halland could allow Colum Fay his liberty because they were secure about their industrial geography: ‘Britain’s bread hangs by Manchester’s thread!’, the Ship Canal, and all that. But there was no question whom Fay would have backed in Easter 1916. An economy which depends on cultural capital is morally vulnerable since, if the arts are breadwinners, they cannot be allowed to be too critical; profit takes precedence. The Guardian’s real problem is that dissecting the cadaver of the United Kingdom of London requires the forensic skills of a Hobson, if not a Marx and you are more likely to find these in the Financial Times and not in a CiF blogocracy typified by pliable Tory avocati like Simon Jenkins. Even the provincial itself is remodelled – by the accountants of a megamedia no longer based in Britain – for a few of its writers and artists to get the rewards of the metropolitan zoo. Hence the prominence in the noughties of the London-approved Scottish ‘big four’ of Rowling, Rankin, MacCall Smith and Irvine Welsh, against the multi-voiced scene of the previous decades. Though, fair play, the Guardian let Posy Simmonds goose metrolit mercilessly in Literary Life and Tamara Drewe. Wales is a much tougher nut to crack, since Welsh language-politics has summoned up its English-language rival, with positive results. When the Welsh painter Sir Kyffin Williams mocked the tat of the Young British Artists he was predictably ignored in London – but applauded in Wales.

While the British establishment remained suavely cultivated and tactically generous it was seductive. ‘As long as Noel doesn’t run out of glasses, we’re all right.’ a London University administrator remarked of Lord Annan handling the student revolutionaries in 1968. A century ago London needed Manchester as its ‘Glasstown’, like the Bronte children’s mythic, experimental, revolutionary city. ‘CommentisFree’ gave it a chance to regain that boldness in the digital age; perhaps even to reimagine a confederal, post-great-power Britain. But the Guardian now plays the mercenary and seems proud of it. ‘There is no such city as Manchester’, and we have all lost by it.


1. Download A Hind let Loose on
2. See Michael Frayn, Travels with a Typewriter, London: Faber, 2009.


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