The History You Tell Them
by JP Daly
Location: Piccadilly Gardens
It was starting to get dark and cold but we persisted with the concrete around Piccadilly Gardens and the last bottle of wine.
‘It didn’t always look this shit,’ I said. ‘Didn’t look great, either, but didn’t always look this shit.’
She snorted. ‘At least it’s got a wheel. That’s how they define cities, now, you know, used to be cathedrals and universities, now it just needs a wheel and it’s officially a city. It’s true.’
‘There used to be a lunatic asylum here. Part of the hospital, should have got them to design it.’
She snorted again. This was going well. I was making jokes about Piccadilly Gardens and getting a laugh. I was a Mancunian comic doing local knowledge gags to tourists. I was Peter Kay with truth.
‘The city’s changed in the last decade or two. Everyone will tell you it’s because of the IRA bomb, it forced the change the city needed but my mate Frank says it’s something else, he says the city found a surplus of glass below the Printworks and had to use it all up before the EU took it away to one of those glass mountains you hear about. So that’s where Selfridges came from. Dunno if he’s right, but makes you think, doesn’t it?’
My laughing tourist friend seemed less keen on this insight into Manchester, and I began to realise I had little to offer in the way of concrete evidence about the city. I was floundering, my historical knowledge of my local area was over. I knew Marx had been here. Or was it Engels? Or both? And the Industrial Revolution! I knew that. But what about it? Take her on a tour of Ancoats and point at every old building saying, ‘Mill, mill, mill, mill, overpriced apartments, mill, mill, church, mill, mill, mill’? The idea was starting to seem appealing. I was caught, I’d have to continue, show my prowess as Top Manc.
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves because Manchester said it was wrong. We all signed a letter saying it all seemed a bit off and he said, ‘fair enough, no more slaves.’
The world’s only ever swing aqueduct is on the Manchester Ship Canal. I knew that one. I’d always thought, everyone raves about the aqueduct, listed building, feat of Victorian engineering, blah blah, but no-one ever built another one. ‘Wow, this cheese sandwich is amazing, I will never eat another one, though.’
She seemed to be believing it. It was going well. Maybe these were true. They weren’t completely wrong, but not quite right either. Exaggeration and half-memories, that’s what the stories about the city are, anyway so I’m just being traditional. Everywhere you went there was some story, some first, some moment where everyone stopped and stared at the same place, and then promptly reimagined it in their own way for their own telling years down the line.
The 40 people at the Lesser Free Trade Hall that became 2000, all remembering where they weren’t when ‘music changed’.
Me spilling wine down myself from the cheapest bottle in Spar, surrounded by men in suspiciously large coats and concrete, slowly forgetting the lies I’ve been telling and preparing the images for the story in a few years of the park benches, the champagne flutes and falling head over heels for a laughing tourist who has a vaguely untrue knowledge of Mancunian History. Just like the rest of us.
JP Daly is a short story writer from Manchester, he is generally interested in very little. He is one part of Manchester ‘collective’ Bad Language, who host regular nights around the city and can mainly be found at The Castle Hotel at the end of every month. On Twitter: @jpmdaly and @badlanguagemcr
This story was commissioned for Manchester Histories Festival in 2014 as part of Ruined: Short short stories about long lost places, which took place at Blackwell’s Books.Stats: