Manchester is in the south of the north of England. Its spirit has a contrariness to it – north and south bound up together. Untamed and unconventional; at the same time connected, worldly and self-aware.

This place is ancient and modern. The Romans came here. It is the foremost city of the Industrial Revolution. The birthplace of computing science. Where Mr Rolls met Mr Royce. Where Rutherford split the atom. When Manchester’s days as the engine of England were exhausted, its music scene began. How many bands can you name? The Hollies, Freddie and the Dreamers, Joy Division, The Smiths, Oasis, Simply Red, New Order, Elbow. I have to stop because this isn’t a list  – but frankly, it’s weird. And I’m not even mentioning football. Or Old Trafford.

Cotton mills in Manchester, c1936
Cotton mills in Manchester, c1936 © Getty Images
The Smiths outside Salford Lads Club, 1985
The Smiths outside Salford Lads Club, 1985 © Redferns

There are all kinds of explanations for the Manchester magic. Coal, canals, cheap accommodation (then, not now); even the weather. None goes deep enough. Go deeper. It’s under your feet – in the layers of soil and time. If this sounds fanciful, visit Jodrell Bank, 20 miles south of the city. One of its telescopes is near the site of a Bronze Age barrow. What can’t be hidden by the impressive distractions of the visitor experience is the energy itself. Powerful, eerie and strange.

I believe there is a connection between people and place. Between you and the land, its history, its resonance. This is unique, and can’t be replicated or Disneyfied. Like a good local cheese, there is a flavour not found elsewhere. Manchester is local and global. There are more than 30 Manchesters around the world, offspring of this unquenchable city. In AD79, when the Romans established a fortification here, Manchester was already looking outwards.

It’s home to one of the biggest Chinese communities in the UK. Many Asian people have made the north their home. A Muslim taxi driver told me how much he appreciates the sense of community he finds on his street, and the straightforward kindness. Yes, there is racism for sure, like everywhere else, but the spirit of the north – its way of being – suits him at a cultural, as well as a personal level. When I pressed him to sum it up, he said: “Energy.”

Winterson at the Victoria Baths, Manchester, first opened in 1906
Winterson at the Victoria Baths, Manchester, first opened in 1906 © Charlotte Hadden
Textile workers in a Manchester factory, 1972
Textile workers in a Manchester factory, 1972 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

The Manchester energy is particular. There’s a vitality that bubbles up, whether you are rich or poor or somewhere in the middle. It’s the sense of humour, of course – the world’s first soap opera, Coronation Street, airing in 1960 and still going strong, is built on that humour. When it rains every day, you need a dry wit.  

The cheerfulness of northern people is not a postcard cliché. It’s real, and it’s born out of the resilience that fought for workers’ rights and votes for women. Tough, plain-speaking people who readily talk to strangers. That can be a shock – to Londoners in particular, who assume that striking up a conversation is the sinister sign of a conman or a psychopath. When I first came to live down south, I was dismayed and depressed by everyone on the streets inside their self-bubble. And that was before smartphones. Where, I wondered, was the ordinary human interaction that makes us less afraid of one another?

“M People” like to show off their repartee. At the railway station recently, I was hesitating over a bunch of melancholy supermarket flowers, when the woman next to me said, “Well, love, it’s up to you – but I wouldn’t waste the water in the vase on those.” 

Cancelling HS2, the high-speed railway that was meant to connect the city even faster to the rest of the country, was such a silly thing for the UK government to do. There are many reasons for that, and Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham – Bambi crossed with a British bulldog – has been vocal about most of them. I would like to add this: the south needs the north for reasons that are more than economic. More than the bottom line, because profit/loss is too simple a metric for the dazzle that is, or should be, human life. Manchester people love dazzle – and it’s not about cash. Chanel’s Métiers d’art show in Manchester last year was an inspired fit. The brand paid tribute to the city’s textile history, and to the skill of those who wove and sewed cloth to the highest standards. Building a roofed arcade over an alley, and marching models dressed in wools and tweeds up and down a rainy street, sang to the spirit of the place at its most practical and its most extravagant. As Mark Radcliffe puts it so well: “Manchester is a city that thinks a table is for dancing on.”

Oldham-born Karen Elson walks in the Chanel Métiers d’art 2024 show
Oldham-born Karen Elson walks in the Chanel Métiers d’art 2024 show © Jamie Hawkesworth, courtesy of Chanel
Chanel Métiers d’art 2024 was held in in Manchester’s St Thomas Street
Chanel Métiers d’art 2024 was held in in Manchester’s St Thomas Street © Jamie Hawkesworth, courtesy of Chanel

Video description

Reel showing the Chanel Métiers d’art 2024 in St Thomas Street, December 2023

The Chanel Métiers d'art show 2024, held in St Thomas Street, Manchester © Chanel

In the early 1700s, Manchester was home to fewer than 10,000 souls. By 1830 it was a teeming sprawl of slum dwellings serving 99 cotton mills. The world’s first passenger railway (Manchester is all firsts) started running between it and Liverpool in 1830, and in 1838 trains linked London, via Birmingham, to this site of rough alchemy. Passengers reported being assailed from Stockport onwards by the stench of its mephitic vapours. Not for nothing was Manchester nicknamed the Golden Sewer.

Charles Dickens, who visited the city often because his sister Fanny lived there, describes himself as “astonished” and “disgusted” in equal measure. It was Dickens who ceremonially opened Britain’s first public lending library in Manchester in 1852 – believing passionately in the value of reading for working-class men and women. The library was mobbed by people trying to borrow books, so much so that a police officer had to be stationed on the checkout desk.

Karl Marx, wandering around the city with his friend Friedrich Engels, took from scenes of Manchester life much of the theory in The Communist Manifesto (1848). When the Manchester writer Mrs Gaskell wrote about the cotton mills, she said, “I have seen Hell and it is white.” No surprise, then, that the Trades Union movement began in Manchester in 1868 – or that the Pankhursts, all born in the city, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union there in 1903. (One of the unexpected side-effects of the hated factory system was that it brought women together. Suddenly, they were not isolated at home or in domestic service. The Pankhursts were middle class, but their support came from factory women radicalised by their own circumstances.)

Winterson in the grounds of The Whitworth, the art gallery in south Manchester. She wears a Chanel tweed jacket from the Métiers d’art 2024 collection
Winterson in the grounds of The Whitworth, the art gallery in south Manchester. She wears a Chanel tweed jacket from the Métiers d’art 2024 collection © Charlotte Hadden
A Manchester United supporter in 1977
A Manchester United supporter in 1977 © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln just off Albert Square, in recognition of the support that the majority of factory workers lent the abolitionist north in the American Civil War; knowing what hardship meant, they refused to process slave-grown cotton. The People’s History Museum in Manchester chronicles the connections between past, present and future. This is a city that lives across time.

It was in Manchester that the Bletchley Park cryptographers set up their computing science department at the Victoria University (as it was then). No visit to the city is complete without going to the Science and Industry Museum to stare at the scale of the world’s first (yes, another) Stored Programme Computer, completed in 1948. As we enter the AI revolution, we can learn so much from the Industrial Revolution. From the story of the industrial north. This time, could “progress” be for the many and not the few?

An outdoor rave in Rochdale, 1989
An outdoor rave in Rochdale, 1989 © Shutterstock
Winterson at the Grade II*-listed Victoria Baths, which were restored in 2007
Winterson at the Grade II*-listed Victoria Baths in Manchester, which were restored in 2007 © Charlotte Hadden

I was born in Manchester, just at the end of the city’s life as a thriving textile centre. My biological mother worked as an overlocker for a garment factory that supplied Marks & Spencer. Like all the women around her – lively, high-spirited, northern women – she was a skilled seamstress paid unskilled wages. When we finally met, 50 years later, she told me that every Friday she and her team finished their piece-work quota early, then got together to sew outfits for a Saturday night on the town. These were made from remnants or coat lining. “The ’60s were great,” she said. “One ’ole for yer head. Two for yer arms. A zip up the back. Done.” She would have loved the Chanel show. By the end of the week all the girls would be wearing handmade knock-offs – even down to the weighted chain on the jacket bottom (“Does your brother have a bike?”).

I loved her energy; the taxi driver is right, energy is the right word. In her – and in northern women, then and now – perhaps there’s a clue to the exuberant lure of the place. The name isn’t Man-chester at all. The Romans called it Mamucium. The Iron Age Brigante tribe were in charge back then, ruled by Queen Cartimandua. Mam is mother, breast and perhaps the Celtic river goddess of the Medlock. A powerful spirit indeed. 

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