But there had been times when people had found it open; or perhaps there had been only one time. But you may imagine how the memory of even one time kept people hoping and trying the door; for if it should happen to be unlocked it would be a splendid way of getting outside the school grounds without being seen.
(C.S Lewis: The Silver Chair)
It sounds surreal I know, but I’m increasingly fascinated at the moment, obsessed even, with the many and various doorways one sees peppered around Manchester city centre. There is, to my mind, something highly suggestive at work here. Doors, for instance, to the old cotton warehouses in the Village and also along Dale Street – from the Northern Quarter to Piccadilly Station.
Where does it go? Who’s got the key?
An entertaining scenario plays in my mind. Next time my friend Simon comes to visit from London I’ll tell him, ‘We’re off to a party tonight fella’, and we’ll get the 42 in from Southside, jump off at All Saints, bowl along Grosvenor Street past the Deaf Institute and the Sandbar, until we’re at the subway next to the 5-a-side pen behind the old ‘Man Alive’.
I’ll stop in front of this very door
and announce, ‘OK Squire, we’re here’, pausing to enjoy his puzzlement and perhaps mild annoyance. Another one of John’s ‘on-street’ jokes? Ha ha. Or some kind of dare … a springboard … a trap?
I pull out my phone – ‘We’re outside mate” – and the door slides open. We go in. It closes smoothly and silently behind us and we’re in a curving passage with an inside wall of exposed rubble as if we’ve discovered a quarry buried deep in the heart of the city. The curve leads to a long, dimly lit, metallic staircase, giving onto a gloomy Blake’s 7-style corridor and then one more flight of ghostly aluminium stairs.
Now we can hear music and the sound of people having a good time and voilá – there we are in the midst, at the heart of the coolest, most supergorgeous, full-on party you’ve ever seen. Winner! Everyone’s happy. Some kind of vodka-fuelled Felliniesque chaos takes over and life goes up a level again. Now Simon owes me an equally swish surprise next time I’m on his manor!
Baudelaire, in his prose poem, Le Joueur Généreux, tells a similar story. The poet, beaten down and haggard as usual, is shepherded through a non-descript doorway in a dowdy Paris side street, stepping into a salacious world of scandal, luxury and vice. It’s like a scene from Nero’s bathhouse – marble pillars, walls of soft silk, the beautiful and the damned spread-eagled on cushions with the Devil himself distributing largesse at the centre of it all. The poet is so taken by this louche break with routine that he gambles his soul away at cards, as you do, and in recompense the Devil promises that, for the rest of his life, he will never be troubled by boredom or ennui again. Upon leaving the secret chambers Baudelaire begins to doubt the veracity of his experience and runs home to pray to God that the Devil keeps his promise!
I’ve been there! I know! Someone told me once too that you don’t truly know a city until you’ve been bored in it and I can certainly empathise there but, to be honest, I find it hard to be bored these days in the city centre, especially on Dale Street, feeling the pull and the sway of these extraordinary doors.
There are so many different levels at play on this road. Most of the premises were built in the early nineteenth-century as warehouses for Manchester’s burgeoning cotton trade and you can still see that legacy in the names of the smaller streets running off towards Ancoats – Tariff Street, Mangle Street, Back China Lane, etc.
This trade was the dynamo behind Manchester’s astonishing growth in the first half of the nineteenth-century, bestowing commercial puissance on the city and earning it an intriguing element of autonomy from the capital. In economic terms, Manchester came to possess its own trading routes to America, Australia, Africa and India, ensuring a degree of financial self-sufficiency In cultural terms Manchester became the ‘open city’ par excellence, woozy with ideas from place-names so glamourously other in the shy Mancunian sunshine – Paris, Dublin, Boston, Alexandria – ideas given expression in a vital and varied creative milieu – from The Manchester Guardian and The Hallé Orchestra to the raucous street life of Shude Hill Market on a Saturday night.
That’s what these doors represent for me in historical terms – the city’s natural independence and inbuilt lack of parochialism and closed-mindedness. It’s an openness to people and to ideas on a global level which exists in a different dimension to Town Hall strategy and Marketing Manchester brochures. It’s in the texture of the place and the hearts and minds of the people.
The people. The human level. The human condition. How many men, women and children clocking in and out of these doors every morning and evening? How many human dramas playing themselves out behind these doors?
A colleague and friend drops a ten bob note on the floor. They don’t notice but you do. You’re skint with a big family to feed. You know your mate’s in the same boat. What do you do?
You have to turn up for work and face the woman who’s just left you for one of your colleagues. You’ll need to have a ‘one to one’ with him too.
You’ve just found out a baby’s on the way. Time to tell the boys and girls. Time to celebrate.
The highs, the lows, the boredom at the start of the week, the gathering buzz towards the end. So many acts of deception and dishonesty. So many acts of giving and goodness. So many stories.
And where – like with the doors beneath the Mancunian Way – where do these stories go? Do they just fade to grey or do they leave their mark, their imprint, on the fretwork of the buildings which hosted them and on the fabric of the city itself?
It’s a tricky one. There are no ready-made answers, that’s for sure. A degree of humility, in my view, is needed here, a humility acknowledging an element of mystery and transcendence at the heart of things and giving the imagination licence to play with that and express the mystery in its own time and its own way.
I mean, which of us, with any certainty, really knows what lies beyond these doors? Until someone steps in and takes a look we can never be sure. Odds on it’s just old warehouse space, and that’s great! Just think of the exciting futures these buildings might have and the parts they may go on to play in the city’s continuing story? They could become anything – bookshops, cafés, cinemas, nightclubs, community centres, spaces for stillness and reflection. The possibilities are limitless.
But we won’t know until we go inside. And what if inside has nothing to do with cotton after all? What if we find ourselves groping and scrambling along a gloomy passage seemingly leading nowhere until, mysteriously and magnificently, the space opens out and we’re in a ruined theatre, stucco seats swooping and circling in spirals around our heads, red wallpaper peeled, pock-marked and flayed raw by time, weather and human destruction. High above, a dome of patterned glass allows the evening sunshine to fall in an arrow of light at our feet, playing delicate games of light and shadow with the rubble-strewn floor.
We sit on the stage and tell stories in the sunset, resting our bruised hearts and minds in the healing silence and the profound peace filling this vibrant bowl of focus.
‘There seem to have been certain evenings in those days’, writes the poet David Gascoyne, ‘when I was prey to a particular kind of excitement that I would give much to recapture now. The sky was the colour of warm lead, yet the atmosphere was full of a latent silver-greenish light; it was as though it were about to snow. The shadows in doorways, the empty spaces of open windows, took on their greatest power of suggestiveness. An imperceptible smell of sulphur in the air. How finely attuned the nerves were to the least possibility of the miraculous! It seemed that at any moment one was going to be able to walk right through the screen of surface appearances, as through a mirror, into a strangely violent but exalted world of poetry and revolution.’
Gascoyne became one of the great poetic shamen of war-time London, transmuting a world of disintegration and lies into a rich, strange and visionary parade. As in this poem, Zero - September, 1939:
Who can by now not hear
The hollow and annihilating roar
Of final disillusion; or not know
How our condition is uncertain and obscure
And difficult to bear? Yet through
The blackness of his dungeon there still peer
Man’s eyes, unmoving, lit by their desire
To see the worst, and yet not die
Of their lucid despair
But in such vision persevere
Through time into Eternity.
For this is Zero-hour
When the most penetrating gaze can see
Only the Void, the emptier than air,
The incoherent Nada of the seer:
Who blind is yet not blind, being aware
Of the Negation’s double mystery!
Tomb of what was, womb of what is to be.
This is what imagination does. It brings dignity and meaning to lives which, now as then, often seem so broken and fragmented in the face of random forces and a competitive, stonily antagonistic world. Cotton laid our city’s foundations for sure, but it’s the Mancunian imagination that makes the legend and makes an active and positive difference to the lives of so many men and women in the city and across the world.
True creativity, as William Blake knew, can’t be policed or tamed. Imagination has always disturbed and unsettled governments and ruling élites. Left to itself, creativity is far from guaranteed to usher in greater social cohesion or attract more business to the city, but the authorities look through the wrong end of the telescope, as well as betray their own fears, when they ride on creativity’s back to achieve goals of that order. We see this in aspects of ‘cultural regeneration’ and also in Manchester’s rebranding as the ‘original modern’ city. This shortsighted utilitarianism only succeeds, in my view, in killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
copyright John Fitzgerald 2010
We need to relax our grip, take a risk or two and make space for the unexpected and the unpredictable. Imagination, as seen so often in Manchester, is a gift - a gift which keeps on giving - and this is a city which only comes alive and becomes itself when given space and time to sing its song in spontaneity and celebration. That’s always been the way here – from Thomas de Quincey to Jeff Noon, from A Guy Called Gerald to Kid British. Then Manchester can astonish in a modern day fiesta - the city and its people tasting, if only for a moment, what true community, togetherness and unity can be like – true communitas.
So let’s walk through this screen of surface appearances …
let’s walk through this blue door into the place of poetry and revolution …
where you can cut your finger on a blade of grass …
where your sword draws blood from the wind …
‘It’s sure to be no good’, said Eustace with his hand on the handle; and then … the handle turned and the door opened. A moment before, both of them had meant to get through that doorway in double quick time, if by any chance the door was not locked. But when the door actually opened, they both stood stock still. For what they saw was quite different from what they had expected. They had expected to see the grey, heathery slope of the moor going up and up to join the dull autumn sky. Instead, a blaze of sunshine met them …
And it poured through the doorway as the light of a June day pours into a garage when you open the door.
John is a Manchester based writer, researcher and historian. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org