I don’t as a rule travel into any city or town on a Saturday evening because I have a rough idea about what goes on there once the shops close. However, I didn’t expect that nightlife to be as evident on the 4.20pm train into Manchester.
A group of girls arrived at the station. They were in their mid-teens but their clothes would make anybody hope it was the legal side of mid-teens. Their dresses were barely covering their buttocks; their short thick legs brutal, muscular and a strange shade of brown like those of some East European marathon runner caught short in their quest for Olympic gold. Their legs matched faces that were callous and calculated with the eyes of desperate maneaters. I recognised the type. In nine months those strong legs would be pushing flimsy prams, passed on down generations of single mothers.
Arriving in Manchester, I quickly realised that the city was already full of their kind. I walked through the gathering crowds of revelers and the last of the normal shoppers. The women were brazenly sexual, devoid of anything that I could find attractive beyond a pre-programmed admiration for breast or leg. They were trying to appeal to men who were similarly outlandish in their choice of clothes for a cold October night this far north. Gangs of four, five, six or seven were roaming making loud noises and drunken humour and wearing thin t-shirts over grotesquely inflated pectorals. There were arguments, posturing, playful fighting, and some of it was good-natured. A guy stopped in front of a beggar in St Anne’s Square. He gave her a hat shaped like a bear and joked that he’d come back later and check that she was wearing it. Yet such generosity was rare. As darkness fell, the rowdiness increased. I felt jaded by witnessing such sad lives lived out publically and after a coffee in the main branch of Waterstones, I got out of the city centre and made my way to the art gallery behind the Arndale.
I arrived not knowing what to expect but finding the doors locked, a sign ‘private showing’ posted in the window. A woman working the button that opened the door didn’t seem keen on letting me in but when she did I explained that I’d been invited, which was embarrassing since the person inviting me had just passed me as he nipped out for a cigarette. I hadn’t recognised Bill Stott since we’d only spoken on email. I went after him, chatted briefly with Bill who was clearly on edge. The guest of honour was late and the evening couldn’t really go ahead without Bill Tidy. We went back inside and I left Bill to his worrying and began to wander around the gallery.
My impressions were so mixed. I was fascinated by the cartoons but the place didn’t feel hospitable. Going to the Cartoon Museum in London had been so different. There I found people to talk to. Perhaps it was because they were genuine cartoonists or fans of cartoons. This was a different crowd, perhaps Manchester’s cultural elite. I don’t know… Here I felt daggers in my back. I felt so out of place and utterly unwelcome. Perhaps it was just my usual working class neurosis at play. I’d try to catch a person’s eye, start a conversation but the only responses were polite but cool smiles. Eventually, I gave up trying.
I recognised Tony Husband immediately and then Bill Tidy arrived. I didn’t get anywhere close to speaking to either and felt so foolish to think that I’d taken my copy of Tony Husband’s book ‘I Nearly Died Laughing‘ in the vague hope that I’d get him to sign it. There was no chance. They were soon trapped in respective corners by people seeking audiences. Yet it left plenty of room to study their cartoons diligently, which I did, doing circuit upon circuit of the room, finding the only pleasure of the evening in looking at some great gag cartooning. Bill Stott’s were the most familiar to me but it was good to see so many in once place. Tidy’s cartoons were surprisingly delicate for a man who made his reputation drawing broad stokes on a whiteboard. Yet Tony Husband’s were the standout for me. It’s too easy to dismiss them as being roughly drawn. They are but, looking at the originals, I found myself really appreciating the technique. This alone made the night worth it and might even encourage me to try a second visit, if they let me in…
As I studied the cartoons, behind me the audience seemed familiar to itself. I stood there speaking to nobody as a world moved around me, kisses exchanged between familiar cheeks, old friendships renewed, gossip, gossip, gossip. I drifted between these groups, feeling like I didn’t belong and thinking each moment that I would escape.
It reminded me so much of days at university when I’d stand in a room of middle-class southerners so familiar in each other’s company that they knew the rules of being social. Around the edges of the room would be the rest of us from working class backgrounds and places like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and (as in my case) the wilds in between. These were be the friends I made and kept over the subsequent years. As a postgrad my friends would be from Ireland and America. Class seemed important then. It felt important now. There was never much mixing and same felt true here. I didn’t belong.
I waited until Bill Stott, Tony Husband, and then Bill Tidy had finished their live cartooning and I joined the rest singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as a cake was presented to Bill Tidy but then I was gone. I made a dash for my train through crowds that already stank of stale beer.
I was delayed a minute by a group of pink middle-aged angels blocking the pavement with a rubber sex doll. I missed my train by a minute, took refuge in the Nero near Manchester Victoria. Coffee and hot food helped and I started to draw on my Note hoping to pass the hour there waiting for my train. Except a couple moved next to me so he could charge his iPhone beneath my seat. They hadn’t bought food or drink so they started to kiss, passionately, and so close to me that I was technically part of a threesome. I quickly got out of there, exchanging my hot coffee for a thirty minute wait as I stood shivering on a cold platform until the train arrived with more drunks but eventually I was home and swearing never again…by