Oi Polloi

Cottonopolis: In My Mersey Paradigm — by Ian Hough

Published: Fri Sep 16 2011

Back when I used to travel a lot, people often told me I should work for the Manchester Tourist Board; such was my incessant natter about the place. I’d bang on about atom splitting, passenger railways, bouncing bombs and the United Road End crew of 1980, discussing the latter on equal terms with the former three without missing a beat. (Clobber, science and technology have always been inextricably connected in Manchester) Be it the quasi-Bronx of Pendleton and Hulme, or the all-original vast mills of Ancoats and Chorlton on Medlock, I delivered a constant embellished homage to their existence, something my mockers found quaint and preposterous. I never backed down, but deep inside was the nagging question: Does Manchester even have a tourist board? It’s teeming down 87% of the time, and when it’s not it’s getting ready to. And before anyone starts, a section of the United Road Paddock was sometimes referred to as an “end” back in the Stone Age, so drop the quill and read on, Cokedick.

Blokes have always been content to just have a few scoops and talk bollocks. It took forever for cavemen to put the spears down and smell the cow dung, i.e. discover agriculture. The womenfolk probably dished out earache-a-plenty for millennia, until the men got it together. Fast forward 12,000 years to the 19th century. Witness curious farm boys on odysseys to discover where their trusty corduroy trousers came from; a monstrous smoking city far away on the Lancashire plain: Cottonopolis, World Capital of Industry. Farmers were swallowed up by a clanking automated labyrinth of vast warehouses and noisy factories, a behemoth belching sulphur into a rainy sky, promising much but delivering sweet FA to the little people (the poor, that is, not dwarves, though the meagre nourishment available meant many natives were cruelly undersized, before curries, kebabs and Chinese chippies mercifully put an end to it). Well-fed farmers became starving urbanites, back in the hunt. Probably did them a favour. A modern jungle emerged, its savage tribes exhibiting insane attention to style. These were the Scuttlers. Vicious young pissheads who carried crab lice and rickets along with their studded belts, knives, “donkey fringes” and bellbottoms. Violent gangs in the world’s first industrial city. Their obsession with clobber wasn’t a coincidence. Scuttlers were surely aware that waterproof hoods might keep their long fringes intact while waiting for an enemy. It’s only a matter of time before a casual archaeologist finds a Scuttler cagoule in a Greengate clay pit, mark my words.

Behind the gear you currently love to wear loom (get it?) piano-like devices sporting a thousand bobbins, warps and wefts, with dashboards, vices and steel rollers that birthed unheard-of threads. Corduroy was one such material, as were crease-proof fabric, towelling and rubberised Macintosh.

In this age of clichés, Cottonopolis-cum-Madchester has plenty; artificially-selected peppered moths, pollution and squalor, damp climate and cotton, rain and Salford slang, swirling in a gloomy kaleidoscope around the ancient tower of Strangeways to a periodically chiming electro-gong a la New Order’s (ironically titled) “Everything’s Gone Green”.

Being a post-industrial Jack the lad evolved faster than farming. Manchester’s futurist applications ensured that sometime around 1979 we hit perfection. If you look around with special glasses on, you’ll see it’s still going strong today. And if you don’t know where to find special glasses please stop reading now; you’re clearly not one of the in-crowd and have stumbled into the wrong party. Get back to the plough, and I don’t mean the pub on Rainsough Brow either.

From Edwardian times – turn of century top hats to Teddy Boys – through Mod and Swingin’ London, the template remains the same. “The walk” has to be just so, the allegiance to one’s tribe fierce, and above all, in this 21st century incarnation of Cottonopolis, one’s attire better do the trick; classic outerwear, suede shoes, selvedge denim or cords and a sturdy elbow patch jumper that has home wheat written all over it. Just like them farm wallahs that made that pilgrimage.

Liverpool and London also lay claim to being top boys in the sartorial soul wars, but in my Mersey Paradigm things are more complicated. It all depends how far back you want to trace the “origins”. I prefer to go all the way. All the way to Cottonopolis