Nine months ago, after more than a decade arsing about, Proper finally grew up. An opportunity to take our hobby and mould it into a full time job presented itself and after a whirlwind spell of signing our names a dead lot, we became ensconced in an office north of Manchester's Northern Quarter, in Ancoats.
Initially our plan was to set up temporary camp and wait until something more suitable and central became available, but we've decided we really like it here now. We're going to stay, I reckon. Even the obligatory burglary couldn't put us off, it simply served to remind us that no amount of plush apartment blocks and vaunted eateries can hide the fact we're still kind of in the hood.
We've taken Ancoats to our heart. And we'd like to think it has pulled us close to its own bosom too (it hasn't). Without getting too deep, Neil (co-editor) and I have in common a similar background. Both from Stockport, a Cheshire and Manchester mash-up, where the trappings of our outwardly middle class upbringings couldn't dissuade us from gravitating towards the toerags, and sometimes being one ourselves. As a result, we understand some long words and can also spell some of them, but we're also great at swearing/brooding aggressively. That's probably why we fit in around M4.
Barely a day goes by without us observing locals skinning up or just having a big wee in the streets we can see from our office window. More recently, the worrying trend of addicts blotting our vista with their heroin injecting antics has been a real downer. A homeless guy decided to claim a patch of fenced-off land as his own a few months back but he approached us recently and explained how the area was going down hill. “I cannae hack it round here no more, too many crack heeds” he said, in thick Glaswegian brogue.
And yet we also recently saw a bus tour full of suits and notepads, clearly planning wholesale regeneration. And just an hour before I sat down to write this, I found myself beseiged by a shoal of middle-aged Guardianistas taking photographs of me through the first floor office window. It looked like some kind of heritage tour.
Ancoats is far from just a down at the heel inner city shithole that's had some money spent on it though. The area boasts a proud history and heritage, dating back to the industrial revolution when it became the world's first industrial suburb, known as the chimney of the world. The mills which have long since been redeveloped into living spaces were once a hive of activity (especially Beehive Mill, lol), ideally placed next to the canals which have also recently been tarted up. Then there's its central role in the Victorian gang wars which plagued the city following a population boom over 100 years ago. Only the founding of a couple of football clubs took local lads away from cracking each other about the head with belt buckles. Though conversely, the local rivalry endures due to those football clubs, the more things change...
While the Ancoats area may have evolved in how it looks and who lives there, the footprint remains pretty much the same, though a tranche of it was renamed New Islington, leaving what we now know as Ancoats dominated by Sankeys, the Daily Express building and the picturesque Anita Street. Walking through the area for the first time, Anita Street can represent something of a surprise. It's like a film set or perhaps the Coronation Street of a parallel universe, in fact I've lost count of the amount of times I've passed it in recent months and seen people with walkie talkies and big cameras. In celebration of its relatively salubrious and early inclusion of a toilet and sink, Anita Street was once named Sanitary Street. This changed in the 60s when it became a little less of a boast. “Oh we've got toilets and everything”. The slum clearances of the 1960s saw the end of the tightly packed terraced houses.
Ancoats today is a fast-developing hotch pot of old and new. The old Ancoats stands firm via pubs like the Shamrock, while the inevitable gentrification (not always a bad thing) continues to crawl over derelict land and buildings. The number of bars and eateries has probably doubled in the time we've been based here, and residential new builds continue to be erected. Buildings around here are up and down like a bride's nightie.
Perhaps the jewel in the crown of Ancoats today is Rudy's, a pizza restaurant named after the owner's dog. An authentic Italian without all of the twee 'Old Country' stereotypes, this place does easily the best pizzas I've ever tasted. Though their dough is light, I eat so much of it I've had to start going to the gym again to work off all that Neopolitan goodness. Taking inspiration from the region of Italy which sits roughly on the studs of the boot, they've even got a little Diego Maradona figure on a shelf, replete in S.S.C Napoli kit (the one with Mars sponsoring it, apt for the rotund Argentine magician).
That a slice of Italian heritage is playing such a role in the growth of Ancoats is fitting. At one time, the number of Italians living in this part of Manchester outnumbered the English and Irish. Many came from the Naples region too, which is perhaps why Rudy's seems to at home with itself. While few, if any of those who moved to Ancoats had a background in ice cream making, this is what they became known for. It was a scene which was mirrored in other pockets of Italian communities elsewhere in the UK. Ancoats played its own role in this, and by definition the popularisation of ice cream in Manchester. As industry declined in post-war Britain, Ancoats fell into disrepair. It was this allied to a drop in emmigration and greater integration from Italian families which led to the end of Little Italy in Ancoats. Despite this, an annual Italian procession endures to this day, drawing crowds of hundreds.
Recently we sat in Cutting Room square, which contrary to what you might think isn't some public space where hairdressers congregate. We've only been here a matter of months. We've been working hard to take Proper from small fanzine to something bigger. What that'll be remains to be seen but we reckon we're in the right place to make it happen... Ancoats – an area built on hard work and innovation. Plus, it's got the word 'coats' in its name which does seem pretty fitting. Time will tell.
Top Ten Ancoats Facts
2. Due to a population boom in the 19th century, Ancoats was once bigger than both Bury and Blackburn.
3. Immigration in 19th century Ancoats was high. Around half the population in the 1851 census identified themselves as Irish, while a large Italian population established itself around the same time.
4. Manchester is notoriously rainy, and due to a number of meteological factors Ancoats is the epicentre of any rain storm which hits the city. Because of this, it's home to the most extensive drain network in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as boasting more grids per square mile than anywhere in the western world.
5. The ancient River Blag once ran through Ancoats before joining Lake Jib, close to the old hamlet of Nyswan. All are now sadly gone.
6. Royal Mills in the heart of Ancoats still has a fully functioning dungeon.
7. The extensive network of manmade waterways provides a pretty backdrop for habitual drinkers to congregate, resulting in a daily Canalcohol Club which meets beneath Great Ancoats Street to drink affordable ciders and debate the role of a canal network in a post-industrial city.
8. Famous Ancoats Alumni include Hugh Oldham (founder of Manchester Grammar School), John Henshaw (Actor), Bernard Manning (famous racist) and Will.I.Am (talker over music).
9. From space, with a magnifying glass, Ancoats is shaped like a pair of Clarks Wallabee Weaver.
10. Some of these facts are only partially true.