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MANCHESTER - SO MUCH TO ANSWER FOR

30-03-2007

Those Mancs don't half make a noise about themselves, but as Dave Woodhall reports, when it comes to their new international festival they've got plenty shout about. So are they leaving us behind?

I went to Manchester the other day. For some reason I was invited to the press launch of the Manchester International Festival. There was free rail travel thrown in so I thought I might as well have a look at what all the fuss is about.

Manchester is, definitely, a city worth looking at. Piccadilly station is an excellent piece of architecture and one that Birmingham should be looking to emulate, even if the immediate surroundings are still grim.

The rest of the city centre, well, it's much the same as anywhere else of a similar size. Some nice old buildings, some impressive new ones and a lot of building work. I like the idea that a street of record shops and grotty pubs can be described as a ‘quarter'. I also like the idea that it can exist next to a multi-million pound development.

However, the big difference came once the launch started. “The world's first international festival of original, new work.” That's what the event was tagged as, and why in a provincial British city, rather than Madrid, Paris or New York? Because Manchester wanted it, and they were prepared to work for it. That's how they've attracted so much investment - they market themselves superbly.

Manchester calls itself the world's first industrial city, and there were several references to the Industrial Revolution, in which the area was supposedly at the forefront. You, like me, might wonder about this. Ironbridge isn't exactly close to Manchester, no matter how you define its famously elastic boundaries, while the first factory was the Soho works owned by Matthew Boulton, whose Lunar Society were the first great industrialists.

Similarly, I've seen Manchester described as the cradle of league football on the basis of one meeting being held in a hotel there. Former Perry Barr resident William McGregor may dispute that fact.

That's one of the reasons why Manchester has such a good reputation; it's a city that's always quick to promote itself and doesn't mind how much truth it uses. The latest bandwagon Manchester is jumping on is punk - the Sex Pistols would have sunk into obscurity had they not performed in the city all those years ago.

Manchester is also a very united city. Everyone who lives there wants to see the place doing well. There seems to be none of the “It'll cost too much” doomsaying that accompanies every new project in Birmingham.

I wonder how much of this is down to the fact that Manchester's inhabitants seem much more deep-rooted than those of our area. Their contribution to the world is more obviously of their city than anything coming out of Birmingham since Black Sabbath. We have a world view, they're of the belief that the world has to come to Manchester.

That could be why Manchester isn't so much a city as a state of mind. Much of what they claim isn't from the city at all, but the surrounding areas. Manchester's probably the only city in the country where nearby, smaller towns seek to assimilate rather than proclaim their own identity. Salford City Council are sponsors of the Manchester International Festival; I can't imagine Wolverhampton being similarly helpful to Birmingham.

Add these factors together, and Manchester gets a reputation as a city worth being involved with. The festival attracted three six-figure sponsorships before so much as a single event was confirmed. The fact that it was taking place in Manchester was enough to persuade blue-chip companies such as Virgin and Sony to be involved.

The UK premiere of Lou Reed's Berlin, the controversial Queen and Country exhibition by war artist Steve McQueen, new material by PJ Harvey and Kanye West, will give Manchester's reputation yet another boost. Someone more enlightened than I might be able to give Birmingham's cultural calendar for the summer.

Manchester does overplay its hand a bit. It'll never really be a cosmopolitan European city no matter how hard it tries; the weather alone will take care of that. But it's a perfect example of how to get a lot of things right. There's nothing there that Birmingham couldn't do, and more, with self-belief and leadership.

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