L’chaim to Manchester – an extraordinary place that’s in my blood
My grandparents came to Manchester from — supposedly, but we don’t really know — Kiev and Berdichev, outposts of the Pale of Settlement in 19th century Greater Russia.
Unlike most of their contemporaries, they brought their parents with them, rather than the other way round. The young people, who married as teenagers in Manchester in 1901, were bursting to get away from the narrow confines and burgeoning pogroms of their birthplaces.
So Manchester it was. They settled down and began to have children: eight in their case, my great-aunt and her husband with an eye-watering 13 offspring.
And because it was Manchester, and that’s what you did, my grandfather opened a raincoat factory, Reindeer Raincoats, with the unforgettable marketing slogan, “Don’t forget the rain, dear!”
Ashkenazi to the bone, my grandfather became friendly with the Syrian Jews on the south side of the city who had become involved in Manchester’s cotton and textile trade. And he and my grandmother, who had had a rocky economic start to their marriage, prospered and flourished in the “can-do” atmosphere of the city.
By the time my mother, the youngest of the eight, came along, things were more than comfortable. The family were founders of one of the “cathedral” shuls of north Manchester, and Grandma’s Shabbat afternoon tea had the equivalent of a three-line whip for all the numerous cousins and inevitable sons and daughters-in-law.
It sounds fanciful now, but growing up in Glasgow, Manchester meant so much to me. One of my many aunts used to send parcels to us which were usually padded out with copies of the Manchester Guardian and the Manchester Evening News, and I remember distinctly flattening out the newspapers and reading them cover to cover, familiarising myself with the city and its landmarks even before we went to live there. (She was glamorous, this aunt, worked in the circulation department of the Evening News. Another of the aunts wrote occasional editorials for the Manchester Guardian, so perhaps newspapers are in the blood.)
Visits to Manchester, on smoky trains powered by stokers shovelling coal, were big occasions. Grandma herself would meet us at Victoria Station — just around the corner from where the Manchester Arena is now.
And when we moved from Glasgow, Manchester became my playground: from the city’s Central Library where I studied (not hard enough) for my A-levels, to the Kardomah Cafe in St Ann’s Square where it was cool to hang out with friends. The 69 Theatre Company operated in what became the Royal Exchange Theatre, a glorious hub where the Corn Exchange prices still showed as they were on the last day of trading.
As soon as I was old enough I got a holiday job in a catalogue company in one of the former Victorian warehouses in Granby Row, where last week police raided a gentrified block of flats in pursuit of the network of the Manchester Arena bomber. Later, as a student, I worked as a lowly production assistant at BBC Manchester, once memorably escorting the great Indian film star Asha Parekh through Piccadilly Gardens to the studios, pursued by a tribe of her fans.
Paradise Row, where my grandfather’s raincoat factory once was, no longer exists, bombed to smithereens during the Second World War. But the city, with its town hall clock famously big enough to accommodate a double-decker bus, thrives and moves on. My grandparents would say: “What Manchester does today, London does tomorrow”. L’chaim to an extraordinary place.