Mid morning in Manchester and it was quiet in the centre. The sun shone so it wasn’t the weather keeping people away. In Piccadilly Gardens the fountains in the square pulsed with synchronised spurts then died down. It made a fine backdrop to the people who sit on the low wall around the display and children often play in it but today there weren't many people there, though there was one young woman who had two small children with her.
The woman looked good sitting on the low wall against the fountains and I tried to take a photograph when it was shooting right up, so she was silhouetted against this curtain of bubbling white water. She was leaning over the two children and then when she saw me with my camera she glared at me so I couldn’t ignore it.
“I don’t want pictures,” she said. “No pictures.”
“It’s not of you,” I called back, “It’s a landscape, a wide angle,” I drew a big ‘V’ with my hands. “You are just a very small part of it,”
I had moved closer to her by now to talk to her and she had a pile of shopping bags on one side of her, on that low wall, and two young children on the other. One of the children had started to cry and the other looked like she was about to do so too. This woman looked like she was having a hard day of it.
“No pictures,” she said again, looking at me warily now.
I didn’t want to make this awkward so I apologised if she had thought it an intrusion and walked on.
It was the last day of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester and Boris Johnson was due to start his speech in about half an hour. The roads were all blocked off and there were a lot of police around the conference centre. Outside the central library which is opposite the conference centre there was a smattering of demonstrators.
An anti-vaxxer sat on a makeshift barrier with a megaphone shouting insults at passers by who looked remotely as though they could have been a Conservative. “Scum!” he’d shout. “Tory scum!” Then it would go quiet for a few minutes while he rolled himself another cigarette.
Another man was selling magazines and had tried it with me earlier. “Three pounds,” he’d said after his pitch and I was offended he’d thought me such a mug punter. I didn’t buy.
Later I saw him trying it on with a smartly dressed woman hurrying along. He was a big man and he did his best to keep up, lumbering along beside her while he gave her his pitch. For a while his hurried strides landed beside her neatly clicking Tory heels.
“Sorry!” she called back, “I’m late for Boris’s speech!”
She left him to reel away, snorting with disappointment, like a huge beast that had run hard on the hunt and failed. There are only so many of those a man can take.
Johnson’s conference speech is coming at a difficult time. Shortages of lorry drivers have led to fuel queues at garages and the army has been called in. There are gaps in supermarket shelves, something not known to our affluent societies since the Second World War. We don’t like it.
Brexit is being blamed for labour shortages by those who voted remain, and Covid by those who didn’t. Either way, Johnson wriggled and squirmed his way through a series of interviews before the conference. It was all part of a grand plan to make the UK a high wage economy, apparently, he said. Unfettered immigration had led to a lowering of wages for British workers, he said. It is this ability to spin on a sixpence that you either love and admire about Johnson, or for which you hold him in contempt. So far the love is winning.
The Tories are making enemies of their traditional friends though. Farmers are having to slaughter pigs on their farms and burning them because of shortages of butchers and abattoir workers. In an interview Johnson disparagingly referred to the cull as “a hecatomb of pigs”.
A ‘hecatomb’ was a public sacrifice in ancient Greece.
There is something disturbing about a man who reaches for ancient Greek when put under pressure: he is either a serious scholar, or he is using it as a shield, a mark of privilege and entitlement he can scuttle behind. Johnson is no scholar.
Rather than listen to the speech (I could catch up with it later) I got myself a lamb kebab wrap from the street market, a very fine Indian stall I always try to frequent on my visits to Manchester.
As the woman fried off the kebab and onions in the big iron wok, I asked her if trade had been busy during the conference. She looked at me blankly.
“Conference?” She said, “What conference?”
“The Conservative conference,” I said.
Another pause. “I don’t know. We’re only here Wednesday til Sunday. - Hot sauce, and yoghurt on the salad?”
“Yes, please,” I said. “Both.”
I went back into Piccadilly Gardens to eat the kebab. The sun was shining and it was starting to fill up. The fountains shot high, lighting up in the sunlight and sparkling like a jewelled, hissing veil. All of Manchester’s people came to sit on the walls around it on busy days, many to eat their lunches.
One man sat there with his dog on the wall, a poodle, and someone passed with a child and asked if they could fuss the dog and the man said yes they could and the small child did and that was probably why the man with the dog came and sat there like that.
On the other side of the gardens two council contractors jet washed away the excesses of the night before. One was showing the other, a younger man, how to use the machine, and as the spray clouded up it was shaped by the sun and looked like wisping cigar smoke caught in the spotlight through the haze of an old, gnarled jazz club.
There are some hardened faces walking through those gardens and many would be feeling the twenty pounds a week cut in Universal Credit that came into effect on the day of Johnson’s conference speech.
Johnson’s story that it was immigration taking British jobs and holding down wages and now they have all gone home wages here will miraculously go up reflects back the story the new Tory voters who came over from Labour in many northern towns told him. This is what gave Johnson both his commanding majority and ‘got Brexit done’. If he is to keep them they had all better be right.
The woman earlier, by the fountain, with the pile of shopping and the two children: I felt bad about that. I should have asked her about the photograph but I was rusty with the camera I don’t always take pictures these days. I didn’t need to, but it was discourteous not to have done so: you never know the kind of day people may have had.
|Protestors outside Conservative Party Conference, Manchester