‘This was once a graveyard,’ Morag tells me as we walk past St John’s Gardens in the city’s ‘regenerated’ Castlefield area. ‘Most of the green spaces in the city centre were.’ She adds that Angel Meadow, a park at the other end of town, is ‘the site of a mass cholera grave’.
Her tour of Manchester is very different to the official, sanitised version of its history – the one the council and its PFI marketing companies and development agencies espouse. ‘You get the industrial revolution and then the IRA bomb and the redevelopment that followed,’ she says. ‘It’s as if there’s nothing in between. But lots of things are happening, all at the same time.’
Morag is part of the Loiterers Resistance Movement (LRM), a Situationist-inspired psychogeography group that roams the city sharing knowledge and experiences of the ever-changing urban environment. The LRM tries to piece Manchester’s lost stories together by interacting with the city and other people. ‘I want to complicate the official narrative and deviate from the official tour,’ she says. ‘For me the city is about multiple narratives, diversity and personal history.’
She continues: ‘The dominant narrative is one of triumph [of the Industrial Revolution]. They never talk about the squalor.’
On one official walk they don’t even mention the famous Suffragette sisters the Pankhursts, she tells me – and ‘they never mention the Burns sisters’.
I look at her blankly, revealing my ignorance. ‘They were companions of Engels,’ she says. ‘They helped him gain access to the slums while he was writing about and living in Manchester. A dandy like him couldn’t just walk in there, he would get killed.’
We head down an old cobbled side street off Oxford Road. Among the gaudy new facades of the bars that line the street sits an ornate doorway dating from the 1920s – and some superb graffiti.
This is the first example of what Morag describes as ‘resonances’: the blurring between the past and the present. History, she says, ‘is not linear… things seep out of the past into the present.’ These resonances are what the LRM is all about. Their aim is to connect people with them, to give individuals a better sense of their environment, themselves and others.
At the end of the road is what she really wants me to see. It’s a plaque commemorating Little Ireland, one of the many slums that defined 19th century Manchester. Morag is clear she doesn’t want to fetishise the bleak conditions that were prevalent here – but nor does she want to ignore stories that are often hidden from the official histories of Manchester and other industrial cities. ‘There was one toilet here for 400 people,’ she says, grimacing.
‘These places still exist,’ she says. ‘We’ve just globalised them.’
We continue our walk, crossing Whitworth Street and then heading onto the path alongside the canal, passing new flats and converted mills along the cobbled towpath. This is one of Morag’s favorite places – one of the few areas in the city that’s free from the constant bombardment of advertising. But we are still, it seems, constantly watched by CCTV. ‘We asked for the footage once after walking down here,’ she says, ‘but most of the cameras were turned off.’
Morag tells me how the LRM play a game called ‘CCTV bingo’ by walking in the gaze of one camera until they find another. ‘It’s sooner than you think.’ This game-playing is central to the LRM. It may be silly and fun, Morag says, but such games help to give you ‘an emotional relationship with the city’.
Last year the group made an edible model of the city. ‘We took over 400 photos of buildings around the city and then constructed them out of cake,’ says Morag. ‘It wasn’t topographically accurate,’ she adds dryly. The cakes were then devoured in an afternoon. ‘The city is always changing,’ she says with a smile.
‘Whatever the council do with places like this, people will always adapt and appropriate them.’
The LRM meet every first Sunday for some sort of wander around Manchester. It’s free and everybody is welcome. You can follow and contact Morag on Twitter @lrm and Tim @timinmanchester
Tim Hunt is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.