8:45AM. The school drop-off. A large, bony Year Six boy is hurtling around the playground, careering like a runaway skittle into gaggles of startled, smaller children. 'Tescos has burnt down!', he's yelling at the top of his voice. 'It's on fire! Tesco's is on fire! There's fire engines and everything!'. The news is around the playground in two minutes flat, but apparently hasn't reached the checkout staff, who are to be found huddled at the threshold of the blazehit emporium on the A6, sharing cigarettes and casting amused-looking glances at the gaping, smouldering hole where the ceiling above the catfood aisle used to be. Around the corner, the sidestreet is cordoned off and a deputation of Greater Manchester Fire Brigades finest are locked in tactical post-mortem discussion. It's just another morning in the Old Neighbourhood.
Pausing only to call into Martins the inaptly named 'Swiss Confectioner' (for old times' sake, and for an impromptu bacon barm), I proceed via 192 doubledecker bus to Ardwick, venue for the first item in the working week's agenda, which is a conference on the subject of social enterprise organised by the National Lottery. I think I may have overdone it on the coffee, because having found the first two speakers quite rapturously fascinating I fall fast asleep for a full two minutes during the third presentation of the morning plenary, and am awoken from blissful slumber by the sound of lukewarm applause greeting the return of the Chief Executive of a noted national charitable trust to their seat at the top table. Behind it, in seven foot high bold red lettering, a powerpoint slide screams 'Any Questions?'. 'What the Hell am I doing here and who are all these people?' I manage not to scream back out loud.
An hour later, having determined at the lunchbreak upon the only course of action consistent with dignity and hopped aboard a further 192 bus rather than risk the insominifying effects of afternoon workshops promising such delights as 'Community Buy Out of Public Assets- the Pitfalls' and 'A Review of Emerging Social Return on Investment Calculation Methodologies in the Nonprofit Setor', I am cheerfully esconced in the second floor of Manchester's Central Library, an iconic citycentre edifice newly renovated at the lotteryticket-buyer's expense. The prevailing atmosphere of studious, urbane civility is broken by the arrival of a distressed and possibly slightly inebriated gentleman of Eastern European extraction who is brandishing a letter from the Benefits Office demanding his presence at an address in Salford the following morning and wants to know exactly what in God's name he should do about it. Two concerned and flustered computer terminal ladies in smart blouses and Manchester City Council namebadges talk to him in practiced soothing tones, and, appearing to acquiesce in their wise counsel, the new visitor hunches forward into his assigned terminal and proceeds to tap away at the keyboard while muttering ruefully to himself about the inequities of the Universal Credit system as administered by the Coalitiion Administration.
Yesterday, in a Stockport park transported backwards through time to an even more unforgiving era, during which spousely disloyalty was apt to be punished by summary and Royally-decreed head-removal. A municipality-owned stately home of local prominence is offering free admission for one day only in advance of an imminent (lottery-funded, of course) refit, which is all the encouragement needed by half the population resident within a five mile radius to turn out and queue for two hours for the questionable privilege of being corralled by well-meaning Council employees through a series of dark, narrow low-cielinged corridors designed to house a single family of very rich Tudor landowners, none of them above five foot seven in their stocking feet. The municipality is clearly nervous of sprained ankles and lawsuits, and has employed functionaries at strategic intervals to intone 'Mind the Steps, now' at twenty second intervals to the passing hordes. In an antechamber, a trio of actresses in period costume (billowing patterned dresses, ornately decorated fans, white-powdered faces, massive, ridiculous pastel-tinted hairdos) affect conversation on courtly matters and accost any passing small children unwise enough to catch their eyes. 'Oh, young madam, what curious footwear! How delightful of you to call by!' In another chamber, a present-day architect in present-day architect's costume (striped shirt with top button undone, tastelful metal-framed eyeglasses, comfortable patent leather footwear) holds forth, pointing with pride to a backdrop of computer-generated drawings detailing the planned refurbishment, which will see the crumbling stablehouse converted into a fully accessible and Wifi-enabled cafeteria with annexed 'Learning Zone'.
Narrowly avoiding being signed up for a heritage-themed participatory arts project by a lone rogue functionary hiding in a stairwell clutching a clipboard, we proceeed (or, more accurately, are officiously marshalled) into the shop, where an ill-tempered queue snakes round the walls clutching 'Reduced to Clear' pencils and teacoasters. Frankie picks up a half-dozen free postcards for his 'Tourist Information' box and we re-emerge, blinking and gasping for air, into the 21st Century daylight.