Manchester city centre is a four-sided polygon-not quite a square- with a railway station at each corner. You can begin to paint a picture of the city by describing the neighbourhoods in front of the stations- Piccadilly, Oxford Road, Deansgate, and Victoria- as each has its own, quite distinct, character.
Market Street near Piccadilly, with its pedestrianised thoroughfare featuring a familiar line-up of High Street chainstores, is the area a casual visitor would find most difficult to disinguish from other major town centres, while Oxford Road, which leads away from the station of that name out towards the Universities, is awash with artschool cinemas, cut-price kebab emporiums, and other unmistakable signs of student life. Deansgate is the business hub of the city, and also the place to go if you are prepared to pay £4 for a bottled lager and the chance of rubbing shoulders at the bar with Ryan Giggs, or, as is more likely these days, one of Manchester City’s reserves. All of these districts, in their own way, could be accused of being a trifle one-dimensional. It would be difficult to level the same accusation against the neigbourhood facing the fourth, and final, station. On the contrary, a wander around the maze of streets in front of Victoria is one of the most fascinating- if at first, a little scary- experiences the city has to offer.
Taking a right turn off High Street, you find yourself plunged into a darkened maze, where industrial-revolution-era buildings, originally warehouses and textile factories, tower over thinly populated streets, their top storeys seemingly intent on leaning in against each other in an attempt to block out all sunlight. Peering through the gloom, you spot an ancient, luridly painted rocking horse in the window of one shabbily-decorated store, along with the unconvincing claim of ‘Rare Books And Fancy Goods’ for sale. The neighbouring shopfront, opting for a more frank marketing strategy, comes straight to the point. ‘Hot Sex Mags!’ ‘Live XXX Swedish Porn- Now!’, it screams breathlessly. Blinking in the half-light, you consider asking directions back to High Street, but hesitate to ask directions of any of the surprising number of small men in tan raincoats scutling in and out of the numerous alleyways. You start to wish you had opted for a visit to Starbucks instead of this trip into this dark, seedy unknown.
But if you stick around- or simply can't find your way out of the maze- you start to spot some charming curiosities among the X-rated attractions. There is an indoor craft market, a Chinese Arts centre, and a surreal little row of shops boasting signs yelling ‘Sale!’ and a great variety of shelves, cupboards and fittings, all of them quite bare- after a moment your realise they specialise in the sale of shopfittings to the retail trade. But the best reason to come here is to visit the backstreet Indian cafes, where a plate of rice accompanied by a generous helping of curry can be had for as little as £3.00. Back in my previous life working at the giant British Gas callcentre on Rochdale Road I spent many a happy lunchtime tucking into a ‘rice and three’ at one of them. This lunchtime, compelled by a sudden whim, I pedalled from the lush surroundings of Deansgate back to the grim backstreets of Victoria to see if my one-time favourite café was still there.
Predictably enough, the labrynthine sidestreets soon had me foxed. But then, after a couple of wrong turns, I happened down a dark alleyway lined with tall, rickety warehouses held together with flimsy scaffolding, and found a small red sign hanging above an unpromising-looking doorway. ‘This and That’, it flickered, cryptically. I pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The This and That café was exactly as I had remembered it. There were the same long, bright yellow, plastic tables, packed with the same groups of white office staff and Asian workers from the nearby textile warehouses, all of them tucking into generous, multi-coloured combinations of spicy-looking fare. At the counter, a stern-looking Indian man presided over an arrangement of large, square metal vats, each of them containing vast amounts of a different, unnamed dish. I indicated my preference for ‘one each of that one, that one, and that one over there, mate’, grabbed a full jug of water and a glass just like the ones you used to get in the school dinner hall, and, in the absence of a rush-hour space among the bright yellow tables took a stool perched against a shelf facing the back wall.
The absence of a window-seat did not hamper my enjoyment one bit; the lamb, potato and spinach curries, while lacking the panache of the more expensive dishes served in the upmarket Indian restaurants of Rusholme, were the same honest-to-goodness fare I had remembered, and it was not difficult to see how this workaday café, which seems to have gone out of its way to hide itself in one of the most Godforsaken streetcorners in the entire city, manages to be packed out every lunchtime with happy diners. I polished off the last of the rice and, bidding the stern Indian man a hearty goodbye, stepped back out of the door, detached my bike from the rusty scaffolding, and headed back to Deansgate, promising myself not to leave it so long before my next visit.
On the way back to the office my mind was filled with nostalgic recollections of lazy Gas Board lunches, and, crossing Piccadilly while in the midst of a reverie based around a visit to the legendary ‘rice and four’ café behind the fruit market I trapped my front wheel dead in the tramlines and executed a spectacular double forward somersault before miraculously landing on my feet. Among the amused passersby one woman stopped dead and waved an angry finger at me. ‘Careful, now!’, she warned. Careful yourself, love, I thought, but I just got back on my bike and pedalled off, narrowly avoiding a collision with the side of the 12:47 tram for Altrincham. I was already back to thinking about gloomy sidestreets, bright yellow tables, and a stern-looking, bearded Indian brandishing a giant ladle. My day return to Victoria station had been more than worth the various perils involved.