Tarting up the Ship Canal

For years it was only a building site. Well apart from the Lowry, of course. That was always there.  I mean this side of the Plaza. Where the Metro Link is now. Right up until Joey and me went to secondary school. That’s when they finished and the BBC moved in. The BBC in Salford. Fancy that. Some people say Manchester. It’s not Manchester, though. It’s Salford. Huh! You know what they say – if anything good happens here, it’s happened in Manchester. If anything bad happens in Manchester, they blame Salford. I suppose they must have thought the Ship Canal was good – that’s why they called it the Manchester Ship Canal even though most of it’s in Salford.

See, though, we’ve got a lot to be proud of in Salford. First town to have a public park, first place to have a public library and first place to have gas lights. We’ve even got a university. I’m not quite sure what one of those does but it’s big enough and sits like a great big boil in the middle of everything and divides the Ship Canal bit from the shopping bit form the bit where there used to be the law courts and the hospital and where there still is a cathedral. They keep going on about it and saying how proud we should be of it.

That place, though: the Lowry. That great big posh theatre. It was named after that man that made those funny paintings of the match-thin people. They look like a kid could have done them. Only when I tried it wasn’t so easy.  Well, there’s loads of his pictures in that place named after him. Something else for us to be pleased about, I reckon.

Up and coming. That’s what Salford is.

My Grandma says we should be hopeful. Granddad’s always telling me how grim it used to be when it was the Ship Canal proper here. Men would be fighting over jobs. What the fuck? Fighting for a chance to do some hard work and wear yourself out? It was either that, though, or starve. He says it was all so different then.

He laughs and you can see his gums. He’s got false teeth but he refuses to wear them. They irritate him, he says. But he doesn’t half get a twinkle in his eye when he talks about when his dad worked as a docker.

“He had to be quick,” he says. “First come, first served. Only it wasn’t a matter of gentility. If you didn’t get picked the kids and the missus would starve. So Dad was pretty nimble. Got his hooks ready double quick. ”

“Your granddad’s right,” says Grandma. “It wasn’t no picnic for my dad neither.” She rubs Granddad’s arm. “Do you remember that little house you ma and pa lived in?”

Granddad nods his head. He grins. “I remember the whores and all,” he says. “And the VD they gave me dad.”

“Andrew!” says Grandma and blushes. She recovers and turns to me. “They knocked the little houses down and built the high-rise. Then they got rid of that and put up what we’ve got now.”

“It still ain’t changed that much,” says Granddad.

“Oh I don’t know,” says Grandma. “There’s the allotment and the garden, the café and the bus.”

She’s right. Before the university and the BBC got all important you had to go into Manchester and back out again. Now’s there’s the number 50 and all those posh folk with their cards and free passes.

My granddad and his mates act like vigilantes on the estate. They soon put anybody right who gets out of line. But you know, it makes it a better place to live in. Man, they’re queuing up to get houses here now. Mum says we’re the lucky ones.

“Anyway,” Granma continues, “there might be some jobs going for our Glenda and our Phil.”

We hope so. My Auntie Glenda and my Uncle Phil haven’t worked for four years.

They finish the new buildings at last. The BBC moves in. The University moves in. All sorts of posh dudes move into some flats that look just like the high-rises that they’d pulled down a few years back. A little bit smarter, just about. Most of the time the people there look as if they’re pretending they don’t know us. I suppose they can’t help it.

“Take no notice,” says the lady from the community centre. “This is your city. The place belongs to you.”

“City?” I ask.

“Yes, city,” she says. “You live in a city. We have a cathedral.”

She’s right. Our cathedral is almost on the boundary. Manchester’s own is only a few hundred yards away.

We love our city. We cruise through the estate. We break dance on the plaza. We sing in the foyer of the Lowry. We unlock the Quays and we light the legend, over and over. We take what is ours. We are Salford lads and lasses through and through.

Until one day it goes wrong.

The Peel Holdings security guy chases us off the plaza. Joey has been dancing in front of the Blue Peter Garden. He’s attracted quite a crowd.  He’s pretty good at break-dancing.

Now we have to run, though. Anyway, we rush towards the Lowry. Before we can really work out what is happening, the Sunlight gang have turned up. We’ve never found out exactly who they are but some people say they’re something to do with old Port Sunlight and that they come here all the way from Liverpool. Some people even think they come up on the Ship Canal.

Anyhow, however they came here, they got here. And now they let off a firework inside the Lowry. The fire alarms go off. People panic. We’re chased out of there as well.

“You’re banned,” says their security bloke.

We have to go home.

Granddad and his cronies are standing on the doorsteps, like they do, with their arms folded across their chests.

“What you been up to lads?” says Granddad.

We tell him.

“Plonkers,” he says. Only we don’t know whether he means us or the Sunlight crew.

We try going back one day only one of the posh women who sells the programmes spots us. “You’ve been banned from here,” she says. “Get out of it.”

So much for the city belonging to us. It’s more like how we’d always thought. Posh dudes who don’t what anything to do with the likes of us.

That was all a while ago now. I’ve kept away from the place ever since. I think I get a bit better why they were so cross now. We must have seemed a bit too bubbly I guess. Life has gone on. I know all about that now.

Granddad died six months ago and my dad’s now the granddad and I’m the dad. I’ve got a little nipper. Sharon and I weren’t too careful. Mind you, he’s a sharp one, is our Frankie. Best thing that ever happened to me, and Sharon’s not so bad either. We’re married now. Her folks insisted. It’s done me good being a dad. Made me more responsible.

But I’d never take him down the Quays. Place makes me shudder now.

Except the other day we went round to the allotments. There’s this old geyser who looks after Granddad’s plot. He says he’ll keep an eye on it until somebody else takes it on. Now Frankie likes to go to the allotments. He’s such a good kid. He likes his vegetables and sometimes we can get something real good value for money. Or we might go for a bite to eat in the café. Sometimes there are bees or butterflies hovering around the plants. He loves all of that, does our Frankie.

He’s there, anyway, the old bloke. Roger, I think his name is.

“Well, young man,” he says to Frankie. “What can I show you today?”

Frankie points at something behind Roger.  Roger turns his head to look and I spot it at the same time. A great big heron is perched on the fence and he’s eying up the pond.

“Oh him,” says Roger. “Yes, that’s why I’m sitting here.  We play this game. Me and him. See whose nerve will crack first.” Roger titters. “I usually win,” he whispers.

The heron flies off.

“There. Won again.”

Frankie looks as if he’s going to cry.

“Hey, hey, hey,” says Roger. “There are plenty more interesting birds about.”  He winks at me and titters at his own joke. Then he nods. “Post-industrial landscape, mate. You’ll see them all there. Geese, swans, herons and lots more. Especially the days they sweep the debris through. They all find plenty to feed on then.” He pats Frankie on the head. “You get your daddy to take you to have a look.” Roger looks at me again. “It’s a bit of a miracle,” he whispers. “The day after tomorrow should be good.”


There is no arguing with him the following Thursday. He’s adamant he’s going to go down to the Quays.

“I want see the big birds,” he says. “Like Roger said.  “What was it? Post…indy…?”

“Post-industrial.” Gosh, he’s getting grown-up with his words.  And that Roger’s got a lot to answer for. Putting ideas like that in his head.

So here I am again. For the first time in years. The place has matured. The flats still look posh but what small gardens there are have grown.  Including the Blue Peter one. It all looks a bit more lived in now.

“Look!” calls Frankie. He’s pointing at a couple of swans. He jumps up and down and claps his hands. “Birds!”

He’s right. Lots of birds everywhere. There’s what looks like bits of wood floating on top of the Ship Canal. They’re all pecking away at it. So Roger was right. It is post-industrial. It’s more beautiful than it ever was even before they built it, if you get what I mean. There’s more wildlife here now that there was before the industry came.

A woman is bending over a railing, smoking a cigarette. “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” she says.

I recognise her as well. Oh, I so do. I laugh. “You chased me out of the Lowry once. For setting off a firework in there. Only it wasn’t us. It was the Sunlighters.”

“Oh yes. Don’t remind me. We were scared of you lot. People are like that. Scared of youngsters. Especially if they come from the estate.”

I want to shout at her or slap her. Can’t she think what it must be like, if people look at you that way all the time?

Frankie doesn’t give me a chance though.  He grabs my hand and starts jumping up and down again. “Post-industrial. Post-industrial. Post-industrial,” he chants.

“He’s bright for his age. How old is he?



“Look at that!” Frankie wobbles my arm as a heron lands on the debris.

The woman stubs out her cigarette on the box attached to the lamppost. “It’s beautiful here now, isn’t it? Who’d have thought it? ”

I nod.

Frankie wobbles my arm again. “Can we come again tomorrow?”

“Well, there might not be as many birds.”

“We’ve got a family day on at the Lowry on Saturday,” the woman says.  “There’ll be lots to do and see. Bring him.”

“Please, Daddy.”  His bright little eyes look into mine.

“Go on,” says the woman and touches my arm gently. “Please forgive us -”

Frankie’s squawk drowns out the rest of her words. The heron is flying into the sky and he becomes a silhouette against the setting sun. His wings glisten silver. The three of us watch without saying a word.

Salford is beautiful after all and it belongs to us.

Gill James