I invigilated exams at University of Manchester in summer 2019. I noticed a student wearing a pair of trainers with what looked like a bee on them. I searched for them on my phone in a break. They were £400 Gucci trainers. But the bee was not intentionally related to Manchester’s symbol. I think to myself that if someone hasn’t made Manchester trainers yet they probably will.
Just over a year later I spot a tweet in which Lord Mayor of Manchester, Councillor Tommy Judge, holds up a pair of Nike Air Force 1 trainers with a Manchester Bee on them. Judge calls this a ‘fantastic initiative’, which ‘unites Manchester’s iconic Worker Bee’ with ‘a world-class product.’
It is, he said ‘our greatest brand collaboration so far.’ I go to Google and search for a pair of trainers again, for the first time since looking up the Guccis last year.
‘The Nike Air Force 1 Manchester Bee’ is ‘dedicated to the British city of Manchester’ I find, with the ‘bee motif that honours the city’s hard-working ethic and hive of activity.’ £90.
For me the Manchester Bee pushes the idea of a hard working class that is little different to punitive Victorian laissez-faire ideology, get out and graft to buy a new shirt, to graft some more or die in poverty under a bridge. But the Bee has since become conflated with memories of the hideous Arena bombing of May 2017.
I go straight into Marxist mode. I tweet a few local lefties asking if any of them know where the trainers are made. If they are made in a Chinese sweatshop, the worker bee resignifies. The bee becomes those workers.
But if they were made locally it would be just as interesting. Because as an exception they would point at overseas 21st century sweatshops all the more, as well as those in Manchester’s 19th century past. Apparently, Air Force 1s are usually made in China or Vietnam.
I read further. The We Heart Manchester charity is tied up with the whole thing. They get 10% of the sales. Then I feel a twinge of guilt. Maybe I should just shut my mouth. The I Heart Manchester slogan, like the Manchester Bee, was once only to be found on tourist t-shirts. It too has become conflated with city togetherness after the Arena bomb.
The silence of those who don’t want to criticise because of charity involvement could be read as kindness perhaps, or sentimentality. But it could also be read as a kind of moral gagging by stealth.
I think on. Let’s push aside the hawkish American connotations of ‘Airforce 1’. Our culture is badly Americanised, but the name of the shoe is only a tenuous connection. It has connotations, yes, but I don’t think that’s the real story here.
The charitable aspect is only one part of this too. Luke of the Unabombers and rising hip hop and soul star KSR advertise the product. So they have stakes in this too, and the ‘brand’ of The City of Manchester has stakes in this as well. Status stakes. They are all suddenly draped, in my head, in the robes of Roman rhetoricians.
But musicians have all been hit with a year’s pandemic layoff. They have to keep putting themselves out there and making it where they can. Again, I feel a twinge of guilt.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is the tangle of it. Exploitation, hard labour and swindling cannot be separated from ordinary sentimentalism or good deeds. It is all thrown together in the mix. This is of course an Orwellian way to look at it, but it’s also the start of a dialectic.
Can a charity be separated from the processes that make it necessary in the first place? Maybe not. We are all complicit by degrees – only some are much guiltier than others.
But in all honesty, the account of internal turmoil I am giving you here is amplified for the purposes of writing: Theodor W. Adorno usually wins any internal struggle I go through. ‘World Class’ I mutter, then I do some swearing.
I feel like I want to brush my teeth. There’s a corpse in the mouth of Manchester as the eternal city-of-culture. At the same time, I feel my enthusiasm for what KSR and Unabombers do. The excitement hits the stomach area, just below the chest area which registered the guilt a few minutes ago. I love KSR’s music.
But the idea that there is a quality called ‘world classness’, that this concept of world has an essence that can also be a scale against which the quality of shoes can be measured. Really?
I bristle at academics who over-use what I call the itty words. The itty words tend to suggest that things which do not have an essence do. Globality, intentionality, territoriality. But ‘World Class’ is a linguistic swindle on a bigger scale, because it’s a much more everyday phrase than academic language.
Barthes wrote of how there was no essence to Paris and so a road sign with Paris on it will stand in fine. Trouble is, a picture of the road sign then becomes a new, spiritually thin essence.
And of course this whole stew of Nike, Manchester, and the eh up our kid heart-tugging charity in bad times, is becoming a road sign too. A thin haze of concocted essence. And it is only ever becoming, it never finally solidifies, although it does reify.
Will Davies wrote something recently about all that is solid melting having its otherside in evaporated substances coming together again as new solids. But there isn’t much that is novel about the new forms.
Here, pride in city and region is pulled into a texture, a fabric. Or does that fabric now produce the pride in city and region? I can’t answer that. Maybe the process is an endless loop.
The ordinary is sexed up, infantilised. We’re simple but hardworking and honest, maybe a bit edgy, although we love our mams. This has become a trope black hole in Manchester, sucking in all the light, via which we might see differently.
A black hole made of Corrie, Shameless and the ubiquitous Maxine Peake. This infinitely dense material pulls in all the light, but the same stuff is being pumped back out the other side as a befuddling gas, reforming the cultural atmosphere all over again.
Manchester is a collapsed star.
Put more simply, Manchester has been running on empty for decades, but the cultural myths seem to be so strong, so mesmerising, that nobody has noticed.
And yet there it is. An actual charity for people in the city, based in an actual bit of the city, so that people like me will be rendered subjectively intoxicated, to the extent that they won’t be able to write articles like this one. Not stupified, but sentimentified.
You can’t criticise I Heart MCR tee shirts because The Bomber and The Bomb, 2017 and 1996. You can’t criticise The Bee because it’s the same as dissing dead kiddies. But the You Can’t Criticise Embargo – policed by some hardnut locals – is part of a bigger cultural lobotomy which produces a Citybrain with only a short-term memory.
We saw it on the BBC miniseries Manctopia. Simplistic salt of the earth types seeing the what of regeneration while ignoring the how and for whom were pushed to the fore. The editing, in places, was scandalous.
Communities are being eroded by global money here as real estate is bought up and built, pushing workers out. And then this promotion for charity Nikes arrives, fleet of foot, and seems to be saying ‘now here is globalism to save the ailing local’. We don’t need a strong, very different sort of state to replace all of this mess, it says, when capital creates froth to skim.
I write it all up. I read it through a couple of times. Then I spot the line about ‘localism being eroded by globalism’. It maps onto the xenophobic and outright fascist swell of 2016-19. And then I wonder if I should leave it out of the article.
Then the fact that liberalism is a dead truth regime leers out at me from that insight. I have caught myself trying to operate inside a linguistic and philosophical ruin.
Because just as you start to worry that claiming localism being eroded by globalism might be bad, that it might throw you in with the dusty folk by the cenotaph – and not on poppy day – you realise… that actually their sense of things is yours too. Even though you don’t speak each other’s language. Both camps are standing looking at the same ruined object, but from opposite sides.
And we’re all tripping. Nobody has got the scale of it, or the full mess of it. We are all turned inwards, unable to face what is on the way. As unable to face it as we are unable to see it fully.
Here, a fog hangs over the place where ‘remembering’ the fight against fascism after 1939 merges with a misjudged pride in WW1. Deeper into this fog, excitement over sexed-up accounts of allied actions in WW2 blend into apologies for fascist ideology. The left hammer those people, at the same time as some among them toss bad Soviet memes into the social media flood.
Out in the street – in the linguistic and philosophical ruin – the people who look at the same object from opposite sides walk through each other like ghosts.
Some try to remain centrist, claiming that to be patriotic and remember wars isn’t ever a gammony act, as though the social world operates via logic. It does not. These people prove the old cliché that if you remain in the middle of it, you end up roadkill.
Of course you can remember wars in good ways, many do, but only a fool would see the current resurgence of patriotic nationalism as innocent or neutral.
Look to the extremes, don’t invent a comfortable centre: Isn’t the whole anti-vaxxer, anti-Europe thing like Southcottianism? E.P. Thompson claimed that irrational religious Christian sects like the cult of Joanna Southcott absorbed energies in the early nineteenth century that might have targeted the real problem. He was right. And here are the new forms of it.
There are a couple of local old-timey trolls who will have your hide for saying that on social media. To them even the delusions of the working classes are to be championed, and only middle class champagne socialists would say otherwise. I’m working class, as were my ancestors, as far down the census as I can get. I feel comfortable with criticising because I am one. So do your worst.
On the one side here is me, irritated, with a raised voice saying that the charity becomes, in this process, a massive alibi for pecisely the things which make the charity necessary: mass consumerism, aspiration to branded goods and a ‘Manc culture’ that symbolically clears the ground for investment by Deloitte and others, and worse.
The trainer itself becomes a sick artwork. In fact it is a better piece of critical art than anything produced in Manchester since Victor Burgin’s retrospective at Cornerhouse around the turn of the millenium. The Manchester bee trainer is meant to signify hard work, innovation and cool, but it simultaneously signifies its opposite: the deliberate, strategic running down and offshoring of industry in the mid to late 20th century; the resulting lack of lucrative or meaningful work for many; the last New Labour neoliberal council, handing it all to the Players forever.
The trainer is meant to say ‘The Future’, but exactly that message carries its opposite, ‘NO FUTURE’, along with it at all times.
The presence of the Lord Mayor of Manchester signifies the players of Manchester City Council, for whom he fronts. They represent the deliberate breaking apart of older communities in the interests of global capital. The phrase ‘World Class’ is bent over and the fact of global capital buying up real estate that no ordinary citizen will ever live in is rammed painfully into its anus.
The trainer hype comes just after Andy Burnham’s speech on the Central Library steps and outside Bridgewater Hall and I suspect this is not a coincidence. It’s an attempt to make the media attention go further, but spreading it out makes a thin gruel.
Burnham is the ‘real’ Mayor of Manchester, the one with the full powers. Burnham spiked in the media in mid-October for refusing the amount of pandemic recovery money offered by central government. A Vogue article has since been run under the title of ‘Suddenly, Inexplicably, We All Fancy Andy Burnham’.
But Burnham is often viewed through the lenses of celebrity, and Britpop. ‘Everyone knows that Manc frontmen like to rock a waterproof whatever the weather’ pouts Helen Pidd, in a ghastly piece of Guardian hagiography. All over Twitter, people commented that he looked like a member of New Order.
Why view a Manchester politician through a pop music scene thirty years dead? This is a phenomena which never goes away. Who views politicians in Birmingham through the lenses of Napalm Death? Or in Canterbury through The Soft Machine? No-one. It is peculiar to this city, in which plain idiocy is covered over with a sugar crust of preening narcissism and then served to paying punters.
If the fact that someone wears a cagoule in Manchester can be become cultural capital, then thin air can be sold here and it often is. In Pidd’s article the fact that Burnham happens to be standing not too far away from the Peterloo memorial suddenly seems to make his press conference on pandemic money a reading of Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy.
I’d like to see a journalist notice that the place where Burnham stood for his first speech used to hold the Peace Garden – where the world’s first Occupy began – and where a Nuclear Free City sign stood. All of that has been scrapped and the bee symbols have been pushed to the fore.
Pidd’s article ends with the empty phrase ‘the north remembers’. It is delivered with an inflated flourish as romantic as Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. But isn’t the problem with Manchester that for most of the time everyone manages to very successfully forget? In this state they continue to hand it all over to carpet baggers. Culture and cool – which here often means celebrating long defunct things – are the main components of our state of amnesia.
In 2006 Hackney council successfully litigated against Nike for using their logo without permission on a range of sportswear.* In much of my writing on Manchester I argue that if this is a radical city then it is a radicalism of the right, as described in Stuart Hall’s essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. That a London council went at Nike, yet Manchester deliberately courts them, says everything about the situation.
Yet if you read the papers it’s clear that the rest of the country is humping this dead leg of a city all over again like a dog on heat, while muttering ‘radical’. If a city mayor – and Carcetti at that – complaining over bailout money creates such waves, that’s an indication of how weak the left is, not how strong it is. It is broken and spent.
There is one rule to remember in Manchester, to truly know the city: invert everything you hear, turn it upside-down. The more you hear the city is radical and cool, the more emptied out behind those words it has just become.
Notes and References
* Thanks to Alex Rhys-Taylor for tipping me off about the Hackney case.
Davies, W. (2020) This is Not Normal. Verso.
Hall, S. (1979) The Great Moving Right Show. Marxism Today.
Mahler (1904) Kindertotenlieder.
Pidd, H. (2020) Andy Burnham: ‘The real me comes out when I’m angry’ in the Guardian, Nov 14.
Tran, M. (2006) ‘Hackney wins logo case against Nike’ in the Guardian, Sep 11.