When my novel, How I Left The National Grid, was accepted for publication a scene that I considered important didn't make it into the book for contractual reasons.
In it, the journalist Sam walks from the Hulme Estate, along the side of the motorway and into the heart of Manchester. It’s a perilous journey that I took myself on a wet Manchester afternoon to research this chapter. Two characters, both trying to ‘find’ the vanished singer Robert Wardner in their different ways, undertake a journey that takes them past the historical layers of the city. Their conversation covers topics as diverse as A Clockwork Orange, Margaret Thatcher, Brutalist architecture, the history of the synth and New Order.
I’ve mentioned this scene in a few talks and lectures, and having had very kind feedback for it from some of the post-punk musicians I interviewed whilst working on the book I thought this might be the place for it-
The morning sky was the kind that Sam could imagine behind Alpine mountains. But as they drove towards Hulme it was concrete, instead of snow, which was in abundance all around them.
Sam had visited the Hulme Crescents for a party as a student, and he remembered the locked state of mind that the concrete bunkers provoked. The occasional stray dog and the unyielding presence of the high-rise buildings made his body tighten. What would he ask Simon? Why, after a lifetime of admiration, had this opportunity arisen when he was on a comedown, after two hours sleep?
Bonny indicated right.
‘You look like you had a heavy night.’
‘Couldn’t get a bus back to my car until 6am. Was half-asleep driving here.’
‘Jesus. Well, afraid it is your best chance. Did you find it ok?’
‘Yeah.’ Sam didn’t have the strength to elaborate.
‘Simon has always lived in Hulme, on pretty much the same estate. It’s one of the few that has never been torn down.’ Bonny signalled left at a sign reading ‘Hornchurch Court’. She parked in front of the blue doors of a tower block.
Sam looked up at the pale pink façade, which echoed the faint colour of blossoms on trees nearby. They had weakly begun to bloom, in defiance of all the surrounding concrete.
‘I feel a bit like I’m ambushing him, turning up at his house like this,’ Sam said, rummaging for the dictaphone. He felt a tightness grip his shoulders, a sensation he hadn’t felt since just after his breakdown. A wave of tiredness hit him, laced with a hint of paranoia. It made him want to put his head on the dashboard. Not now, he thought. Please.
He decided to start recording, carefully easing the whirring device on top of his belongings, covering it with just the flap of the satchel. ‘Does he have any idea that I’m coming?’
Bonny checked the contents of her carrier bag. ‘I don’t know what you’re going to get. I should warn you. He might get nasty if he does feel ambushed.’
‘I’m about to meet one of my heroes and he might be about to chin me. Great.’
Bonny’s fur coat was a strong splash of colour against the exhausted backdrop. As she led Sam to the building he made out a hunched man in a long grey overcoat, carefully locking a battered red door. Overhead someone looked down on them before turning inside. Sam had the sense that a trap was about to be sprung.
‘Simon,’ Bonny said, her tone sharp.
The man turned. Sam saw him squint at Bonny, puffing the stub of an unfiltered cigarette between his lips.
It was only as they drew close that Sam saw traces of the guitarist from the old band photos. It was in the jut of his craggy features, in the way he shrank into himself when addressed.
‘In the nick of time, I see,’ he growled.
‘I’m honoured to meet you,’ Sam said.
He didn’t respond. ‘Oh,’ he said, looking down at Bonny’s carrier. ‘You got my past in a Morrison’s bag then I see?’
The dry, Mancunian lilt made Sam want to laugh.
‘I would love to hear the contents of that bag,’ was all Sam could offer. A splinter of sunlight caught his eye. As Sam opened his mouth he felt a puff of dry air release from it, and felt dizzy. Stand up straight, he told himself.
Simon raised his eyebrows. ‘The contents of that bag mean nothing more to me right now than another ten weeks’ graft.’
‘This is the writer I told you about,’ Bonny said. ‘He’s doing a book on The National Grid.’
Simon suddenly stiffened and looked intensely at Sam. For the first time Sam noticed the blue fleck of his eyes.
He scrutinized Sam. ‘You look like I feel.’
‘Don’t say that. He’s having a bad time as it is. He’s already received death threats from people saying Wardner shouldn’t be hassled.’
‘Really?’ His voice raised, almost to a bark. ‘And you responded to that advice by turning up on my doorstep?’
The accusation was loud enough to send a pulse of pain around Sam’s shoulders. For a moment he couldn’t move his arms. As he stood, rooted, a vein bulged in Simon’s forehead.
Sam exchanged glances with Bonny, but decided he was on his own. Slowly, his lips began to shape words. ‘I thought you might be able to tell me if the threats are worth taking seriously. Of course, if they’re from Robert…’
‘You’d take notice then, would you? Even if it meant losing a pay cheque?’
‘Of course,’ Sam said. ‘There are easier ways to make money.’
‘It shows how much he cares about the band, Simon. Enough to warrant a few moments of your time, at least,’ Bonny said.
‘Ta for these Bon. I’m off now into an airless vault that I won’t be allowed out of until I’ve gone insane. See you both anon.’
‘Hang on Simon,’ she said, rushing forward and taking his arm.
‘What is it Bon? I’m fuckin’ late as it is.’
She smiled. ‘I know. It’s just- this man has travelled a long way on the off-chance you could offer him a few words. He’s a huge fan.’
Simon looked back at him.
‘He’s a hack.’
Sam looked down.
‘And right now you need their support,’ Bonny said. ‘Remember what we talked about?’
Simon straightened, and Sam wondered if he was going to chin his former manager right there on the asphalt. Bonny returned the stare, making it more penetrating. Sam could suddenly see how powerful a presence she must have been, still was. He imagined her locked in board-rooms, fighting to the death for contractual points.
Simon met her eye, the two of them in a silent face-off. Bonny’s jaw clenched.
‘Alright.’ he said. ‘You win, Bon. I walk down the side of the Mancunian Way and follow it into the Northern Quarter.’
‘I don’t know why you have to walk down the side of motorways,’ Bonny said. ‘It must be awful. Do you think you’ll get much work done if you’re dead Simon?’
‘You can’t ride everywhere in a car, Bonny. You do that and you start believing in the shop front. You know what I mean by the shop front, don’t you Sam? Capitalism smothers the past with it, layer by layer.’
‘Yeah, I think I do know what you mean,’ Sam said.
‘I’ll leave you both to it,’ Bonny said, with a smile.
‘What do you think of our city in the sky then Sam? The council demolished nearly all of it in one of their fits of regeneration.’
Sam struggled to keep at Simon’s side. Adrenaline had now burst through the fug of tiredness.
‘I came to a party here once, before it was changed.’
‘They called it ‘modular living,’’ Simon said, gesturing around himself as the estates uncoiled. ‘All these walkways suspended above the ground, like something out of ‘A Clockwork Orange’. ‘We’ll be living in the future,’ they said. Well, we were left stuck at the terminus.’
They squirmed their way through a gap in the hedges and walked down onto the gantry leading to the Mancunian Way. The world opened into one great screaming chasm. Cars roared past, a white noise that tore at Sam’s ears. He steadied himself against the onslaught, resisting the need to stand still and grip onto a rail.
‘We were force-fed dreams by the government housing office,’ Simon continued, his voice shouting over the din. ‘They piped them through our letterboxes. This shopping centre, St Peter’s Way, opened when we were kids and we thought that was what shops would be like. Gleaming, clean surfaces. So different to the shitty off-licences we were used to.’
‘You don’t just get mugged here. They take the shirt off your bank and make you thank them as they leave.’
Simon broke into a jog as they found their way onto the sliver of green at the side of the motorway. Sam was conscious of how their thin strip of safety could be rendered useless by one stray vehicle. He stopped and pointed out a nearby brutalist tower block, stamped on the horizon.
‘You see those gangways?’ Simon asked. ‘They were supposed to give their occupants privacy, but they were an ideal place for muggings to take place.’
He carried on walking, forced close to the edge. A car roared past, plastering Sam with the contents of a puddle. Let’s hope it didn’t reach the Dictaphone, he thought.
‘Concrete acts like a mirror, Sam,’ Simon continued. ‘It draws out all the worms in your psyche.’
‘Then why do you still live here?’ Sam shouted.
‘It’s that thing, what do you call it?’ The rhythm of their walking was now synched with the endless heave of passing traffic. ‘The Stockholm Syndrome. Eventually you come to love your prison. That was why Robert and I started doing these city walks. We were looking for the future we’d been promised.’
‘Rob and I would watch these modern palaces get built on razed sites. We were looking for the future. Rob was convinced certain places were portals into the meaning of the city.’
‘I think I’m with you.’
‘Yeah? Well when we didn’t find the future there we started making our own.’
‘I can’t see the link to music at all.’
‘But there is one, Sam. The ring roads of Manchester are full of these decrepit sites. Abandoned when the money for the latest scheme ran out. We reacted to this desolation in music. Our visions for the future went into these songs.’
‘Must have been a good way to get to know each other?’
Simon laughed. Sam just caught evidence of a smoker’s cough. ‘Yeah. We weren’t smart enough to study architecture but we could push keys on a keyboard. Build a world by doing that.’
They pressed on, Sam fearing for his life. Silvery-grey buildings began to emerge out of the skyline as they walked. Sam was relieved to think they might be coming to the end of the motorway. Ahead he saw a walkway, leading up to a bridge. He took a deep breath, aware that he was letting in smog from centuries of industry.
‘How did it begin?’
‘Well, Robert used to mention these notebooks he had. You know, a working-class kid isn’t going to go around saying, ‘I’ve got a notebook with some poems in it,’ people will kick your head in. One day I said, ‘Let’s take a look.’ The next morning we were walking round the Arndale Centre when the idea for The National Grid sound came to me.’
‘They couldn’t afford decent P.A.’s in these shopping centres, right. One day they tried playing some shite pop number and it distorted through the speakers. Because the walls were new the sound bounced back onto itself. And I was standing there and listening to this weird blend of pop, distortion and reverb. Something went off in my head.’
‘So that led to your sound?’
‘Yeah. This studio in Moss Side was closing and I went down there. Started messing around with a Mini-Moog keyboard. When I turned it on it shook the fuckin’ walls. I heard that Arndale Centre sound in my head again. After two solid days of messing about I found three notes that recreated that sound. That was the foundation for “Tomorrow’s Sect”.’
‘Did you think “I’ve written a hit single”?’
‘No. I just thought I was going fuckin’ mad.’
‘How did Robert react when he heard it?’
‘It was the chorus line which first fitted. You know, “We are tomorrow’s sect”. When he sang that in the right place he jumped up. Kept singing it. By the end of the evening we had fleshed out a song.’
‘After that, we became addicted to it. The room might have been freezing, we might have had to kick the bass amp to get it going, but we’d persevere. Find a note we could live in, and build a song from there.’
‘Was it hard to get signed from that point?’
‘It didn’t help that our gigs were a shambles. All Rob ever cared about were ideas. He had this character, Clive Douglas. A power plant worker surrounded by a bank of dials. Rob set up the stage as if it was his booth. With a chair and a yukka plant. Over his head, a giant portrait of Thatcher.’
‘Bet the kids loved that.’
‘So the lights would go up, and they’d see Maggie’s face, start booing. Rob would come on, sit at the booth in character, all glasses and black eyes. Then he’d pull a blowtorch out from under his chair and torch the portrait.’
‘Yeah. This isn’t at the back room in the Tate Modern either. This is Hulme Town Hall, where only one fire extinguisher had any life left in it.’
‘So the real losers were the fire service.’
Simon laughed.‘We were idiots. Bonny had to put out the flames with her fur coat.’
‘She must have loved that.’
‘So about then she starts saying ‘Let me take hold of this situation’. She organised a showcase and three record company execs travelled to Moss Side in their Bentleys. Shite idea. We charged through “Commuter” and two other tracks. And afterwards these three men in Arthur Daley coats croaked, “Can you give us a sec?” and all slunk outside. We were bricking it. Then they came back in and said, “Can you play those songs again?’’.’
‘It was a knife-edge. They say yes, we’ve got a crack at a career. They say no, and it’s the Marmite factory.’
‘You had your backs against the wall.’
‘And it was then, for the first time ever, that Robert started to perform. All of a sudden, in every moment, there was this intensity. You felt like he could crush the mike with his hands. I looked at the reaction and realized we were either going to get signed, or sectioned.’
‘And then both happened?’
‘Right, here we are.’
Sam was glad when Simon pointed out the narrow walkway up to a bridge. The raw threat of the motorway eased a little as they traversed it, the fragile walkway leading to a road lined with redbrick mills. In the distance he could see the impassive gaze of multi-coloured skyscrapers.
‘Were you angry young men then?’
‘Yes. Any man with an ounce of intelligence in his nut should be furious at the world in his twenties. There was no way we could have relied on Thatcher to educate us about art. The main thing with The National Grid was that we taught ourselves. For two lads from the Charles Barry Estate to go abroad and perform was unbelievable.’
The flaring nerve of the motorway had now given way to a strange hinterland. Simon guided Sam through dark brick tunnels. He half-expected to see silhouettes of a waiting gang at the end of them. As he emerged back into the daylight he saw that on a grass bank discarded coffee cups had been carefully pushed on the end of every branch of a large bush. A strange lattice of polyester. Who would do that?
This might be my only chance to save the book, he thought. ‘I was hoping we would get on to Robert,’ he said.
Simon’s gaze snapped to meet Sam’s. ‘We’ve been talkin’ about him the whole time.’
They were greeted by the sound of a lone saxophonist in a Rastafarian hat, playing long notes over a grey canal. As they rounded him Sam tried to exchange a quizzical look with Simon, who resisted it.
The two of them crossed onto Great Ancoats Street. Lurid billboards, some peeling, boomed out at them. The apartment blocks overhead were part appliance packaging and part Lego set. Here, for the first time, Sam could see the synths in New Order songs rendered in architecture. These buildings had the same fragile texture of those faltering notes. Shimmering phases of music, converted into temporary phases of housing.
‘Okay,’ Sam said. ‘I see what you mean. But we also haven’t talked about him much at all.’
‘In what way?’
‘About where he really went when he vanished. About the band’s plans?’
Simon led them through a series of alleyways and up some stone steps, into the Northern Quarter. He sat down on a bench, Sam tentatively joining him. Simon rifled through his pockets for something, then gave up.
‘It’s Rob who decides our future, not me.’
‘But I assumed you would know something?’
‘I hear what I’m doing through the music press before I’ve even decided it.’
‘Why did you tell the press he was still alive? He was missing, presumed dead. I get the impression he wouldn’t have minded staying that way?’
‘I didn’t tell the press anything. Who do I know?’
‘So how did they find out?’
Simon exhaled, hard. ‘Theo hangs out with that lot in London. He went down there as soon as they’d have him. I probably shouldn’t have told him I’d heard from Robert.’
‘So are you the only one who’s seen him alive?’
‘Think so. One day I came home and the wife told me Robert had called. I thought it was a wind up, but two hours later he called again. Couldn’t keep it to myself.’
‘Do you know where he’d been?’
‘I’d ask him, and he’d say ‘What, do you want to sell your story?’ So I’d leave it.’
‘Where do you think he went?’
Simon sat bolt upright. ‘Well, I don’t buy that old cock and bull story about him stealing away to Amsterdam. I don’t know where that came from. Probably Bonny, making myths. Imagining him buying saucy postcards on the seafront. I reckon him and Frankie fell out, and he did his own thing. Robert would not have got that far by himself.’
‘He stayed hidden for twenty five years.’
‘Yeah but he was better then. Every now and again, sometimes late at night, I get calls and it’s him.
‘What does he talk about?’
Simon sighed. ‘The past, where we went wrong. A few weeks ago I got a call and he just said, ‘I’m coming over tomorrow’. My wife was absolutely amazed to come home from a shift at the canteen and see Rob sat on the wall outside.’
‘And what did he want?’
‘To finish the record. We set some dates. He says he might make it, but I’m not convinced.’
‘So do you think he might be coming to the studio today?’
It dawned on Sam that he might, at that moment, be only a few yards from Wardner.
‘Nah.’ Simon’s eyes were cool. ‘Not today. He’ll want me to get going. If he involves himself at all it’ll be in the later stages.’
‘Could he perform again?’
‘That’s what Theo wants. He’s gagging for it. But I think- one step at a time.’
‘Okay,’ Sam felt charged now by the drive to push further. ‘So do you think an interview with Robert might be possible?’
‘Why? So you can all gossip about the bags under his eyes?’
‘No. I want to give fans the answers to the questions they’ve been dying to ask.’
Simon looked at Sam.‘But is that what you’re really after?’
‘It would mean a lot to me personally. To be honest it would…put my life back on track.’
‘That’s too much pressure to put on his fragile shoulders.’
It’s not going to happen, Sam thought. I’ve failed Elsa again. ‘Maybe you and I could stay in touch and you can let me know if he says yes?’
Simon paused. ‘Okay. But right now, I’m not going to rock the boat. Finishing the record is enough. I want to get him back into the rehearsal room. See what’s been going on in that head of his.’
‘Finally,’ Simon whispered, drawing a cigarette from within his grey coat. ‘I knew there was one in there. Right, this I where I leave you.’
‘You don’t…you don’t think it’d be me worth coming along to see if Robert turns up?’
‘No, I don’t. Right Sam, I’m off.’
How I Left The National Grid can be bought from here-