FLY THE FLAG: During Manchester Pride, the rainbow flag waves at Town Hall in Albert Square. [Photo: KUSNER]
By DANIEL KUSNER
MANCHESTER, U.K. — The English say the direction of friendly hospitality leads opposite of America's Southern charm. The further north from London, that stiff upper-lip gets more kissable. And Manchester is about 200 miles north of Britain's capital.
In pop culture, an earlier version of Manchester's reputation crashed onto America's shores in the post-punk, New Wave era. Acts like The Smiths, Morrissey, Joy Division and New Order exported a sound that had fans investigating the origins of these British talents.
With his impeccable lyrics about unrequited queer love, Mancunian native Morrissey — the "pope of mope" himself — often depicted his hometown as a dreary wasteland choked with ash-filled skies. His Manchester was filled with working-class ruffians who taunted nancy boys on narrow, cobblestone streets.
Only ghosts of that bleak image remain.
MANCUNIAN BLOKE: Snapped this during the "Music History of Manchester" walking tour. This shirtless boy smoking a cigarette, above, manually operates the locks for the Bridgewater Canal, Britain's first wholly artificial waterway. Sunny days with shirtless Mancunian blokes are rare in soggy, industrial Northern England. [Photo: KUSNER.]
Instead of Morrissey's post-Dickensian condition, old industrial chimneys and gorgeous Victorian architecture now meld with yuppie-tailored loft apartments, renovated boutique hotels and sleek futuristic towers.
In 1999, a more uplifting and vivid impression of Mancunian LGBT life emerged: "Queer as Folk," the original — and undisputably superior — British version was set in Manchester.
QAF creator Russell T. Davies said there were four main characters: Stuart, Vince, Nathan and Manchester's Gay Village, which serves as home base for the UK's largest gay population outside of London.
The village bursts at the seams during the last weekend of August — when the 10-day Pride Festival takes place.
Last weekend, Manchester wrapped its 18th "gayfest." An estimated 45,000 crowded the village, home to numerous shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs, a park and even a tiny bathhouse.
Manchester is usually a brief stop on a travel itinerary — when tourists rush from London en route to Liverpool, Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Truth be told, Manchester is wonderful cosmopolitan destination, but no more than a four-day visit is necessary. However during Pride, Manchester becomes a Utopian queer paradise. And since Pride is scheduled during a bank holiday, a four-day travel itinerary can easily get jam-packed.
During Pride, the main stage music performances alone are worth the plane fare.
Postcard from Pride 2008
Manchester's "gayfest" is overwhelming.
August temperatures (59°F-71°F) are an exquisite escape from Dallas' endless weeks of 105-and-above summers. Last week, rainy mornings dried into cloudy afternoons. At night, the village lanes were ideal for dancing and cooling off while a sea of gays and lesbians club hopped along the streets, which are closed to automobiles during Pride.
The village is concentrated around Canal Street: And when the first letters are blocked out, the street gets the affectionate nickname "Anal Treet." The bustling district is home to 30 or so queer taverns.
At Velvet, the walls are lined in downy burgundy drapes where guests chill to old-skool black-mama disco at cabaret tables or boogie on its wooden dance floor.
Baa Bar is a poptastic pub for the under-30 set. Company is a basement enclave for the leather and Levis crowd. Cruz attracts sporty lads — but not the shirtless, tweaking muscle queens. It's a place where butch blokes flex their nelly side on the dance floor.
With its front balcony, the three-story Manto was featured in the first episode of "Queer as Folk," a big club that serves food. Next door, Spirit is a stylish multi-level club that attracts dancers — where white boys bust pop 'n' lock moves and Irish jig steps.
Via is decorated like a traditional wine lodge: On the street level, bearded-drag act The Lillettes strip off layers of gowns to disco hits, and in the basement, disco bunnies hop to mashups in the dark, wooded dancehall.
Gays and lesbians mix freely in these bars, but Vanilla is where the ladies hang — a casual pub where during Pride month foursomes of lesbians sat at tables and answered five-part trivia pursuit about "The L Word."
PARADE PIX: A muscle Mary carries the end of an enormous rainbow flag along Princess Street, left; and the Salford Ladies United Temperance Society jokingly tries to shame parade goers. [Photo: TONY WOLF.]
In 2008, Pride celebrated its 18th year. It began as a community endeavor to raise money to care for locals living with HIV. During Pride's final weekend, participants can only enter the Gay Village if they've purchased a wristband.
Proceeds from the wristbands fund Manchester's HIV charities.
This year's main-stage acts included Boy George at the turntables, Irish electronica diva Roisin Murphy, pop beauty queen Sophie Ellis-Bextor and powerhouse vocalist Angie "I'm Gonna Get You, Baby" Brown.
MANCHESTER MUSIC: From left, Roisin Murphy, Boy George and Heather Small performed at the Pride 2008 mainstage. [Photo: KUSNER.]
My two favorite parade entries were the SLUTS — the Salford Ladies United Temperance Society, a group of men in old-lady drag who march with "Sodomy Stinks" signs as they spray disinfectant and try to shame parade-goers.
The best entries were the HIV service organizations, which featured clients proudly dancing. The HIV floats had the best sound systems and made everyone confront the fact that shame has no place at a Pride event.
On the final night of Pride, the community gathers for an HIV candlelit vigil. Thousands turn out for a poignant experience. As a surprise, Manchester homegirl Heather Small of M People sang "Proud" as the message was brought home to eradicate the stigma of HIV. Then a dazzling display of fireworks burst from the rooftops of the gay village. Manchester's HIV vigil is nothing short of awesome.
Not all of the evening Pride events take place in the village.
For circuit boys, University Challenge is arguably better than most American circuit bashes. The University of Manchester's Student Union becomes a super-club: Two buildings with four music venues are bisected by a mini amusement park — like at the end of "Grease." Even when it's raining at 1 a.m., you could ride the twirling, dizzying Xtreme or Tagada Spin.
Another party is HMS Federation, which was held at a 1920s dancehall where shirtless muscle gods donned sailor hats and worshiped all night at the cha-cha altar.
For the kinky set, men and women can attend Manfest, which was held beneath the Manchester train station. Not far from the dance floor is a BDSM area with whipping, blindfolded electrocution and even body stretching demonstrations.
If a trip to Manchester doesn't coincide with Pride, there's still plenty to see.
A visit to the grand Town Hall is a must. In the main building, look for a brass plaque that recognizes the Feb. 20,1988 protest. That's when 20,000 — including Ian McKellen — gathered to disapprove of Section 28, a local government act that outlawed schools from "promoting" homosexuality.
From the get-go, the Manchester city council opposed the legislation.
Throughout the city center, the sidewalks are lined in rainbow mosaic tiles, which is part of the Out in the Past tour, a trail the follows 200- years of Manchester's LGBT history
Stops include the Midland Hotel where Noel Coward first met Ivor Novello, and the Alan Turing Memorial, which celebrates the life of the WWII code breaker and his contributions to the development of the modem computer.
Log Cabin Republicans might be startled if they come across an enormous statue of Abe Lincoln. The monument marks Lincoln's thanks to Manchester's cotton workers who supported the fight against slavery.
The Urbis Exhibition Center Is a neo-modern four-story museum that's free. A panel near the lift quotes Morrissey's "Suffer Little Children," "Manchester, so much to answer for."
Current exhibits include "My First Pride," a small photo show that captures history of Pride.
Also at the Urbis, the career of gay Mancunian native is chronicled in "Matthew Williamson: 10 Years in Fashion." Exotic and experimental, the fashion designer's work fiercely rebels against Manchester's often-foggy grey palette. Williamson's first runway show, at London Fashion Week 1997, featured Kate Moss and Helena Christianson. Williamson has also designed for Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Sienna Miller.
Also on exhibit, is Paul Harfleet's "The Pansy Project," which examines homophobia and public spaces. Between 2003 and 2005, Harfleet revisited places where he experienced homophobic abuse. Once there, he planted pansies — tiny, delicate flowers struggling to survive. An example is a photograph of a freshly planted violet flower with velvety petals on a muddy cobbled-street titled "Fuck off and die, Faggots!" taken at Tottenham Court Road in London.
German architect Daniel Libeskind's The Imperial War Museum is futuristic building that reflects the serious nature of a collection based on global conflict. In an abstract way Libeskind explodes Planet Earth into three broken fragments, which are then reshaped to form the building's trippy design.
MILITARY MIGHT The Imperial War Museum chronicles the futility of global conflict and includes a Military Pride exhibition that highlights out service personnel like Army craftsman Richard Cann. pictured.
Currently on display is a "Military Pride" exhibit — a chronological 40-year map that traces the personal experiences of gay and lesbian service personnel, changing laws and evolving social attitudes.
To enjoy Great Britain's cuisine, you need good recommendations. Or else you might find yourself in a pub staring at menu with offerings like kidney pudding, medium-rare venison, "faggots" (a.k.a. savory duck parts) or salted ox tongue.
But Manchester has lots of hip eateries.
For a swank experience, check out Ithaca, an ultra-modem four-story parlor of bling. A Norse goddess made of disco-ball mirrors greets guests at one of Manchester's newest restaurants, which serves tasty sushi and sashimi and has a distinct nightclub vibe. Recent diners include Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams. Almost every inch of the decor is black glass and ebony fabric with eye-popping silver glitter and gleaming steel.
In the the newly refurbished ABode Hotel, Michael Caines offers two eating experiences: the informal street-level Cafe & Bar and the shmancy lower-level restaurant, which serves modem Euro tapas-style dishes: Pan-fried foie gras with orange braised chicory, caramelised walnuts and home-cured beef bresoala and marinated veggies
For modem Italian cuisine — chicken-chillipizzas and Cajun pasta — Albert's Shed is the location of an old lockkeepers cottage in the Castlefield canal basin.
To re-invent the ultimate Patsy and Edina "Ab Fab" experience, go to the bustling brassiere on the second floor at Harvey Nichols. Kylie Minogue was a recent guest at the cocktail bar, which is the epitome of cutting edge design and has the best views overlooking Exchange Square. The service at Harvey Nick's restaurant is flawless, and the menu has classic ingredients like terrine of ham hock, parsley and sweet garlic, combined with European influences like French-style braised rabbit leg, Meaux mustard
Hip, retro and delicious, Room is near Manchester's fashion-design district. The menu is a mix of contemporary and the antique: starters like beans-on-toast and grilled rare-breed pork with Béarnaise sauce. With its soaring ceilings and wooden spiral staircase, walking into Room is like stepping back into time with an ultra-lounge backbeat: Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a regular at this old Reform Club, which dates back to 1871. And Room was where Kylie Minogue brought her staff on last year's comeback tour
A two-minute walk from Piccadilly Train Station, ABode Manchester opened in March 2008. About three blocks from the Gay Village, the 62-room boutique hotel recently underwent a multi-million dollar transformation. It still retains the period character of its original purpose — a Victorian cotton merchant's warehouse. Rooms start at $230 per night with complimentary WiFi.
ACCOMMODATION: Modernly refurbished and convenient to the Gay Village, the ABode Manchester opened in March 2008 and retains the character of a Victorian cotton merchant's warehouse.
Instead of jetting to London, you can fly directly to Manchester.
American Airlines offers a daily nonstop flight to Manchester from Chicago's O'Hare Airport that departs at 5:35 p.m., arriving the following morning.
American also flies from London's Heathrow back to Chicago.
Keep in mind that American Airlines flies to O'Hare from both Love Field and DFVV. Trains from London's Euston Station travel directly to Manchester; the trip takes about three hours.