Saturday evening. After plodding around galleries and streets – the latter in preliminary search of photographic locations for a conference next June – I was knackered. Well, my feet certainly were. They’re rebelling against being shoved back into restrictive footwear after spending the overwhelming amount of the last five months in Birkenstocks or flip-flops.
So there I was, after a day spent thinking artistically. What to do for the evening? While I contemplated this – and gave my feet a break – I sat alongside the canal on Canal Street, outside Churchills, a diet Coke and ciggy at hand, watching the world go by.
For those who don’t know, Canal Street is at the heart of ‘The Village’ in Manchester; the centre of the city’s LGBT community and life.
Churchills is a spectacularly camp – it even hosts drag karaoke – and plays the sort of music that I enjoy (by way of an illustration, there was even Ute Lemper singing All That Jazz from Chicago on Saturday night).
There were Rugby League fans getting ready for that evening’s Grand Final, in noisy but robust good humour.
And then a large group of women arrived, in black t-shirts bearing the gold legend: ‘Lady Gail’s hen party Manchester’. They were, it became rapidly clear, from Liverpool. I hadn’t realised that there was that much hair bleach in the whole world.
Before long, having claimed three tables just along from where I was sitting, two of the more senior members of the troupe got up to perform their version of a robot dance. When one of them bent over, she couldn’t get up and had to be pulled back up by her belt.
Everywhere, onlookers were in hysterics. Men crowded to the window of Queer, next door, and joined in the laughter. I was nearly crying.
They flitted in and out of Churchills for the next hour or so, quaffing heaven alone knows how much vodka and Coke, and occasionally partaking of the services of the drag queen DJ inside, taking to the stage for a spot of karaoke – some of which could (unfortunately) be heard outside in the street.
One of the street performers, wearing vast green curlers in her blonde hair, borrowed my lighter and explained that they’d arrived at 11am in the morning and not stopped drinking since. Their hotel rooms for the night were well stocked with, err, plenty of vodka. I hate to think what their heads will have felt like the following morning.
As dark drew in, I pottered down to Vanilla, an all-girl bar nearby. I say “all-girl”, but men are allowed.
It’s run by Mary, a sort of lesbian version of the tough northern barmaid with a heart of gold.
It’s on two tiny floors, with a dinky pool table downstairs – and unlike at least one other such establishment I have visited (in Amsterdam), it is not non-competitive pool.
“Non-competitive pool?” repeated Mary back to me, the first time I visited and decided to check first in case it was some sort of universal thing. “Non-competitive pool!”
Reassured, I stuck around. It was on one visit last year that I had my first taste of absinthe in Vanilla. On a remarkably quiet early Saturday evening this time around, I was adopted by five teenagers as a mascot.
Given that I was, by some margin, the oldest person in the establishment, they were tactful enough to nickname me ‘Mother’ instead of a rather older female relative that I might actually have been old enough to have been to any of them.
It appeared that they needed advice on relationships and careers, wanted to discuss politics and general and the nature of feminism in particular.
And they did assure me that ‘you’re never too old’ and that I have ‘beautiful eyes’.
I admit having felt just a teensy weensy little bit like a dirty old (middle aged) woman receiving such flirty attention. And even though I have never been a cradle-snatcher, I admit that, as I knocked back a shot of some very brightly coloured liquid and winked at a rather pretty tomboy, I was really rather enjoying myself.
Nights in northern cities can be darned good fun!