The ‘Last Supper’ style painting unveiled at the launch of 20 stories restaurant in Manchester, painted by Nomad Clan, commissioned by D&D London. The cast includes a mix of ‘famous born or adopted Mancunians’ including musicians Liam and Noel Gallagher, poet Tony Walsh and football legends Sir Alex Ferguson and Colin Bell, alongside movers and shakers such as former footballer turned property magnate Gary Neville, film director Mike Leigh, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, former council boss Sir Howard Bernstein, actress Maxine Peake, The Smiths frontman Morrissey, actress Michelle Keegan, poet, author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, radio and TV presenter Nick Grimshaw, former Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder, Inspiral Carpets star and radio DJ Clint Boon, movie director and producer Danny Boyle and Sacha Lord, the man behind Warehouse Project and Parklife.

A recent restaurant launch celebrated the city’s most influential people in a new painting. Only three woman made the cut.

Manchester - it’s even in the name. It seems there is no escaping the male identity carved out by the North, and cemented by the ‘Madchester’ era that the city just can’t seem to let die gracefully.

Even the local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, literally spells M.E.N. It’s website,as well as simply ‘Sport’, dedicates two separate sections to the city’s treasured football clubs, Manchester United and Manchester City, and don’t expect to see any updates for the women’s teams in there. Of course, more women than ever enjoy football these days, and they now make up 25% of English Premier League fans, but the football industry as a whole is, and always has been, an unapologetically masculine environment.

In 2004, when Manchester City Council pushed towards a creative future by hiring a creative director (yes for a city) they hired none other than, Peter Saville, Mr. Hacienda himself, who has actually lived in London since the late seventies. It is clear Manchester has made no attempts to push away from the era that has become a clichéd, one-dimensional representation of the city that was, in fact, awash with “knuckle-dragging misogyny”.

“When all the stories are male, it’s not surprising that women start to devalue their input”

In 2018, the birthplace of the suffragette movement should know better than to keep beating this dead horse and artist Evie O’Connor, who grew up in the Manchester, describes the ‘Madchester’ era as “the noose around the neck of Manchester culture.” It has become more than tiresome for the current women creatives running the show, and it prevents the city from “welcoming new experiences, different backgrounds, perspectives and exploring the very
different landscape we live in that doesn’t include a soundtrack provided by Tony Wilson,” says O’Connor.

The people of Manchester are neither all male, nor all white, with the non-white community making up 33.3% of the population according to the last 2011 census by Manchester Government (compared with 9% in Liverpool and 15% in Leeds). It is home to a Chinatown, and the famous Curry Mile (thought to be the largest concentration of South Asian restaurants outside the Indian subcontinent), so this image of all white Mancs is totally incongruous to its inhabitants. Saskia Warren, lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Manchester, points out that Manchester has delivered a “proud working class white image for what is an incredibly ethnically and religiously diverse city”.

Tracey Donnelly from ‘Suffragette City: Portraits of Women in Music’at the Refuge curated by Alison Surtees, Manchester during International Women’s Week
Photography Elspeth Mary Moore

The way Manchester has branded itself has not only affected how we as Mancunians view the city, but it has also engrained it in the rest of the country.

In February, the new 20 Stories restaurant opened in Manchester and at the launch, a biblical ‘Last Supper’ style painting was unveiled, depicting modern Manchester’s “most influential and powerful people” according to Des Gunewardena, D&D London’s chairman.

The operator, D&D, owns a group of luxury restaurants, bars and hotels based principally in London, none of which contain pictures of people from EastEnders, Blur or any other stereotypical London association. This begs the question as to why they thought this was remotely necessary to highlight, on the 100th year anniversary of the first women gaining the right to vote, that they believe the most influential people in Manchester are still all men.

Only three women made the cut, and one of them was American. Maxine Peake (fair enough) was joined by Coronation Street’s Michelle Keegan, and most baffling is the inclusion of Ariana Grande, who, aside from being American, conjures up dark memories of the city’s worst event in modern history.

“Madchester was a time of corrosive, putrid, knuckle dragging misogyny”

London restaurants who open branches in Manchester are relentless with their ‘nods’ to the city – and in doing so reaffirm the view of the Manchester that it should be trying to escape. Burger & Lobster came to the city in 2015, and incorporated an enormous Joy Division light installation and Pizza Express have countless ‘Madchester’ portraits hanging all over their Italian themed restaurant. It’s First Street branch is plastered in black and yellow inspired by the legendary night club, The H******* (I refuse to give this anymore airtime) which is situated just around the corner,’ regurgitating design time after time. 

“Historically, Manchester’s graphic design scene has shared an affinity with the city’s musical heritage,” explains graphic designer, Jane Bowyer. “Some of the most notable graphic design work produced in Manchester was created in the 80s and 90s during the laddish ‘Madchester’ scene, so it’s design output has been predominately male.”

The renowned music scene was a riposte to Thatcherism, which put much of northern Britain into serious decline during the 1980s with a collapse in manufacturing. Four million people were declared unemployed and northern masculine pride was well and truly knocked. This led to a refusal of the feminine.

“Nineties lad culture was counter-productive to furthering women’s place in the workforce as it continued to foster a culture in schools, at home and in the workplace that men did ‘men things’ and women did ‘women things’,” explains Bowyer. This has led to the exclusion of women from the creative industries in contemporary Manchester. “We saw the rise of the ‘rock n roll’ graphic designer — usually a sort of lone wolf, cool, white, male with a level of celebrity that previously, graphic designers hadn’t achieved.”

From 1980s onwards – a key period in which Manchester was being reinvented – powerful networks of men redefined the city. But in this redefinition, there was a failure to call on diverse groups to shape the city’s future, both in gender and ethnicity, explains author, Katie Milestone, in ‘‘Northernness’, gender and Manchester’s creative industries’.

Manchester became a site for new forms of urban entrepreneurialism, driven by a group nicknamed the ‘Manchester Men’, a name which highlighted female exclusion from the start.These men came to control the way the city was governed, and they habitually marginalise and excluded women and their interests.

Nathan the Happy Mondays manager
and Tony Wilson head of Factory Records,
Manchester, 1990.

After the devastating IRA bomb of 1996, where part of the city was destroyed, Manchester took the opportunity to rebrand under the slogan ‘We’re Up and Going’. Far from enamoured, ‘Madchester’ figureheads Colin Sinclair, Tony Wilson, Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow joined forces as the McEnroe Group, telling the agency Marketing Manchester that it “could not be serious” about the way it had chosen to promote the city.

They believed the rebranding lacked the dynamism, imagination and ambition found in Manchester, and following their criticism, the slogan was laid to rest by senior council leaders. All members of the McEnroe group went on to hold powerful positions in the shaping of Manchester (and still do) with Sinclair going from living off the Government’s £40 a week enterprise allowance, to currently the chief executive of Manchester inward investment agency, Midas. Tom Bloxham, is now the revered boss of regeneration specialist
Urban Splash.

Now, a northern ‘laddishness’ pervades the creative sector in Manchester, and this is amplified and sustained by a powerful, media fuelled, cultural identity of the city and its popular culture. This stands in the way of women’s full access to, and participation in, the city’s creative industries, described by Bowyer as “a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

Linder Sterling
Courtesy of The Chatsworth House Trust

The powerful legacy of the period when creative industries first began to develop in the city has been mythologised as a masculine realm. Of course, there were women creatives during

the ‘Madchester’ era but their presences and contribution has been obscured and underplayed in narratives about this period. 

It is commonly known that seminal artist Linder Sterling was written out of much of the city’s punk history and journalist Penny Anderson describes in a press interview how she was airbrushed out of a cinematic representation of ‘Madchester’ history, the 2002 film ‘24 Hour Party People.’

Linder Sterling
Untitled (Orgasm Addict), 1977
Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

“It’s not so grand, but I appear in Michael Winterbottom’s accurately shambolic depiction of the chaos that was Factory Records,” Anderson explains. During the days of ‘Madchester’, Anderson wrote for the NME and in one scene, contemporary music journalists are being lectured by by Tony Wilson, played by Steve Coogan. The extras cast as writers were men, and played by male music journalists of her acquaintance. “Does my editing-out matter? Well, it does to me. Madchester was a time of corrosive, putrid, knuckle-dragging misogyny, and the fact that some music journalists around at the time were women is important. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to interrupt with: ‘I was there, too.’”

Portraits of Women in Manchester Music has been one of the only exhibitions in Manchester to acknowledge female involvement in this era, a celebration of the achievements of women in Manchester music. It ran for just one week in March (International Women’s Week) this year at The Refuge, and was allocated a position against the back wall, by the toilets. Not quite the pride of place then.

“Generally, all narratives in any industry tend to be male,” says curator Alison Surtees, “and that’s not to say women don’t exist in them, they do, but we are just not out there telling our stories in the same way men are.” Surtees is also co-founder of Manchester’s Digital Music Archive, and works on many projects to get women in music the acknowledgement they deserve.
“Quite often, stories from a male perspective side-lines any input that women had, but I think most importantly, that narrative has engrained itself in our own psyche. We are almost as cautious saying we had anything to do with it.”

“A laddishness pervades the
creative sector in Manchester”

“It goes beyond just a lack of confidence. When the narrative is male, when all the stories are male and all they ever talk about is other men, then it’s not surprising that women start to devalue their own input. It becomes a ‘boys club’, it still is,” Surtees explains.

A shining example of this was the True Faith exhibition that opened last year at Manchester Art Gallery (about Joy Division), which couldn’t have been more dated and disconnected from the time that we live in.

“I was at the private view,” sighs artist Evie O’Connor, “and the gallery was full of white men, over 40, patting themselves on the back talking about the importance of music. I wanted to scream “NO! STOP! Leave it alone! Stop dragging it back!”’

‘Natasha in the boys toilet’
by Evie O'Connor

There were only two female artists present in the entire show and every other person named was a white male. O’Connor believes it is a culture that has been passed on without losing momentum and shows no signs of slowing down.

But has Manchester begun to try and address this diversity issue in the city? 

The city showed great promise of moving on when Peter Saville was dropped as creative director in 2011 – the council decided that their whopping £72,000 contribution to Peter Saville’s £120,000 creative director salary could be better spent (the rest came from project partners from 2010, but had previously been entirely paid by the council).

An early mock-up of the Factory arts and culture complex,
credit: UGC MEN

New mayor Andy Burnham seems to have a genuine, vested interest in the inclusion of women in all industries, and he tells me that as a father of two teenage girls, he questions the culture we have historically created for women to make their way.

“I don’t want Manchester to be complacent about its musical past and trade on past glories all the time, where is the next generation coming through? Where’s the new talent that we need to promote?” he says at the launch of ‘Both Sides Now’, a programme aiming to correct the gender imbalance in the music industry in northern England.

The government has put £78million towards developing a new arts and cultural venue

“We need to make sure there is no abuse of power, and wherever there is, that it is challenged and stopped,” Burnham says, talking on the overwhelmingly male sound of Manchester. “We need to have a culture in our industry where people are supported to come through. Let’s be honest, the music industry in the past has been very male dominated and we’ve got to make sure that we don’t just extend that as a fact of life. It shouldn’t be a fact of life. We need to do more to support young women composers, songwriters, women who want to work in the technical side and every side of the industry. We need to see a real seat change, and as you all know, Manchester is a city that likes to be at the forefront of change.”

Burnham is clearly passionate, as he explains his attendence at the first meeting of the gender balance Greater Manchester combined authority, something he assures me is to celebrate.

“We are asking all ten of our districts to send a balanced team to represent them on our combined authority, because politics needs to change as much as the creative industries do.”

How the inside of the new Factory theatre on Quay Street will look
credit: UGC MEN

Manchester is, without question, committed to expanding the city as a creative hub, and the new Media City has cemented its position of having the most creative businesses outside Greater London, contributing £1.46bn to the local economy. But, any focus on women seems more of a ‘ticking the box’ PR stint.

Employment in the sector has grown at 18.21%, compared to a national average of 11%, and Burnham is determined to put more of a focus on creativity in the school curriculum as he feels the current system is backward looking, “all about tests and facts and learning to spout them back at the right time”.

The government has put £78million towards developing a new arts and cultural venue at the centre of St. John’s, which will be the new home of Manchester International Festival and will present innovative contemporary work to the public all year round showcasing everything from dance to spoken word, in the hope of becoming a genuine cultural counterweight to London. The name of this new Mecca of cultural innovation, however, is called (drumroll please) ‘Factory’!

An early mock-up of the Factory arts and culture complex 
credit: UGC MEN

“Harking back to the era of Factory Records incessantly to underpin the brand of our amazing city is a total dead end and fundamentally flawed strategy,” explains Creative Concern CEO Steve Connor. “For the under 30s, and under 25s particularly, it’s just not on their radar.”

Connor is CEO of a leading Manchester-based creative agency, an expert in branding, and does not follow suit with the opinion of many of his middle-aged peers.

“Our city brand is informed by an amazing and powerful knowledge economy; a passion for social justice, a commitment to fighting climate change as a city founded on fossil fuels, and yes, sports,” he goes on to say. “We can do a lot better than always thinking modern Manchester was created on a dance floor at the Haçienda.”