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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Manchester

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Pictures from Manchester

Manchester Stadium seats 38,000 and provided a backdrop to athletic and rugby competition in the Commonwealth Games. Photo: AFP

A shopper walks in the rain past one of the shops in central Manchester.

MANCHESTER - The Commonwealth Games always impress me with the qualities that make them not the Olympics - no barbed wire, no heavily armed soldiers at gates, no Russian Mafioso lurking to fix a match in lawn bowls or netball.

So, too, have I been impressed by what Manchester is not. There were images and clichés, all implanted before I left Canada: It was a place where the Industrial Revolution was still in style; where a modern day Charles Dickens would still find gloom and desperation enough to inspire him; it was Manchester United v Manchester City; it was Coronation Street and fish-and-chip shops; it was the dirty shipping channel; it was Hamilton with an accent.

Well, the shipping channel is still filthy, and there are some nasty looking suburbs of creepy low-end housing. A swim coach told me that if I were to go out for a walk in such neighbourhoods and forgot to bring my own lead pipe, one of the locals would make sure he I'd soon be given one - upside the head. But there are dismal neighbourhoods in every town.

Manchester remains solidly working class. Mancunians were earnest in their support of the Games and volunteered by the thousands to help in the organization of the event. It became enough a part of the town's fabric that it actually was written into Coronation Street's script.

But even citizens who weren't wearing the official purple sweaters went out of their way to assist. While looking looking for Salford Quay with two other Canadians, I took the wrong route on the light rail Metrolink. There, a woman insisted on staying with us at the end of the line and told the conductor exactly where he had to let us out and when to make the announcement. The quay area itself has been blown up and rebuilt to a modern, fashionable shopping and theatre district with high-tech architecture and high prices.

Manchester did not impress me as big, formal or impersonal. It's not a metropolis of skyscrapers and neon. In fact its streets are rather dim at night, with plenty of heavy 150-year-old stone buildings, such as the town hall and Midlands Hotel squatting in downtown, no more than four stories high. It is, in its own quirky way cosmopolitan. Accents from every part of the Commonwealth can be heard on the streets. There are well-known neighbourhoods within the city - a gay village, a Chinatown and the Curry Mile or Little India. Fish and chip shops? You had to really look to find them downtown, because the city and its tastes are changing. The palate tells you the Empire has struck back.

One fish and chip place I regularly passed was actually in a Halal meat shop. Old chip shops are outnumbered by things like Turkish takeaways and curry houses - and in some cases there are combined cuisines. A treat I learned to enjoy was chips with sweet-spicy curry rather than ketchup. Tampopo, a noodle house, is one of the most popular restaurants on Albert Square near the town hall that is as old as Canada. I told my colleagues to go there one night during the Games, but there'd been such a demand that the restaurant ran out of food.

One thing Mancunians never seem to run out of, however, is booze. It's not cheap, the equivalent of $6.25 for a pint. The pubs chase customers out at 11 p.m. Larger bars stay open later on weekends, and the under-30 crowd drinks a staggering amount before last call. That's when they hit the streets still staggering. They appear to drink with real commitment in a burg that fancies itself the party town of England. Happily, I didn't meet one surly drunk in two weeks here.

Manchester is a city with ambitions. Twice it has bid for the Olympic Games and twice it lost out. The British Olympic Association will probably put forward a bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics Games - and it will be London's turn. London will benefit from Manchester's work here on the Commonwealth Games, IOC president Jacques Rogge said while I was here. But the Olympics won't come here. The airport and hotels just don't have the capacity.

That said, Manchester was the best of six Commonwealth Games I've been to, dating back to Edmonton in 1978. The Friendly Games are the right size for a place with a small-town feel. As I said about the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway - it was small enough to put your arms around.

And in Manchester, they hugged you back.

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