There is a side entrance to Manchester’s outrageously splendid, gothic-styled Town Hall. It leads to a little courtyard which is fully visible only from within the building. I saw it once, that secret, mysterious and inward-looking place, hidden behind the public splendour of one of the structure’s three facades. The granite setts of its floor are overlooked by heavily featured, stone oriel windows with tiny, leaded lights. The walls between them are decorated with coloured, glazed mosaics and there are small, curved balconies of ornate wrought iron on the upper floors from which the occupants may spy on those who enter below. Surely this is a part of the building which its architect reserved for the indulgence of his own fantasies – his dreams of mediaeval, eastern European buildings with ancient and sinister provenances.
One evening, as darkness fell, I found myself the only person walking on the quiet street which gives access to this courtyard. A solitary car approached and turned in front of me to enter it. I hoped that, as the gate opened, I might get another glimpse of the secret courtyard, just to get an unexpected psychogeographical fix – and to reassure myself that modernity was being held at bay, that double yellow lines had not been painted around it or automatic bollards installed at the entrance. I came close to the car as it waited for the gate to open and saw that it was being driven by a chauffeur, that the passenger, sitting alone in the back seat, was wearing a chain of office around his neck and that there was a coat of arms painted on the side of the car. He turned his head to look at me and I realised I had caught the Lord Mayor in an unguarded, off-duty moment – returning, perhaps, from a function at the end of his official working day. Afterwards, I felt I should have waved or saluted or somehow acknowledged a connection between citizen and elected representative, but he looked away too quickly, perhaps embarrassed by being caught in an intimate, vacant moment. The ornate iron gate swung open and the car slid into the dimly lit courtyard.
I couldn’t really see into the courtyard, but I was struck by the ordinariness of the car, a black Volvo family saloon of indeterminate age, which would have been at home in any suburban driveway. It was completely outclassed by the magnificence, opulence and historical significance of its parking space, but I supposed that the choice of car was indicative of Manchester’s collective, egalitarian principles which proscribe any flagrant waste of citizens’ money or the undue elevation of an elected official beyond the reach of the ordinary Council Tax-payer.
I bumped into the Lord Mayor again a few weeks later. He didn’t recognise me and, to be honest, I only recognised him because he was at the next table and wearing the chain of office; and I had seen his car parked outside on my way in. This time the venue was distinctly 21st century and the architecture not at all arcane. We were at the ultra-modern “statement” building that David Liebeskind designed for the Imperial War Museum North. It is very grand and striking, both outside and in. But it sits, as if deposited whole, in the centre of a desolate, windswept, tarmac car park - stranded on an island of self-importance. It has no imposing portal or splendid, sweeping stone steps and gives no visual clue, apart from “signage”, as to where its entrance is, so there is no dignified or elegant way to enter or leave the building. Visitors park their cars outside its blank facade and scuttle around, looking for a way in. Parked thus, the black Volvo had nowhere to hide; no secret, discreet side entrance to slide into. It was just another family car (with a badge on the door) parked among a sea of others in an environment built especially for them.