Two weeks ago there was an unusual event: the pavements in our vicinity were jet-washed. The following week there was another: a team of litter-pickers got to work on the streets. Pleased but puzzled, I asked myself some questions. Had the city council finally noticed that the pavements had begun to smell? Had it finally acknowledged that human operatives are needed to reach the nooks and crannies where the sweeping machines can't reach? Where had it found the money to pay for enhanced cleaning at a time when hand-wringing austerity is the default? Eventually I found my answers by joining the dots: the Labour Party's annual national conference was about to open in the city and our Labour Party-dominated council would be keen to create a good impression.
Now the conference is over, the litter-pickers have disappeared and we, the residents, have to cope (without counselling) with dashed expectations. But we all must learn to manage our expectations if we are to avoid either being disappointed or falling into a slough of bitter cynicism. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival - currently being staged - is a case in point. Given that there are no food specialities associated with the city, it should be no surprise that the stalls offer only take-away meals - pizzas, hot-dogs, burgers and suchlike - none of which is special. On the other hand, because Manchester still has several good, family-owned brewers, the beers are worthy of celebration. Expect, therefore, no hand-rolled cheeses to take home but rather a few beakers of decent ale to wash down the street-food of your choice and you will not be disappointed. Consider also that if progress is to be made towards excellence, any festival is better than no festival. Let's think of it as "Work In Progress" - WIP.
To live here is to experience full-on the implications of WIP. In this formerly industrial city, there is a will to establish a new economic engine and much is being done to that end: knowledge-based businesses are being encouraged; buildings are being replaced or recycled; infrastructure and transport systems are being modified to accommodate changing demographics; plans for the long term are being drawn up and collaboration with the wider region is being discussed. Even so, there are projects recently completed which already look too modest in ambition and may soon have to be demolished. (It's as well that their architectural pedigree is too mediocre to mourn.)
One of the more ambitious schemes, stalled by the 2008 debacle, is the reclamation of a large area of inner-city brown-field formerly occupied by Victorian industries and criss-crossed by derelict canals and basins. Some housing clusters were completed, others are now being re-started, but the area has a pronounced WIP feel about it. I arrived there by tram the other day and alighted, along with one other passenger, at the hopefully-positioned station (called New Islington) which may, one day, have a cafe, shop and cycle-parking facilities but, for the time being, remains a desolate outpost alongside a big, blind block of flats on one side and un-reclaimed ground on the other.
"Do you know where the Albert Hotel is?" asked the other passenger. She was a middle-aged woman with a suitcase. "Am I in the right place? It's a bit desolate around here."
"It's back on the main road: about two hundred metres," I said, pointing to a new building on the edge of the derelict land.
"Oh dear," she said. "I don't fancy walking back here later this evening."
I tried to reassure her but she remained visibly uneasy as she set off. If all goes to plan this may be a pleasant, thriving residential area someday. Meanwhile, it's WIP City.