In the early ’80s, my comprehensive school’s corridors heaved with perrys, bovver boys and Blondie/Siouxsie/Chrissie Hynde pretenders. So at sixth form, I was startled to encounter a throng of heavy metal fans from local girls’ grammar schools; they seemed to inhabit a parallel universe where it was still 1975, and their self-confidence was so overwhelming that it was me who felt out of step.
They had curly perms, hippy skirts and fringed neck scarves and they openly discussed the merits of David Coverdale’s leather trousers without a trace of embarrassment; this behaviour was as alien to me as the prospect of someone opening a fire-door and actually letting me walk through it. (Civilised corridor ettiquette was a new and confusing concept.)
The odd shortage of metal-loving boys at college didn’t seem to worry the hippy-rock-chicks. Their sights were set on The Phoenix; here they would seek out their preferred romantic targets – UMIST students – in an unquestioned social ritual which seemed to date back to the dawn of time.
I discovered that The Phoenix was where geeky long-haired male science under-graduates habitually mingled with under-age, private-school or convent-educated girls… each group apparently providing an antidote to the other’s cultural isolation… while the abundance of weed and snakebite distracted the girls from the scarcity of David Coverdale.
For months I had no idea exactly where The Phoenix was; it became a destination of legend in my imagination. Verbal descriptions led me to envisage an illuminated golden bird, hovering over Oxford Road, sign-posting a nearby medieval torch-lit chamber, as might befit the aesthetic preferences of the clientele.
In fact I’d passed The Phoenix regularly, on the bus into town, but as there was no sign or street entrance, I had no way of knowing. The club was inside the Manchester Education Precinct, which straddles Oxford Road and runs along the length of Booth Street:
When I eventually found my way to The Phoenix, the red brick exterior, escalator and motorway service station decor were not what I expected at all; they made the allure of the place even more puzzling.
It’s also a bit random that UMIST socials were held in the Education Precinct because it was part of Manchester University, which was separate from UMIST in those days.
Manchester Education Precinct was commissioned in the mid-1960s by Manchester Corporation and Victoria (Manchester) University. (Victoria and UMIST merged in 2004 to form the University of Manchester.)
Architects Hugh Wilson & Lewis Womersley produced plans for the new campus prior to beginning work on their redesign of Hulme (now demolished) and the Arndale Centre, but the development wasn’t completed until 1974*.
The initial concept involved the pedestrianisation of Oxford Road, and ideas about the best way to develop the Oxford Road Corridor are once again being debated. The Education Precinct is the only one of Wilson & Womersley’s mega developments in Manchester which remains almost unchanged since its conception.
Phase One will involve the construction of a new hotel on the Hulme side of the Manchester Business School. This will free up MBS’s existing internal accomodation, which will allow a phased refurbishment of the interior.
The plans for the Shopping Precinct have not yet been finalised but changes are obviously afoot because the shops’ leases are not being renewed. Blackwells staff believe that the bookshop will remain where it is, but who knows what will become of the bizarre escalator and the perversely stepped access ramp? Will developers Bruntwood have the imagination to preserve these architectural gems?