Lucy Tomlinson meets a city's people united in bravery, brews and blue tentacles

Another day, another terrible news story makes your heart bleed. Or another piece of political manoeuvring achieves absolutely nothing except to make neighbours fall out and put people at odds. It’s enough to make shrivelled cynics of us all. 

Normally I’m one of those crusty sceptics with a crumpled-up old fag packet for a heart. When I first heard that the theme for Manchester Day was 'Abracadabra', I didn’t think it was very 'Manchester' at all, at least, not compared to last year’s science theme, which picked up on the city's history of industry and innovation.

Since then, however, I’ve become convinced it’s the most Manchester motif of them all.

Last weekend I went to the Manchester Day preparations at Upper Campfield market hall in Castlefield to have what is professionally known as ‘a nosy’. That was the first piece of magic. Manchester Day is of course under the auspices of Manchester City Council and as much as we journos venerate that infallible institution, it does tend to be a little guarded around us.

Here instead was so much friendliness and openness it was practically pouring out of the door. This has a lot to do with the organisers, Walk the Plank, the arts production company that has been running Manchester Day for the last seven years. They are notably unstuffy folks who see their job as guiding and helping the artists and volunteers on their ‘makes’ (that’s artspeak for the amazing projects I saw coming together).

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Manchester Day WOW workshop at Upper Campfield market hall in Castlefield

Which brings me to the magic of creation. Manchester is of course an enormously creative city which draws inventive people from all over. Each Manchester Day project is led by a professional artist with volunteers: together they are rustling up a giant unicorn (very on trend) and a dragon surrounded by enchanted woodland creatures; a phoenix rising accompanied by dancing crows, a snake-haired Medusa and Glinda the Good Witch all obey the magical theme.

Some makes, however, have a more oblique interpretation: I met the ladies from the Emily Pankhurst Centre telling jokes and working on their suffragette-themed float which will represent the magic of women’s rights.

Or what about the magic of transformation? I’m not talking about frogs into princes but instead rags and feathers and old bikes altered through creative alchemy into mystical creatures. Recycling and sustainability is a big thing for Walk the Plank. One corner of the warehouse is full of art materials that one of the artists explained to me would get messier and wilder over time as groups returned materials they didn’t need and foraged for different ones. In keeping with Walk the Plank’s ethos, loads of the materials are recycled from other projects and even last year’s parade, and include old prams and bicycles, papier-mache heads (including 2016’s Frankenstein), strips of colourful fabrics and a treasure trove of shiny, glittery things.

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Artists and volunteers work on their 'makes'

The magic that this year’s celebration is tapping into has been in the air a lot recently

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A snake-haired Medusa obeys the magical theme

Then there is the magic of generosity. Many of the volunteers I met came along because they simply wanted to help. A lovely mother and daughter team were sat together deftly ripping pieces of red fabric. They claimed to be totally uncreative but “good at following instructions". They had seen the call for volunteers on Twitter and had come down to help out in whatever way they could. Or how about Ines, a Portugese student who was helping over in the enchanted glade? She has to be back home by the time Manchester Day kicks off but she wanted to get involved despite not being able to see the fruits of all her hard work on the big day.

Then there was Simona, who works for Manchester City Council, not as a press person or in Public Relations but in the Benefits Service. She volunteered when she read about Manchester Day on the council internal bulletin, all in her own free time. You should probably also know she is a mistress in the dark arts of the sewing machine. As I sat down to chat with one of the nicest, friendliest people you could hope to meet, she was deftly whizzing up long strips of blue fabric which could have been many things, though tentacles sprung to mind.

Manchester Day 2017 - what you need to know:

- Manchester Day takes place on Sunday 18 June.

- From 12-6pm the city's squares (Albert Square, St Ann's Square, Cathedral Gardens) will offer up a cornucopia of pleasures; from Mr Wilson's Second Liners brass band (these guys are ace) to Ghanian dancers and Mr Diablo's sideshow, as well as mouthwatering street food from Spain, Poland the Caribbean and more...

- The parade will set off from Liverpool Road in Castlefield from 1pm, making its way up Deansgate to Peter Street, then over to Albert Square, back onto Deansgate and ending in Exchange Square around 2.30pm.

- The grand Manchester Day finale takes place in Exchange Square from 5.20pm.

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This up cycling corner would only get 'messier and wilder' over time
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Simona: a mistress in the dark arts of the sewing machine

And there is the magic of togetherness. There was the Juice Samba Group who had come all the way from sunny Burnley. As the volunteers painted and glued mirrored discs to make headbands and wristlets – all the better to catch the light as they drum their way along the parade route - they explained how three different groups of samba drummers are coming together to play despite having barely practised together; trusting that the rhythm will guide them. I think this year seeing so many groups of people, not just the samba drummers, walking hand in hand, marching to the same beat, will have a deeper resonance than ever.

Or sometimes the magic blurs into surrealism. Take for example a group of volunteers concentrating very seriously on oversized pizzas and pasta shapes while receiving instructions on how best to twirl them and interact with the crowd. I even heard rumours of spaghetti trees and a spag bolympics, treading the fine line between magical and farcical.

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Some final adjustments on Liverpool Road - the parade's starting point in Castlefield
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Tens of thousands attend the annual Manchester Day parade

Even amongst all this there was still time for some practicalities. There was a discussion of how the various creatures will make it out of the warehouse and into the streets, and as for any of the more mundane vehicles, there are height restrictions to think about (one make will even have to have its head reattached once it’s out the door). The volunteers slurped gallons of very down-to-earth tea and occasionally ran out of mugs. This is Manchester magic after all - it runs on brews.

The final magic is the magic of memory. Manchester is not a city that forgets either its achievements or its tragedies. The magic that this year’s celebration is tapping into has been in the air a lot recently. Aptly, the parade will begin with a remembrance of the victims of the Manchester attack and the emergency services who responded so bravely, as well as the kindness and generosity of the people of Manchester and the whole country. It’s a solemn magic but one we need to exercise, even as the flowers fade and the memes disappear, our hearts are made of stronger stuff.

So, Manchester: creativity, generosity, unity, surrealism and never forgetting. Come and celebrate it all.

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