The Last Days of the Bath – Part 06
DAY 10: The journey nears its end. I’ve had my first shower in two weeks that didn’t involve the kitchen sink and having to wait for the neighbours to go to sleep first. We now even have a full-length mirror which will show you the horrific sight of yourself sitting on the toilet. I’ve had a similar shock with the carefully positioned mirror in the Costa toilets, before it fell off the wall – that place is falling apart – but I’ve never sat on the Costa Coffee toilet naked. Not even once. I was planning ahead with my visits now and today was going to be a day of museums and a day of religion.
I was at a party a couple of years ago when I was told that I could pass for a Jewish boy, which was surprising news to me, but then later that year in the swirling winter mists I passed the couple of Hasidic men in their black hats sentried on the street corner and they wished me a Happy Chanukah. I think in saying “the same to you” I may have given the wrong response, in every respect, much like in that scene from The Great Escape when the Nazis wish Gordon Jackson “Good luck” in perfect English as he’s climbing onboard the train to freedom, for with these few words the Jews were immediately startled and spluttered: “You’re not Jewish?” It just goes to show.
The Manchester Jewish museum is something I’ve been past literally thousands of times in the past decade, as it’s on the main commute into town, but I’ve never once been in. The journey there takes you past the full-sized advertising board on the border of Crumpsall and Cheetham Hill which some denomination of the Jewish faith uses to get the message across. I like to think I’m pretty immune to advertising, but then somehow everything every pasted on this has remained engrained on my memory.
For many years they used to constantly advertise “Moshiach is Coming” with the sub-slogan “Let’s Get Ready”, but then after seven years of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this led me to imagine that this Moshiach character sounded like some other-worldly godhead that was being raised via chanting and incantations, and something that the rest of us should be taking pitchforks and burning torches to. (Note: The actual definition turns out to be Anointed One or Messiah.)
Something that replaced this were adverts for the children’s entertainment group “Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men” which featured a comical Jewish man flying a tiny comical plane and may have been good family entertainment, whilst observing the religious lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism, although with a name so cheesy and clichéd I felt it was something the rest of us should be taking pitchforks and burning torches to.
Last Christmas, or Hanukkah I suppose, it was advertising a giant menorah lighting, with clowns. Since when clowns become part of the festive message I do not know. On my way to the Jewish Museum I saw that this giant board now gives the expressive demand, with a somewhat nineteen-seventies tone: “Women & girls, light Shabbos & Yom Tov candles ON TIME!” I enjoy them as they’re so alien and culturally isolated from a wider world that they represent a lifestyle I can only peer into with very little understanding.
The first question I had for the people at the Jewish Museum was why there was a £3.95 entry fee since free entry to national museums had been reinstated in 2001 by the Labour government who came to power on such a pledge. Every other museum I’d been to the past fortnight from the Hat Museum to the Football Museum were all free with requests for donations, and I dropped them all a pound or two out of appreciation, although the latter of these establishments gave heavy hints about exactly how much they expected everyone to donate – and it was more than £3.95 – and the public response can be judged by looking at their collection because I’m not even sure all of that’s even genuine currency. The former synagogue – the oldest surviving one in Manchester (1874) – looks quite imposing from the outside, although it perhaps loses some gravitas as there’s a clearly visibly lingerie importer operating from just behind it. When I got off the bus there was an empty coach parked outside and so I took a walk down the road to check out the Transport Museum first which is attached to the bus depot.
The depot is an impressively large cavernous building that’s as long as it is deep. And it’s certainly very long as I walked from one end to the other. The outside is impressive architecturally, in a constant state of simultaneous decay and renovation, but I was more impressed with the flapping note attached to a bus shelter which I couldn’t help stopping by to have a read. It said:
“A decorator called Alan overcharged me work and £280 worth of material and vanished with my flat door key. Ask me about it.”
A mobile phone number was included for any local who was considering employing a dubious decorator that went under the name of just Alan.
Walking all the way to the back of the bus depot I peered into the dark hollow depths to see that it contained many a bus. I eventually found the Transport Museum which displayed a much less entertaining sign: “We’re open every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.” With this trawl throughout the bathroom construction the numbering of days has become a bit wibbly-wobbly, but Day 10 took place on a Monday. Oh, the best laid plans…
As a complete bonus on the way back, in such a bizarre place, I came upon the Irish World Heritage Centre. It wasn’t clear if it was the World’s Irish heritage centre, or why it was situated in Cheetham Hill at all, but either way any excitement was cut short as the building was boarded up with only a frayed Irish Tricolour and the inevitable Guinness signs remaining. Strike two.
On entry to the Jewish Museum it does give an odd first impression as you have to be buzzed in and then signed in. I was quite surprised, I don’t know why, but the man doing all this through a window was also manning a little shop selling museum merchandise. Perhaps I expected much more of a stolid experience that didn’t stretch to Jewish Museum rubbers and rulers. The first thing the man asked me, rather expectantly, was as to whether I was visiting for the new Chagall and Soutine French art exhibition that they were hosting? I think I disappointed him when I gave a confused face and told him I’d just come to have a look around.
Everything in the former synagogue, from restored pillars to the original stained glass windows to the arc, had helpful signs explaining their significance and there were helpful displays of items pertinent to the Jewish faith. One of these that I found the most interesting, not shying away from the difficult topic of the second world war, was a prayer scroll recovered from the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s personal collection in Prague as it was said he was planning his own museum on the Relics of a Defunct Culture. Even though these scrolls are the same, to my understanding, Eichmann’s collection had amassed 1564 of them. One thinks the man doth protest too much.
Hoping to just tag on the back of one of the programmed guided tours I loitered in the lobby at the appointed time overhearing the chatter about the recent school visit who’d dropped an impressive eighty pounds in the little shop. I interrupted to ask if the tour was still on to be told that the volunteer guide hadn’t turned up, which wasn’t a problem for me as I was still the only person waiting. They told me that they could phone through for one of the researchers to come up and do it. I told them it didn’t matter, as they were grappling with the phone, and this was when they informed me that as I’d paid for a tour I was sure as hell going to get one. Whether I liked it or not, it seemed.
Fortunately a party of two older couples turned up in time, on a return visit to Manchester after many years, so I didn’t have to take the full apologetic brunt in forcing some researcher away from their lunch. Although when “Alex” turned out to be an attractive brunette, and not a pimply youth pale from a researcher’s life imprisoned in some dusty windowless room, I really started regretting the cheese and raw onion baguette I’d picked up en route from the Transport museum.
Distracting Alex from her lunch, or not, we definitely got our money’s worth with the tour that took place around the upper balcony of the synagogue where displays re-enacted the lives of four real people which together built up a picture of life in the area a hundred years ago. Apparently many of the Jewish population stopped in Manchester on their way to America. Their kids must be so disappointed. One of the displays featured a period table set for the Sabbath dinner when Alex said:
“I know you’ll know all this, but I’ll just explain…”
She was talking to the two older couples. She meant to me, for my benefit. Me, the none-Jewish one. It was apparent that I’d lost ALL of my would-be Jewish quotient since the Great Escape incident! Oy vey.
Wondering around afterwards I found an extraordinary item on the balcony I’d missed when the tour went past: the circumcision chair. Now I’ve never been invited to a circumcision, and part of me never hopes I never will, but apparently this chair is used at every ceremony and after the baby has vacated it the flickering ghost of Elijah appears to be present at each and every bris.
One of the older Jewish ladies from the tour caught up with me and shrieked when she saw what the sign said it was.
“I imagined it’d be much more of a surprise to me than it would be to you,” I told her.
She said that it was very different in Algeria, where she’d been living, as they’re circumcised there when they’re eight years olds, and she’d seem them:
“Little boys sat in a row. All of them dressed like princes. All of them looking very scared.”
And that, as well as a French art exhibition, was the Jewish Museum. Very informative and well worth the visit although to get out you have to be buzzed out a different door than the one you came in and so I forgot to sign out. They probably think I’m still there.
Giving up on waiting for a bus into town I walked to Manchester Cathedral. I’d been to it on many occasions, but oddly I can’t remember ever going in. One thing I knew for sure that it wouldn’t be shut, having been open since the fifteenth century, and so I was more than slightly taken aback to find it was closed for redevelopment and that a modern green heating system was being installed. Strike three.
The outside was swarming with foreign-looking visitors taking pictures of the gargoyles and the carved Kings and Queens. I felt, as the local, that I should be offering up some sort of apology as each and every one was turned away. I didn’t, instead I went off to find the Police Museum.
My uncle took me to the Police Museum when I was a child, and I’d looked at a map and so I knew where it was roughly, but I spent half an walking down back streets, past old likely-looking warehouse buildings, and asking people on building sites, but all to no avail. I began to wonder if the place still existed. I would’ve asked a policeman, but there’s never one when you need them, is there?
The search, and the upbeat day, then came to a shuddering end when I found a dead dog floating in the canal. I’ve never seen a dead dog before, why would I? It was captivating as it just hung there in the water. It looked young, it had a collar on, but I’ll spare you the more gruesome details of what some appalled university girls pointed out to me.
I could have carried on searching for the Police Museum, but then finding a dead dog floating in a canal really takes the shine off your day.
Walking back into the city centre I suddenly remembered where all the policemen were: they were guarding the Prime Minister at the Conservative party conference. Wandering along to have a look I found – on our side of the fence – a circus of people dressed as bees and a preacher stood on a box with speaker. An out of town policeman was able to show me exactly where the museum was, with a map, and I asked him did they not mind the hullabaloo? He told me, slightly world weary, that it was their right to perform all this carry on.
Rushing to the Police Museum, I had been one street out, I eventually found it to be confronted with:
Open every Tuesday. Last admission at 3 pm.
It just shows: the Jewish Museum might be charging, but these days it seems that you only get what you pay for.