Back in 1980 I remember being at Ingestre Hall, a stately home used by school groups for residential arts courses, when ‘Cars’ by Gary Numan replaced Cliff Richard at the Number One spot. The lyric to Numan’s song included the line Here in my car, I can lock all my doors, I feel safest of all, and I was reminded of this when I went to the Cornerhouse cinema to see the new Cronenberg movie, ‘Cosmopolis’. This bleak opus depicts a wealthy financier travelling across a major US city in his stretch limousine, a monstrous vehicle seething with technology and comfort which conveys him smoothly past riot scenes towards the old barber shop.
The extreme wealth of characters such as Eric Packer, Patrick Bateman and Gordon Gekko enables writers to achieve something akin to magic; the laws of nature which govern the lives of ordinary mortals can be overcome by skilful deployment of money, with these plutocrats able to influence events thousands of miles away by pressing a few buttons…
But three days previously, I had been to the same cinema to watch a very different film; A Royal Affair. This historical costume drama covered the life of Caroline Mathilde, wife of Christian VII, her romantic liaisons with his court physician, and the spread of enlightenment ideas through 18th Century Denmark. This film was full of tenderness and drama – unlike Cosmopolis, which seemed utterly harsh and soulless. As far as Eric Packer is concerned, poverty is a plague which must be confined to the masses who inhabit the wasteland outside his car, while Dr Streuensee sees the real plague in Denmark as being a medical problem which can be treated using science.
Meanwhile, more industrial ruins: on my journey to Eccles I pass two buildings, one being the disused Colgate-Palmolive factory, the other a gleaming office block which administers benefit payments to Manchester’s vast army of unemployed adults. The abandoned factory was supposed to be reborn as a leisure complex called the ‘Soapworks’, and in a flush of enthusiasm the building was stripped of its chemical engineering pipework and mixing vessels and chillers and boilers and storage tanks. Now it stands empty and silent; in August, the broken windows watch the glorious sunsets over Salford, where church spires form an elegant parade of silhouettes against the amber-salmon serenade of dying flames.
The office block, meanwhile, is alive and busy; hundreds of civil servants in expensive suits march up and down the stairs and corridors, busy on their cellphones, approving or postponing or condemning the distribution of millions of pounds to the jobless and disabled. It is interesting to compare these two buildings, and wonder which of them is truly ruined….