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A city going through its longest year
Some of our favourite reads from 2021
Dear Millers — as 2021 draws to a close, I want to thank you all for reading The Mill this year. I’ve picked out a list of my favourite stories we’ve published in our first full year in existence, which you can find below.
A year ago, The Mill had no full-time staff, and I wrote and edited our stories from my living room. Now we have an office on St Ann’s Square, a staff of three and a network of brilliant freelance contributors, including many of the best writers in the North. We’ve been featured on Radio 4, written about in the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and profiled by great journalists in the United States, Germany, France and the Netherlands. We also won a gong at the regional Press Awards and the website Unherd very generously described The Mill as “already better than any local newspaper in Britain”, which isn’t true but speaks to the way this tiny venture has captured people’s imaginations.
Our aim is to create a new kind of local journalism — one that revives the old principles of traditional reporting (speaking to people, witnessing things with our own eyes and digging out new information) and reaches its audience by taking advantage of the new tools created by the internet (easy online subscriptions, email newsletters). On top of that, we try to tell our stories as stories rather than using the conventional news format, which was created in a previous era when the cost of printing demanded extreme brevity. A good Mill story is supposed to capture a bit more depth, nuance and humanity than sometimes shines through in regular media coverage. That’s the idea anyway — you’re the judge of whether we manage it.
We’re grateful for the large role so many of you have played in our success — not just the financial support from our more than 1000 members, but also the encouragement you’ve given us, the ideas you’ve sent us and the many times you’ve forwarded our stories and helped to spread the word about what we are doing. If you haven’t joined up as a member yet and you would like to help us reach financial viability and grow in 2022, please do come onboard now.
The front page of our special print edition, which came out this month, was headlined “A city going through its longest year”. In the edition, we tried to capture some of the stories of the pandemic, but also to reflect how many other things had happened this year, and how in so many ways life has carried on. The same goes for my selection of links below, which cover prison riots, stories about childhood genius and tales about long-lost neighbours reuniting after decades apart.
Thanks for reading and all the best for the new year.
An explosion for dignity
Who would have thought it — a legendary former editor of the MEN writing for The Mill. Well, it happened, and Michael Unger’s long read about his role in the Strangeways riot was one of the most gripping and interesting stories we’ve ever published. Read the piece.
Residents wanted 'low traffic' streets. They got a neighbourhood war
Andrea Sandor’s extraordinary account of a bitter row that divided Levenshulme is an example of a story that is very local but has broader ramifications in the city and across the country. The stunning portrait of councillor Dzidra Noor below, like all the pictures in this email, is by Dani. Read the piece.
He won a David and Goliath legal battle. But at what cost?
The story of Christopher Lees, whose family firm became locked in a never-ending fight with a multinational company, is interesting on a business level and heartbreaking on a personal one. David’s account of the story, which we published in March, is a great read. Read the story.
The Manchester dream
When he was out making a video for us about the experience of food delivery riders, Jack Brooks met a young man called Ahmed, who came from Sudan. This piece is Ahmed’s story of how he came to the UK, the racism he experienced when he arrived here, and how he’s built a life in Manchester. Read the story.
Homicides spiked in Manchester during the pandemic, new data shows
In June, we obtained a large set of data from Greater Manchester Police via a Freedom of Information request which showed how many homicides and violent incidents were happening across GM, and where. Because of the force’s notorious issues with data reporting, the data provides the first proper picture of violent crime for years, and Jacklin did some skillful work to analyse the more than 140,000 rows of data. Read the story (members only).
The Queen's Gambit: Two Manchester chess prodigies take on the world
I loved Mollie’s interview with Tarini and Thisumi Jayawarna in their house in Timperley, in which we learned what it takes to become a chess star, and what it’s like competing with your sister across the dining room table. Read the piece.
Big publishers said they were coming to the North. Have they?
This was a great read from Sophie, who scrutinished whether the big book publishing companies were actually opening the northern operations they had promised to. She followed it up later with an interesting, funny and slightly awkward interview with the CEO of Hachette, which has now opened a Manchester office. Read the story (members only).
Stanley Chow, an artist who works in the moment
Jack’s interview gave us a great sense of one of Manchester’s most famous artists, and how his experiences at school and as a young man in Manchester shaped him. The piece helps to explain how Chow has harnessed a connection with social media to create some of the most recognisable images of our moment. Read the piece.
Manchester embraced China. Then things started to get sticky
This story by Jacklin was months in the making, and it became one of our most popular stories to date. It’s the inside story of Greater Manchester’s delicate diplomacy to build relationships with Chinese companies and universities — and why some of those links are proving embarrassing. Read the piece.
'I was so proud to be the postmistress of Dukinfield'
Della Robinson was one of the subpostmasters affected by the Horizon accounting scandal, one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Dani’s piece beautifully captured how the experience of being falsely accused has damaged Robinson’s mental health and put her on edge. “She hears people banging on the front door at night, when they’re both asleep. ‘I won’t be a minute,’ she calls out, but Michael tells her there’s no one there.” Read the piece (members only).
The teenage playground of Piccadilly Gardens
Dozens of stories have been written about the gardens over the years, mostly moaning about the state of them or suggesting that one more cosmetic tweak will make all the social problems that show up there go away. Dani’s story was different — she spent some time with the teens who hang out at the gardens, and it made for a brilliant read. Read the piece.
Grooming gangs, cartels and the poisoning of Oldham's politics
For about a year, I had been thinking about covering the lurid claims about Asian cartels and grooming gangs in Oldham. And then something surprising happened: they contributed to the downfall of the council’s young leader Sean Fielding. Read the piece, and then listen to the podcast we made with Tortoise Media (below) which develops the story in interesting ways.
Life on the door
On the night that clubbing returned in Manchester, after many months of restrictions, Jack spent a night with some nightclub security staff, and wrote a really exciting piece about their work and an industry that’s in peril. Read the piece.
I went to visit the Gypsies of Bolton
For weeks, Mollie and I were wondering how we could write about the traveller community in Greater Manchester. Then she found a family on the edge of Bolton and wrote this brilliant piece, which really brings to light how negative media coverage gets the family down emotionally and excludes them from social spaces like the local pub. Read the piece.
'They come into your lives and tell you everything, and then disappear'
Dani’s interview with the family of funeral directors who have been burying the dead of Chorlton for generations was a classic Mill story and a lovely insight into an old industry. I think this portrait Dani took for the piece was my favourite Mill photo of the year. Read the piece (members story).
She was studying during the lockdown. Then she fell into a virtual world
With this feature, Jack was one of the first journalists anywhere to write about the experience of getting addicted to VR, and it’s one of the weirdest and most intriguing stories I’ve read this year. I think we can expect to read more stories like this about VR in future. Read the piece.
A quiet life on the edge of Manchester
I wrote this story after meeting a man who lives a very solitary life in a tower block on the city’s northern boundary. Other than the occasional pub trips and the visits from his brother, he is alone with his thoughts. What's it like, being in his flat all day, I asked him. "I've got that used to it," he says. "It's how life is." Read the story.
Inside the Northern Quarter’s old school pubs
Jack wrote a lovely piece about the old school boozers that have resisted the tide of change in the city centre and then used a few audio clips from his pub visits in our podcast episode about the story, which you can listen to by clicking on the player below. “Nah nah nah,” one of the drinkers told him when he explained what he was doing, “This isn’t the Northern Quarter, this is Oldham Street, mate.”