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'Oh my god, Tony Wilson has died'
The death of Mr Manchester, 13 years on
In the hours after Tony Wilson died, when his children had left the Christie hospital and gone home, word started to spread through the city. His teenage daughter Izzy got a few stray texts from people, sent to her by mistake. “Oh my god, Tony Wilson has died” one of them said. “You could feel the ripple of the news crossing Manchester,” she says. “It was strange.”
By the late evening, the country knew. “Tony Wilson, the man who arguably started the cultural regeneration of Manchester with the legendary Haçienda club and Factory Records, has died tonight at the age of 57,” the Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark told viewers. Paying tribute, the music critic Paul Morley described Wilson as “this weird metaphysical mayor of Manchester” - adding that only now that he had died “can we begin to work out who the hell and what the hell he actually was.”
The people who had the best claim to know who the hell Wilson was - or perhaps had the guest chance of guessing - turned up one by one at his hospital room in the days before his death. “The old Manchester crew”, as Izzy describes them, including his Factory co-founder Alan Erasmus and Bruce Mitchell and Vini Reilly from the Durutti Column. “I think the word got out that they needed to come and say goodbye,” she says.
Wilson was a deeply sentimental man who could be easily moved to tears, but he wasn’t one to talk about “big emotions.” There would have been no highly charged goodbyes, at least from him. “There will have been a raised eyebrow and a 'See you soon, Tone', but there were no big formal displays of emotion,” she says. “He'd have done his whole 'Oh fuck off, fuck off' but been very moved on the inside.”
The club owner Ross Mackenzie, one of Wilson’s best friends, visited the hospital on the morning he died. He remembers his friend being in good spirits, and jokingly quoting the Russian novelist and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn while emptying a urine bottle. But by this point, after his re-admission to hospital, Wilson’s cancer was in its final stages. “I knew I was saying goodbye,” says Mackenzie, “and he knew it was goodbye.”
Mackenzie had come to Manchester in the late 80s as a student, drawn to the city by the spell of music and clubbing and cultural momentum Wilson was right in the middle of conjuring. “It was all going off in this city and it all seemed to centre around Tony,” Mackenzie told The Mill. “He was this mythical, god-like figure. There's this guy driving around Manchester in his Jaguar saying Manchester was the best place in the world. He made you feel like you were living at the centre of the universe.” The two men got to know each other after the demise of the Haçienda, when Wilson was still a regular at music nights in the city. “I miss him terribly,” Mackenzie says, trailing off. “Thirteen years…”
It was thirteen years ago this week that Tony Wilson died. Lots has changed in the city since then. Some things haven’t, including the fascination with the man dubbed Mr Manchester, and the feeling on the part of lots of people - most of them not his friends or family - that he was part of their lives too. Among the tributes sent out this week you can find hundreds of tweets testifying to that desire to be part of the Tony Wilson story. People who say Wilson got their charity off the ground. People who worked in record shops that he frequented. People who live near his dark, glinting gravestone in Chorlton, inscribed with an epitaph from The Manchester Man by Isabella Banks: “Mutability is the epitaph of worlds / Change alone is changeless / People drop out of the history of a life as of a land though their work or their B remains.”
I first met Izzy in Fresher’s Week at university. We were in the same college, the one Tony had gone to in the late 60s, and where she had followed him a year after his death. As we became friends, she talked a lot about her dad and the things he had done, sitting in my room on frigid Cambridge nights. She talked about his politics and his relationships and how he loved to fill up the rooms in his house with freshly cut flowers.
It was her dad’s death which had led her to Cambridge. She had been set on studying medicine in London, where the parties are much better. But after he died, she felt she was being called to Jesus College, Cambridge - the place where Tony Wilson the pop intellectual was born. The place where Wilson learned the Chaucer and Shakespeare and mystical philosophy that he would shoe-horn into conversations with friends and television viewers for the rest of his life, daring them to hate him, as many chose to do.
In the past couple of years, since my own dad died, I’ve come to understand some of the things Izzy did at that time. The way she used to post pictures of her dad on Facebook, out of the blue. The way she wanted to tell me about him in detail - almost to invoke him into the room. The sense of sadness that she couldn’t tell him about her achievements, including that she had won a place at his old college. The days of deep despair you feel when a parent dies - the crushing finality and irreversibility of it. The cruelty of losing the person who has always been the final bulwark against pain and loss.
Peter Saville, the celebrity graphic designer who made his name with the covers of some of Factory’s biggest records, says there are only two people of whom he keeps a memento near to him in his daily life. His mum, and Tony Wilson. One of the special entry cards he made for Wilson’s funeral - little fluorescent yellow Perspex passes the size of credit cards - sits next to Saville’s desk. “He was fundamentally important to my life,” he told me this week.
The two had a strained relationship through the Factory years, after meeting in 1978 when Saville was finishing his art degree. “That was the beginning of a relationship that was going to be the most significant relationship in determining what my life would be,” he says. “It’s a good job we don't know these things when they happen. If someone had said 'Go and see Tony, it will make your life' I probably would have been too overwhelmed to go.”
For Saville, Wilson’s championing of Manchester had a degree of delusion to it. “Tony wanted Manchester to be something that socio-political history wouldn't allow it to be again,” he says. “It was the most important city in the world. You can't go back.” But Saville knows that delusion was an important part of the Wilson mix. It didn’t matter if the city’s new pitch to the world was part bluff, and part bullshit. It was the shouting about it that mattered. Just like with Factory, everything followed from Wilson’s confidence in the importance of the project at hand. His “crazy crazy confidence” as Mackenzie describes it.
Later, when Factory had blown up in financial disaster and the Haçienda had closed, and their tense professional entanglement was over, Saville and Wilson realised they liked spending time together, meeting for dinners at the Groucho Club in London. “We were friends - we liked each other,” Saville says. “Maybe we loved each other.” After seeing Wilson for the last time at the hospital, Saville got a text from his friend’s former partner Yvette Livesey, asking if he had a final message. “Thank you” he asked her to say. “Tony says thank you” the message came back.
Izzy briefly moved in with her dad as his illness got worse, while she was doing her AS levels. “I was very sad, so I was partying all night and getting ready for school in the morning,” she told me. Wilson had rekindled his friendship with her mother Hilary and his other ex-wife Lindsay during his illness, who came over to visit him. Old friends cooked for him, and he made up with people he had fallen out with years ago. His pals had clubbed together to fund his treatment with a drug that wasn’t available on the NHS.
Only when he was brought back into hospital in August was it obvious that the drug wouldn’t save him. “We got a phone call, early in the morning to say he's really really sick, you should come now,” says Izzy. That morning, Wilson’s childhood friend Sean Boylan arrived from Ireland to say goodbye. “Dad seemed to hold on for him,” she says. “I think he arrived in the morning and dad died in the afternoon.” When Wilson slipped away, he had Izzy holding one hand, and his son Oli holding the other.
In the days that followed, people began leaving tributes and flowers outside the Haçienda, and for weeks the family received letters to their home, telling them how Wilson had touched their lives. One woman wrote about seeing Wilson dropping Izzy off at nursery school, who was screaming her head off and wouldn’t stop crying. Wilson told her to go in and then walked around the corner, pretending to leave, before walking back to see if she was ok. “That was just the nicest thing that anyone had ever written,” Izzy told me. “What a lovely story of just a normal dad.”
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