The stories of 2023
Let’s have a good old reminisce
Dear Millers — Merry Christmas from the whole Mill team. We hope you’re having a great festive break. You may be reading this in a darkened broom cupboard or garden shed as you hide from your drunk (or simply very irritating) family members. Perhaps you are lucky and you have had a quieter Christmas or you don’t celebrate Christmas at all and you’re in contemplative mood, ready to look back on the year we’ve just been through.
Wherever you find yourself, we crafted an edition that will give you some diversion and food for thought. It’s a summary of our favourite stories of this year — a festive feast of scoops, profiles, investigations and long reads about so many people and facets of life in Greater Manchester. If your method of escaping your family is by taking a walk, we also recorded a podcast about our favourite stories this year — just hit this link, or the Spotify player below.
When we sat down together last week, we picked out ten highlights. But there were lots that didn’t make the list, like our feature about the secret flights of monkeys being flown into Manchester Airport, destined for controversial animal testing; our investigation into the hospitality employees not being paid for their work; or the hospitality employees (this time at Escape to Freight Island) who suddenly found out they were being let go; or our story about Michaela Ali, the pregnant health worker who had to abandon her rat-infested flat to live in hotels across the city. Not that it’s all been hard-nosed investigation: there was Mollie’s piece about women calling out their exes and that time we made Jack go speed-dating.
We’ve also had the joy of discovering many new writers this year, like Ella Robinson, Libby Elliott and Maisie Outhart, who wrote an outstanding exploration of Manchester student life during the pandemic; data guru James Gilmour, whose most recent story was about the long-forgotten dream of a Manchester underground network; George Francis Lee, who got a lot of people talking with his essay about Lancashire identity and why many people will never identify with Greater Manchester. Ophira Gottlieb is one of our new stars and has written beautiful theatre reviews for us as well as scoring a place in the top 10 listed below.
In-house historian Thomas Mcgrath wrote a fascinating piece about “Manchester’s misers”; Phil Griffin filed great stories about trips with his dad to an abattoir in Newton Heath and the past and future of Levenshulme; And in one of our most popular reads this year, former council leader Sean Fielding attempted to answer the question: “Why is your cash-strapped local council buying your failing local shopping centre?”
But without further ado, here are the stories that Joshi, Mollie and Jack picked out to discuss on the podcast last week.
Millions of pounds a year, queues around the block and a customer base gone neurotic: what's in Manchester's secret sauce? — Jack Dulhanty and Sophie Atkinson
Jack and Sophie’s immersive story about a strange success story in Burnage has since become our most popular story of all time. “You've got to pay respects to Miami's. Know what I mean?” Bilal says when we find him in the queue for Miami Crispy, a chicken shop in Burnage. “There's a reason why there's so many people waiting. It's got something that nobody else has got.” And what has it got, exactly? A spicy sauce. One that other shops would be willing to pay six-figures for. We spoke to the consultants (yes, there are consultants), viral YouTubers and chicken shop lifers about what makes Manchester’s spicy chicken burger so popular.
In August, an anonymous source reached out to us, alleging that Siobhan Clare O’Donnell, the founder of Northern Fashion Week, owed thousands of pounds to the staff and suppliers who worked on her glamorous event in Manchester Central. Were the claims true? “That email, it actually broke my heart,” Laurie, one of Siobhan’s staff members, said via Zoom. “That’s why I was so like, I need to get on this call today. Because it’s inaccurate, it’s not true.” In one of the many twists in this story, Laurie then got back in touch, telling us she had now resigned from Northern Fashion Week and was actually owed £2,300 in unpaid wages. Why did she lie? “Siobhan asked me to just hop on this call and say you’d been paid on time,” Laurie said, audibly in tears. “And it was very apparent if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be paid at all.”
Sink the pink: whistling down our most underrated tram line — Ophira Gottlieb
In recent years, Lancashire’s industrial-era dialect poetry has sadly been condemned to the same fate as its mills — “that of being largely ignored by the populace and entirely neglected by the council”. In this piece, Ophira takes a journey from Rochdale to Manchester to take time to observe her surroundings and feel closer to Lancashire’s industrial past. “We must take stock from the dialect poets and face life head on, with love and joy for the present no matter how difficult it may be,” she writes. “We must keep trundling on like the tram with unwavering resilience, while still remembering to enjoy the meandering, scenic route through life, and to stop now and again to enjoy the view.”
The billion pound Manchester question: Who has benefited from the city’s breakneck growth? — Daniel Timms
There’s a common refrain about Manchester: that its remarkable economic growth in recent has mostly benefited property developers and the international pension funds that bankroll them, leaving little for — or even harming — ordinary Mancunians. But is it true? And has the rapid homebuilding in the city centre pushed up prices and pushed out poorer residents? In a piece that has already become influential — cited in lectures and shared among policy makers — our data reporter Daniel digs into the economic data to make a first stab at answering one of this city’s most pressing questions. It’s a question we are going to return to with a live event in 2024.
It's vast, it's beautiful — but does anyone know what Manchester's £210m venue is actually for? — Sophie Atkinson
Sophie’s essay takes us inside the opening night of Manchester International Festival at Aviva Studios, the colossal £210 million venue that opened on the Irwell this year. There’s plenty of confusion and criticism in the piece, but it ends on a more hopeful note. “At the start of the week, I knew virtually nothing about this venue, and was left entirely cold by the prospect of it,” she writes. “Now, having visited, having spoken to the people behind it, read reams and reams about it, I’m excited — even cautiously optimistic.”
The social experiment: Our student life in the pandemic — Libby Elliott, Maisie Outhart and Ella Robinson
In a decaying 1980s building in Fallowfield, students were living through an extraordinary time. They had started studying at the University of Manchester during the height of the pandemic, placed into flats with other 18 year olds who were making their own rules on how to live. The result was a bizarre “high school stratification of cool groups” where kissing someone at a private party could feel “like a violent act” and “there was a sense that everything you were doing was being watched and noted by others”. As the writers put it: “Really, it was a social experiment.”
By most measures, New Islington is an extraordinary success story — a brand new neighbourhood that created 3,400 new homes and attracts visitors from cities around the world who come to learn about inner-city regeneration. So why do some of the people who live on the edge of it, residents who identify as “real Ancoats” folk, feel so ambivalent about it? This long read asks how well the “New Manchester” is integrating with the old. “I found this refreshingly balanced, from all involved and spoken to,” one person tweeted after it was published. “And even in the comments.”
The sober guy at the rave: How Sacha Lord remade Manchester’s nightlife in his own image — Jack Dulhanty
Ever since Sacha Lord shot to prominence during the pandemic as an ever-present media spokesperson for the hospitality sector, Jack wanted to find out more about him. How did a man with no interest in electronic music build a vast clubbing empire, attracting an astonishing 300,000 clubbers during its winter season? And who had to lose for him to win? This profile involved dozens of interviews and several meetings with Lord himself, who took a close interest in what people were saying about him. “‘Okay what about this,’ he asked, back at his office in May. He held his hands out as if expressing the length of a rat he had just seen scurry by. ‘Say this is 100% of the people you have spoken to, what percentage is negative?’”
How to crash a Chanel party — Mollie Simpson
After her invite to the exclusive afterparty of Chanel’s Métiers d'Art show got tragically lost in the post, never to be seen again, Mollie decided to take matters into her own hands. A little after 10pm on a rainy Thursday night, she made it inside the party wearing a knockoff Skims dress and holding half a glass of red wine to soothe her nerves. In this immersive story, she takes you inside the biggest fashion event in Manchester and her attempts to resist the “collective hysteria” as celebrity spotters flocked to city centre hotels and restaurants to try to spot models and film stars.
The butcher of Moss Side — Jack Dulhanty
We spent some time with Aki Khan, a butcher in Moss Side, observing the great care he takes in preparing mutton to sell to local restaurants and cafes, and hearing how his success drew suspicion from Greater Manchester Police. “At a time when the news from any other media outlet makes me cry you give me a story which also makes me cry - but because of its humanity rather than its absence,” wrote Mill member Anne McCulloch.
A huge thank you again to our readers, whose insight and support made these stories possible. We look forward to seeing you in 2024.
The Mill Team