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Manchester, Bolivia: the oddest of namesakes

Jonathan Schofield reviews a Manchester Museum exhibition - AA Gill style - and gets lost in the rainforest

Written by . Published on September 20th 2010.

Manchester, Bolivia: the oddest of namesakes

IT was late 2001.

He looked like some sort of cleverly put together puppet of a softly spoken young middle-class southern lad. In fact he was probably described in ‘the counties’, as upper-middle class, a nuance which is impossible in the North of England.

He was called Damian, I think, and was impeccably neat with a slight frame and a voice that seemed trained from the cot for Radio 4.

“What’s your idea?” I said.

“I’m concerned about the demise of Polynesian peoples on low-lying islands,” he said enunciating every syllable.

“Should global warming involve an increase in sea levels then whole cultures may disappear,” he said with the look of a man riven by personal tragedy.

“Sounds serious,” I said. “So where will you go?”

“I’m going to the island of Fukayu-up. I’m going to record the experiences and lives of the women – the mothers - and how they are facing the possible extinction of their society. And you? I can tell you have a North Country accent.”

North Country? Bless him, the decayed description of a retired vicar in a Jane Austen novel. (By the way I may have made up that island name).

But I had to admire his cunning. Dying cultures – good one, ticked lots of boxes. I’d have to watch Damian.

You see, we were at war.

We were the last men standing in Radio 4’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ competition. Several thousand people had entered the annual comp giving details of why their dream journey should be selected.

The prize for the sole winner was a fully financed BBC trip to their destination. On return home, weather-worn and heroic, their travellers tales would be broadcast on Radio 4.

After two interviews already, in the home of co-sponsors the Royal Geographical Society close to Hyde Park, it had come down to this, me and Damian. There was no second prize.

“I want to go to Manchester.”

My rival looked puzzled.

“ I have an old Times Atlas of the World,” I said. “One day I found tucked away in the Bolivian rainforest, on an Amazon tributary, another Manchester. It’s the oddest, most inaccessible British city namesake in the world. The nearest road appears to be at least two hundred miles away, the only access is down a river called Rio Manuripi. I want to find out why it’s there and if the place still exists. The last record seems to be a decades old Bolivian airforce survey.”

He was getting it now.

“And of course, next year there’s the Commonwealth Games in Manchester , and that fits as well,” he said. “Are you going at this from an ecological angle or an anthropological one?”

“Neither. Timing's perfect with the Commonwealth Games and it should be a lot of fun,” I said. “I’ll take United and City footy shirts, bottles of Vimto and gallons of Holt’s beer. Me and the villagers will have a great time. Just getting there will make great radio.”

The panel consisted of Richard Bannerman, Editor of Documentaries at the BBC, a man I forget from the Royal Geographic Society, and Benedict Allen, the broadcaster and explorer who had an accent that made Damian’s look common.

When it was my turn I gave everything. I sold my dream hard. I described how I would deliver pure, bloody, broadcast magic to drip mellifluously into the ear of the charmed Radio 4 listener.

Then towards the end, on the spur of the moment, I came up with an idea. On my return I would aim to organise an exhibition in a museum in Manchester with the photographs and memorabilia I’d taken. Good one, I thought to myself.

After the interview, Damian and I sat around awkwardly for a while, until I was called back in.

“Is your time frame of three weeks long enough?” the panel asked. “Have you fully understood the perils of rainforest travel, the disorientation, the loneliness, the potential health hazards and wildlife dangers? Do you know what equipment will be needed?”

“I've already bought a hat,” I said weakly. "One with a dinky little mosquito net."

“Damian’s got it,” they said.

He went to his atoll. On radio he delivered a sober account of life on the low reef, although he didn’t seem to be concentrating on the women anymore, the cheat.

I got a couple of letters after the interview. One was from Bannerman saying ‘sorry’ but ‘the nature of your journey made it the more unpredictable of the two ideas’. Benedict Allen wrote to say he’d been rooting for me and hinted he'd been outvoted. He’d loved the exploring for exploring sake and doing it for fun – don’t give up on it, he wrote.

Of course time rolls on. I’d almost forgotten about the Bolivian trip until Manchester Museum created their 'Finding Manchester, Lost in Bolivia' exhibition this year.

This catalogues the journey of Chris Smith and Liz Peel as they kayaked to petit Manchester, a village set up in the 1880s when a Mancunian engineer Anthony Webster-James built a rubber smelting plant there, as South America became, briefly, a major source of rubber. The latter product was used extensively in the textile machinery trade.

Smith and Peel found fewer than 30 families with no electricity, no running water, no roads and only a ruined school. The families live in huts around a football pitch and they play every evening and have even heard of United. My idea would have worked a treat. And the village would have got to drink some ale. I might even have taken Eccles Cakes.

The exhibition at Manchester Museum is all right. The boat the couple travelled in makes a nice centre piece but the whole thing needs far more animation, far more in the way of description. It needs more stuff to gawp at. It’s all a bit cold, and there isn’t enough of the villagers in there, too much about the adventurers.

Not that maybe I’m the right one to judge.

You see, folks, it should have been me.

Mind you at least I've still got the hat.

Finding Manchester, lost in Bolivia is at Manchester Museum from 4 September 2010-30 January 2011. Free entry. More pictures will be posted from the exhibition on Monday.

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