Excavating The Reno


So people. For the first time in months I’ve cleaned my flat. Smelling tea tree oil. Fresh laundry. Jiff or is it Ciff now. And all I kept thinking as I was cleaning was it was fucking marvellous to be half-caste in the Reno from 1976 to 1981. My era. I had a top top time. Even though I was married to Tom I was a total Reno character in my own right. Women’s lib. I learned to play chess with the half-caste boys. Got to the finals one year. Taken out by Philip Collins Snr. My thing was the pawns. No flash moves. Just keep moving the pawns. That, and all the other close up Reno politics I observed, and practised, gave me the cheek to ask, don’t give a fuck, and has kept this project moving forward. Coupled with my mum and dad being hell bent on education. Maths, and English, write the applications. I’m feeling privileged to be me tonight. I also want to say I have never had a problem being half-caste. But if I’d never gone in the Reno could I make that claim? In the Reno I was valued, and I valued, all the people around me who were the same. No matter what we were living. That’s what my project celebrates. Throughout this project, since 2016, when I meet people who didn’t have the safety net, they don’t make that claim. They are mildly envious of that claim. Including quite a lot of young people today. Whereas we half-caste in the Reno gradually learned together sometimes verbal, sometimes just what we were observing of each other, that it was a fucking absolute privilege to have all that diverse knowledge, wisdom, passion, heritage running around in our veins. I remember lots of us going to meet the other side of our family, Africa, Belize, Jamaica, as most of us were born here. I remember watching us embrace that. We have a shared history that we understand that is particular to that era. That is what this project celebrates. 

Linda Brogan

The Reno, a name that probably doesn’t come to mind for most when talking about iconic Manchester nightclubs of yesteryear, but at its height in the mid 1970’s, it was arguably the UK’s most prominent soul venue, and undoubtedly forms an important part of the City’s musical legacy.

Located in the Moss Side area, just south of the City centre, the venue became a sanctuary for local mixed race youth, who, at the time were subject to constant prejudice, some of which was the inevitable result of the 1930 Fletcher Report, (or as it was officially called at the time “Report on an Investigation into the Colour Problem in Liverpool and other ports”) which claimed that interracial children were prone to mental and physical defects.

The Reno’s inclusivity, along with its relaxed attitude to closing times, and the seemingly infinite selection of rare funk and soul records the resident DJ’s selected, made for an unrivalled atmosphere, and soon the club’s reputation spread, attracting punters from across the UK and sometimes further afield. Muhammad Ali, is said to have visited after his 1976 fight in Munich with Englishman Richard Dunn.

Marcus Derrick unknown whispering in the Reno Tony Bellows sat down 1976
Derek Thomas, Marcus Layne, Derek Barnes and Tony Bello in the Reno.

However, in 1986, The Reno closed its doors for the final time and was demolished a year later, seemingly destined to be all but forgotten; a mere side-note in the history of Manchester clubland. That is, until, in 2016, award-winning playwright Linda Brogan, a Moss Side resident and former Reno regular, decided to take action. Eager to preserve its memory, she began collecting memoirs from other former regulars, and started a funding campaign so the site, by then a grassy wasteland, could be excavated. The campaign was beset by hurdles and would last for a gruelling 18 months, but eventually, in late 2017, she succeeded; gaining Arts Council funding and partnering with Salford University’s Department of Applied Archaeology, who led the excavation.

Artefacts found in the dig form part of the ongoing exhibition at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, remembering and celebrating The Reno.

I recently spoke with Linda Brogan, to discover more about its rebirth.

Can you tell me about the Reno, and what it means to you?

I was a clever girl in school. I mean really clever. Particularly at writing, at projects: if they asked me to do something on the Romans I would build a chariot. My project would take up all the sugar paper on the wall. Everyone had high hopes for me: especially my Jamaican dad. Brought up in St Elizabeth with no running water, no electric, no gas. They cooked on rock stones outside. Ate from their garden. Had the most wonderful view of the Blue Mountains. Then 15, 1975, I fell in love with a young, second generation Jamaican gambler. Long story short, his other girlfriend murdered him, and I had a six months abortion. November 1977. December 1977 I went back to my gang, our little posse from our block in Cowesby St, Moss Side. Previously I wore pencil skirts and went to Genevieve’s, we were very much into David Essex. Then Susie my friend since I was 5 went down the Reno to buy chicken with a mutual grown up friend of ours. She ended up pissed cos her brother was down there, and all his mates were buying her drink while she waited for her chicken. She came back with her big adventure. The next night we went in, me, her, and her sister Mandy. The place was heaving with wall-to-wall half-caste lads. I didn’t really know any besides us before that moment. But, Susie did from the old Moss Side. They were cool as hell. We were rum as hell. We took the piss out of them all night. The next night we went back again; then the next; then the next; then the next. They become our family. Like families we didn’t all love each other. There were fuckers you couldn’t stand. But it was a real thrill to be acknowledged; as you went down the steep stairs; passed the ceiling to floor mirror; through the red lino doors. Turn left. Early days we used to stand by the ladies toilets. That was our spot. Everyone had their spot. Till we progressed further into the club. But there were certain tracks that made me, Mandy and Susie head for the dance floor. Morning Noon and Night: The Thought of Love. Peter Brown: Do You Want To Get Funky With Me. Willie Hutch: After Love is Gone. Even as I write this I can feel the excitement of pushing our way through the crowd to the dance floor. The Reno was electric. Like entering the Goodfella’s club. The same feeling as Ray Liotta has about being made. It was a badge of honour to be half-caste down there.

But as we found out as adults in our memoirs, like the story I began with, we were each harbouring a tragedy. My dad never quite forgave me for dashing his aspirations. Just like society never quite forgave the colour of our skin.

1. me excavation day 2 10-10-17.jpg
Linda Brogan October 10, 2017. Day 2 of the excavation. Taken by Karen Rangeley.

Why was it such an important place for young, mixed race people specifically?

There is a famous story that one of the Reno 12, (the Reno regulars who were most loyal to the excavation, who meet every Thursday to realise the evolving Whitworth exhibition) Barrie George, tells about this. They weren’t allowed in clubs cos of their afro, but really because the whole world was openly racist at the time. It was slightly different for girls. Clubs always want girls. So one night, according to Barry, I can’t remember where he said they were, but as a group they decided ‘no more parting for the white guys.’ They walked through them. Ended up in a big fight. Ended up in the Reno. Ended up colonising it. I went down into a perfectly made colony. As I said before they were all over the place. It was the first time I had seen so many of us on masse.

You have to understand our white mum’s had been ostracised by her family, by society. I didn’t know my mum’s sisters at her funeral. My Jamaican aunt’s had been no better. My mum and her breed pickney weren’t really accepted into the fold. My aunt Jean, white, had a drawer of sweets for my dad’s brother’s full-black kids, but not us. We were treated like 3rd class citizens. Me, Mandy, and Susie had it light. Some were taken straight from their white mum in the 40s, 50s, 60s and put into care. You can listen to their memoirs, tagged beside my weekly blog on my website.

Why do you think the Reno hasn’t been remembered in the same way as other iconic Manchester music venues like the Hacienda and the Factory?

It was in Moss Side. It was deemed notorious.  But let me tell you this: It was also a rite of passage for the cool. Tony Wilson of Factory Records held his stag do down there. So did Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash. Coronation Street stars used to come in cos of the late nights, but we considered ourselves more famous than them. Muhammed Ali came to meet his people there. His words not mine. Until now we have not had an ambassador in the arts to champion us. Not that we wanted championing. It was the past till, we dug it up. Labelled negatively. So maybe a lot of us didn’t want to own up to going. Now our community is reunited we don’t give a fuck. Chatting amongst ourselves we realise the value of the place, the vibe, the music, the friendship we gave each other. On the excavation site someone would turn up who I hadn’t seen for 40 years. It would feel like I hadn’t seen them for 40 minutes.

3. excavation Oct 2017 .jpg
Suzy Mousah, Linda Pereira, and Susie Prouse embrace at the excavation site. Taken by Karen Rangeley.

What inspired you to start the project?

I am a multi award-winning playwright.  I’ve had residencies all over the place. But I felt hemmed in from all angles by the white middle class gaze. You know the one: I have a handful of stories to tell. I am a victim, or a gun-runner, or a drug dealer. One way or another I need to be saved. In 2010 I was barred from my own rehearsal for suggesting the white middle class director was asking the secondary, white characters what they thought, but telling the primary, black characters what to think. Then I read this authentic slave narrative anthology. About 1000 pages in, Jacob D. Green apologises for stealing a horse to escape. If he were a white man escaping WW2 he would see himself as a hero. Then I saw 2 Jacob’s. One kneeling cap in hand. The other sitting cap pushed back in the Reno brandy in hand. Then I saw me kneeling to the arts too, and knew no slave narrative is authentic.

In 2000 I stopped being half-caste. Not even allowed to use the word. I’m black. So now, not only was my white mum ostracised in the 50s, but she’s ostracised again, because even I’ve forget I have one. And fourth, Frederick Douglas’ frock coat and parted hair. You can tell your story as long as you look like them, in the language that sound like them. Well I don’t sound like them. And the reason people like me don’t engage with the arts is because we don’t relate. We don’t give a fuck about the china cup and saucer or the china plate, but as the memoirs prove we give a double fuck about what we have to say when all the apologies, kneeling, frock coat, and parted hair is removed. We love our cap-pushed-back authenticity. But so do you.

How did you come up with the idea to excavate the site and how did you go about finding the funding?

The Reno was demolished in 1987. The land was barren since. I was crossing it one day not long after my epiphanies. I sat on the grass. The grass was covered in poppies. Poppies say remembrance. I was sat thinking “it is under there”. I thought of trenches. The wars we had lived. The wars in us: having one parent black and one white, roast V yam. I just thought if it is under there, then I can dig it up.

I went home and told my friend in the flat below me, Sarah. If I’d have told anyone else, they’d have said “don’t be bloody stupid”, it would never have happened. Instead she said “what a fabulous idea”. We planned it that night. The next day I went to the place I would need, on foot, and made all the relevant appointments: Manchester City Council [MCC]; Manchester Museum; the Arts Council [ACE]. Salford University Applied Archaeology picked it up the same day. Their archaeologist Sarah Cattell helped me pull the rest together. I spent months with her budgeting, even down to how many ties we would need to hold the fencing together. MCC said no 3 times. Heritage Lottery Fund said no once. ACE said no 3 times. I would cry. Feel scared. Sarah C would bolster me. Read my feedback. And ask again. Until, they said yes. And Sarah C led the Reno excavation on October the 9th 2017.

5 empty land, me and archaeologist Sarah Cattell  doing test dig 2016.jpg
Empty land. Linda Brogan and Archeologist Sarah Cattell about to do a test dig October 2016. Taken by Karen Rangeley.

Tell me about the exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, what is being shown?

Our exhibit has been evolving since March as we worked on the narrative. A metaphor for the project: changing the narrative.  What we believe. What is believed about us.  We’ve just stabilised it with dramatic photos and lighting, that economically and beautifully tell our journey so far.

  • Best if you begin with the memoirs as we did: 6 x 10 minute extracts in a set of our childhood memorabilia.“People spat in our pram”.
  • The excavation. 2 huge 5m photos: the empty land holding a 6mins excavation film, beside the resurrected Reno, circa 1971.
  • On 4 tables we map the Reno in 30 artefacts.
  • Our 2m x 2m reunited photo.
  • Our timeline: WW1 to now, above our excavated artefacts.
  • 8m montage of our Reno teen photos.
  • A memorial wall for all of us who have passed.
6b. Whitworth exhibit 10-10-19 .jpg
Planning the Excavating the Reno book launch in The Reno at the Whitworth exhibition. Taken by John Lloyd.

How do you think the project can change perceptions of the area?

I don’t care really. It has changed our perception of ourselves. We’re real proud. 2016 we told our cathartic Reno memoirs. 2017 we excavated the Reno, releasing our fountain of youth. 2018 we were finalists in 8 national awards. 2019 we are resident in the Whitworth. We have found our authentic voice. We have fabulous conversations day in day out with people who still think we are a charity, or a walking political statement. In some ways this abolitionist attitude makes now feel more racist.  But, during these conversations, as happened in the Reno, we suddenly touch their hearts with our open, apolitical, no nonsense heart. I know for certain there are all kinds of people from all walks of life, all classes, and all ages, who would most definitely come down the Reno from their time in our exhibition and the warmth they experienced with us.

What has the reaction been like from the local community thus far?

We have a private Facebook Group: Excavating the Reno Group. Inside that we talk to each other. We were saying the other day “we are all walking towards death”, what this has given us is someone to hold our hand. We are holding each others hands in a way we didn’t as kids. You know how it is: you’re cool, you’re fly, you’re shy, you never know if you can trust each other to show your real, real heart. What’s beautiful about our resurrected community is now we all know the truth: we weren’t really cool. We laugh, we play, we joke, we talk politically, we talk poetically, philosophically. We have claimed the land in the name of the Reno to build an underground heritage/arts centre, literally, with a food garden above that feeds our reinstated green excavation cabin café where we can have these conversations in person and transform them into a thriving business that helps other mixed race, or mixed up kids, or just enjoy ourselves. It is such a niche experience. Not just for us, but for our kids, our mums our dads, the people who’ve had mixed race kids. One woman walked in the other day and her open lines were: “You could have been a murderer, a prostitute, a thief, but sleep with a black man.” And when she brought him home, once pregnant, her Irish mum asked sarcastically, “Couldn’t you have found anyone blacker?” Her son was stood right beside her. This was 1994. He was well happy to meet us.

You’re currently working on a musical theatre production that will be shown at the 2021 Manchester International Festival, can you tell us about that?

Earlier in the year as MIF R&D, we worked with Gecko International Theatre Company looking for a physical language in which to tell a multi-strand story. They made us, the Reno 12, hold eye contact for 10 minutes, took us in a trance back into the Reno of our youth, made us do trust exercises. From these we distilled a movement. The one were you hold out your hand to hold someone else’s spliff in case the table is wet. The Reno is dark. Imagine that person didn’t pass that spliff to you, the horror; the let down; the cunt.

We can use this simple movement to tell all kinds of complex political chess moves we had to make to get from the loos, in our case, to the 3 top tables where our ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ Frank and Chips sat.  I want the audience to come to the Reno. We will use the music to tell the story. But I want as little words as possible. In a similar way to being in a club, and whichever way you turn your head and whatever it is that draws your attention, that is the narrative you leave with.

Screenshot 2019-10-25 at 11.19.21
Linda Brogan, Susie Prouse, and David Palmer in the Reno.

Can you pick three songs that remind you of the Reno?

Riding High: Faze 0

All the Way: The Whispers

Everybody Loves The Sunshine: L J Reynolds.

The Reno exhibition is on show at Whitworth Gallery Manchester until April 2020. In addition, on November 21st, the gallery will be hosting a party to celebrate the release of the exhibition book: Excavating the Reno, The Journey in Print, (limited to 500 copies). For more information and to RSVP, click here.

Read more about the project here.





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