07 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #5: Rags to Bitches

A couple of posts ago, I touched on Manchester’s current paper art, and as we head south out of town towards Fallowfield, let’s peek inside the gorgeous Whitworth Art Gallery, where there’s an outstanding archive of wallpaper. There is also a number of Wardle Pattern Books containing more than 1,700 pages of patterns for fabric by the designer associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris and Liberty.

A little further along Europe’s busiest bus route is the vast Platt Fields Park, overlooked by the Modernist beauty that is the Toast Rack (complete with Fried Egg) and the 1930s Art Deco delight that is Appleby Lodge, designed by the same architect as the soon-to-be-defunct Cornerhouse and once home to Sir John Barbirolli, conductor of the Halle Orchestra (and honoured with a blue plaque – gosh, perhaps I am a plaque collector, after all!).

Platt Fields is also home to the Gallery of Costume, reopened in 2010 after a complete overhaul, and already mentioned on A Wondrous Place by Pete Collins. On top of a well-curated permanent collection of outfits and accessories through the eras, there is a button exhibition (no good for the koumpounophobists among you, I’m afraid), a timeline contextualising the Gallery by reminding us of Manchester’s importance in textile manufacture, and changing shows; right now, dresses made of paper.

“A good specimen is one which is not only in sound condition and of nice quality, but which embodies the features of its period in an entirely representative way” – fashion writer Doris Langley Moore on collecting
There are get-ups that belonged to the likes of Jerry Hall and Audrey Hepburn – in the latter’s case, a 1967 fuchsia button-through belted frock designed for the film star and fashion icon by Givenchy. There are a few writer connections, too. There’s a trademark Roberto Cavalli leopard-print number worn by Julia Roitfeld, daughter of Carine, editor of Paris Vogue until last year. There’s a wool suit owned by art and fashion historian and writer – and Lord Byron scholar – Doris Langley Moore, who had so many clothes, she kept them in her large house while she herself had to move to a small flat. There’s an evening dress created in the mid-1930s by Edward Molyneux, who mingled in the same circles as Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward, no less. (By the way, the title of this post references a former vintage shop in the Northern Quarter; it’s not a reflection on the people mentioned!)  The building, which itself is most pleasant – a Grade 2 listed Georgian manor – also houses a comprehensive fashion journal library containing glossy magazines and periodicals dating back more than 100 years. Some are displayed alongside the actual garments shown in the spreads, while the complete collection is available to view by appointment. As a former fashion magazine journo, I’m making that appointment. But for now, I’m not far from home, so I’m off to kick back and have a well-deserved pre-dinner sherry.  

Thank you for reading! I hope this guide to Manchester’s literature and libraries has been as interesting for you to digest as it has been for me to put together, and I hope it might inspire you to pop a poetry night in your diary or pick up a book by a Manchester-based author. Obviously it’s not comprehensive, and there are plenty of people and places I’ve not had chance to mention (how about alternative depositories such as the virtual Rainy City Stories, for example, or the Salford Zine Library, where fellow A Wondrous Place contributor Natalie Bradbury’s The Shrieking Violet is one of the tomes?), but perhaps it can be a starting point. Thank you, too, to the people who have answered my questions and provided photographs (particularly Gareth Hacking for his original images of the Portico Library, more of which can be seen on Creative Tourist). Finally, a big thank you to Chris Meads for giving me the opportunity to explore my city further – it really is a wondrous place!

06 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #4: Magic Buzzes

There seems to be no getting away from Anthony Burgess in Manchester and, en route to our next port of call, we’ll just drop down to Cross Street and stop for a quick jar or two in Mister Thomas’s Chop House, just shy of the splendid Royal Exchange Theatre. Mister Thomas’s was a favourite watering hole of Burgess, who, in his memoirs, talks of ‘hard-headed magnates and cotton brokers gorging red meat in chophouses’. Social commentator Friedrich Engels was also a regular, as he was at the library at Chetham’s School of Music. Here, legend has it, he met Karl Marx and the pair went on to write The Communist Manifesto together.
“If you want to blame any one place for the creation of communism, blame Manchester” – journalist Ed Glinert
Much of this information I picked up on the recent Boho Literary Tour, a regular fixture on the programme of the annual Manchester Literature Festival. The tour was led by Manchester Walks organiser Ed Glinert, who founded City Life, an “alternative” news, arts and listings magazine published between December 1983 and December 2005 which spawned such talents as yours truly. Ed isn’t the only tour guide in Manchester – there are loads, covering subjects as wide-ranging as music and sewers, and there are also lots of leftfield organisations encouraging the fine art of flaneurism (try the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, Manchester Modernist Society, Northern Quarter Stories, Ancoats Peeps and Skyliner – whose Hayley Flynn has already curated A Wondrous Place). But I digress…

Like John Rylands, Chets is a fine example of the juxtaposition of old and new architecture, with sandstone Medieval buildings linked to brand-new structures by almost futuristic glass walkways that reflect the weird and wonderful Urbis whose shadow the school lives in. It’s a working school, but members of the public can go to free lunchtime concerts (I’d also recommend the RNCM ones at the delightful St Ann’s Church) and visit the library, as well a kept secret as the Portico. I’d had the delight of sitting in the properly atmospheric Baronial Hall for last year’s Manchester Fiction Prize Gala, but I’d never been to the library until I came to research this piece – and it really is worth a trip. After ringing a bell, a heavily studded door creaks open and you’re directed up a flight of stairs to an L-shaped, vaulted-ceilinged, lead-glassed, book-lined gallery, with individual ‘gated’ booths and a separate room at one end dominated by an enormous fireplace. There’s a 17th-century printing press and a display about the Brothers Grimm, and the comments book says it all: references to Hogwarts crop up umpteen times. Well, it is pretty magical!

05 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #3: Secret Society

While seeking out Anthony Burgess’s blue plaque on campus, I stumbled across another – appropriately on the building that houses Manchester University Press. As I snapped it as an aide-memoire (I’m getting on a bit), the security guard asked if I collect plaques, which curiously means that living amongst us are plaque collectors. This particular one is for Peter Mark Roget, he of the thesaurus, pleasing me no end, dictionary aficionado that I am. Turns out Roget was one of the secretaries of our next library, the hidden gem that is the Portico, described when it first made its mark on the local landscape as “the most refined little building in Manchester”.

For your delight and delectation, here’s a poem by another famous librarian, and a famous Northerner to boot, Philip Larkin.
Library Ode

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.

Contrary to popular belief, the Portico Library is open to everyone, every day except Sunday, and you can browse the regular craft shows and art exhibitions (currently Clare Allan’s ‘Burnt Wood and Paper’, echoing a theme being explored at Manchester Art Gallery just down the way) and even take tea and cake beneath its lovely dome, which is rather civilised. Well, I suppose you’d expect nothing less of a space which includes a section with the moniker ‘Polite Literature’ and boasts links to regular ‘Coketown’ visitor Charles Dickens and local literary lady Elizabeth Gaskell. These days, it counts among its members the likes of Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, whose partner Emma Jane Unsworth has made it onto the shortlist for the Portico Prize for Literature which is awarded tomorrow [that was November 22 - W&F]. The wide-ranging shortlist this year includes fresh talent, such as Manchester resident Joe Stretch, and famous names, such as Jeanette Winterson, who’s just taken up post as professor of creative writing at the University’s Centre for New Writing. To bring us full circle, in 1989 the gong went to one Anthony Burgess…

Portico Library image: Gareth Hacking www.garethhacking.co.uk

04 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #2: Proud Mancunians

Cross the road from City Library, pass the white block capitals of The Avenue (which, at certain angles, spells out HEAVEN) and stand in awe of the cathedral-like splendour of John Rylands Library, a sandstone edifice complete with gargoyles, rose windows and some brilliant Crappers (literally) in the basement. These days, you enter through a bright white extension, all glass and steel, that weaves into the old structure and appears to have given the place a new lease of life, if the buzzing little café and bookshop are anything to go by. The original building was dreamed up by Enriqueta Rylands, who wanted to remember her industrialist (and philanthropist) husband John, Manchester’s first-ever multi-millionaire, and to try and regenerate the slum-filled area. It took 10 years to build and opened on 1 January 1900. Take the lift to the third floor, and you’ll find the beautiful wood-panelled and book-adorned Historic Reading Room, where you can work away at your latest masterpiece (or read a comic; we don’t judge) or take in one of the changing exhibitions.

On show until 27 January is a display, curated by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (itself worth ferretting out on Cambridge Street for its collection of rare manuscripts and typewriters; and thanks to them for the image), celebrating 50 years since the publication of local literary hero Anthony Burgess’s most famous work, ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Burgess was born and bred in Manchester, living in Harpurhey and Moss Side, and studying at Xaverian College in Victoria Park then the University of Manchester. Here a blue plaque has just been inaugurated, on the Faculty of Arts’ Samuel Alexander. The Rylands exhibition is an interesting insight into both the man about Manchester, and the reasons for writing a novel so brimming with ‘ultraviolence’. It includes correspondence with Stanley Kubrick, who directed and ultimately imposed a ban on the movie version, photographs from the film and newspaper clippings outlining the appalling criminal activity that was bubbling through the cracks of 1960s Britain.

“I am proud to be a Mancunian” – Anthony Burgess in his autobiography, Little Wilson And Big God (1987)
Which leads me on to the question I was posed by previous curator [of A Wondrous Place] Missy Tassles: “What in, or about, Manchester inspires you, or has surprised you or has restored your faith in humanity?” The riots during August 2011 shocked the city, and the public outcry at the anti-social behaviour of a handful of individuals was heard loud and clear. Everyone pulled together to get the place cleared up and back on its feet, in a not dissimilar way (though obviously to a lesser extent) to after the IRA bomb in 1996, when I lived five miles from the centre and we could still hear the bang and see the smoke. There’s something wonderfully warm in the Mancunian spirit that helps us get through times of tragedy and toil and that makes living here so enjoyable on a day-to-day basis.

03 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #1: Central and the City

Mother's been on so again I realise I must apologise for the lack of activity on Words & Fixtures in recent weeks. Thing is, I had the honour of curating the website A Wondrous Place, and it took up quite a bit of my time, in a good way. The idea behind the site is to offer an interesting skew on the north and its creative side, and I decided to look at literature and libraries in Manchester, which was a lovely exercise. I've decided to re-run the pieces here, one a day for this week. Enjoy!

The mists of time shroud the exact date of my arrival in Manchester to study, and after stopping a while, I departed for a sojourn in the big smoke before being drawn back to the rainy city coming up for a decade ago. Manchester has an appeal to me for many reasons, not least because it’s big enough to support a feeling of cosmopolitanism; small enough to offer a sense of community. Since returning, I’ve become involved in various groups and activities, helping organise green festivals in Chorlton (where else?), joining the monthly bike ride Critical Mass, tagging along on psychogeography derives, taking part in a 24-hour performance art project and doing all sorts of other cool things in various cool places with loads of different cool people.

My main thing, however, is getting immersed in the burgeoning literary scene, which has really taken off this last 12 months or so. You can’t swing a cat for the amount of spoken word nights, author readings and creative writing workshops there are these days; often two or more brilliant events clash and I have to play rock paper scissors in order to decide which one to grace with my inimitable presence. I like to listen and learn from other poets and proseurs, and I also like to write and perform my own micro stories, or flash fiction. I work for Manchester Literature Festival and The Literateur online literary magazine, and I’ve been churning out an arts blog, Words & Fixtures, since 2008. I’ve decided therefore to take this opportunity as guest curator of A Wondrous Place to look at the city’s words and fixtures: literature and libraries.

“The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries” - scientist and writer Carl Sagan
Libraries are on topic right now and there’s been a lot in the media about our public libraries being under threat while the Culture, Media & Sport select committee has just published a report on the subject. Meanwhile Manchester’s main reference and reading establishment, the amazingly imposing Central Library (pictured here - in the original version of this post on A Wondrous Place, that is - in an artist’s impression of the under-construction One St Peter’s Square), is currently closed to undergo a complete overhaul, due to reopen in 2014. The temporary City lending library is crammed into Elliot House on Deansgate (lovely stained glass and awesome wallpaper, though, so definitely worth a looksee if you’re passing), the collection is squirrelled away somewhere in a Cheshire salt mine and the future of Library Walks is uncertain, but STOP! Let’s not get disheartened, dear reader – I’m going to take you on a tour of some of the alternative book depositories the residents of Cottonopolis are lucky enough to have access to and explore some of the colourful wordy types this place has produced. There will be mystery! There will be history! There may even be drinks if you promise to keep quiet and don’t run in the corridors…