Sunday, July 12, 2009

Writing about Manchester

Oxygen Books has a series of successful books about various cities, with their City Lit London the latest. It is London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cambridge and Oxford that come to mind when you think about English Literature's love of the city, not Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester. Perhaps the helter-skelter growth of the 19th century Victorian cities saw too fast a rise, and the 20th century, too fast a decline. Ra Page's "City Life Book of Manchester Stories", a decade ago, attempted to get writers associated with the city to write a story about it; and there's been a fair share of poems, novels, and yes, stories that have taken place in contemporary Manchester in the year's since - I'm thinking of Joe Stretch's "Friction", Gwendoline Riley's "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes," and Neil Campbell's "Broken Doll" amongst others. Yet the city hasn't yet seen it's "Augie March." Then there's Dave Haslam's non-fiction history of the city's music, "Manchester, England." I think all of these would find a place in a City-Lit Book of Manchester, if it ever came to pass.

Manchester is written about all the time of course, either in the newspapers (football pages particularly), or through its music or filmic location. Surely, our mythical anthology would have to find room for a Coronation Street script, something from the first series of "Cracker", maybe a few words from "Shameless" and "Cold Feet" (preferably across the page from each other, as glorious contrasts.) Older writers would be well-served of course; I'm not sure how much de Quincey dwelled on his city, but we'd have room for Frederick Engels, and much Mrs. Gaskell, never mind some considerable chunks of Anthony Burgess's 2-volume biography, the only books of his to dwell at length in the city. The classic non-fiction work might find a place, "The Salford Slum," perhaps with David Constantine's poem about the groups of young men from Salford Streets who perished in the First World War.

As "Procession" showed last week, any anthology of Manchester would have to include the words of Mark E. Smith, the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Morrissey and Shaun Ryder amongst its gems.

There's always a difficulty, of course - is it writing "about" the city or writing "from" the city? An anthologist would surely find room for "Love will tear us apart" even if it doesn't mention a location, as surely as emigres such as Engels and W.G. Sebald. I'm yet to read it, (or listen to it - since that's the version available at the moment), but am looking forward to another visitor to the city's words of wisdom. Writing for the new arts and culture magazine Corridor8, Iain Sinclair is at Urbis next week, reading a piece of psychogeography from walking round the city.

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