Sunday, June 18, 2017

Manchester: City of Literature

On Thursday I attended the official launch for the bid for Manchester to become a UNESCO City of Literature, part of its creative cities network - an excellent initiative that sees cities worldwide networking and creating partnerships and exchanges through their mutual love of different art forms. I was at the launch a few years ago in Norwich when they announced their bid - and let's hope we're successful, and also, that it kickstarts a more wider understanding of Manchester's role as a literary as well as a sporting and music city. The full press release can be read here. 

It seems only appropriate, since its something I don't think I've blogged about directly before, to consider my own take on Manchester's literary history. On a personal level, if its true that I first came here for the music, I actually came back for the literature, specifically to study on an M.A. under Micheal Schmidt (who was there on Thursday) and Richard Francis at the University of Manchester.
But outside of the personal, I think Manchester's literary history is undoubtedly tied up tightly with its political and economic history. Though the city goes ways back - to Roman times - the modern city is Victorian, though, arguably, we can see that over the last twenty years, its moving to a post-industrial architecture that sits along the Victorian, and it is the late twentieth century - of a declining urban centre - which is being erased. But one of the great things about books, of course, is that they can last much longer than the edifices that possibly inspired them. In a cosmic game of paper > scissors > stone paper outlasts stone more often than not; though Manchester's history has it both ways - a first folio of Shakespeare sitting in the gothic splendour of the John Ryland's library - one of the 4 libraries, alongside Chethams, Portico and Central - which sits at the heart of the Manchester bid.

English literature casts long shadows, and its sometimes hard for newer trends to overthrow them. Its fulcrum remains London, of course, with its many publishing houses, and its multitude of writers. As the centre of political power it was always the centre of cultural power as well. Our poetry - rarely urban - nonetheless is centred on the capital, our most lauded writers, Shakespeare and Dickens are both umbilically linked to there. Yet, our literature when its mapped out - there are plenty of literary geography's of Britain - tends to be elsewhere: in the shire counties, in the market towns, particular of the English Midlands and later, at the political fringes, in Scotland, Wales or Ireland. In this context Manchester might seem a literary backwater: yet by the 18th century, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the burgeoning middle classes - made wealthy through this new industry - were creating the cultural institutions in the city that stand to this day: from the Lit & Phil, to the libraries, to the University. Yet, its not wrong to say that Manchester's literature was intrinsically linked to the age of enlightenment: where political tracts from Chartists to Marxists to Left book Club members sat alongside scientific literature, economics, and moral works from non-conformists preaching to the working classes.

In such an age, imaginative literature sometimes seems an indulgence, and if there's a core failing in the city's literary figures, it might be this: that we are too drawn to realism. Yet that too has its advantages. Our earliest figurehead, Thomas de Quincey, is most famous for his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", and the most interesting works about Manchester in the 1990s were Jeff Noon's "Vurt" and "Pollen", psychotropic cyberpunk fantasias set in a recognisable Manchester. Cities are magnets for writers - so that any literature of the city tends to be catholic in its appreciation. We count as our own those born here such as de Quincey, who despite a very Mancunian waywardness left and held right-wing political views, those who have studied here, and Anthony Burgess, who rarely returned to the city but was prone to such statements as the "the novelist is Mancunian"; those who have taught here - such as W.G. Sebald, Michael Schmidt, Carol Ann Duffy; and those who have visited here - there's a blue plaque for Charlotte Bronte on the side of the Salutation pub.

In this reading of the city - you'd have thought Manchester, with a newly educated middle class, the John Owens University, and a heady mix of methodism and later Marxism, alongside an incoming population of Irish labourers, would have immediately created its own literature, like other urban centres in the USA for instance. Whereas the 18th century novel had grown out of that grubby trade, journalism, by the mid-19th century, there was an audience for magazine writers, and from the serial, would come the hardcover three volume novel. Elizabeth Gaskell moved to Manchester after marrying a Unitarian Minister. His chapel was on Cross Street - where de Quincey was born, and where today Carcanet Press has an office - and she would eventually move to the suburbs, and a house on Plymouth Grove which has been recently restored. In novels such as "Mary Barton", "Cranford" and "North and South", as well as her "Life of Charlotte Bronte", she became a major writer of the period, and is both revived (in film and theatre) and read today. Dickens - who would write about Preston in "Hard Times" - was a friend. "Mary Barton" is set in Manchester, and seeing a dramatisation at the Royal Exchange a few years ago, adjacent to where it was set, highlighted the importance of literature in documenting realistically a fast-changing world.

Realism was and remains the Manchester literary idiom. It's there in the 1876 novel "The Manchester Man" by Isabella Banks, in Walter Greenwood's  1950s "Love on the Dole", through to Tony Warren's concept for a northern drama, "Coronation Street" , and later still Andrea Ashworth's domestic violence memoir "Once in a House on Fire." Amongst other novelists we find the forgotten Manchester Grammar School boy Gilbert Cannan, who Henry James referenced in his essay on promising novelists, and the very much remembered University of Manchester graduate Anthony Burgess. I've not yet managed to read any of Cannan's work, but Burgess is now celebrated in the city in a way that was hardly imaginable twenty years ago. An emigre writer, and initially a composer rather than a writer, his most famous books are international in focus, are linguistic fantasias in style; yet he would write about Manchester in one or two novels, such as "The Piano Players" and in particular the first volume of his autobiography.

Later on, novelists like Booker winner Howard Jacobsen, whose "The Mighty Waltzer" reminisced about his North Manchester Jewish youth, and my old tutor, Richard Francis, whose comic novel "Taking apart the Poco Poco" takes place in Stockport, have used the city as a backdrop as well as having lived here. Its strange how little the city has featured in fiction; perhaps its frequent setting for TV dramas - "Cold Feet", "Cracker" and "Queer as Folk" as well as "Coronation Street" - and films - Manchester noir, "Hell is a City", "The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue", "Control" and "24 Hour Party People", and "28 days Later", Manchester almost always depicted as a gritty northern city where anything can happen, has made it more difficult for its writers to ground something in this place. There are exceptions of course and younger novelists like Emma Jane Unsworth, Joe Stretch and Chris Killen have used the city as a backdrop to 20-something lives, none more successfully than Gwendoline Riley's first two books, "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes." Then again there is Shelagh Delaney's remarkable debut play "A Taste of Honey" and its equally excellent movie.

If the city has not yet spewed up its version of Chicago's Saul Bellow, or a "great city novel" to rival those American urban writers, perhaps this is as much to do with the British literary scene - both concentrated on London and likely to dismiss anything outside of M25 as parochial (whilst Zadie Smith's "NW", set in a single postcode, would never receive that epithet!)

Twenty years ago Penguin, in conjunction with City Life magazine and editor Ra Page, came up with a collection of Manchester stories, realising, correctly, a groundswell of writers based in and writing about the city. Inevitably, in a music obsessed city, it also included contributions from Shaun Ryder, Mark E. Smith, Dave Haslam and Tony Wilson. The only surprise was that Alex Ferguson wasn't included. Yet amongst that predictable positioning, the range of writers was impressive, and if there was a second volume today, it would no doubt be more so. Like Iowa, famous for its Writing Workshop, or UEA, for the UK's first creative writing M.A., with wide ranging writing schools at MMU, Manchester and Salford Universities (and outlying Bolton), its tempting to see Manchester now as a finishing school for writers - cosmopolitan enough to be a good alternative to London, cheap enough to make it attractive to talent on a low income, and with enough of a literary scene - particularly live literature, to help nascent talent develop. Last years Booker longlist had two Manchester connections, ex-student Wyl Menmuir and tutor Ian McGuire, whilst Carol Ann Duffy, as professor of poetry at Manchester Met has continued the city's thriving poetry reputation.

Ah, yes, poetry - again, I've struggled to know what to say about Manchester and its poetry. There are probably more poets in the city than ever before, and certainly than other cities. Our most famous names are transplants such as Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy, or ones who have left like Sophie Hannah and Lemn Sissay; there are many poems about Manchester - as a number of anthologies ("Best of Manchester Poets", "Sculpted: Poetry of the North West") have indicated. There's an experimental poetry scene to rival any in the country, and performance poetry, at least that of a certain variety, feels like it began here, and still thrives in a range of nights, and through initiatives such as Contact Theatre's "Young Identity" group. After the terrible events at the Arena a few weeks ago, it was a poet, Tony Walsh, who found the words for the city's grief. Yet again, though there are many poems set in the city, or about the city, I'm not sure there are many that are emblematic. Just as film sometimes seems to be the city's driver of narrative, so music can sometimes seem to be the driver of it's poetry; "The North will rise again," "Manchester, so much to answer for."  "To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you." "When the rain falls hard on the humdrum town." "Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band." "You're like Manchester, you've got strange ways." "Spend a year in a couple of hours on the edge of Beasley Street."

The next few months and years will hopefully see more focus on bringing together this scattered history - a tableau of influence and connection that is as random as any city but together pulls into some kind of word tapestry. Manchester, city of literature, it has a ring to it.

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