Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Northern Quarter Street art tour, Saturday 13 February (for the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art)

The Shrieking Violet ‘zine was founded in the summer of 2009 to show the fun that can be had in the city for free, and the beauty and creativity that surrounds us everyday. From buskers, gargoyles, grotesques and public art, to street names recalling Manchester’s historic links with science, the textile trade and industry, all you need to do is look (or listen) to what’s around. Let the Shrieking Violet be your guide and starting point for adventures in the city!

Next Saturday (Saturday 13 February), the Shrieking Violet will be leading a street art tour to celebrate 30 years since the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (formerly known as the Chinese Arts Centre) was established, and to coincide with an exhibition featuring artists from RareKind illustration agency, which opens on Friday 5 February.

The Shrieking Violet calls for an expanded definition of street art, to include not just what we might usually regard as street art, ie that which is covert, transient and wall-based, but to situate street art within a wider context of all art which is publicly visible on the streets of Manchester, from mosaics and architectural adornment to statues and sculptures. Street art is something which we have all seen, and about which most of us have an opinion. The tour will be informal, accessible, flexible and participatory, with participants invited to share, reflect on and challenge their own perceptions and experiences of street art and to disclose any particular favourites in the area. The tour will invite discussion on questions such as: Who gets to decide what is art, and who is an artist? How do works of art on the street influence perceptions of a place, both by the people who live/work there and externally? What is ‘beauty’, and who decides what’s beautiful? Does art need to be beautiful? Can a value be placed on street art?

The tour will visit two distinct areas of Manchester city centre – Chinatown and the Northern Quarter – as part of a broader narrative of change and evolution. Manchester has transformed from an industrial Victorian city to a modern city known for its entertainment, creativity and leisure/shopping opportunities, and this can be read through the art on its streets (or lack of it in certain places). Street art may have different motivations, from self-expression and ownership of spaces to decoration, celebration and commemoration of heritage, but all contribute to the identity, atmosphere and demographic of different areas and show how people have shaped Manchester over time.

This is also a tour of contrasts and comparisons, from public art which is official and council-endorsed, and commissioned from high-profile artists, to gallery-supported initiatives and local businesses promoting local artists, to corporate sponsorship of street art, and street art techniques which have been co-opted for advertising purposes, to that which is unsolicited and illegal.

Tickets cost £7. To book, click here.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A belated best of 2015 (and why it’s important)

At the end of 2015 I couldn’t help but feel that I’d lost a year of my life. I entered 2015 with fighting spirit, as it was an important year that I knew was going to be a big challenge. I was going to crack on and write up all the wonderful research I’d done about Pictures for Schools into my PhD thesis, to submit at the end of the year. I was going to write a book chapter about my Woman’s Outlook research, for an edited collection. All fun was going to be cancelled, as I was going to put my head down and knuckle down.

2015 didn’t work out like this, at all. After starting the year with more optimism than I had felt for a while, two weeks into January someone close to me confided that they’d been having some very dark thoughts, which made me feel sadder than I’d ever felt in my life. I advised and empathised, then bottled it up and tried to carry on. By spring, though, I’d become so consumed by worry it felt as if my brain wouldn’t work any more. Trying to read, think or write felt like paddling through treacle. I felt as if everything was going in slow motion, with the result that I became angry and frustrated, both with myself and with those close to me. Over a period of weeks that then turned into months, I woke every day and felt so overwhelmed I cried uncontrollably. I tried to get up and get on with the day but ended up going back to bed, and sleeping, as it seemed the only thing I could do. Gradually, I’d started to withdraw from a lot of the things I’d previously enjoyed doing – reading, listening to music, going to the cinema, writing. I felt like I was no longer producing anything, and was just existing in a state of limbo. Because I wasn’t creating, producing or achieving, it was as if I’d lost all sense of myself, who I was, what I did, and why.

On top of this, my partner and best friend of more than three-years had decided, out of the blue, to move to Rotterdam to study, just 18-months after we had set up home together, and wouldn’t tell me if he was ever coming back. Over time, in his absence, I became more and more obsessed with a fantasy vision of our future together, with children and our own home, that made it increasingly impossible to live in the present and was starting to draw me into a dream world. I repeatedly told myself, even though a large part of me knew it was ridiculous, that if I was more creative, more imaginative, more intellectual, more productive, he wouldn’t have left, or that he would have at least had something to come back for. His family, and their kindness towards me, became a life-raft which I was clinging on to desperately, and I was terrified of what would happen if I set myself adrift and let go. In May, however, I decided I needed my life back. I couldn’t continue to wait around for someone who wasn’t prepared to commit to any kind of future with me. I also took official leave of my PhD.

Since then, I’ve removed the pressure on myself to be creative and productive and immersed myself in a series of experiences, visiting all sorts of places I’d long wanted to visit and doing lots of things for the first time I’d long wanted to do. I still might not have produced much in this time, but I’ve been living, doing something, thinking, learning, feeling stimulated, and I’m sure I’ll be able to draw on these experiences in the future. Oh, and I’ve also found a new partner, the type of person I always hoped to meet as a teenager, who shares my love of sixties and seventies American powerpop (as well as all sorts of other music, an enthusiasm for food, picnics, home-made recordings, postcards, hats, day trips, and a willingness to jump into bodies of cold water for an impromptu swim). We've made each other feel like teenagers again.

Towards the end of 2015, I had two long chats with friends about the act of writing, about the challenges it can present, and about their approaches to productivity. In different ways, they both told me that the most important thing is to produce something. Even if it seems inadequate, it’s a starting point, something to build upon and improve. This is the message I am taking into 2016. I have to keep doing something. I have to keep on creating, producing, writing, making, achieving something. I can’t let myself ground to a halt again like last year, because it’s always better to do something than to do nothing.

Looking back over 2015, there have been a lot of experiences, cultural and otherwise, I have enjoyed and in spite of everything I’ve still been out and found a lot of things that have inspired, encouraged and excited me. Here they are.

Art

The big art event of the year was the reopening of the Whitworth Art Gallery. I generally find Cornelia Parker – the headline artist for the reopening – a bit artistically vacuous, so I was surprised by how powerful and poignant I found the engulfing red environment of her ‘War Room’, softly carpeted from floor to ceiling with the wasted bits of paper which from which remembrance poppies are cut. For me, Bedwyr Williams’ more recent, space-inspired installation was more successful, with its offbeat, absurdist and slightly grotesque humour, scale and ethos. I was pleased by the return of Tuesday Talks to the Whitworth, and was delighted to be offered a complimentary glass of gin and tonic at the start of a talk by art historian and curator Lynda Morris. Morris focused on her friendship with the artists Gilbert and George as a young student in London, giving insights into not just the contemporary art and social world at that time, with its personalities, friendships, cliques and rivalries, but the experience of being a young woman in a city, society and profession that was undergoing rapid transformation and modernisation.

The undoubted art highlight of the year was Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's pairing with Gerhard Richter’s paintings at the Whitworth for the Manchester International Festival to create an immersive audiovisual experience that was both subtle and surprising. Members of the Estonian choir Vox Clamantis, and later local community choirs, came out of the crowd and joined together in harmony that filled the room with tightly controlled variations on loudness and quiet, and shades of lightness and dark.

2015 also included some strong shows at the region’s smaller galleries, including Castlefield Gallery, Holden Gallery, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art and Untitled Gallery, reincarnated as Object/A. The International 3 has gone from strength to strength since its move to Salford, and Totaller, an installation of collaged ephemera a by a collective from Sheffield, was the most enjoyable show I’ve yet seen at Paper. After seeing her work over the years at Rogue Studios, it was great to see old and new pieces by Hilary Jack, on a large and small scale, come together in a solo show at Bury Art Museum.

Despite being ignorant of its existence for many years, I’ve now been to some good exhibitions and events at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections. I particularly enjoyed We Want People Who Can Draw, which used archival materials – including publications, photographs and posters – to explore the history of dissent in the British art school and its links with movements such as Situationism, feminism and street theatre.

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds remains my favourite gallery. At the start of a year I enjoyed a researcher-led gallery tour focused on newly unearthed archival material relating to the artist couple Trevor Tennant and Dorothy Annan, who were members of the Artists’ International Association and did a lot of post-war artworks for schools; the exhibition included lots of photos of their (now often lost, forgotten or destroyed) work in situ in public places. Towards the end of the year, Romanian artist Paul Neagu’s exhibition Palpable Sculpture pushed the boundaries of sculpture, incorporating edible and performative elements to create an impression of great fun.

Elsewhere in Leeds, I enjoyed questioning the concept of drawing and the form it can take at the Jerwood Drawing Prize at the Tetley. The British Art Show at Leeds Art Gallery was too expansive for a proper look, but it was good to encounter artists who were new to me as well as established names such as Bedwyr Williams, Ryan Gander, Linder, Will Holder, John Akomfrah and Laure Prouvost.

Many of the exhibitions I enjoyed most in 2015 were sculpture-based. One of the best shows of the year consisted the sculptures of Lynda Benglis, exploring form, femininity and feminism, at the excellent Hepworth in Wakefield. I also enjoyed Michael Dean’s solo show at Extra City in Antwerp, where small, rough sculptures filled the space, many strewn across the building at floor level, forcing visitors to renegotiate and renavigate the former industrial space, itself impressive in its size and scale. I also enjoyed Phyllida Barlow’s rough-hewn, large-scale transformation of Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, as well as Bernat Klein’s colourful, textural, almost sculptural textiles at Dovecot Studios.

The Grayson Perry exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate showed me an unexpected breadth to his work, encompassing not just his pots and tapestries, but detailed and imaginative drawings and films. It also gave an insight into his inspirations, including the suburban Essex of his upbringing, against which he reacted. Elsewhere in Kent, I enjoyed Eduardo Paolozzi’s collage-style, colourful and slightly surreal lithographs at the Beaney in Canterbury, which presented fascinating juxtapositions of imagery and a snapshot of popular culture and experience at the end of the post-war era.
After many years of wanting to visit the Merzbarn in Cumbria where Kurt Schwitters lived and worked in the late 1940s, I joined a coachload of artists from Manchester and Salford for a weekend in Elterwater coinciding with the anniversary of Schwitters’ birth. Magical seems a trite word, but we awoke in the woods to the sound of the loudest, richest and most varied dawn chorus I’ve ever heard. Later our hosts, Ian Hunter and Celia Larner of Littoral, led a celebratory procession incorporating a rambunctious rendition of Schwitters’ poem 'Ursonata'. Evenings were spent in the company of local musicians sharing food around a fire, and we couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome and encouraged to explore and share in the legacy of Schwitters’ life and work.
Manchester-based artist Lowri Evans’ performance 'I’m Glad You’re Here' was something special: it’s not everyday that you’re met off a train in cold, rainy Preston with a hug, presented with your favourite food and drink (pistachio nuts and Old Rosie in my case) and greeted by your favourite song blaring over the station tannoy (after much deliberation, I chose the Beach Boys’ 'Good Vibrations' – a choice which met with some approval from fellow passengers).

For Museums at Night, the Northern Quarter was filled with peripatetic street performers. New York Brass Band’s street corner rendition of Marvin Gaye’s 'Sexual Healing' didn’t just brighten by evening, but my entire week.

After being disappointed to miss it in previous years, I made a renewed effort to visit Stoke Ceramics Biennial this autumn. The vast, semi-derelict Spode site was a reminder of Stoke’s historic importance as a ceramics centre, as well its decline, but the exhibits themselves demonstrated the innovation and invention in forms and technique that is still going on today. The displays of graduate work were particularly impressive, and I also enjoyed Caroline Tattersall’s burbling clay geysers, along with Bruce McClean’s ongoing and unfinished series of pots and jugs, featuring scrawled and humorous observations about banalities such as food and showing his work in progress as an artist-in-residence.

I finished the year by going to see an exhibition of paintings and 3D constructions by Peter Lanyon at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Based on his experiences of gliding over the Cornish coast, they pushed the notion of landscape towards ‘airscapes’, depicting not just visual scenes but tracking movements through them in rich, dark blues and greens and swirling brush marks, engrossing the viewer in their colours, textures and mood.

The other painting exhibition I enjoyed most was a display of colourful paintings, drawings and prints by artists from the CoBrA movement, including lots of work by Karel Appel, at the Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam. As well as enjoying his images of birds, I thought Constant’s series La Guerre constituted some of the most powerful images of war I have seen.

Film 

Ever since I moved to Manchester, the Cornerhouse was a place of immeasurable importance to me, a home from home where I explored, indulged and nurtured a burgeoning love of film. In my first year in Manchester, one of the films which made the most impact on me, and sparked a passion for British film, was Powell and Pressburger’s gentle 'A Canterbury Tale', which was shown as a Sunday matinee classic film screening, and depicts a wartime England that is both shaped by its past but irrevocably changing. It seems fitting, then, that the last film I saw at the Cornerhouse was Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 epic 'The Tales of Hoffman'. By then, Powell and Pressburger had replaced black and white, everyday whimsy with lavish sets and costumes and full-on, unrelenting spectacle.

I felt privileged to be able to take part in the closing weekend for the Cornerhouse, as a performer with Manchester School in Samba, in Manchester-based artist Humberto Velez’s 'the Storming', a theatrical piece of performance art which led the public into the building one last time. The disco that followed, where I danced until I felt like I couldn’t stand up anymore and then danced some more, made me wonder why the Cornerhouse had never been turned into a nighclub before. It was an occasion of sadness, as the city said goodbye to an institution, but also of celebration, and as I wondered from floor to floor I bumped into familiar faces from different times and places, all of whom had turned out to say farewell to a building that had been far more than the sum of its parts and offered the city’s creatives a place for meeting, discussion, people watching and just observing the world go by.

I got out of the habit of regular cinema-going in 2015, and consequently missed out on a lot of the big releases of 2015. I did try to see Carol Morley’s 'The Falling' at Home, and was evacuated from the building soon after it had started, which was frustrating as the atmosphere the film created, conjuring the simmering tension and frustration caused by strictly observed rules and arbitrarily applied authority, must be familiar to anyone who has attended an all girls school and I was keen to see how the rest of the film turned out. I awoke on the most beautiful sunny morning on May 8 to the shock of the general election result. By the afternoon the weather had, like my mood, gone downhill. I couldn’t bear to be alone any longer, so cycled into Manchester. Dripping wet, I arrived at Home to see what was on, and found 'The Falling' in progress. I explained the situation to the cinema attendant, and they allowed me to sneak in with an hour of the film left to go. I must have seen nearly all of it now, but am still none the wiser about what happened.

I attended a special screening of 'Industrial Soundtrack for the Urban Decay', with Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire DJing afterwards to a room of awkward people who didn’t appear to know what to do with themselves. I’m pleased that two young film-makers have been inspired to make a documentary about industrial music, but it felt like a film made very much for the already initiated. The film did a good job of showing the economic, physical and social environments (and music scenes) that industrial music came out of, but frustratingly it was a bit of a whistlestop tour and by the end I still didn’t feel as aware as I would have liked of the key groups and songs of the genre.

I appreciate Iain Sinclair far more when he is in the company of film-maker Andrew Kotting, so I enjoyed their latest collaboration, 'By Our Selves', an impressionistic film about the poet John Clare and his escape and subsequent walk homewards to Northampton from an asylum in Epping Forest, which blended documentary and academic insights with disorienting dramatisation and tender cameos from Kotting’s daughter, Eden.

'Tangerines', an Estonian-Georgian film made a couple of years ago with an anti-war message, was the most extraordinarily powerful and moving film I saw in 2015. Despite its beauty, all the way through there was an ominous feeling that something horrific was going to happen, yet at no stage did the film become predictable. I went to see 'Tangerines' in the sumptuous surroundings of the recently reopened and refurbished Heaton Moor Savoy (the existence of a neighbourhood cinema was one of the reasons why I moved to Heaton Moor in 2014) as part of its regular Monday foray into ‘arts’ film. I also saw 'The Lobster' there, having really enjoyed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous films. 'The Lobster', which presented a self-enclosed fantasy world with one foot in reality, was everything I would like Wes Anderson films to be – stylish, darkly funny, critical and thought-provoking, making you think about the world we live in now and the ways in which our relationships are formed.

At the Royal Northern College of Music, an organist provided a sufficiently creepy soundtrack for the old-fashioned horror of 'Nosferatu'.

‘I Like Dreaming’ was an evening of varied archive films for LGBT History Month presented at Central Library, depicting different areas and representations of LGBT life and culture, from the personal and the political to the social. The highlight was a documentary in which a deadpan and dapper David Hockney demonstrates his working methods and printing techniques. Also at Central Library was a night themed around the late writer and presenter Ray Gosling, featuring both explorations of British cities in his irreverent style, as well as more hard-hitting and critical films with a campaigning focus.

After the release of 'Pride' in 2014, it was good to see a different take on events in documentary 'Still the Enemy Within', which was shown at the King’s Arms, Salford and followed by a charged discussion led by trade unionists. I also enjoyed the documentary 'Forever Young', made by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Youth Studies and screened as part of the always enjoyable Humanities in Public series, which drew together interviews with members of eight different generations who had been young in consecutive decades of the twentieth century. Asking what it is that makes young people tick, it highlighted both how our lives have changed, and what issues, concerns and pleasures remain constant in the lives of young people.

Theatre 

I first set foot inside the Cornerhouse’s shiny new replacement, Home, for a test performance of Salford-based Company Chameleon’s 'Beauty of the Beast', an exploration into masculinity through dance. It wasn’t at all the type of thing I would normally go to see, but I was amazed not just by the dancers’ athleticism but by the potential for expressiveness of the human body.

Similarly, I went to see Jamie XX and Olafur Eliasson’s Manchester International Festival collaboration 'Tree of Codes'. It was the first time I had been to Manchester Opera House, with its vertiginous seats and shabby grandeur, and it seemed an odd place to watch something so aesthetically modern. As an experience, 'Tree of Codes' was better than its constituent parts – at times the music was a little uninspiring, sounding like electronica-by-numbers, and there was a lot of filler between the livelier bits I did enjoy, which referenced gamelan and samba percussion. I have no idea what was going on in terms of narrative or plot – if, indeed there was meant to be any – but Eliasson’s visuals were absolutely beautiful and mesmerising to watch, and striking in their apparent simplicity.

Radio

I might have missed Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture on art and creativity had I not received a rare text from my brother telling me it was on and that it was something I should listen to. Afterwards, I found myself sending the link on to friends and family telling them they must hear it too. Eno’s Peel Lecture was something rare in our mainstream TV and radio nowadays: current, thoughtful, considerate, informed, opinionated and honest. Eno himself was warm and relatable without being distanced, preachy or dumbed-down: exactly the type of presenter, tone and content I’d like much more of.

I also enjoyed the Radio 4 documentary 'Wittgenstein’s Jet', which explored the life and work of Wittgenstein at the same time as attempting to recreate and test his patented, but unbuilt, design for a jet.

Talks/tours

Bristol Festival of the Future City was a stimulating combination of tours, speakers and discussions about cities, and different approaches to writing about place, from William H Whyte to Jane Jacobs and Iain Nairn. Among the highlights were a slightly shambolic coach tour in which Jonathan Meades remembered the Bristol of his childhood, and a later screening of selections of Meades’ hilarious and incisive work on cities and urbanism for TV – much of which you can’t imagine would be made today.

Gigs 

I went to see LoneLady a total of three times in 2015 – at Soup Kitchen, during Future Everything Festival, at Sways Bunker in Salford, a fittingly industrial setting, and at Gorilla. Each time it got better and better, as the band seemed to get more confident and relaxed. I also enjoyed the melodic punk energy of Sacred Paws at Soup Kitchen. The coolest performer I saw must have been Whyte Horses at Night & Day. Singing in a winsome French accent from behind a long fringe and flowing, hippyish clothes, she appeared to be channelling the anarchic, carnivalesque spirit of Os Mutantes. The glamour of Whyte Horses and her band was almost matched by Saint Etienne, who played against a backdrop of retro modernist films at Manchester’s refurbished Albert Hall, a venue that was more cosy and intimate than I expected. I went to Salford’s Sounds from the Other City festival for the first time in several years, on the strength of one song by Sauna Youth, but ended up being mesmerised – along with the rest of the audience, who were stunned into a rapt silence – by a set by Manchester’s mournful balladeer Irma Vep.

Another highlight was a trip to International Pop Overthrow festival in Liverpool to be reunited with my Greek friend Euripidis, who was playing with his Tragedies at the Cavern Pub. I first heard Euripidis and his Tragedies nine years ago at Barcelona's Primavera festival, when as an Erasmus student I was won over by Euripidis' swooning, piano-based songs combining girl group influences with indie-pop. I befriended Euripidis on Myspace, and then at his DJ nights, bonding over a shared love of music and British pop culture. For the Liverpool gig, the band was stripped right down to Euripidis and two Catalan friends, but he still managed to make catchy, perfect pop songs of love and regret.
I usually prefer informal gigs at small venues to large gigs, and I had the pleasure of watching Dublin’s Cian Nugent and local experimental guitarists Tom Settle and Jon Collin at a community garden in Whalley Range on one of those early, advance days which point the way towards spring. In mid-summer, Daniel Voigt, Jon Collin and Flamingo Creatures played out the remaining evening light in an evening gig at Chorlton Meadows, before drawing the assembled crowd together by firelight. I also enjoyed a grungy, folky house gig in the front room of a shared house in Withington by Grubs and King of Cats.

Many of the best gigs involve sitting on the floor drinking cups of tea and eating cake. Nexus Art Café provided the perfect venue for Calvin Johnson – although I was slightly embarrassed to be wearing a beret, and felt that the young, bohemian audience sitting in front of Johnson had probably changed little in style, appearance, dress or music taste from the audiences he played in front of in the 1980s.

For years and years and years I’ve wanted to go to Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but never known what to see or who to go with. This was the year I finally went, to see veteran experimental group AMM, in a converted church. Combining conventional instruments such as a piano with a stripped down drum kit and transistor radios, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before or will see again. Astonishingly, I had never been to Manchester Jazz Festival before, and rectified that by seeing John Surman in the reading room of Central Library – there couldn’t be a more appropriate venue for the band’s elegant, autumnal string and wind textures – and a lunchtime concert by Norma Winstone's in St Ann’s Church.

By far the most fun gig of the year was WE and Onion Widow, hosted by the Exhibition Centre For the Life and Use of Books in a rambling event space above Fred's Ale House in Levenshulme. WE is the musical side-project of art project Pil and Galia Kollectiv. Part visually inventive performance art, incorporating costumes and mirrors, and part surf-rock meets catchy party-pop, WE reinvent well-known songs by replacing the word 'I' with 'WE', to entertaining and sometimes sinister effect. I was honoured to be invited to DJ between and after bands, on a makeshift pair of decks.
Finally, in September 2015 I celebrated my tenth anniversary of moving to Manchester. One of the first things I did when I arrived was join Manchester School of Samba, and the band celebrated their twentieth birthday in September with an ‘encontro’ at beautiful Sacred Trinity Church in Salford. As well as reaching out to and learning from other samba bands, who made the journey over from Chester, Macclesfield and Buxton, it was a chance to reunite former members from across the years and make a big noise together once again.
Records 

Low may have spent decades doing more or less the same thing, but it sure is a great thing that they do and I, for one, am very glad that they are still doing it. Ones and Sixes is up there with their best albums, combining the fragile desolation of Mimi Parker and Adam Sparhawk’s vocals, drums and guitar with a robust undercurrent of rock and even the occasional pop song. One of the singles from Ones and Sixes, ‘What Part of Me Don’t You Know’, often found its way into my head, and stayed, in 2015.

LoneLady’s Hinterland is tight pop music whose basslines, drum beats and sparse, insistent guitar melodies will make you just want to dance. It draws on the eighties, sure, but it also sounds completely of the here and now.

My favourite record of the year, however, was Six Songs by Trash Kit side project Sacred Paws, a record that managed to be both punk and pretty at the same time and whose gliding female vocals over taut guitar, drums and bass make me melt inside. The dancing colours of the sleeve, by Alexandra Humphreys (who designed the cover of the Shrieking Violet issue 22), make me love it even more.

Clubnights 

If I could have chosen any way to turn 28, it would have probably involved dancing and the Star and Garter. With perfect timing, I did turn 28 on the dancefloor at the Star and Garter, at a special edition of the clubnight Let’s Make This Precious with one of my long-time musical heroes, Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s, DJing. It wasn’t just the music he played – mostly soul, with a bit of reggae thrown in – that made the night so great, but the way that he played it. Rowland seemed genuinely delighted to be there. He danced, and even sang along, karaoke-style, into a mic, to the tracks he was playing.
I feel like my life has become poorer in some way since I stopped going out dancing regularly, so it was a pleasure to welcome back Underachievers Please Try Harder, which I’ve really missed since it wound down a few years ago, for a special one-off Hallowe’en event at the Museum of Science and Industry during Manchester Science Festival. There was one important addition – an adults-only ball-pool, full of indie legs a-flying – which meant that occasionally you had to dig your way out of balls to go and dance to your favourite song!

Books and literature 

Caitlin Davies’ Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames is a thorough social history of swimming that blends extensive archival trawling with travel, exploration, interviews and in a couple of instances participation. It traces the story of swimming in one of the seemingly most unlikely of places, the river Thames, throughout history to the present day, and from its rural source through central, workaday London to the sea near Southend. The book does a particularly good job of bringing to life the champion swimmers and record attempters of yesteryear, male and female, conveying both their motivations and their obstinacy in overcoming physical, bureaucratic and meteorological hurdles. This book may well make you want to make plans to swim in the Thames immediately – and wonder why it’s not something people do all the time. It will also make you frustrated for all the outdoor swimming opportunities that have been lost in Britain over the years due to lack of upkeep or health and safety, from informal river swimming spots to floating lidos on the Thames.

I hardly ever make it to live literature events in Manchester, as all too often they are on a Wednesday night, which clashes with samba practice. I made an exception for The Real Story at Gullivers in the Northern Quarter to hear Stuart Maconie, a favourite broadcaster and travel writer of mine, read extracts from his books, old and new. Maconie was both insightful and hilarious, and his reminiscences about the letters page of the NME in particular were laugh-out-loud funny. I also loved local writer Kate Feld’s cautionary and evocative story of her schooldays and the blurring of teacher-student boundaries, which was structured around Revolver by the Beatles.

Thankfully, Fallowfield literary night Verbose is on a Monday night, meaning I got to enjoy a rerun of Re/Place, a Chorlton Arts Festival project which I missed the first time round. Four local writers read creative responses to real places and landmarks around Chorlton and Trafford, conjuring new mental pictures of places many of the audience would have known well, which continued to linger and unsettle long after the night was over.

I went to see blogging Huddersfield postman Kevin Boniface read once again at Marble during Chorlton Arts Festival, and found his succinct observations about the characters, places and experiences he encounters on his rounds as fresh, funny, poetic and poignant as ever.

Trips 

I spent my birthday high above the Calder Valley at pretty, cobbled village Hepstonstall and the dramatic wooded, hillside Hardcastle Crags. Heptonstall met with my approval by containing a village museum staffed by local eccentrics, which told stories of civil war, elaborate fraud, clogs and strange games; at least one pub well-stocked with real ale and cider; and the most picturesquely situated row of prefabs in Britain.

Despite being put off by the distance and the cost, I finally visited Portmeirion, accompanied by a big fan of cult TV series the Prisoner. I wasn’t prepared for quite how kitsch and colourful the town itself was, and the contrast with its scenic wooded, watery setting. 

I’d long wanted to visit Barrow-in-Furness, intrigued by its geographical isolation, islands and the way in which it had been shaped by the shipbuilding industry. On arrival, I couldn’t remember why I wanted to visit, and ended up being driven around in circles. Eventually, we drove across a bridge to one of the islands, where the terraces and industrial scenery of the main town, which is dominated by the huge BAE systems shed, changed abruptly in style to more spacious semi-detached housing and villas. It turned out this was Vickerstown, workers’ housing built by Vickers, one of the reasons I had wanted to visit.
After a trip to Sunderland – where I enjoyed a cliff-top walk past gnarled limestone formations – I made the pilgrimage to Peterlee, and picknicked by Victor Pasmore’s concrete, lakeside Apollo Pavilion on the hilariously named Sunny Blunts estate. I was pleased to see that the pavilion was well-populated by local youth, who were not just walking through it, but appeared to be holding meetings and even doing press-ups. True, the sunshine probably meant I saw Peterlee in its best light, but I was struck by how green and spacious it seemed, and the way in which the buildings interacted with the gently undulating landscape.
2015 was also the year I finally visited Coventry, to be overawed by the cathedral and see some 20th century murals in places such as the local Sainsbury’s, the exterior of a pub (William Mitchell) and a shopping centre (Gordon Cullen). Coventry felt to me far more like a northern European, than a British city, in its density and building style.

Inspired by the artists of Great Bardfield, many of whom were involved in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, I visited chocolate-box pretty Saffron Walden and the small Fry Art Gallery, which houses a lot of the work of the Great Bardfield artists. If ever a place in England lived up to the idea foreign tourists have in their heads – narrow streets, thatched cottages, colourful houses, village greens, etc – this is it. I also finally visited Essex University, one of the purpose-built post-war campuses, which combines interlocking, colour-coded buildings linked with series of steps with wide plazas and open, landscaped grounds containing a lake and sculptures. I had long wanted to visit, not just to see the architecture, but because my parents went to many gigs there when they lived in Colchester. I went to see the Fall there when I was in my mum’s womb and apparently ‘went mad jumping about’ as my dad pogoed into her.

Shrewsbury, meanwhile, struck me as one of the greenest and most genteel cities in Britain. With a river running through the centre, it seemed to me to be a city built around parks, trees and green space.

Swims 

I’ve continued to seek out old, interesting and exciting swimming pools, from Bedminster’s small, friendly and slightly scruffy around the edges neighbourhood pool Bristol South Baths, to Bath’s spectacularly decadent Thermae spa complex, where the roof-top pool provided a place to contemplate the city’s skyline through the rain of a cold November day. I also got the train to Antwerp (en route to Rotterdam) to swim in a restored art deco pool in a multicultural area of the city, contemplated two huge, groovy, tiled poolside murals in Halifax’s modernist municipal pool, where interlinked patterns of fish, butterflies and dragonflies depict life below and on the surface of the water, and swam in a light-filled Olympic-size pool in Coventry. I also experienced the full luxury and relaxation of a Turkish Baths experience in Harrogate.
I also had two of the most bracing and invigorating wild swims I’ve ever had, in green, translucent, sparkling Cumbrian rivers, clambering over rocks to swim near the waterfall at Skelwith Bridge, and being driven over a mountain on high, narrow roads to swim in a gorge at Birks Bridge, near Duddon that was so atmospheric it was almost unreal. By contrast, the clear waters of Pickmere, surrounded by the trees of Delamere forest, were positively balmy. 
Cycle rides 

I went on a series of cycle rides in the summer that I’d long wanted to do just to know it was possible. I’d long wanted to cycle through the Cheshire lanes, and decided Tatton Park would be a good place to aim for – along the Mersey, over a bridge to cross the border into Cheshire, through the jumble of estates on the outskirts of the city that are Northenden and Wythenshawe, through leafy Altrincham, and then finally along winding country roads that were much more hilly than I expected.

Many times when I’ve got the train to Rochdale and I’ve seen the canal passing through the fields that break up the former mill towns between Manchester and Rochdale, I’ve wanted to follow it to Rochdale. I finally got the chance one hot June day, following the regenerated canal through Ancoats and onwards through inner-city Manchester, over the M60, along back routes through towns and into the countryside, before coming off at Castleton onto busy roads. I was, kindly, offered a bottle of Lucozade by two men in a van stopped at traffic lights; they said I looked tired.

I’ve often cycled along the Ashton Canal to Ashton before, but long wanted to continue along one of the other canals it meets at Portland Basin. After struggling to pick up the canal, which was dwarfed by a large ASDA, I followed the Huddersfield Narrow Canal as far as Stalybridge.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Shrieking Violet guide to the public art of central Salford



This guide was created as a tour for a group of human geography undergraduates in November 2015. This tour aims to offer a brief introduction to the historical context and development of public art, and some of the debates, concerns and issues surrounding it, asking questions such as ‘What is public art?’ and ‘What form does it take?’.

The guide takes as its starting point the post-war era, widely regarded a time artworks began to step down from the gallery plinth to be installed in public places and buildings, though many of them used the same form and materials, and relied on the same assumed distance between artwork and viewer, and framework of interpretation, as artworks which might be seen in a traditional institutional setting. It concludes in the present-day. The guide moves from a presentation of object-based artworks to highlighting artworks which are ephemeral, activity and performance-based, and may leave the viewer with little or nothing to look at on a permanent basis, but nonetheless contain the potential to transform the way their participants think about and experience the city, and interact with certain spaces and situations. On its way, the guide takes in artworks which aim to engage with communities and local people, as well as artworks linked with specific places and pieces linked with wider agendas of tourism and regeneration. 

It was assumed that students had little, if any, familiarity with the area, so this publication also acts as an introduction to an area of Salford which has undergone several phases of development, decline and renewal and is currently undergoing transformation and attempted gentrification at an accelerated pace. It starts at the University of Salford, progressing down the Crescent and Chapel Street. This guide draws on a number of sources, including original interviews undertaken with artists, curators and others involved in public art in the area and published elsewhere, including on this blog.

Thanks to those who came on the tour and interacted with, discussed and commented on the content. Read online:

Monday, 21 December 2015

Why I call myself the Shrieking Violet

I wrote this in response to a recent article in the Guardian about the decline of the name 'Nigel'.

Why I call myself the Shrieking Violet


I call myself the Shrieking Violet because of a man called Nigel: Nigel 'Nig' Hodgkins, my Year 9 English teacher, who had a bowl haircut, big, round glasses and a 'flying jacket' (and as a result was mocked a lot by the girls at my all girls' school for being hopelessly uncool). At the age of 13/14 I didn't say very much (didn't know how), but wrote copiously. My main ambitions in life were to be editor of the Times (the family newspaper of choice, and therefore my main source of cultural knowledge), a rock 'n' roll music journalist or on Top of the Pops (or possibly all of those).

A lot of the time I felt like if you weren't loud you were ignored, seen as being stupid or dismissed as having nothing worth saying, but Mr Hodgkins noticed that I did have things to say and once said he knew that I was 'no shrinking violet'. This stuck with me and I determined that I was going to be a 'Shrieking Violet' instead of a 'shrinking violet', and that I was one day going to have a band with that name. 

One day after class someone asked Mr Hodgkins who his favourite band was. He said 'oh you won't have heard of them' and wrote 'L-o-v-e' on the board. I loved them, and excitedly exclaimed 'I love Forever Changes'! It turned out Mr Hodgkins wrote for the Penguin Book of Rock & Pop in his spare time. I used to get the bus to Canterbury to go record shopping at weekends, so I started going and standing in the 'music' section of Waterstones, on the first floor, and reading 'Nig Hodgkins'' entries in the Penguin Book of Rock & Pop – which included Pixies, Beach Boys, Husker Du and Public Enemy. 

After a couple of years Mr Hodgkins left our school. He'd always said that the '80s were the worst decade for music, which I vehemently disagreed with (I still think the eighties might be my favourite decade for music), so as a leaving present I made him a tape of my favourite '80s songs, called, of course, 'Making Plans for Nigel' (I stretched '80s slightly to include 1979/1990). I first heard 'Making Plans for Nigel' when I taped it off Steve Lamacq's Evening Session, and it's still one of my favourite ever songs, with one of my favourite ever guitar solos (when I moved to Manchester they used to play it at Smile at the Star and Garter, and I used to think of Mr Hodgkins as I danced around).

The last time I saw Mr Hodgkins was at the Canterbury Fayre music festival, when I was 16, in the summer holidays after my GCSEs (the same summer holidays I spent recording my first ever album, on cassette tape), out in the rolling Kentish countryside surrounded by hop fields. Love were headlining, playing Forever Changes in its entirety, complete with horns and strings, and it's one of the most transcendent musical experiences I can ever remember having, ferocious and mellow at the same time, of its time but also still so forceful and so bright and fresh. Arthur Lee died a couple of years later, so I'm so glad I got the chance to experience it. I still wear the Love t-shirt I bought at the festival, which is increasingly washed out and ragged but I intend to keep wearing it until it falls apart.

I hope Mr Hodgkins is still writing about music and going to gigs and being passionate and inspiring about what he does!

The Shrieking Violets on Bandcamp

I recently digitised the first album I ever made, on cassette tape, when I was 16, during the summer holidays after my GCSEs. It was recorded in my parents' attic, in a very rudimentary fashion, on a Sony shoebox recorder. It can now be listened to at https://theshriekingviolets.bandcamp.com/album/first-album. I'm not sure why I felt the need to put it online, except that I guess it's the first thing I ever made, by myself, just got on with, produced, because I had to, needed to. For that reason it's still my most treasured possession.


By way of introduction, here is a piece I wrote about my teenage music-making for Black Dogs' publication Hope From Dead End Town a few years ago.


'A View from (under) the Bridge': a short story about growing up weird

I grew up in a small town called Hythe on the south coast of England, a picturesque and pleasant, yet quiet, town nestled between the English Channel and rolling Kent countryside which is populated predominantly by two groups of people: pensioners and Conservative voters. Hythe is in the south eastern corner of England, not really on the way to anywhere, and it's a place where time passes slowly; when I was a teenager, the social life of one group of old men consisted of sitting in a row on one of the town's bridges for a chat at the same time every day, resting halfway between home and the shops, their walking sticks propped up on the pavement. As a child who was never conventionally pretty, girly or interested in subjects deemed fitting topics for discussion by teenage girls, I didn't really fit in there, or at my all girls' school a twenty minute bus-ride away, and as much as I tried to make friends my overall experience was of overwhelming loneliness, from which I tried doggedly to distract myself by making music and art.

In my early teens I became obsessed with playing the guitar, both as an outlet for my creative frustration and as something to do to pass the time. I asked for an acoustic guitar for my fourteenth birthday, and when my mum and dad took me to a guitar shop in the nearest city, Canterbury, I knew that the black Fender I picked up, so shiny I could see my face in its surface, was the guitar for me; it was love at first sight. Later, I talked them into buying me a hard, black guitar case lined with what looked liked luxurious red velvet, a fitting home for my precious instrument, and was given a hippyish, rainbow-woven guitar strap which contrasted nicely with its stylish, unbroken blackness.

I took to lugging the guitar everywhere with me as if it was my best friend, the awkward, slippery handle of the heavy case wearing red marks into my hands as I wandered around the town from spot to spot, an unlikely, roving busker singing songs no-one else knew the words to. I tried to play songs like Shake Some Action by Californian band Flamin Groovies (with lyrics like "If you don't dig what I say/Then I will go away/And I won't come back this again. No/'Cause I don't need a friend”, Shake Some Action was the rousing, defiant anthem of my teenage disaffection, and it's a song I still play from time to time today), and underage romance 13 by Big Star, little realising that potential listeners wanted something familiar they could hum along to like the Beatles or Oasis. I clung onto the hope, however, that if only someone who shared my love of sixties and seventies American power pop would walk past one day and stop and talk to me, I'd finally meet someone with whom I had something in common, and find a companion.

I used to sit and play on a smooth worn step in front of the town hall, my legs dangling down onto the paving slabs of the High Street, struggling to make my voice heard over the uninterested shoppers, or on the uncomfortable, stony beach and the distinctive, pink-painted promenade which ran alongside it, and sometimes on the gently sloping banks of the historic, tranquil Royal Military Canal which meanders placidly through the town, built centuries ago to defend the Kent coast from the threat of invasion by Napoleon, amid daffodils and swans and under the shade of weeping willow trees.

One day I decided to take this to its logical conclusion and go and sit and play under one of the bridges which takes cars and pedestrians over the canal, to find out how it echoed, and make some recordings on my portable 'shoebox-style' recorder. I was inspired partly by my favourite guitarist at the time, John Fahey, who wrote a piece of music based on a 'singing bridge' in Memphis, Tennessee (as a teenager, I spent a disproportionate amount of time daydreaming about visiting the Southern States of the United States, inspired both by its completely alien landscape and the potential for adventures suggested to me by its literature and music), and in part by the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson, another hero of mine, joins saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy in a jam on a moonlit bridge, an homage to the famous story of jazz musician Sonny Rollins practising on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York over on the equally remote, exciting and exotic East coast of America. Despite my parents' concern – they teasingly called me 'troll', and warned me of vermin and the dangers of waterborne Weil's disease – I became obsessed with going and sitting, alternating depending on whichever took my fancy that day, under two facing bridges at opposite ends of the town centre. I found the bridges to be perfect practice rooms to experiment with different sounds and try out the metal and glass slides and capo I'd bought from the nearby music shop in the High Street, which was run by one eccentric, opinionated man who would talk your ear off if given half a chance. Eventually, I put voice to my own songs and lyrics.

For me, the bridges were both private and a magical places, giving me space to sit, think and watch the world go by. In sunshine, I watched elusive ripples of light dance above me, reflected on the bridges' low roofs, trying again and again to capture the fleeting dashes of sunlight and recreate the essence of the place as short films on my digital camera. In stormy weather, rain and hail fell onto the surface of the water in small circles and the bridges became my refuge from thunder and lightning, an experience I found more exciting than frightening. I was usually undisturbed, save from occasional hired rowing boats going past bearing noisy families and the occasional sunburnt couple, some of whom appeared to be pleased by my music, which must have broken up the physical monotony of their oar strokes, and some of whom didn't seem sure how to react.

For a couple of years, it felt like I spent all my weekends and summer holidays under bridges – so much so that I even had my sixteenth birthday party down there and convinced some of my classmates to get the bus into Hythe to join me, eating cake and sheltering from the half-hearted rain of a mid-May day.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Free Precarious Passages readings at Central Library for Manchester Literature Festival, Tuesday 20 October

I will be reading from my piece of writing about cycling the A6 as part of a Manchester Left Writers event at Central Library for this year's Manchester Literature Festival on Tuesday 20 October. Members of Manchester Left Writers will be reading from their Precarious Passages series of call-and-response creative and experimental writing, accompanied by a selection of films from the North West Film Archive.

Tickets are free and can be booked at www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/events/precarious-passages-36850.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Three years of Bolton’s international neo:artprize: “Why leave it to the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery?”

I was recently asked to write a promotional feature about the annual neo:artprize, highlighting the artist-led ethos behind it. I visited neo:studios in Bolton, where I was given a tour and talked to neo:artprize co-founder Jason Simpson about the growth of the group and the way in which they have built up an alternative art scene in the town.
Three years of the neo:artprize

Every artist wants to get their work seen but it can be difficult for emerging artists to feel that they’re reaching out to an audience and not making art for non-existent viewers or indifferent eyes. It was the desire to showcase its members’ work to a wider audience that motivated Bolton-based studio group neo:artists to establish the neo:artprize in 2012, an acclaimed open submission competition which attracts artists from across the globe and is judged by leading figures in the art world.

“What everyone in the arts wants is exposure,” explains neo:artprize co-founder and neo:studios director Jason Simpson, a University of Bolton alumnus. “That’s what neo:artists has been about right from the very beginning. Artists want to be part of a group that is doing something, and we want to build up a reputation on the arts scene. We want to connect with other groups so that they feel confident working with us after seeing what we can do.” By inviting “the type of judges who artists want to see their work” – this year the painter Ian Davenport, the Serpentine Gallery’s Exhibitions Curator Amira Gad, South London Gallery Director Margot Heller and Helen Pheby, Senior Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park – the neo:artprize creates opportunities for all entrants, not least increased visibility. “Even if they don’t become a finalist, an artist’s work, having been seen, is there in the judges’ psyche. Although the competition is judged blind, a judge can ask if they want to know the name of a particular artist,” explains Jason. It’s about building recognition: “If the judge sees work again in another context they’ll know they’ve seen it somewhere else before.”

Neo:artists comprises 38 artists, with a wider membership of 80, working across all media, who are based around a sociable two floors of former office space in Bolton town centre and have access to impressive shared resources such as a print room and wood workshop, in addition to ceramics, sculpture and photography facilities at the University of Bolton. Ranging from graduates from the university’s MA courses to artists with many years of exhibiting and organising experience, there is a waiting list for the studios. It’s not just about making – members also curate, exhibit in and invigilate the group’s own gallery, a surprisingly spacious former retail unit in the Market Place Shopping Centre across the road. Neo:gallery has hosted more than 200 shows over the past six years and previews attract hundreds.

In a town where many of the public think state funding for the arts represents a diversion of money from services such as hospitals, Jason takes genuine pleasure in increasing enjoyment of art among local people. “We are the contemporary art scene in Bolton,” he explains. “A large number of adults come in who have never been to an art gallery before, so there’s a lot of resistance. Young men wander in on the phone and ask us ‘what’s this?’. The most common comment is ‘my six-year-old could have done this’. But kids get the concept and they explain it to their parents. If we keep doing this we can have a massive impact on a generation in Bolton.” Jason sees the neo:artprize as ”a natural progression”.

Now in its third instalment, the prize alternates biannually with the neo:printprize, acknowledging the strength of the group’s print room. Although artists from Greater Manchester and the North West have been well-represented in previous years’ shows, including writer, artist and curator Mike Chavez-Dawson and Manchester Metropolitan University MA graduate Hannah Leighton-Boyce, there have been submissions from Germany, America and Malaysia so far this year. As well as giving artists from the region greater exposure by going beyond geographical boundaries and showing “you don’t have to be in London or Manchester to succeed”, it brings new work, artists and ideas to Bolton.

Neo:artprize also highlights the value of financial support for the arts and the necessity of improving the “affordability of being an artist”. It offers much-needed resources in the form of not just a cash prize but grants for materials, donated by local businesses, and a neo:residency prize. The winner of neo:residency accesses a twelve-week residency in Bolton, tapping into an artists’ ecology that includes not just studio space at neo:studios but a close relationship with the University, which Jason describes as a “win-win situation”. In the case of printmaker Dana Ariel, who undertook the residency in between finishing her Master’s at London’s Slade School of Art and returning to the school to start a PhD, it enabled her to focus on creating work outside the pressures of an academic course and to explore a new direction in her practice. As well as becoming immersed in a new place – Jason taught Dana, who is from Israel, “how to drink real ale” – Dana took the opportunity to network and show her work in the North West, as well as gaining experience of delivering masterclasses and artists’ talks with local students, blossoming into an ongoing relationship with the town.

Neo:artists have emerged from the shadow of long-established studio groups in nearby Manchester and are now working towards funding their own building and contemporary art centre. In the meantime, the neo:artprize continues to go from strength to strength. Crucially, it continues to be artist-led. “Why should prizes always be run by organisations?”, asks Jason. “Why leave it to the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery?” As neo:artists have shown over the past three years, “If it’s an artists’ prize it should be artists running it.”

The deadline for submissions to the neo:artprize is Monday 18 May 2015. For application criteria, terms and conditions and to upload work online, visit www.neoartists.co.uk/artprize2015.asp

Finalists will be exhibited at neo:gallery from 27 August-1 November 2015.

Monday, 6 April 2015

'Doing the Longsight dash': Manchester Left Writers 'Precarious Passages' collaboration on cycling the A6

Last year I started attending the meetings of a new publishing and discussion group called Manchester Left Writers and I recently, finally did my first piece of writing. It's a collaboration with Steve Hanson focused on our experiences of the A6, one of the busiest roads in and out of Manchester and the main link between Manchester and Stockport, as part of a series called 'Precarious Passages'. Precarious Passages act as poetic call and responses between two writers, reflecting on the everyday lived experiences of our times and our cities. I spent about six months thinking about my experiences of the A6, which I cycle down between two and five times a week to and from Manchester (it's pretty central to the way I experience and pass through the city), and compiling my thoughts and observations (some of this is now out-of-date, eg Tesco Metro's been back in action a while now, and the Arcadia's gone). As a result what I wrote (posted in full below) was inevitably far too long and rambling. A heavily edited version appears side by side with Steve Hanson's musings on experiencing the same road on the 192 bus, one of Manchester's major (and notorious) bus routes. The full version, PP002, can be accessed online here. There are also paper copies available, which will eventually be distributed at various points along the A6.

Although the piece might seem slightly negative in tone, I find cycling exhilarating and it's generally the high point of any day, when I feel most alive, and it's also my time for thinking and working things out in my head. I find it to be a very intense experience, both psychologically and physically, but I think it's one that always does me a lot of good. (My entry to the recent #MCRWomenbike competition is at the bottom.)

A6

2015 started, like so many nights have ended in this city, with me dancing by myself on a near-empty dance floor in a night-club where music never got much better than the 1980s. The club faces the furthest platform of the city’s mainline railway station; indeed, it looks likely that the station’s imminent expansion will be the end point of the venue’s years of decline. Past the station runs the A6, London Road, heading out of the city for the south. As it goes beyond edge of the city centre, the A6 becomes Stockport Road, heading for the suburbs, crossing the imperceptible line from Lancashire to Cheshire, passing through the centre of the next large town along, Stockport, then on towards the hills of Cheshire and Derbyshire.

Tell people you live in Stockport and the A6 is your route into town and other cyclists – and drivers – wince. “Rather you than me,” their faces say. “Be careful,” they say to your face, particularly, as tonight, when they realise that you fully intend to cycle home, post-dance at 3am, having weighed it up and decided that cycling is the cheapest, safest, most direct and quickest option (the local rail operator is unofficially known as ‘Northern Fail’).

To leave the city you pass under the Mancunian Way. Manchester is more than a city of mills and textiles, redbrick and the humble terrace. Yes, Manchester is a Victorian city, but it could, it should, be seen as so much more than this. Manchester’s ‘highway in the sky’ won a 1968 Concrete Society Award, commemorated in block, almost Pop, lettering on its own unlikely concrete plaque. It soars over Oxford Road and Upper Brook Street as the bustle of student life goes on below, coming down to land at the heart of UMIST (aka North Campus, once the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology). At UMIST, the white-painted labs and towers, complete with subtly abstract murals by the likes of Victor Pasmore, have become grubby through the fumes of arterial roads like the A6, which pass by. Today, these monuments to science, education, industry and technology are static and empty as the university concentrates its resources on the southern campus areas. This is now prime city centre real estate awaiting redevelopment, probably to contribute to the sacred industry in Manchester today: hotels. More hotels. Manchester is becoming a city built on hotels: convert old buildings or flatten. The sweeping, office-like Macdonald hotel on the A6 was once a piece of the communications industry but is now a hotel. The old Twisted Wheel Northern Soul nightclub back down the A6 in the city centre, a modest redbrick, wasn't so lucky.

If the rest goes, the Hollaway Wall, at the London Road end of the A6, is all that will stand of UMIST. Blink and you’ll miss it as you whizz past on wheels. A grubby chunk of jagged concrete wall which has both a sculptural and a functional role as a sound buffer, it’s listed due to its association with modernist sculptor Antony Hollaway, who was innovative in his time but not a household name. This was the future, but it was cut short. The Mancunian Way comes to an abrupt stop just past the threshold of the city centre, a diving board going nowhere. Today, its underpasses provide havens for skaters and the homeless as the city goes on overhead at a different speed.

Then on past Downing Street, a far cry from its London namesake. This is the inner-city. The A6 leads into Ardwick, and a small green patch among the fumes, Ardwick Green, with its erratic boulder, a remnant of an ancient time. Georgian, genteel, tranquil and elegant, the Green and its surrounding streets feel like a lagooned island from a different age. Once, this was the edge of the city’s sprawl and not a triangle caught between a petrol station with a Tesco appended onto the side, derelict industrial buildings, and an insalubrious-looking nightclub.

Past Big Bird, the local Jamaican takeaway van, and Ardwick turns into Longsight, with modern St Luke’s Church standing like a sail on the border between the two. In 2012, conceptual artist Martin Creed tried to herald the start of the London Olympics by getting the entire country ringing with bells for three minutes from 8.12am on a Friday morning. It is fair to say that Manchester did not ring with bells. St Luke’s was the only church in the city to take part, and it turns out St Luke’s doesn’t even possess its own bells. At 8am the vicar reached into a wooden cupboard, pulled out a cassette tape marked ‘Births and marriages’ on one side and ‘Deaths’ on the other, and a portable player was set to blast out the sounds of a dying format and a dwindling institution. A couple of ladies emerged in pink fluffy dressing gowns, venturing onto the front door steps of nearby houses, more confused and affronted than aware they were taking part in what was meant to be a mass, participatory public art project. The non-event was celebrated unofficially with a Twitter hashtag: #noneofthebells. Conceptual art doesn't often venture this far out of town.

Across the road is Sunny Lowry Way, not a street but a passageway leading into an estate, named after a local heroine associated with nearby High Street Baths who swam the channel and taught many schoolchildren to swim. Famous for a training regime of 8-egg omelettes, and press images showing her brawn cutting through the waves, a larger than life personality has been reduced to a high-up sign on a nondescript road. Sunny’s generation would find much of this area unrecognisable. Slum clearance. Moving out to Cheshire. On the left stands Daisy Mill, one of the few reminders of the mills and factories that once dominated the skyline. One hulking mass of a building survives, still hoarding all that land, which the council hopes can soon be knocked down to make room for a new school. There’s a population boom. Manchester is a fast-growing city.

I feel for Sunny. Cycling the A6 feels like a feat of endurance too, at times, a gradual uphill slog. I’m never quite the fastest, overtaken by the hi-vis, year-round shorts wearing brigade. Stickers on buses warn ‘Do not overtake on the left’: hang back, or stick your arm out to pass. Buses have ploughed these roads for years, leaving ridges like black volcanic lava which has melted and set in strange formations. This combines with pot holes, broken glass and hub caps to make it a bumpy ride, with bits of old carpet and abandoned umbrellas, scrunched up like the defensive position of a dead spider, gathering at the side of the road. Other bikes crawl along, black clothes and no lights. Do they have a careless attitude to safety or are they just ignorant? Many glide through the red lights but for me, on this stretch of road, traffic lights provide a welcome respite. A chance to stop, to blow my nose and breathe. You lurch to a stop and wheedle towards the Advance stop line, a dedicated space for cyclists to make themselves seen by positioning themselves ahead of the traffic at junctions: there are supposedly fines for those whose wheel crosses the line. However, it’s something taxi drivers need not observe, exempt, as they are, from all the rules of the road.

A man at the junction has stopped too, buffered from the cold and wind in corduroy, a wool hat and a puffer jacket. He holds up a sign, “Jesus Christ: the same today, yesterday and forever.” Optimism, obliviousness – or sheer blind faith? Past Plymouth Grove, where Elizabeth Gaskell's house once stood at the edge of the city. Where we now walk was once all farms and opposite is the Plymouth Grove pub, once home to a modern-day cannabis farm. It’s next to Grove Village, New Labour’'s flagship PFI, where new homes back right up to the main road. You get the sense that these too were political ideas just passing through.

On the main strip in Longsight, the confetti of city life – the rainbow hues of free advertising inserts for discounters like Asda and nearby Lidl – blows across the pavements, and skitters across the road. Foreign language communications dance with local news, but nobody's paying any attention to any of them. In high winds, a carrier bag blows into my back wheel. I stop and spend a good ten minutes disentangling disintegrating plastic fragments from my greasy chain. A number of shops offer threading and waxing,the beauty industry making money off women's insecurities, but it’s also a place for a spot of shopping for those in the know. Authenticity. “Go to Longsight for the best coriander,” I’m told. They sell it by the bunch. Better than the flat, sad, plasticky leaves sold by the greengrocers or the supermarket down the road. The smell of fresh produce mingles with the dingy street smell of grease and grime, incense mixed in with clay ovens.

The locals use a method of crossing, particularly when emerging from the spaces in between parked cars, or from behind buses, I mentally term the ‘Longsight dash'. It’s practised by those with no time nor energy to walk to the crossing: young men, groups in religious dress, mothers and grandmothers clutching tiny hands in oversized uniforms, and the pushers of prams. We all know the pedestrian code: look both ways before crossing the road. They look. They see you, and decide to cross anyway. The young men in particular have perfected the move: head down, body bent slightly, ready for a dash propelled partly by shame, partly by defiance.

A large sign advertises Elliot's Car, van and helicopter hire. This area is transitory, a place that is passed through by a changing population. As you get into Levenshulme you pass numerous buildings reappropriated as ‘colleges’ offering 'ESOL for a diploma’ and, more importantly ‘ESOL for citizenship', ‘Home Office-approved’. “Welcome to your new job.” An arts and technology college, a school for business, performance and music, in what appears to be a converted pub, for those who don’t know what they want to do but know they that they should do something. At one, above fast-food joint ‘Foodies’, English learning takes place with the pungent smell of onions and what increasingly seems to be the national dish of choice, fried chicken, in the background. Knife and fork cross arms in a defiant gesture with a sticker in each window urging: ‘Don't Cook, Just Eat.’ The local Tesco Metro has been ‘closed for refurbishment’ for some time, though this is the understatement of the year. The roof was rendered a skeleton by fire, and the front was been hidden behind hoardings for several months, meaning the groups of schoolgirls waiting to cross the road in hijabs every morning had to find somewhere else to get their pre-class snack.

Nearby the former Arcadia skating rink, being flattened for a new sports centre and swimming pool, has a hidden claim to fame. The most famous tramp of them all, Charlie Chaplin, may have once attended Bennett Primary School down the road in Ardwick. Chaplin's Wikipedia page neither corroborates nor denies this. It merits no mention – a passage from his life brushed from memory, or urban myth, local wishful thinking? What's certain is that he was drawn back later, to skate at the Arcadia. The site of the suburb current baths sits opposite Levenshulme Library, incubator for one of Levenshulme’s more famous sons, architect Sir Norman Foster who, too, seems to dwell little on his Mancunian past. He too just passed through. Local to global. Global to local.

The area is seen as up-and-coming now, but many of the shops are still improbably specialist: ‘Snooker & Pool tables and accessories’. Manchester might be seen as a big city to some, but to me it feel like a village. I receive emails from colleagues saying they saw me ‘whizz past’, exchange a fleeting smile with acquaintances, get shouted at from moving cars and say a quick ‘hi’ as friends out walking their dog stop at the traffic lights. But there’s still a near-constant sound of sirens. It’s disorientating as they creep up behind you, sounding like they’re coming at you from all angles. I’ve started to feel like I hear them at all times now, a kind of sensory perception before the even start, like an early warning, a phantom limb. Another sensory overload comes from the party car, pulling up alongside you at the junction with its blacked out windows, emitting the rich, spicy smell of cannabis and hip-hop rhythms over bass-heavy beats. You hope the driver's not high off passive smoking. The lights change. The streamline shape is already straight off the mark, zooming off into the distance, as the cars behind struggle to jerk and splutter back into gear.

As the A6 creeps into suburbia, the road widens, a gradual incline towards those hills in the distance. Victorian house conversions, flat piled on top of flat, thin out into neat, polite 1930s semis for families in cul-de-sacs and back routes, with the odd solid detached. The houses start to retreat further back from the road. No-one is going in or out. They never do. Their lives are lived to the rhythm of commuter jobs – and perhaps they get all their shopping delivered too. The street signs change as you leave Manchester to enter another town. Stockport Road becomes Wellington Road North. But it's the smell that says, more than any municipal road sign: 'You are now in Stockport.' As you pass the McVitie’s factory on the edge of Stockport, industrial strengths and quantities of classic baking ingredients mingle in the most intense olfactory hit of sugar, butter and chocolate chips you'll ever experience. Digestives, the nation's favourite, heightened into a smell that is overpowering and all-pervasive.

The next day I read in the Manchester Evening News that there was a new year’s drama on the Stagecoach bus I’d nearly caught. Held up by a gunman in Longsight. Perhaps it’s better I took the bike after all.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Shrieking Violet issue 23 and fifth birthday party at Castlefield Gallery, Thursday 14 August

The Shrieking Violet 'zine is five, and will be celebrating with a mini-birthday party at Castlefield Gallery on Thursday August 14 (turn up and drink cocktails, eat cake and look at the current exhibition as part of the gallery's one-off late-night opening) from 6-9.30pm.

North West-based designer and curator Robert Carter, who contributed the cover design, has work on display in Castlefield's current exhibition, I Would Like to Join a Club and Hit Myself With It, until Sunday August 17. The image, by an unknown artist (though possibly a member of La Libre Esthétique, an artistic society formed in 1893 in Belgium), is taken from the periodical Arte et décoration, Volumes 1-2, 1897, encountered whilst undertaking research for the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Abuse of Books' upcoming exhibition Butterworth at the Anthony Burgess Centre (opening on Thursday August 14). Robert has worked with a number of artist-led projects, including Auto Italia South East (London), Malgras|Naudet and Lionel Dobie Project (both Manchester). He was editor of the kuboaa publication from 2011-2012 and is currently co-curating a pilot programme at The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books with Daniel Fogarty and Lauren Velvick. Robert and fellow Manchester artist Monty, who also has work in I Would Like To Join a Club and Hit Myself With It, also contribute 'A structure for standing' (2012), a drawing of a wall structure Robert made for an exhibition that he then got another artist to draw on in situ – a still life of an exhibition.

In the meantime, copies (printed by Marc) are on sale in Piccadilly Records and Cornerhouse bookshop, Manchester, costing £2. Alternatively, download and print a copy here or read online:



Listen online to an interview about the Shrieking Violet's fifth birthday on Fiona Ledgard's Anything Goes breakfast show on Manchester's All FM radio station, broadcast on Thursday August 14 (9am-10.30am), alongside a number of tracks inspired by self-publishing, DIY culture and Shrieking Violet content past and present:



In issue 23:

Claire Hignett explores the story of a group of 1930s Basque children in Salford. Claire is an artist interested in the transience and accumulation of memory, using textiles as a means to express the erosion and piecing together of memory and its beautiful fragility. She is particularly intrigued by the way we attach memory to objects, creating souvenirs of our past. Stumbling on the story of the Basque children has sparked an interest in the period between the wars, which she intends to mine for her own creative projects on memory. She earns her living as a community artist and facilitator.

Stephen Marland documents some of the varied former Co-operative premises of Greater Manchester, many of which have found new and diverse uses. Stephen was a van lad, BR goods guard, gardener, taught photography for thirty years and took early retirement in order to explore the world on his bicycle. He also takes pictures. Stephen is interested in almost everything and has recently started a blog dedicated to bus stops in Greater Manchester and beyond.

Adrian Slatcher, who has poetry and fiction in the Rialto, Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and Unthology 4, delves into the secret history of the synthesiser. Adrian blogs at artoffiction.blogspot.com and makes electronic music as Bonbon Experiment.

Artist Jade Montserrat explores art and gender with reference to the recent AGender conference in Leeds. Jade is currently based at Islington Mill, Salford, where she is continuing to research and develop work issuing from a project called 'Josephine and The Rainbow Tribe'. Her practice includes printmaking, books, performance, writing, sculptural objects and installations, which are generated through the merging of opposite processes, both revealing and concealing information.

Rob Jackson, a cartoonist from Bolton, takes a trip to Fleetwood, Lancashire. Rob, whose day job is making and selling home-made ice cream, has also self-published a lot of comics over the years.

Kyle Baddeley-Read, who used to live in Manchester but now lives in Norwich, contributes his latest comic. Kyle spent a few years writing and drawing the absurdist comic saga Silent V, and is now co-editor of the sci-fi anthology RhiZome.

This issue also features poetry by Kenn Taylor, a writer and journalist from Merseyside who now lives in Yorkshire. He has a particular interest in the relationship between community, culture and the urban environment.

Manchester-based filmmaker and musician Richard Howe continues his series on mental health in the movies with 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. Richard is currently co-editing the films ‘Realitease’, and ‘The Were Squirrel’. Tweet him about films @rikurichard and watch short films about a variety of things at http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1tCl13aUbRbNSatyCAKNOw and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28W8muNaik0.

Steve Connor, co-founder and CEO of Creative Concern, contributes a summer recipe for satay tofu and aubergine skewers. Steve does a lot of writing and brand-related work and helps make campaigns happen for organisations working on sustainability, climate change, regeneration, culture and a whole bunch of other issues, together with a talented team of 20-plus people at Creative Concern and with a host of other gifted people across England and the rest of the world.