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Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.

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Burning Bright

For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.

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I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.

Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.

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John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.

Narrative building blocks

Students of architecture and urban planning know all about “reading” buildings – how their design and utility are matters not just of bricks and mortar but of time, space, place and communities. For me, not being schooled in those theories, buildings are anyway a source of fascination. I love to take pictures of whatever notable architecture I stumble across, finding it as interesting to photograph as people. Looking through a lens, you get a sense of what a structure represents at the same time as you interpret it subjectively. A combination of physical, elemental, and human properties affect how a building and its surrounding spaces are created, adapted, imagined, and used; these embed it within real and fictional narratives, which metamorphosise and mutate over time.

Carefully composed – but mutable

There are countless examples in literature of buildings given a (usually symbolic) life of their own – Miss Havisham’s Satis House, Kafka’s Schloß, Henry James’s “Bly”, and (a personal favourite) Castle Dracula, to name a few. Certainly the deeper characters of buildings are most obvious in Gothic literature and in ghost stories, murder mysteries and historical novels, where the locations, often dripping with mediaevalism, are full of trapdoors, tunnels, mirrors, secret passages and crypts: clear metaphors for human behaviours, psychologies, and the mystical. In 1987, Will Eisner, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel, published “The Building”. Evocative black pen and ink drawings accompany a story about the life of a building in New York city, interwoven with the ghostly tales of 4 of its diverse inhabitants. In its foreword he writes:

After many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical. When I was growing up in the turbulence of city life, it required only a surface alertness in order to deal with the welter of changes and experiences that sped by. There was little time to reflect on the rapid replacement of people and buildings. I took these things for granted. As I grew older and I accumulated memories, I came to feel more keenly about the disappearance of people and landmarks…I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul. I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction. And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.

In The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories , Edward Hollis details the histories of buildings that range from the Notre Dame de Paris and the Berlin Wall to Manchester’s very own Hulme Crescents (where apparently, “the prophecies of the future are fulfilled”). Sadly I can’t check out their London-inspired curves – the crescents, shoddily built, leaky, rife with cockroaches, mice, and crime were torn down in 1992, just 20 years after completion.

The wind blows through and weeds grow all around…

You might go down into the depths of a beautiful Roman Catholic or Norman Cathedral and be provided with reams of information about former inhabitants; in these spaces, the sense of history and meaning is palpable. But what about the more modest or easily overlooked spaces that fill so much of our environment, used and then forgotten? Everything we build or leave behind is full of stories and unknown memories.Wandering through the Old Quadrangle at Manchester University I was impressed with the buildings. Back home, I decided to photograph the little hut that sits in the over-grown back-garden. Probably nothing particularly interesting has ever happened in there; but for some reason its presence is one that I like, as I look out my bedroom window.

The Pen is still mightier

Last night I went along with some friends to a poetry recital at the Nexus Arts Cafe in the Northern Quarter. The event was called “Big Writing for a Small World” and was the showcase for work produced as a result of a creative writing workshop led by professional writer John Siddique and funded via English PEN. The authors were diverse in terms of nationality and also in terms of style, coming from Iran, Zimbabwe, China, England and Rwanda and reading work on a variety of themes – some light-hearted, others poignant and deep. Many of the authors are refugees or recent immigrants to the UK. As Mr Siddique pointed out in his introduction, sometimes being “milked for their stories” seems to be the entry fee for admission into Britain. His workshop was therefore about inspiring the writers to find and express them selves rather than creating something directly derived from whatever conflict or trauma they may have borne witness to.

Heaps of creativity...and sandwiches

All of the writing was very impressive, particularly the work of Elmi Ali, who is just 20 years old but whose poems have the wisdom and sensitivity of someone far older. Having grown up surrounded by sisters his instinctive poetic voice is, he says, a very female one. It’s an interesting challenge then to try and write from a “masculine” perspective – at the same time as embracing what he learned from his female relatives. Mahboobeh Rajabi‘s “My Maria”, a tribute to her sister, was genuinely touching, and Yinka Akintayo‘s “The Bag” (using the imagined voice of an over-stuffed handbag) had everyone laughing out loud. This morning, reading the anthology produced to celebrate the work of all “Big Writing” participants nationwide, I’ve found many more gems. If you want to discover them for yourself then you’re in luck – English PEN have uploaded the full collection to Scribd! 🙂

Girl Trying to Read

The scents of Christmas are hard to resist.

I wish I could describe to you the scents that permeate St. Anne’s Square right now. Going shopping for the last of my Christmas gifts, I walked through its busy festive market, the rain drizzling and natural light giving way to a constellation of LEDs. There, you are surrounded by fragrant, insistent aromas of vanilla, waffles, chocolate, cinnamon, coffee…as heavenly as any of the expensive perfumes I had tested out at Boots just half an hour before. Now, I say this as someone who loves a good perfume – but I do probably love food more!

Anyway, the reason I headed down that way today was to go and visit the café at Waterstone’s Bookshop. My plan was to retreat into that cosy little hideaway among 3 floors of books; to forget all about hunting for the right presents and order a delicious espresso. I had a book along in my bag, ready to draw me in to its company with an engagingly written and plainly laid out analysis of the future of narrative in cyberspace. Sadly, it seemed like everyone else had the same idea about where to go. I was just too late to get a seat. 😦 The sign outside may say that 2nd View is the city’s “best kept secret”. Well, if that was ever the case, it’s certainly not anymore. Too bad because their soup is gorgeous and they serve it with really generous chunks of fresh-baked bread. Sigh. But hey, at least I ended up buying yet another book to threaten the bookcase with! Girl Reading by Katie Ward. Ironic, don’tcha think?

Not exactly accurate...

On that theme: I am not sure if Katie Ward explores the relationship of her female portrait-sitters to the books themselves, as well as to the artists who paint them, but I can’t help thinking about how books – physical, smellable, wonderful books – have been the one constant source of fascination, discovery, challenge, comfort, escape, and countless other nouns/emotions/properties, ever since I was in my pram and couldn’t even read them. I must have had some inkling of that, because (ask my Mum) I clutched them tightly anyway. Being taught how to read and soon after how to interpret is equivalent to being armed with magic. The fact that so many people in Manchester chose to go to the bookshop today to relax is really something special. Even with ebooks and computer games and new forms of narrative gaining popularity and signalling (perhaps) a natural progression, some people will always love leafing through the “old-fashioned” paper kind. I hope so anyway, since at least a few books are among those Christmas presents…