Monday, 2 June 2014

Woman's Outlook talk, Cafe Kino, Bristol, Tuesday June 17, free

I've been invited by the lovely Roxy Brennan (Shrieking Violet issue 21 contributor and Two White Cranes singer), who programmes events at Cafe Kino in Bristol, to do my talk about the co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook at Cafe Kino on Tuesday June 17, 7pm, free.

Facebook event.



Woman's Outlook – a surprisingly modern magazine? 

For nearly five decades, Woman’s Outlook was the voice of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the campaigning organisation which worked to raise the status of women both in the co-operative movement and in society, and its onetime editor Mary Stott later became a longstanding editor of the Guardian women’s pages. From its origins in Manchester in 1919, Outlook provided an enticing mixture of articles addressing both the personal and the political, combining fashion, fiction, features and recipes with advice for working women – in many ways, not dissimilar to the content of women’s magazines today!

Woman’s Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine?’ will explore some of the key issues addressed in Outlook, and look at how the magazine encouraged women to get involved in campaigning for a better world. Topics covered by Outlook such as female representation in parliament, equal pay and healthy eating remain highly relevant today, and the talk will end by considering whether the type of content provided by 21st century women’s lifestyle magazines has really changed much since the days of Outlook.

Research for the talk was undertaken in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester, and I also conducted interviews with some inspiring women who were members of the co-operative women's movement at the time.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Introducing the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books, Salford, opening Thursday May 8

Books are an integral part of our communications and culture, from education and learning to enjoyment and leisure, but the content within them isn't always finished with as soon as the last page has been turned. A new library and publishing project in Salford goes beyond the idea of books as a closed matter, where the author has the definitive last word on the subject, by placing publications at the heart of an ongoing conversation and dialogue around words, images and ideas.

Based at Islington Mill, Salford, in May and June, before it moves on to other venues around Manchester and Salford for the duration of a six-month pilot programme, The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books is part reading-room, part-library and part publishing house, revolving around two-month cycles of collaborative residencies by artists, designers, writers and curators. Visitors will be invited in two days a week – each Thursday and Friday starting from Thursday May 8 – to browse a permanent reference library dealing with “books about books and books about collections of books”, as well as temporary libraries curated by practitioners from different fields, with the space also bookable by reading and discussion groups. This opportunity to read and share ideas will be complemented by information about the books as well as talks and other events which will provide a way to approach the ideas under consideration, as well as an exhibition or new piece of writing commissioned at the end of each residency. “It's a way of building up materials but it's also a feedback loop, rather than just regurgitating content,” explains artist Daniel Fogarty, a co-founder and director of the project. “Publishing takes in everything from the Sun newspaper to academic articles, so it's the perfect tool.”

Kicking off the programme is a library and series of talks selected by Manchester-based writer and promoter Marcus Barnett, which celebrate “all sorts of things relevant to what a 'DIY culture' could mean”. Selections include books published by Zer0 and Unkant, which Marcus describes as “shoestring operations run by really thrilling people who care”, with three books being launched during Marcus's residency: Robert Dellar's Splitting in Two: Mad Pride and Punk Rock Oblivion and Esther Leslie's Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage (Saturday May 10) and Agata Pyzik's Poor But Sexy (Wednesday May 14). Marcus explains that each author covers “with palpable excitedness post-punk, communism, cultural clashes and exchanges”, and that “all want another, better world from the mire of the old based on creation and excitement”. For Marcus, part of the appeal of the The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books was helping to address a perceived atomisation among different areas of DIY culture. “We're all in agreement that the type of people who create art, put on shows, play in the DIY music scene, write 'zines or read communist books are rarely in the same rooms and rarely deal with or socialise with each other, when generally speaking all of their creative output stems from similar desires of collective excitement and wanting things to be better,” he explains. Another event taking place is the second annual SPRING conference (Saturday May 17, £10/5), which brings together people from around the country to discuss the current status of leftist politics and provide another experience of the Left than “self-righteous idiot guys being smarmy at each other all day in empty rooms”. Among the speakers are Mark Fisher, Julian Stallabrass and Yassamine Mather, who Marcus describes as “really interesting people with colourful lives and perspectives”.

This bringing together of writers and artists, both from the local area and further afield, to forge connections between often disparate groups of practitioners and creators, is a key aim of the The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books. “Artists and activists usually talk about things in completely different ways, so we hope they can have a more productive conversation,” explains curator, writer and co-director Lauren Velvick. “We're going to be facilitating dialogue and not just waiting for it to happen.” Designer and curator Robert Carter, the third director, added that is hoped that a crossover in interests can be found: “We want to attract an audience based on the content of the books and events, not on loyalty,” he explains. “The first curated library, chosen by Marcus, is about ways of functioning and thinking about things and making things work, so it's going to attract critical writers and people who are politically active – but we are going to be inviting the same people to come to an exhibition of Daniel's work later in the project.”

The Exhibition for the Life and Use of Books initially grew out of a feeling that the Manchester art scene was too 'predictable and safe', lacked an impulse for critical conversation (perhaps inevitably given that exhibitions are often attended, curated and written about by people drawn from a relatively small group of friends, colleagues and peers) and did not provide a place for these kinds of ideas to express themselves. “There is a lot of art in Manchester that is either very grassroots, or museum and gallery-based,” explains Daniel, “but there is nothing in the middle and nothing that is supportive of activity on that level – the Manchester art scene doesn't do a good job at reaching out to other people, groups and institutions. There is a lot of that kind of activity in London but it sometimes doesn't feel like it is an option for people up here. The Lionel Dobie project set a good precedent, but you got the same people there who went to all the shows. We're bringing a critical dialogue to Manchester that's not immediate in some exhibitions.” Lauren added: “We're not afraid to be more politically committed and go beyond art and theory. We're bringing in people from outside who can be more critical and who aren't completely ensconced in the Manchester art scene where you have to support each other.”

The first six months of the project are very much about “a series of experiments to uncover unknowns” so the founders can encounter new people and ideas and “find out what kind of platform we want to make for artists and writers”, before a framework is found for the future of the project. Although one inspiration is London's X Marks the Bokship, which Rob says “created a type of accessible, common space where the material published occupied the grey area between exhibition, magazine, live event and thing you put on your shelf”, the organisers admit they don't know what's going to happen and say it's a case of trying out a number of different things and seeing what works. As Rob explains, “you can't just adopt a model from London and bring it to a different city. Its an excuse to do something different outside all the noise of London.” Lauren adds: “We will set set up a few boundaries and things that are definitely going to happen and the rest is just left to chance and who turns up. Quite a few people have already said they're looking forward to it and have been looking out for something like this.”

There will be an opportunity to get involved in the library at a Hackathon at Islington Mill (Saturday June 7). Also in June, Daniel will have an exhibition at nearby Artwork Salford (Thursday June 19-Thursday June 26), coinciding with a publication looking at design language. Later in the summer the second temporary library will be drawn from the collection of Manchester-based publisher Michael Butterworth and his science-fiction imprint Savoy Books, bringing together visual art and writing to discuss questions around creativity. Alongside this will be a residency by artist and designer Ann-Marie Milward, who uses weaving to translate sound and text into visuals. The final curator will be chosen following an open call.

As the project progresses, it is anticipated that it will move from pure text to more visually-engaged work, with Rob explaining that “people are becoming more sensitive to graphicacy – the visual equivalent of literacy” as people increasingly read online, and that the project is hoping to understand how shifts such as this affect learning. The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books aims to strike a balance between publishing digital and physical material, with Rob observing that even in the digital age publishing is more important than ever. “I know a lot of people who access material online but print it before reading it, he explains. “Everyone has got their own private publishing and editing process and journal, even if it's just bookmarking pages and links. Everyone organises their own collection of books in a way. We are creating a physical space, not just an online archive, and physically our presence will inform that process.”

The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books can be visited by appointment in the first floor common room at Islington Mill, James Street, Salford on Thursday May 8 and Friday May 9, and will be opening on the following Fridays and Saturdays throughout May and June. For more information about how to visit and get involved contact info@lifeanduseofbooks.org, visit www.lifeanduseofbooks.org or follow on Twitter @ECLUB_.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Interview with Huw Wahl, director, To Hell With Culture (free screening at Federation House, Thursday May 1, 7pm)

From poet, novelist and critic to anarchist, educational theorist and co-founder of the ICA, Herbert Read was known as many different things at different times. From the First World War until his death in the late-1960s Read was responsible for a prolific outpouring of books and essays, with many of his ideas pervading the way art, culture and education were seen in relation to society after the Second World War. However, despite being a towering figure at the time, today Read is far from being a household name. A new film by Manchester-based filmmaker Huw Wahl, which premiered at the ICA earlier this month, offers a portrait of that re-presents some of Read's ideas and invites the viewer to consider what currency they might still have today.

While Read wrote on everything from child art and industrial design to existentialism and Jungian psychology, Wahl's film, entitled To Hell With Culture, takes as its starting point Read's 1941 essay of the same name, which launched a searing critique of an elitist notion of 'culture' as something which is rarified and separate from the rest of society. Another equally rousing assertion, 'to hell with the artist', derides the concept of an artist as a special person who stands above other types of workers. Read's message, says Wahl,  “seems quite complicated but can be very simple”: culture isn't something to be collected and set aside to be accessed in museums, but it's there everyday, as an integral part of life, and every person has the capacity for creativity.

It was Read's take on creativity, and the direct terms in which it was stated, which attracted Wahl to the essay. “'To hell with the artist' is a wonderful thing to say,” he says. “It's a very powerful statement. I liked that a very meek and mild man wrote a very strong essay about how culture should be something you shouldn't really have to talk about, saying 'it's just there'.” He adds: “One interviewee in the film said 'he writes very good English', and the the way he writes about creativity is very vibrant and direct. He allows contradictions in what he's saying, but there's also some kind of continuity. It's different from a lot of writing today. A lot of writing now is very embedded in the institution and critical theory, post-modernism, structuralism, etc, whereas Read's was a very modernist, vital, loving way of writing.”

More than seventy years after To Hell With Culture was written, the film presents Read's ideas in aesthetic form, as a visual essay which draws a line from modernism to the present-day. Wahl went back through Read's archives at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, which houses correspondence and manuscripts, and his library, which is now held at the University of Leeds where Read studied, to get closer to the man and his ideas. A shy, bookish figure emerges, who was completely absorbed in his work and avoided the limelight; very little footage of Read exists. “He was a poet so he knew how to communicate, which was probably a good thing as he wasn't a charismatic man by today's standards of mouthy celebrities,” explains Wahl. “Although he has a lovely presence on film, gentle and deeply thoughtful, he wouldn't have been on the Culture Show. He was lucky to be around at the time of men of letters.”

Although Wahl is a member of the Manchester-based Castles Built in Sand collective, which takes an anthropological approach to film-making and culture, To Hell With Culture is his first solo venture into full-length film-making. Wahl embarked on the film at the start of 2013, shortly after finishing an MA in photography at the University of Central Lancashire. As well as interviewing members of Read's family, including his son, the art critic Benedict Read, Wahl spoke with artists who were directly influenced by Read. Among these were Canadian artist Luis Jacob, as well as Wahl's father Ken Turner, a painter, performance artist and co-founder of radical environmental art collective Action Space, which took art out of the gallery and into everyday life; Turner read and was inspired by Read's work in the 1950s.

Something else which comes across strongly in the film is Read's connection with the Yorkshire landscape, and his ideas about the authenticity of nature. “He was very patriotic as a Yorkshireman,” explains Wahl. “He was very rooted to that land and to nature.” The voices in the film are also punctuated by Read's poetry, including a reading by the Mersey Sound poet Brian Patten of 'My Company', a love poem about Read leading his company into battle at a young age during the First World War. “I've never really been into poetry,” admits Wahl, “but I really got it. I was really touched.”

Although Wahl acknowledges that “many of Read's ideas have been carried out”, and he by no means agrees with everything Read had to say, he believes To Hell With Culture can still pose important questions about the way culture and creativity are viewed in society today. “I was told that 10/15 years ago people would laugh at you if you started talking about Herbert Read, but now people are going back to modernism because they want something a bit more solid again,” he observes. “In some ways society is a lot more free but in other ways there are a lot of restrictions. Systems are a lot more closed now.”

At the time Read was writing, and in the years immediately following the Second World War, there was concern that craftsmanship and British culture was under threat from cheap, mass-produced items and imported cultural forms. Educators and critics placed a strong emphasis on fostering skills of 'discrimination', promoting sincerity and honesty in design and attempting to 'improve' public taste. “Read was talking about beauty,” summarises Wahl, and though this type of discourse can seem naïve, paternalistic even, today, post-modern society has seen the culmination of the idea of culture as commodity that Read cautioned against, with creativity recognised insofar as it can be packaged and sold back to us. “We live in a disposable, consumer culture where culture is dictated to us and everything we're surrounded by is ugly,” says Wahl. “There is still a sense that some people know better than others – we place some people on pedestals and say others are scum. Culture is controlled as a commodity and it's all about the free market and what can benefit the market. The artists who do well are those who have a brand or who can shock. It's the opposite of what creativity's about: it's not about being successful or competitive. There is something very basic and human about being creative but it's been corrupted by the idea that money is a good exchange for creativity. Read was saying that culture should be there within society and that a very different society can be created through education and art.”

Wahl considers the three tenets of a natural society Read identified in To Hell With Culture – all production should be for use and not for profit, each should give according to his ability and each receive according to his needs, and that the workers in each industry should collectively own and control that industry – to be “very simple and incredibly relevant”. He also finds the idea of everyone being a special kind of artist to be “still such a strong and important thing to say”, and has been encountering present-day parallels in Ken Robinson's ideas that creativity is “something that is there to work on and something everyone should be given the opportunity for”.

To Hell With Culture has been kept deliberately short – it clocks in at just under an hour – so that space could be left for discussions afterwards where people can create their own conclusions and ideas. As Wahl says, the film is a way to “remember the person but take the ideas”. He explains: “Artists are always questioned about what they are trying to do and their purpose. It is useful for artists to think about what an artist is in society, what they do and what they might be aiming for.”

To Hell With Culture will be shown at Filmonik, 3rd Floor, Federation House, Balloon Street, Manchester, on Thursday May 1, 7pm for a 7.30pm start, free, followed by a Q&A with director Huw Wahl, art historian Danielle Child (who appears in the film) and Castlefield Gallery director Kwong Lee.

Keep an eye on Huw Wahl's blog for screenings around the country this year, as well as at Leeds International Film Festival.

Huw Wahl and art historian Dani Child are organising a screening and accompanying one-day symposium, 'To Hell with Culture? Re-examining the commodification of culture in contemporary capitalism', at Manchester School of Art on Thursday October 30 as an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas raised by the essay and the film further in a contemporary context.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Star and Garter: secret history of a nightclub

I can vividly remember the first time I went to a nightclub. I was 18, had recently moved to Manchester and followed the flow of freshers to 'indie' club 5th Avenue, where I had my bum pinched and objected to a lanky youth 'playfully' stealing the hat off my head: not the greatest introduction to going out at night. I can also remember the second time I went to a nightclub, because I went alone, unable to convince fellow students to walk five minutes down the road to the Star and Garter, in the bleak and unprepossessing red light district behind Piccadilly Station. I spent the rest of the evening talking to strangers, engaging in what I probably thought at the time were deep conversations about things like the influence of Albert Camus' The Outsider on 'Killing an Arab' by the Cure.

At the Star and Garter's flagship night Smile, billed as the longest-running indie night in Manchester, I realised for the first time that other people of my age liked the same kind of music as me – and what's more, that it was actually possible to dance to this kind of music (or in my case, shuffle awkwardly whilst staring at the floor and/or jump clumsily up and down to more energetic songs). As a club for people like me, who might not otherwise go out, it's been sad to see the venue gradually wind down Smile after the night celebrated its twentieth birthday last year, with the long-term future of the building looking uncertain. Proposals to add a platform to the east of Piccadilly Station as part of the Northern Hub scheme – construction is due to start in 2016 – would see trains pass window-rattlingly close to the already ramshackle Victorian building, leaving its future as a club unviable. Although several different proposals have been put forward for the distinctive triangular building's place in the development, from relocation (urban legend has it that the building was already moved once, in the mid-nineteenth century, although the council disputes this) to rebuilding to extending the station around it, none seem feasible in the long-term. As current licensee and upstairs resident Andy Martin says: “You can't hide us behind a station and expect to have passing trade. It will either fall down or be out of business within a year of the platform opening – and if it closes Wetherspoon or another chain will take it over (although no big business in their right mind would).”

Andy, a former computer game reviewer, grew up under the influence of bands like the Smiths in Blackley, on the northern fringes of the city, surrounded by his siblings' record collections. Like mine, his first memories of Smile conjure the joy that comes from realising that there are other people who feel the same way as you about the songs that have soundtracked your life. “There was a circle of us all jumping up and down to 'Teenage Kicks',” he reminisces. “I'd never had that in a club before – a load of people who didn't know each other just loving a song. We all shook hands at the end. It was very polite.” However, he also admits that, like any other club, its basic function is the same: “It's a meat market. You go out and notice people and the guys wear cheap aftershave.” He observes that the traditional pub layout of the Star and Garter, with seating downstairs and a function room upstairs, helps facilitate this: “A massive USP is the club being on two floors. You can go upstairs in a darkened room and dance around and come downstairs with whoever you've pulled and realise you've made a massive mistake and go upstairs again.” The only difference to other clubs is the clientele. “We attract intelligent people here,” says Andy. “People who are now GPs, archaeologists, psychologists and who work for the CPS. I've helped every single one of them into a taxi. Thick people stick out here like a sore thumb.”

Andy's involvement with the Star and Garter initially came about through another cult band, Nigel Blackwell's Half Man Half Biscuit, following a gig at long-departed Manchester venue the Boardwalk in 1996, where he got talking to the band's manager, a “cantankerous old Scouser” selling t-shirts. To cut a long story short, Andy “fluked it with Half Man Half Biscuit” and ended up putting the band on the following year. A friend had heard good things about the Star and Garter, which could be hired out for £50, and the gig attracted a gaggle of “forty-something-year-old men forming mosh pits”.

Andy later started working behind the bar and, when the Star and Garter's owner started looking for someone else to run the pub, Andy and sound engineer Dermot O'Dea took it over. Andy made a few changes such as extending the opening hours of Smile, replacing skittering vinyl with CDs, employing long-running DJ Andy Woods and hosting one-offs such as album launches; previously, says Andy, “every night was like a Manic Street Preachers fan night – City Life said it was like gatecrashing a house party, just playing songs to mates”. Then followed the “halcyon days” of Smile, when the NME made it club of the week, there were queues around the block by 9.30pm and the club got so crowded that Andy had to operate a one-in-one-out policy. “Our USP has always been that we're off the beaten track,” says Andy. “There's no passing trade so it's an effort to make it. You have to know what you are going for and what night is on. You don't go for the massive selection of craft ales at the bar or the cocktail list – you go because you like the Smiths or the band playing.”

However, the Star and Garter has always been far more than just Smile. It's had its own line in nights dedicated solely to one artist – from the Belle and Sebastian disco started by Roxanne who later moved to Glasgow and now plays in Veronica Falls, to evenings dedicated to Depeche Mode and Pixies. Most famous is the Smiths night, which has now been going for twenty years and attracts everyone from teens to hardcore fans in their sixties.

The Star and Garter has also been a place for unsigned bands to get onto lineups with more established punk and metal bands. It's been a stepping stone, too, for several bands who now sell out far bigger venues, from hosting Low twice in the 1990s – where everyone sat down – to Jeffrey Lewis. Even Status Quo played there in 1999, after the venue was shortlisted for their Under the Influence tour. “It was the most surreal experience of my life,” recalls Andy. “150 people dancing to the Quo – it was like something out of a Michael Jackson video. And I had to record United versus Juventus for Parfitt and Rossi while they played.” A similarly surreal experience was heavy rock band ArnoCorps' 2012 gig, where 150 fans arrived dressed as Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It was like really good Smile party – everyone happy,” remembers Andy.

The Star and Garter has also acted as a showcase for local musicians and comedians, including at an open mic run by Akoustik Anarkhy which was attended by Manchester luminaries such as Badly Drawn Boy, the Longcut and Nine Black Alps. Andy remembers it as “glorified karaoke without the words on the screen and just mates doing cover versions on guitar” – including Andy's own renditions of Half Man Half Biscuit songs. Another night, Anti-Hoot, played host to unknown comics as well as fondly-remembered Bolton poet Hovis Presley. A poster paying tribute to Presley, who died prematurely in 2005, now hangs on the wall, featuring excepts from his wryly romantic poem 'I Rely On You', which pops up as a reading in local wedding services.


Pre-social media, the Star and Garter also functioned as a meeting place for unlikely special interest groups, from holding Anti-Nazi League meetings in the 1980s to the 30-strong West Bromwich Albion supporters' club of Manchester to a PSV and HGV drivers' club which “used to show slides of 1950s buses to a ripple of applause”. With its haunted house looks, the Star and Garter must have provided a particularly fitting venue for the Vampire Society, whose members sat and read excerpts of Dracula. Most recently, the venue hosted Smiler, a spin-off group from the Rod Stewart fan club, with special guest Don Stewart (brother of Rod) making an appearance. And he's not the only person with a claim to fame to have visited. Andy has a special Smile poster signed by Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks as well as members of Half Man Half Biscuit, TV stars and, most obscurely, people who made music for vintage computer games.

The Star and Garter has also itself been a screen star. Although it's purported, probably incorrectly, to have featured in Manchester film noir classic Hell is A City, it has definitely appeared in Cracker and the Body Farm as well providing as the locale for a John Simm fight scene in Prey and a murder in Prime Suspect. Unfortunately, though, its seedy location could well be the Star and Garter's downfall. Big plans have been proposed for decades for this area, hemmed in by a train station, a taxi rank, a major bus route into the city and a collection of forbidding, slime-ridden railway viaducts, from the Whitehall of the North to an inter-city hub at derelict Mayfield station to an urban park. None have yet materialised, although Andy says, “there's nothing wrong with the area other than that it's never been invested in”. The Grade II listed status of the building, too, doesn't help, with the building suffering from damp and work needed on the roof yet no grants for like-for-like building work forthcoming. But it's part of the fabric of the area, and Andy's picked up snippets of information about its history and former inhabitants over the years, from its first licensee, a Miss Wetherspoon, to being a hotel with its own living quarters and dumb waiter to housing a a brewery and, later, a “trainee MASH type place for the home guard during the war”.

The Star and Garter's recent decline has coincided with the ascendancy of other areas of the city such as the Northern Quarter. Part of the problem, says Andy, is that Smile's audience has grown up – and “the new generation suddenly got hit by a massive choice of places to go, so Smile became a fallback”. Andy explains: “When we first started there was the Night & Day, us and the Roadhouse – we were the small venues. Then the council threw a load of money at the Northern Quarter and every Tom, Dick and Harry started opening a bar. It was even mentioned on the news.”

In the meantime, as both the Northern Hub and, further down the line, HS2 loom over its future, the Star and Garter soldiers on, continuing to host regular "cheap and cheerful" punk gigs. Alternative karaoke night Guts for Garters is proving popular, along with new music showcase and indie-pop disco Light it Up (Saturday May 10), '90s nights A Different Class and This is Uncool, queer party Bollox (Friday April 18) and guilty pleasures rock night Party Hard (Saturday May 3). Other upcoming events include a fundraiser by online Morrissey fanclub the Mozarmy (Saturday April 26), with special guests including Hayley from Coronation Street. It's also hoped that Smile can be resurrected for doorman Ian's 70th birthday in June.

As Andy says, the Star and Garter might not be renowned for its cocktail list or craft beer, but as the city gains in sophistication it's all too easy to lose out on opportunities for genuinely life-affirming communal music experiences. What we lose if we lose the Star and Garter is the bread and butter of Manchester's night life, the type of place where you can go just for the sheer joy of the music and any pretensions to post-industrial glamour or the array of drinks behind the bar are only a secondary concern.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Manchester Histories Festival talk: Woman's Outlook – a surprisingly modern magazine?

I've been invited to repeat my talk about the co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook, which was published from Manchester between 1919 and 1967, at the People's History Museum on Saturday March 29 at 1pm. The talk takes place during this year's Manchester Histories Festival and Wonder Women series of events about Manchester's radical history and accompanies the free exhibition The People's Business - 150 Years of the Co-operative.

The talk is free but should be booked here. Facebook event.

Woman's Outlook – a surprisingly modern magazine? 

For nearly five decades, Woman’s Outlook was the voice of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the campaigning organisation which worked to raise the status of women both in the co-operative movement and in society, and its onetime editor Mary Stott later became a longstanding editor of the Guardian women’s pages. From its origins in Manchester in 1919, Outlook provided an enticing mixture of articles addressing both the personal and the political, combining fashion, fiction, features and recipes with advice for working women – in many ways, not dissimilar to the content of women’s magazines today!

Woman’s Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine?’ will explore some of the key issues addressed in Outlook, and look at how the magazine encouraged women to get involved in campaigning for a better world. Topics covered by Outlook such as female representation in parliament, equal pay and healthy eating remain highly relevant today, and the talk will end by considering whether the type of content provided by 21st century women’s lifestyle magazines has really changed much since the days of Outlook.

Research for the talk was undertaken in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester, and I also conducted interviews with some inspiring women who were members of the co-operative women's movement at the time.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Keywords feature: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain at Tate Liverpool

I was recently asked to write this feature for the Skinny about a new exhibition which opens at Tate Liverpool this week (Friday February 28). It was a last-minute commission, and it would have been nice to have spoken to more people involved in the exhibition, but it was good to have an excuse to read more Raymond Williams as his books Culture and Society and the Long Revolution, along with his essay Culture is Ordinary, which concern the development of culture and social change, were among the best things I read last year.

Keywords: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain

In 1976, a book was published which offered a new way of understanding and using language, defining and interpreting familiar and inter-related words such as culture, art, revolution, family and society. Written by cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Keywords is a social, historical and cultural guide to the evolution and meaning of everyday words we often take for granted. Taking Keywords as its starting point, a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool continues the conversation Williams sparked around language more than three decades ago. Artworks from the 1980s, the decade in which the book's ideas found particular resonance among a generation of artists responding to upheavals in society, are juxtaposed with a selection of words from the book in a specially-designed exhibition space by artists Luca Frei and Will Holder. Aiming to enhance the visual and conceptual legibility of the artworks, the installation will encourage visitors to ponder the complex and often charged relationship between what they see and the language which can be used to describe it.

“The impetus of the exhibition came from conversations we had about the book with artists making work in the 1980s, who said that at the time they were beginning to be influenced by the growing field of cultural studies and by books such as Keywords as much as by art history,” explains Gavin Delahunty, Head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Liverpool and curator of Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain. “Keywords is a good read and an easy, not over-academic way for people to engage with key ideas about culture and society. It is one individual's attempt to unpack complex words and what they meant for him and his time, which provides a tool and filter for people to understand the world around them.”

The exhibition uses artwork and language to present a very complex and diverse moment in both British history and British art. “It was an extraordinary decade where there were so many shifts in culture and society that continue to have an impact today,” explains Delahunty. It was also a confusing time. On the one hand was the affluence of the City of London, but elsewhere in the country miners' strikes, the Liverpool riots and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were taking place. “A whole raft of social issues were bubbling to the fore,” says Delahunty. “The old histories were being dissolved and disintegrated, creating a fragmented moment which we have tried to capture in the exhibition.” 

Keywords also aims to showcase the work and ideas of artists who did not necessarily receive widespread recognition at the time but reflected the increasing plurality of voices in the art world. Through provocative and challenging visual and performative acts these artists helped change not just ideas around what belonged in the art gallery, but the vocabulary which was used to describe it. “In the 1980s one of the huge changes was that new voices were starting to be introduced into the art world, often drawn from what had previously been seen as marginalised communities,” explains Delahunty. “Artists were immersed within powerful new movements based around Second Wave feminism, race, sexuality and ethnicity and wanted to point out the historical and social imbalance, which wasn't representative of the diversity of the UK.”

To help the audience engage with the work and messages on display the curators went through the whole of Keywords and chose thirteen words to show alongside the artworks, looking for both their frequency and their resonance today. Among the words chosen was 'materialism', which Delahunty points out “was associated with the 1980s catchphrase 'greed is good', but is also a word that is in people's conversation at the moment and is linked to our understanding of the world and morality”. Another is 'criticism', which Delahunty links to the critical approach artists used to protest gender stereotypes and the invisibility of black and female artists in the 1980s. One word which was quickly agreed on was 'liberation', which Delahunty says is related to the development of identity politics. “A whole generation of artists were making art addressing questions of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, against a backdrop of the horrors of the British colonial past,” he explains. “There was a whole new generation of artists who were touched by that.”

The energy of the 1980s and the desire for artists to tell their stories comes across strongly in the exhibition in a series of very powerful visual statements. The curators asked artists active in the 1980s which artworks they considered to be game-changing at the time. Although several of the artists they came up with are not household names, and some of the artworks in the exhibition haven't been on display in decades, they have had an enduring influence in the art world. These include work by socialist feminist artists such as Rose Finn-Kelcey, as well as Helen Chadwick's provocative 'Carcass', last shown in 1986; this is a work which Delahunty says has “stimulated and inspired so many artists”. Displaying 'Carcass' is a logistical feat, comprising a column filled with food waste which will transform into a living sculpture as nature takes its course over the lifespan of the exhibition. Another key work is Sunil Gupta's 'London Gay Switchboard', which is grounded in the near-hysteria of the 1980s AIDS climate. The work, initially shown on a slide projector but now updated to a digital format, depicts the central information point which helped thousands of men and women access expert information on the virus. “It had a huge impact,” explains Delahunty. “It shows the day-to-day aspects of the work at the gay switchboard as well as people going out socialising. It demonstrates how, in a time of confusion and fear people still had time to hang out and be friends and get on with life.” If one work sums up the exhibition, it is Donald Rodney's multimedia sculpture 'Visceral Canker', which uses coats of arms depicting aspects of slavery, bloodlines and former colonies to speak of Britain's colonial past.

The keywords incorporated into the show do not directly correlate with or illustrate the artworks, but rather provide a 'jumping-off point' and stimulus for thought and discussion. They ask questions such as 'could you apply the word 'violence' to this artwork, or are they worlds apart?' As Delahunty explains, “the exhibition is more about slippages of language and how it changes over time, just as artworks evolve over time.” He adds: “We live in a world with a strong desire to contain life within language, but artworks can't be reduced to single words. They are complex, nuanced and textured and constantly changing and mutating.”

This is very much in the spirit of what Raymond Williams intended to show with the publication of Keywords; he hoped that the book would provide a starting point for ongoing discussions and prompt further collections of words and meanings. The exhibition at Tate Liverpool perfectly demonstrates this potential. Keywords has been reprinted to coincide with the exhibition, and is as relevant today as ever as language continues to evolve to meet new times and new contexts. As Delahunty says, “The book is so open-ended it still allows the freedom to have conversations about what words are, how we use them and how we make sense of them in everyday situations.”

For more information visit www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/keywords-art-culture-and-society-1980s-britain.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Shrieking Violet issue 22

Read the Shrieking Violet issue 22 online now:

This issue's cover is by Alex Humphreys. Alex uses two-dimensional imagery with a high emphasis on the use of colour and composition. With the enjoyment of combining bold shapes and techniques of mark-making, Alex aims to make work with an experimental, abstract outcome. Alex's work is hand-screen printed and lies heavily in the form of traditional print. Alex also plays in Sex Hands, one of the Shrieking Violet's favourite Manchester bands; see them at Night & Day on Thursday February 6, and at Gullivers, on Wednesday February 26, in support of another of the Shrieking Violet's favourite bands, Trash Kit.

In issue 22:

Manchester-based craftivist duo Warp & Weft introduce their Stature exhibition in Manchester Town Hall (February 24-March 9), which examines how women’s lives and achievements have been recorded in history. Warp & Weft are Helen Davies and Jenny White. Helen is an artist specialising in needlecrafts; she is interested in the social history of craft and women. She also makes monsters at helenmakes.co.uk. Historian Jenny White is interested in the way different sections of society are represented in the media and history, and is drawn to those whose stories aren’t usually told. She also takes photos for Trash Gallery.

Tom Whyman takes a look at the legacy of football pundit Alan Hansen, and the growing impossibility of having an opinion and engaging critically with the world. Tom is a writer and philosopher currently studying for his PhD at the University of Essex. Before that he lived and studied in Manchester. He blogs at infinitelyfullofhope.wordpress.com and tweets as @HealthUntoDeath.

Cazz Blase explores the alternative realities of Manchester and London in the work of Jeff Noon, Ben Moor and Neil Gaiman, where the real meets the unreal. Cazz is trying to establish herself as a freelance journalist while working as a library assistant at Manchester University. She normally focuses on music and/or feminism, but has a long term love of radio comedy and sci-fi and thought it was time to share it with a wider audience than bemused friends in cafes.

Joe Austin pays a visit to one of London's overlooked Modernist landmarks, and a hidden sculptural masterpiece, at the TUC's post-war headquarters, Congress House. Joe is a qualified architect, originally from the Midlands but a naturalised Londoner for the last 24 years or so. Joe's interests are wide (his blog best illustrates his scattergun mind), but generally revolve around writing, design, architecture, art, culture and history. He likes nothing better than learning new aspects of things he thought he knew about.

Artist and musician Henry Ireland reflects impressionistically on his experiences over the past year, accompanied by photographs from his summer-2013 tour of the UK with Two White Cranes and the Nervy Betters. Henry helps run Polite Records and lives in London with his wife Frances.

David Wilkinson discusses The Fall, The Blue Orchids and the working class autodidact, drawing on interviews with Martin Bramah and Una Baines undertaken during his PhD. David lives in Manchester, where he completed his PhD on post-punk last year. He is currently research assistant on the project ‘Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture 1976-1984’, led by Matthew Worley and John Street. He has also written for the F Word, Manchester Histories Festival and Manchester District Music Archive. At the moment David is thinking about punk and sexuality and will be doing a talk on this for LGBT History Month at MMU (Geoffrey Manton Building Lecture Theatre 6), Wednesday February 12 at 6pm. The Blue Orchids, meanwhile, are playing at the Star and Garter on Saturday February 15 at the Light it Up clubnight.

West Yorkshire-based photographer and eternal wanderer Jonathan Salmon presents some atmospheric images contemplating a new life in the country, capturing both the freedom and suffocation caused by vast open spaces. Jonathan lives down the hill from the old Yorkshire town of Queensbury, one of the highest towns in the UK, and often wakes up to an eerie fog. Jonathan is currently artist of the month, and his photographs are on display, at Trof in Levenshulme (Trof have contributed this issue's recipe, see below).

Writer and journalist Kenn Taylor contributes a poem about austerity. Originally from Merseyside but now living in London, Kenn 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 by looking at Temple Grandin by Mick Jackson, which stars Claire Danes as a young autistic girl. Tweet Richard about films @rikurichard. Watch his latest short film, Beware, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDve4PXLlrw.

Jared Szpakowski introduces ALBUMCLUB, a monthly theme-based music exchange. Jared is an NHS administrator and an artist based at 3rd Floor Studios in Manchester. His work documents everything from the life and death of houseplants to the decomposition of airline chapatis, NHS paraphernalia and the contents of his wife's granddad's Bible who he never met and is no longer with us. He keeps an almost-daily blog at www.threeteabagsinanenvelope.tumblr.com and has just launched a monthly soundtrack to accompany the visuals. He is also the chairman and founder of ALBUMCLUB.

Book and print-maker Jo Wilkinson has contributed an illustrative drawing. Jo constantly battles with time, finding that there are never enough hours to draw, collage, collect ephemera, fold, cut or sew. Her small, pamphlet-style books are usually non-narrative pieces, with her drawings comprising illustrative, one-off stories on a page, although she has created one love story. 

Husband and wife team Trove, who believe in making good food from scratch, tell the story of how their cafe and bakery came into being and contribute a recipe for beetroot hummus. Trove's organic, homemade, artisan bread, from sourdough to rye, is used both in the cafe and can be found in Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton, Back's Deli in Heaton Moor, Polocini cafe, Romiley, Fig and Sparrow lifestyle shop and cafe, Manchester, Cowherds Vegetarian Cafe, Trafford, Volta bar and restaurant, West Didsbury and Eleckrik cafe/bar, Chorlton. Trove has won two Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards, one for being 'Truly Good Food Heroes' and the other for being the best 'Cheap Eats' venue in Manchester. Find them in Levenshulme, opposite the Antiques Village.

Download and print your own copy here. Read issue 22, along with back issues of the Shrieking Violet, in Salford Zine Library at Nexus Art Cafe in Manchester's Northern Quarter. Paper copies can also be found in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Review: Self Portrait: The Eyes Within by William Mitchell

When I interviewed the prolific artist and designer William Mitchell (then aged 86) a couple of years ago, he concluded our discussion with a tantalising reference to a book he was in the process of writing about his life and work, which he told me would be “part instruction book” and “part adventure book”. Two and a half years later, Self Portrait: The Eyes Within is the result of his mining of eight decades' worth of memories and recording a wealth of anecdotes, experiences and observations for posterity. Brought to life by charming new, cartoon-like illustrations that perfectly fit the personal tone of the book, Mitchell reveals himself not just to be an accomplished innovator, experimenter and sculptor, but a lively and entertaining storyteller with plenty to say about art, life, education and society. I thought that we had covered good ground during our interview, but the book, a weighty, glossy, hardback tome, made me realise that Mitchell had barely even got started – and that his chosen genre of “adventure book” couldn't be more accurate.
Rather than focusing narrowly on his long and diverse career, Mitchell starts at the beginning, taking us back to the early years of his life in 1920s and 1930s London and to a different place and time. From the vibrancy of street life, markets, arcades and music hall entertainment – a world populated by larger-than-life family members – to the strict regimentation of a childhood spent between hospital and a London County Council-funded boarding school, he shows how his formative years set up the resilience and determination – as well as the love for colour, detail and patterning – that characterised his later artistic outlook and career. Mitchell's career path has been as far from the linear progression favoured by a careers adviser as can be imagined: from tool-maker's apprentice to Navy to NAAFI painter to insurance agent to RCA student of industrial design then furniture designer, London County Council design consultant and artist for public and private hire. From decorating decidedly unglamorous motorway sidings and underpasses to designing railway carriages and later the Egyptian staircase in Harrods, Mitchell has lent his skills to all kinds of situations and clients, and all receive attention in this book along with some of the projects which didn't quite make it – who would have guessed that there could have been a Harrods in Las Vegas, modelled by Mitchell along the lines of St Peter's in Rome?
Photos and detailed descriptions of how he made certain pieces – some of them now demolished – will delight fans of Mitchell's work, although Mitchell wryly relates exchanges and working relationships which reveal that satisfying clients at the same time as retaining artistic vision was not always an easy task. Also interesting are encounters with figures such as the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and the Al Fayeds, along with architect Basil Spence, which offer a different take on famous characters and an insight into British social history. Although much of his surviving work in this country is grounded in the British post-war building boom of everyday buildings such as tower blocks, schools and universities, libraries, office buildings and churches, the book is as much a journey around the world as a guide to Mitchell's work, describing stints in Australia, Rome, the Middle East, the United States, Hawaii and Paris. My favourite moments in the book are those that are least expected, or that detail trips to far-flung and exotic places: Mitchell's fraught wartime voyage to Russia aboard a Navy destroyer as a naive teenage recruit, an epic and adventurous journey across Europe and the east in a second-hand motor home, complete with his family, en route to design a zoo in Qatar, and being taken to a mysterious desert settlement by the Emir of Abu Dhabi, whilst working in the country, to dine and debate. One final minor, but enjoyable, detail is the sartorial preoccupation which runs through the book; Mitchell has clearly always taken great pride and interest in his clothes, and at several points tells us what he was wearing at a given moment in time, adding to an overall picture of the man and an emphasis on good design that runs through his personal and professional life.
Self-Portrait: The Eyes Within is published by Whittles Publishing and costs £35. It can be purchased here and on Amazon.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Best of 2013

As I write this I'm coming to the end of the first year of my PhD (technically I'm still at the MPhil stage), which is exciting but also quite terrifying as I don't know where the last twelve months have gone and I feel like I should have more to show for the year. It's been a big challenge going from three years of working almost full-time to being a full-time student without the structure and company of an office job, but it's also been stimulating, exciting and eye-opening. What I wanted to get out of doing a PhD was a challenge, and to be challenged, and I definitely feel a lot less certain of myself and my place in the world now, with certain assumptions of what I was good at (writing, organisation, time management) turned upside down. It's become increasingly apparent how many things I need to improve at.

Nonetheless, having more energy (in theory) because of being able to spend less time in an office, I've been able to get a lot more involved in Islington Mill Art Academy throughout the year, taking part in regular crits, reading groups and outings, which has provided both a really good support network and a receptive audience to talk about and present what I've been working on. When I found out I was going to be a student again, I was also looking forward to being able to join a university orchestra, but my university doesn't appear to have one. Luckily, a short google search revealed that Oldham Symphony Orchestra has the same conductor as the orchestra I was in as an undergraduate. Joining has been another big challenge as I've not played violin regularly for at least five years. It's been a great way of continuing my musical education, though, as not coming from a background immersed in classical music I've always found it difficult to get into a lot of the classical music cannon without actively playing it.

I also spent more time in London in 2013 than I have ever done before, much of it alone. Taking to the streets on foot, with an A to Z, has really helped me overcome my phobia of the city. After many years of finding London grey, grimy, overcrowded and depressing, 2013 is the year I finally found some things to like about it. Mainly, the food-related delights of Drummond Street, Euston Tap (cider branch) and, above all Hampstead Ponds. At Hampstead Ponds the water is warm and calm and there is plenty of space to swim, but best of all student entry is only a pound! I can eat curry and drink cider in Manchester any time, but as far as I know Manchester doesn't have any ponds I can swim in and the liberating experience of swimming in Hampstead Ponds is by far the most enjoyable thing I have ever done in London.

Also in swimming-related news, I finally braved Salford Quays for an open water swimming session in Ontario Basin, once the water temperature had crept above the 14 degrees required to swim without a wetsuit, and it was one of the best experiences I have ever had in Greater Manchester. At 21.7 degrees the water was warmer than the sea, and surprisingly fresh and clean. The 500m course is quite a long way to swim, but feels a lot less monotonous than laps of a pool; it's strange to swim underneath huge cranes, with trams constantly going past. I found the distance of the course to present a mental challenge as much as a physical challenge: being surrounded by a vast stretch of deep, black water, not knowing what's beneath, is quite a lonely experience and a test of endurance, although the atmosphere of the facilities was very friendly and the regulars were a diverse bunch of people.

Some other things I have enjoyed in 2013:

Music 

A good chunk of the last few months has been soundtracked by my standout album of the last couple of years, Light Up Gold by Parquet Courts. A classic punk rock band who channel the spirit of the Saints, etc, and bring to mind Pavement in their slower moments, listening to their record reminds me what a great motivator rock music can be: sometimes it's the only thing that makes you feel like you're fully alive, have blood in your veins and actually want to get up and do something. Highlight: Stoned and Starving.

I've also been enjoying Thee Oh Sees' solid album of spaced out rock, Floating Coffin, particularly Night Crawler. Low's latest album, the Invisible Way, was also a surprise delight. After losing interest in Low around the time of their last album, Just Make It Stop reminded me why I spent so many years bewitched by Mimi's voice and their distinctively sparse sound.

This year I've also heard the best band to emerge from Manchester in a while, Denson, who make really beautiful, dreamlike electronic rock with a slightly surrealistic edge. Unlike most Manchester bands I've enjoyed in the last few years, it's not grounded in the here-and-now (and doesn't hark back to the 1960s) but appears to be transmitted down from another planet altogether and belong to an entirely less-familiar world. For fans of Sleeping States, Cryptacize and Broadcast, my favourite track is Milkismurder.

For the same reasons as above, the best gig of the year was Parquet Courts at Gorilla. They're definitely a band to jump up and down to, and I took part in a mosh pit for the first time in several years, leaving the gig soaked through in sweat.

An early highlight of the year was Dinosaur Jr at the Ritz. I love Dinosaur Jr for the way they make music that is undisputedly noisy, but at the same time incredibly beautiful. J Mascis's unparalleled control of his guitar and the way he makes quite complicated music appear effortless is a sight to behold. It's just a shame that the gig took place at the corporate behemoth of the Ritz, which immediately put my back up by confiscating my bottle of water at the door. As a lone female, I also felt outnumbered by a ratio of around 25:1 by pairs/groups of men of a certain age.

Also enjoyable was ice queen-like, impossible impeccable-looking Molly Nilsson's mournful dance music at Islington Mill in Salford and Franziska Lantz (Saydance)'s weird, atmospheric electronica performance at the Anthony Burgess Foundation to launch the Cacotopia exhibition.

The most entertaining band I saw this year was undoubtedly Joyce D'Vision, a three-piece fronted by a man in a dress which plays joyous and surprisingly musically accomplished covers of Joy Division. I saw them in From Space, a small ceramics studio on Chapel Street, Salford, supporting fun American anti-folk band Cars Can Be Blue, surrounded by artist Liz Scrine's creations, and it was one of the best moments of the summer. Bristol bands the Nervy Betters and Two White Cranes played out the end of a long hot summer in a marquee in a Chorlton garden beneath a tree groaning with apples.

After many years of finding him annoyingly blokey and musically undistinguished, 2013 was also the year I sort of got into Billy Bragg, a bit, after buying my mum tickets to see him at the Bridgewater Hall as a birthday present. The rest of it I can take or leave, but I've now come round to the idea that Milkman of Human Kindness is one of the most perfect songs I've ever heard, beautiful in its simplicity and utterly affecting in its lyrics. I admit that the rest of Life's a Riot with I Vs Spy is pretty great too. Another late highlight of the year was Yo La Tengo at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea who, incredibly had just marked their thirtieth year of playing together as a band.

Film 

I thought 2013 was a very strong year for film. The year started with McCullin, a documentary about the great British photographer focusing largely on his work in war zones. The film is harrowing and incredibly moving, making you question everything around you and really putting things into perspective. The first ever Saudi Arabian film I've seen, Wadja, was also moving and inspiring. Equally uplifting and heartbreaking, it's a real eye-opener. Blue is the Warmest Colour definitely didn't feel like a three-hour film. While it wasn't always comfortable watching I found it to be a bold and honest depiction of love, obsession, adolescence and growing up. It was also good to see a depiction of female sexual desire which didn't present women as passive accessories to male sexuality but as sexual beings in their own right.

On a lighter note, the film I was looking forward to most this year, Pedro Almodovar's I'm So Excited, was everything I could have hoped for: colourful, silly, musical and hilarious from start to finish. 2013 was also the year I saw my first Studio Ghibli film, after many years of assuming they would be cloyingly twee, and I loved everything about Up On Poppy Hill from the style to the animation to the story to the music, which stayed just the right side of retro.

Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine, was surprisingly sophisticated, and I found myself mulling over for a few days afterwards, along with tense American drama Breathe In which provided an unflinching portrait of ordinary human beings deeply flawed in their self-obsession.

I also enjoyed some of this year's documentaries, including John Akomfrah's multi-sided the Stuart Hall Project, which presented his ideas and writing through archive footage and Hall speaking in his own words. I also enjoyed Ken Loach's Spirit of 45. Although it wasn't subtle, I found many of the interviewees inspiring in their attitude and spirit.

I also thought that the annual Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American film at the Cornerhouse, which I often find really patchy, was the strongest one I have attended over the last five or six years (unless I have just become better at choosing films!). I enjoyed a moving if depressing documentary of the Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra, Violeta Went to Heaven, with a fantastic soundtrack, along with Spanish film Ali, a simple and touching tale of love, relationships and growing up. However, the stand-out highlight, which was also one of the best films I saw this year, was Catalan teen drama the Wild One, which built a sense of unease and suspense with great effect, before revealing a conclusion that was genuinely shocking, a rare quality nowadays.

Books 

I've hardly read any non-academic books in 2013, but William Mitchell's autobiography Self-Portrait: The Eyes Within, which arrived a couple of days before Christmas, was the best present I could have hoped for. As well as spending several decades at the forefront of artistic innovation and experimentation, Mitchell has revealed himself to be a great story-teller with plenty to say about not just art, but society.

Television and radio

After several years of only watching factual television, I finally found the BBC drama for me, Him & Her. I don't know if it speaks to me because I would quite like to stay in bed all day if I had the chance, or because the characters are so naturalistic and take delight in the mundane (and often gross) aspects of life and relationships, but it's an impeccably acted and cast show.

Grayson Perry's In the Best Possible Taste was an interesting experiment, although I found it a bit simplistic and impossible to relate to any of the class/taste 'tribes' he identified (the resulting tapestries, the Vanity of Small Differences, currently on display at Manchester Art Gallery, are immense, storytelling works of great beauty and detail which are well worth investing time in and bear up to repeat visits). I found Paul O'Grady's take on a similar subject, Paul O'Grady's Working Britain, more nuanced and enlightening. However, Grayson Perry definitely won in the radio stakes, with his series of Reith Lectures which were laugh-out -loud funny, insightful and provocative.

While I find that much of his writing and broadcasting often borders on incomprehensible, I also enjoyed Jonathan Meades' offbeat tour of my parents' homeland, the Joy of Essex, which made me endeavour to explore more of my own country.

Theatre 

Arthur Miller's All My Sons was one of the best productions I have ever seen at the Royal Exchange. It could have backfired, but I thought the all-black cast worked really well and added a whole new dimension to the play.

Art 

The stand-out highlight of the year was Tino Sehgal's installation This Variation at Mayfield Depot during Manchester International Festival. I thought I knew Sehgal's work reasonably well, but was genuinely surprised by the immersive, unexpected and surprisingly intimate performance he pulled off. It didn't hurt that Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, an a capella performance of which featured in the installation, is in my view the peak of twentieth century pop music.

Dan Graham's Past Future Split Attention was also a highlight, as was Graham's post-performance talk in which he offered entertaining insights from his polymath mind on everything from the Shaker movement to psychology and rock music. The other highlight of the International Festival was the Biospheric Project, a mind-bogglingly innovative initiative using an old industrial building and outdoor site to explore sustainable ways of growing fresh, local produce in urban settings.

An unexpected London highlight was Souzou, the Wellcome Institute's exhibition of Japanese outsider art, comprising drawings, paintings, textiles, sculptures and models, much of it made by residents of mental institutions. Much of it was bizarre, imaginative, tactile and intricate, but above all it was bright, colourful and beautiful.

Also in London, Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain provided an interesting overview of the artist and his life and work: several of the works I found most affecting were those made out of unlikely materials in prison camps (also with camp magazines), representing what can be made with all that is to hand.

An early highlight of the year was Carl Andre: Mass and Matter at Turner Contemporary in Margate, which showed how powerful simple materials and forms can be, regardless of concept.

One of the most effective projects I saw was Maurice Carlin's Performance Publishing at Regent Trading Estate in Salford, a printing project and art installation on a grand scale that reconfigured the artist and viewer's relationship with an otherwise bland and vast former warehouse building, and transformed the previously empty space into a carpet of colour.

The Piracy Project at Grand Union in Birmingham was a show that was greater than the sum of its parts: a growing collection of artists' books exploring notions around copyright, appropriation, ownership, authorship and meaning.

Manchester's Bureau Gallery made some interesting use of their new space in a Spinningfields office building, notably Matthew Houlding's miniature, colourful, architectural-style models, which played off the transparency of the space, and the repetitive motifs of Evangelia Spiliopoulou's dot paintings, which revealed more the more you looked at them. It was also a good year for Castlefield Gallery, particularly Nicola Ellis's delicate drawings, Sam Meech's film Noah's Ark, where music complemented archive film of seaside towns to great effect, in Spaceship Unbound, and Joseph Lewis' old-fashioned-looking and furniture-fitting-esque instruments in the current show, Radical Conservatism. Another highlight from one of Manchester's smaller galleries was Anthony Hall's fun and inventive Tabletop Experiments at Untitled Gallery, which brought together science and art to great effect.

I loved the Museum of Everything theme at Venice Biennale, which blended art with anthropology, and felt that it was a far less ostentatious and more subtle and effective event this year than in previous years. Highlights included the Starry Messenger, Bedwyr Williams' immersive film and installation which took visitors on a strange, Jan Svankmajer-esque journey through the off-site Welsh pavilion, as well as the films and wallpapered surroundings of the Slovenian pavilion, based around the unfortunately-named 'failed national icon' of the Anophthalmus hitleri beetle, exploring place, politics, architecture and monuments, as well as Ed Atkins' deadpan exploration of Andre Breton's home, the Trick Brain.

Architecture 

The most impressive new building of the year was the Co-operative's long-awaited new headquarters at 1 Angel Square. I was lucky enough to go on an architect's tour shortly after it opened, and to hear about all the sustainability measures which have been built in to make it one of the most environmentally-friendly buildings in Europe; these encompass not just environmental and technical elements such as the air circulation system for heating and cooling the building, but working practices such as paperless offices and hot desking. The open plan nature of the building means it can easily be adapted for future uses and clients, and the forward-thinking vision behind the building, and consideration of its legacy, particularly impressed me. It was interesting to hear how the architect drew on the Co-operative's architectural and symbolic heritage in the area, from the steel and glass of the 1960s CIS tower to the curved structure of the beehive with its associations with both the co-operative movement and the city of Manchester. Seeing the building from the outside really doesn't prepare you for the scale of the building; apparently the atrium is big enough to park a Boing 747 (should the need ever arise). The building has fantastic views over Manchester and really utilises its position with roof terraces, however the thing which lets the building down is its over-the-top, self-consciously quirky décor, which is probably meant to feel fun and informal but comes across as piecemeal and jarring and I imagine will date very quickly, from the abundance of tea cup-shaped, pop art-style seats to informal meeting areas themed around palm trees. Another design flaw, in my view, is the apparent lack of microwaves in any of the shared kitchen areas: being able to look forward to a big bowl of steaming leftovers at lunchtime is one of the things that gets me through the working day.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Woman's Outlook talk during Manchester Histories Festival, March 29 2014

I've been invited to revisit my talk about co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook to go alongside the People's Business exhibition currently on show at the People's History Museum, which celebrates 150 years of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), forerunner of today's Co-operative Group. My talk will take place at the People's History Museum on Saturday March 29 at 1pm, to coincide with the bi-annual Manchester Histories Festival, which is always jam-packed with talks, tours, events and other history-related excitement spread out across Manchester. It is free to attend.

Woman's Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine? 

Between 1919 and 1967 the women of the co-operative movement had their own magazine, Woman's Outlook. Providing an enticing mix of the personal and the political, Woman's Outlook was surprisingly similar to women’s magazines today, and its concerns such as women's representation in parliament, equal pay and healthy eating remain ever-relevant.

For more information about this, and other events taking place alongside the exhibition, visit www.phm.org.uk/news/the-peoples-business-events.

The exhibition runs until 11 May 2014, and among the artefacts on display is a Co-operative Women's Guild banner.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The hills are alive with the sound of Mahler: 50 years of Oldham Symphony Orchestra

In 1963, a young man from Oldham decided that the town needed an orchestra, so that local musicians and the public had the opportunity to play and hear challenging, interesting music. Oldham had been without an orchestra for more than twenty years after its orchestra disbanded during the war, never to reform, but 23-year-old clarinettist Tom Whittaker, then working for his family's long-established construction and joinery business in Oldham and travelling to play in an orchestra in Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire in his spare time, felt that it was an essential part of the cultural life of a town the size of Oldham, alongside theatres, cinemas, art galleries, choirs and amateur dramatic societies. And so Oldham Amateur Orchestra was born, recruiting an initial group of around fifteen local musicians to play concerts in schools, public halls and arts centres and growing from there. Fittingly, the orchestra started out with a programme that included Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by one of its patrons, the distinguished Oldham-born and bred composer William Walton.

Founder member Tom spent the next four decades on the committee of the orchestra and, fifty years on, is principal clarinettist, soon to be putting tongue to reed for his 123rd concert with the group (known as Oldham Symphony Orchestra since 1973). The concert, which takes place in the grand surroundings of prestigious Oldham Hulme Grammar School in November, will include a piece which is notoriously difficult for clarinets, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a glamorous, slinky, cinematic, jazz-age piece which changes tempo and dashes around as a piano dances a lively, teasing solo. Also on the programme, in complete contrast to bold, brash Rhapsody in Blue, is Gustav Mahler's brooding, slow-burning First symphony. Tom admits that “what's on the stand for the next concert is very tough”, but says: “I think it's wonderful music and it's important not to just play stuff like Eine kleine Nachtmusik. If we were playing Strauss waltzes and Mozart they wouldn't appeal to the orchestra so they wouldn't bother to come to rehearsals.” He elaborates: “We need music that is interesting and stimulating to play. I wouldn't still be playing in the orchestra fifty years later if I hadn't found it to be of great interest and enjoyment.”

Richard Waldock, Oldham Symphony Orchestra's conductor of 11 years, shares Tom's desire to attempt interesting, challenging music. “We don't stay with one particular type of music,” he explains. “We try and choose stuff because it's good.” A double bass player, teacher and composer, Richard has played with the Manchester Camerata as well as other orchestras regionally and nationally including the Halle, Liverpool Philharmonic and BBC Philharmonic, and first tried out his skills as a conductor with his peers while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music. Although he has conducted youth and student orchestras, Oldham Symphony Orchestra was Richard's first regular conducting job. “It's good fun,” he enthuses. “When you're a double bass player you don't get to flex your interpretive muscles very much. There's not much challenging music – no Brahms sonata, nothing by Mozart or Beethoven, so there's not much opportunity to get your teeth into really, really good music and really, really get into the structure and interpretation.” However, he acknowledges that conducting has its challenges, saying: “I know how much conductors are generally hated by performers so there is a need to keep integrity and not get carried away. It's an interesting art and it is hard to keep everyone happy. Sometimes you have got to work a lot with the strings. Sometimes with challenging pieces you have got to really know it inside out or you become a hindrance rather than a help.” On the flip side, he admits: “Sometimes it feels like the easiest thing in the world. After all it's the orchestra who has got to play the music – all I've got to do is wave my arms around.”
Richard also plays in noisy punk bands, and is passionate about trying to attract a wider audience for classical art music. “Classical music doesn't really reach out,” he muses. “It's amazing how much really mind-blowing music there is that most people in the world have no knowledge of at all, and it's a shame that classical art music is a bit of a museum piece. The stronger and more healthy it is the better people will find ways of keeping art music alive, but classical music as an industry is very much in a cul-de-sac of its own making. All the music I liked when I was younger seems so alien from classical orchestral music.” He gives an example: “Orchestras will always have an assistant conductor, who is straight out of college and very academic. Nine times out of ten they are kind of posh and kind of boring. There's no way in a million years they are going to compete with David Bowie or anything in the popular genres – they just aren't interesting enough.”

Richard sees Gershwin as coming from a very similar place to him, believing passionately in crossover, and describes him as “a jazz man who wanted to reach out to the classical world, and did it very effectively”. He explains: “Gershwin was a fantastic pianist who wrote fantastic, incredibly glamorous pieces which seem to straddle both worlds – jazz/music hall and classical concert hall. It's strange that since then there haven't been examples of people trying to do that crossover.”
For Richard, the orchestra is as much for its members as the audience, and is part of a musical education. Richard thinks that it can help both performers and audience gain a better understanding and appreciation of classical music. “One of the problems with classical music is it is on such a big scale,” he explains. “It is attention span-testing. When you play it you get hold of it a lot better and can understand the underlying harmonic structure, which gives it what it does to you. If you just listen to snippets on Classic FM you don't get that at all – if you are playing you expose yourself to it much more.” Richard wanted the orchestra to attempt Stravinsky for ages, a wish which was fulfilled at the most recent summer concert, which included a rendition of The Fairy's Kiss. “Stravinsky was doing things compositionally which people in popular genres started doing later on with samplers,” he argues. “Stravinsky opened a lot of doors for the way modern music is produced, and opened people's ears to the cut and paste style. He was a musical magpie who used lots of different genres.”

Richard is also a big admirer of Mahler, who he describes as a “mind-blowing, absolutely amazing composer”, and rhapsodises about Mahler's First Symphony. “Symphony No 1 really pushed the boundaries in terms of what you can do expressively with an orchestra,” he explains. “He goes through much more expressive acrobatics than what had gone before and uses a huge orchestra with the widest palette of colours and incredible variety. The dynamic range is incredible.” He adds: “Even though Mahler used huge orchestras lots of his most effective moments are very simple and intimately scored, building and building and building to apocalyptically huge endings. Lots of people think of Mahler as being very tortured but Symphony No 1 is quite triumphant and positive. Lots of the tunes are taken from Songs of a Wayfarer, which give you an interesting idea into what he was thinking about when composing and where he was coming from. It's traditionally Viennese with a natural way with melody. It's very engaging melodically and great to play – very complex music but simple at the same time.”

Mahler's Symphony No 1 is also one of orchestra leader Andy Marshall's favourite pieces. Andy, a former leader of Rochdale Youth Orchestra, who has now been playing violin for 29 years, joined the orchestra after attending a concert in 2001 and being impressed by its performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. He took over as leader this summer after the death of Ann Heeks, leader of the orchestra for many years who, together with her musician husband Ken, performed many solos. Ann lost her fight with cancer earlier this year, so Andy is keen to carry on Ann's legacy and see the orchestra grow for the future. “It's great to be a member of an orchestra which tackles challenging works,” he explains, “as this aids the educational aspect of all becoming better players.” He admits: “The Mahler in particular is going to be challenging, but I think its already coming together nicely.”

Today, around half the members of Oldham Symphony Orchestra are drawn from the town, with the rest travelling to rehearsals from the surrounding area including Todmorden, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester. The orchestra plays three concerts a year, in Easter, summer and winter, including family concerts aimed introducing the instruments of the orchestra and inspiring the next generation of musicians. The orchestra also supports young composers and players by performing new compositions and offering opportunities for up-and-coming musicians to perform solos. Many members regard playing with musicians who have gone on to do big things as a highlight of being in the orchestra.

An exhibition at Gallery Oldham celebrating the orchestra's fiftieth birthday, starting in October, will present panels on some of the soloists, players and conductors who have been associated with the orchestra over the decades, alongside a display of musical instruments and other artefacts relating to the orchestra's history. Second violin Ann Jones, the second longest-serving member of the orchestra after Tom Whittaker, who joined in the 1970s after living locally and having her arm twisted by Ann Heeks, has been busy rooting through the orchestra's archives, from concert programmes to newspaper cuttings to old tape recordings. Together with quotes and pictures from current members of the orchestra, the exhibition will give a sense of what the orchestra means to its members. Ann is also going to borrow a bronze statue presented to James Morrison, conductor of nearly thirty years, at his last concert before retirement in 2001. The statue has an important place in the collective memory of the orchestra, Ann reminisces, because “there was a fire alarm but instead of downing tools we carried on playing and then all trooped out and presented the statue in the car park!”
This fighting spirit is typical of the orchestra, which has stayed together for a half a century despite the problems facing amateur orchestras everywhere, from falling audience figures, declining interest in classical music and the cost of staging concerts, to the difficulty of striking a balance between what the orchestra wants to play and what the public wants to hear, the ongoing difficulty of attracting and maintaining members, and the challenges of pulling off difficult pieces of music. But for those in the orchestra, it's a part of life. The orchestra provides a weekly routine, a chance to socialise, to keep up and develop skills, to learn new things. Most importantly, it's a chance to get out for a few hours and play a small part in making one giant, collective noise. As Richard Waldock sums up: “It's important for people to be able to have these things.” And Tom Whittaker: “We have made a moderately good job of most things and I have found it to be a tremendously good hobby.”
Fifty Years of Oldham Symphony Orchestra is at Gallery Oldham from Saturday October 26 2013-Saturday January 4 2014. 
Oldham Golden Anniversary Concert takes place at Oldham Hulme Grammar School on Saturday November 16 at 7.30pm, featuring soloist David Daniels. Tickets cost £10/6/3.

Oldham Symphony Orchestra practises at Turf Lane Lifelong Learning Centre, Chadderton, Oldham, from 7.30pm-9.30pm each Monday evening during term time. For more information about current vacancies and concerts visit www.oldhamsymphonyorchestra.org.uk.

Sort of related: I really enjoyed this recent Guardian article by Stuart Maconie about classical music and Manchester's radical music tradition.