Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Issue Three of the Shrieking Violet

Issue 3 of the Shrieking Violet is out today (it can be collected from the usual places - see previous postings!). There is a slight Autumn/ public art/ student/ university theme.

It features a cartoon by the multi-talented Rob Taylor (who also plays music under the name Sparky Deathcap), my piece on gargoyles in tiny print (it turned out to be much longer than I realised!), Jim Waterson on the demise of football terraces, Victoria Conway on females in comedy, an evocative piece on street collection boxes by Morag Rose, a short story and artwork by Lizzy Huthwaite, an article on murals and mosaics in Manchester by Manchester Modernist Society's wonderful E.P. Niblock, recipes by Rachel Cranshaw and Rebecca Wilmott and listings, plus illustrations by Alex Boswell and Fiona Bratherton.

The front cover was designed by Alex Boswell.

The self-assembly PDF version can be downloaded here.

To request a copy/ contribute, email

The new issue of the Shrieking Violet has definitely been overshadowed by the discovery there is a new issue of Belle Vue out, though. The first issue, which came out last year, was the best fanzine I've ever read and a big influence on The Shrieking Violet. The new issue contains articles by E.P. Niblock and Richard Barrett and can be found in Piccadilly Records and the Cornerhouse bookshop.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Where have all the gargoyles gone?

Manchester is a city of a million eyes. Everywhere, eyes watch you, stare at you, scrutinise you, look you up and down, look past you and through you, but rarely focus or make eye contact. There are some eyes that will never look away, though, once you meet their gaze, and will never close. These eyes of the city are cast in stone, relegated from the level of human life. They watch from a vantage point high above the city, detached from the world of the eyes attached to the heads that rush about below.

For Manchester has a parallel population, unknown to many of its present residents; gargoyles. Exaggeratedly real, these faces, often human-animal hybrids, are the guardians of the city, growing out of the brickwork. The city is their playground, where they contort and perform acrobatic feats. They nestle on the outside of the town hall, clamber up and down drain pipes upside down at John Rylands library on Deansgate and leer down at the River Medlock from the back of the Palace Hotel (the former Refuge Assurance Company), forced to forever look down into the depths below, hidden from most people but passengers on trains going across the railway tracks behind (buses are also good for gargoyle spotting!).

Strictly speaking, a gargoyle spouts water out of its mouth, as the word ‘gargoyle’ comes from the Latin for throat (think gurgle!). Medieval gargoyles were designed to collect rainwater, and non-watery gargoyles are known as chimeras. Most of Manchester’s are merely for decoration and only a few expel water, such as those on the fountain outside the town hall, where winged fish cling to the edge, their mouths forced wide open to spew water for the pleasure of the passing public.
Most are inconspicuous, but dramas are played out by these larger-than-life personalities. Though a few faces are stylised, most are astonishingly human, every last line of recognisable human experience carved into their faces. The erosion and smoothing away of stone, or layers of peeling paint from past attempts to cover up gargoyles, serves only to reinforce the effect, adding to their solemnity and seriousness.

Though gargoyles are often grotesque, their faces twisted into grimaces and mouths extended in agony, some are comic figures, at whom it’s impossible not to laugh. Rows of taunting gargoyles on the side of Manchester Cathedral hold their mouths open with their fingers, pull faces and stick their tongues out at you.

Perhaps it’s for the best that most people rarely look up, though. Some gargoyles are benign, cherubs providing a consoling view, but many people would be disconcerted if they got off the bus at Piccadilly Gardens, looked up at Somerfield and realised they were being eyed up by rows of staring lions, wide eyed and hungry. Somerfield’s pack of lions is just a small part of Manchester’s leonine population. Jowly lions watch over grand buildings, ready to pounce into action from the doors of the Old Fire Station on London Road, or loyally and proudly guard banks, reassuring customers their money is safe inside.
The city is also overrun by guard dogs. Caricatures with giant, pricked ears, they’re watching, waiting and listening. On the buildings of the Northern Quarter, dogs look defiantly out of columns and pillars as if daring you to try any funny business. At John Rylands library, gargoyles nest in corners in the stairwells that lead up to the historic reading room, as if reminding readers, before the days of CCTV, they were watching the precious books within.

Manchester is also a city of thousands of mouths. Eating, talking, gossiping, advising, shouting, singing, the city is never silent. There are some mouths that will never speak again, though. If they could, the roar the of the city would be replaced with a different tune; the singing of anguished souls, the warning cries of gargoyles forced to live out their penance in public in an act of revenge. What stories they could tell if they could speak. Maybe the man who’s holding his head in his hands on a building above Piccadilly could tell us what he did that made him freeze in permanent regret (or whether he’s just suffering from a colossal hangover!).

Manchester Cathedral is teeming with the creatures, a reminder of those less fortunate, the victims of terrible fates, condemned for eternity. One poor tortured soul, clad in human clothes as if a warning to the ordinary man, who sees something of him within himself, has been painted a ghostly green over time by moss, and cobwebs grow from his mouth like strings of saliva over his bared teeth. Forcefully propelled from the building, his mouth is permanently flung open as if in a silent warning. We’re shown the retribution and punishment, but what crimes did these pour souls commit that they were forced to constantly relive their humiliation in public?A cathedral is exactly the type of place you would expect to find gargoyles - think of Notre Dame in Paris - and the Gothic buildings of Deansgate are home to clusters of chimeras, but they’re also dotted about the city. The most unlikely place is the gun shop that occupies a corner on Withy Grove. A winged gargoyle, painted black to contrast with the white walls of the building, is crouched on the corner of the building, about to take off in flight over the Printworks. The man inside the gun shop speculated that the gargoyle was a remainder from those added to the Cathedral in Victorian times, when the building was reclad, and told me there are many more leftover gargoyles on buildings across Manchester.

Whether they’re comical or grotesque, gargoyles, like all good public art, add a human side to the city. They’re also a history of place, a record of the city and its values captured in time.

Imagine if we had gargoyles nowadays; gargoyles seem to have disappeared from modern buildings, but they served a useful purpose. The old Smithfield Market building on Swan Street, from the mid nineteenth century, belies its function with the carved heads of sheep and goats. The Old Fire Station is covered in the likenesses of damsels in need of rescue, almost mermaid like, rendered in terracotta with their hair plastered dramatically across the brickwork of the windowsills. It’s even adorned with busty, topless women perching above doorways, surely as much of an inspiration to firemen as their male counterparts, bare chested young men with rippling muscles. Though they’re some of the most recent gargoyles in Manchester, from the early twentieth century, perhaps they wouldn’t look so good in glass and steel, the ubiquitous material of the modern city (although the 1930s Chrysler building in New York is adorned with gleaming, metallic gargoyles, replicas of hood ornaments).
Perhaps the best example of modern gargoyles and adaptation of the form is in Chicago, where the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa has imaginatively reinvented the concept with his Crown Fountain, which was opened in 2004. A stunningly beautiful city that’s full of public art, in the downtown Loop area Miro and Picasso offer their opposing, yet similarly abstract, visions of women’s faces in huge, sculptural form, adding something personal in amongst the towering minimalist built environment.

In the waterside Millennium Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Plensa’s Crown Fountain sets two giant faces opposite each other, human gargoyles in the best sense. Onto two huge towers are projected close-up videos of the faces of citizens of Chicago - truly gargoyles in which the public can see their reflections. In slow motion, they gradually purse their lips until spurting water, then finally smiling. In summer, children are taken down by their parents in their swimming costumes to frolic in the water, screaming and laughing. It’s public art at its best.

Consider if, instead of consisting of blank stone and smooth facades, the walls of our city were still exciting and had personal touches. A man frozen in blissful repose to guide the weary traveller through the last through steps towards shelter. A series of ‘before, during and after’ gargoyles detailing the various stages of alcohol consumption, from sober to merry to worse for wear, to warn drinkers entering a pub to know when to stop, could be far more effective - and entertaining - than heavy handed government poster campaigns. The caring yet expert face of a doctor reassuring a patient on the way into hospital. An enraptured face lost in the adventures held within the pages of books to inspire the reluctant scholar into a library. A friend above your front door, offering you company on your way home by yourself late at night, or just a few more friendly and welcoming faces around the city.

Update: On May 27th 2010, The Culture Show included a celebration of gargoyles by the critic Andrew Graham Smith, who describes them as 'folk art', goes to see some new garogyles at Westminster Abbey and watches them being made.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Wurlitzer Jukebox: The Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust, Eccles (open for Heritage Open Days this weekend!)

Entering into the Lancastrian Theatre Organ trust’s headquarters in Eccles is, in many ways, like stepping back in time. The main room is a replica of a 1920s movie theatre, complete with a rows of wooden, curved-backed cinema seats in faded, itchy velvet with cramped armrests. Anyone who has ever been in an Art Deco cinema will feel a sense of déjà vu, recognising the décor (a distinctive shade of rose-pink with gold trimming), chandeliers, bowl lights and pictures of silent film stars that line the walls, as well as the plush red curtains that open and close mechanically at the start and finish of a film.

It’s also home to one of the most charming museums you could hope to visit - the type where ladies serve hot drinks and biscuits, you’re entered into a raffle on arrival and the gift shop sells second hand cassette tapes, VHS videos, sheet organ music and 78 and 33 inch records (divided into categories such as ‘musicals/ opera’ and ‘fairground’). Staff are smartly uniformed like cinema ushers, with name badges, matching shirts and even striped ties featuring a picture of a Wurlitzer.

The Lancastrian Theatre Trust was formed in 1968 to save the Wurlitzer from the old Odeon cinema (now derelict) on Oxford Street in Manchester. Across the country, the Wurlitzer theatre organ, a perfect accompaniment to silent films before the war, and used later to entertain patrons before screenings, had been a victim of the process of modernisation and, as with many other cinemas, there was no longer room for it in the Odeon. The Trust ensured the organ found a new home, first at the Free Trade Hall, and then at Stockport Town Hall, where it is still in use.

Since then, the trust has rescued and found new uses for a number of other Wurlitzers, and created a musuem dedicated to Cheshire inventor Robert Hope-Jones, the ‘founder of the cinema organ’, who came up with the design that was later popularised by the Wurlitzer company in America. In 2002, it acquired a 1927 Wurlitzer from a cinema in Liverpool, which now takes pride of place at the front of the cinema, rising from a console on the stage.
The trust has around 20 volunteers, who use their expertise, whether in woodwork or IT, to restore the instruments. Volunteer and organist Alan Crossland said: “It takes a month to disconnect a theatre organ - you can’t just turn up in a van and move it. It took two and a half to three years to restore this organ.”

The organ now entertains visitors with weekly Wednesday lunchtime concerts from visiting professional organists. Crossland said: “The cinema seats 80 and we get 40 to 80 people a week. Some travel from as far away as Crewe on a weekly basis for the concerts.” The organ can also be hired by individuals or groups for tuition.

For many, it’s like a trip down memory lane. Crossland explained: “We put the words up and people sing along - they can’t say they can’t join in as they don’t know the words then!”

For the Heritage Open Days, the trust is screening old films of Eccles as well as a documentary about the formation of the museum, which is housed in an old Sunday school, and Laurel and Hardy silent pictures, accompanied by members of the trust on organ.
Crossland, whose fingers and feet whiz across the rows of keys, stops and pedals, explained: “I've been playing organ for years, although I started on the piano. I’m a church organist, but I prefer playing the Wurlitzer (don’t tell the vicar I said that!). There’s more to a Wurlitzer - the church organ has no cymbals and drums!” He also seems excited that, as well as more conventional instrument sounds like trumpets and flutes, it has an inbuilt doorbell button.

The building rings with the distinctive, seasidey vibrato tremble of the Wurlitzer, whirling its way through everything from hymns like Morning is Broken and the jaunty tune of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head to the old musical favourites Edelweiss and As Time Goes By.

Crossland explained: “I like to start with a march as I can do a drum roll and use a crash symbol, then do a waltz. I always finish with the National Anthem - that’s what they used to do in the old days. Everyone in the cinema would stand still. You don’t get that anymore.”

He added: “I also take a portion from The Two Tars, a Laurel and Hardy film. The film is about 50 minutes long, but we just use 10 minutes. I memorise the film so I know what’s coming up and then improvise, quiet, tender music if it’s a love scene, for example, or fast music for a busy scene where they’re rushing around. We show Charlie Chaplin films too.”

Hearing sound effects fly about above, seemingly coming from random directions at the side of the stage, is almost as funny as watching Laurel and Hardy bumble around themselves. Notes fall from the sky. Trumpets parp. As the slapstick duo roll and writhe around in incompetence, the organ mimics with rolls and flourishes.

One of the most exciting things the trust is offering for the Heritage Open Days (as well as talking members of staff into letting you have a play on the organ itself!) is a tour of the organ chamber, beneath the theatre, which isn’t usually open to the public (though there are viewing windows which explain the inner workings of the organ).

Crossland said: “People think the sound comes from the keyboard, but it doesn’t - it comes from real instruments.” The organ sounds like a whole orchestra, and beneath it is a complicated contraption of instruments based around a wooden framework, including sleigh bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, castanets, bass drum, church chimes, triangle, cymbal, car horn, tambourine, and Chinese glockenspiel - as well as a noisy motor which provides the wind. Watch the workings while the organ is being played and metal pipes vibrate, hammers hit chimes and cymbals seem to hit themselves.Crossland explained: “It has to be kept warm down there to keep the pipes in tune. We tune them once every five weeks and test every bell.”

The museum also houses journals produced by the trust, models of Wurlitzers, magnets manufactured by Royce (later of Rolls-Royce fame) that were used in Hope-Jones‘ organ designs, examples of later electric Wurlitzers and reed organs and a couple of Hope-Jones’ church organs (the trust has a rotating display of ‘organ of the month’, drawn from instruments nationwide).

I also found it fascinating as a snapshot of the golden age of cinema, with mini overviews of the history of ABC and Gaumont chains. I particularly liked one description of the distinctive architecture of old Odeons, many of which were bombed during the war, or are currently in the process of being knocked down and replaced by multiplexes: ‘cream or batter-yellow faience tiles, rounded corners, slab towers, neon outlining by night and, of course, the distinctive style of the Odeon lettering.’

A sign for a ‘Ballroom lounge-bar upstairs’ is a reminder of the first days of mass entertainment, when super cinemas were built as sumptuous picture palaces where people could go and marvel at the new phenomenon of film. Nowadays, sadly, this notion of going to the cinema as a special, luxury event seems almost as old-fashioned as the old motorcars and dated attire seen in the Laurel and Hardy films.

The Theatre Organ Heritage Centre
Alexandra Road
Peel Green
M30 7HJ

The Heritage Centre and Museum is open as part of the nationwide Heritage Open Days ( on September 12, with special screenings and tours.

The Heritage Centre and Museum is usually open every Friday and Saturday from 11.00am until 3.00pm. For visits at other times, call 0161 792 1836.

Entrance is free (donations welcomed).

Trains go from Manchester Victoria to Patricroft station (from which the musuem is a short walk) every hour at 39 minutes past.

Lunchtime concerts are held every Wednesday at 1pm (doors open at 12pm).

There will also be lunchtime concerts at Stockport Town Hall on September 7, October 5, November 2 and December 7 at 12pm, costing £1.50, as well as Sunday concerts on October 11 and November 29 at 2.30pm.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Issue Two of the Shrieking Violet

Issue 2 of the Shrieking Violet (September 2009) is now finished and I'm really pleased with it. It's a lot more visual than issue one, as it's got illustrations by Sam Turner, Lauren Velvick and Alex Boswell, as well as a front cover by Dominic Al Bhardi.

It's got some great articles inside; Sam Lewis on the lost art of the football shirt, Catriona Gray on Manchester's symbol, the bee, Alice Kelly arguing that maths is beautiful, a fairy ring by the Mancunian Way, a short story by Tom Whyman, a poem by Richard Barrett and a recipe by Rachel Cranshaw. I have written about my favourite green spaces in Manchester (at the moment, some of the articles I have written for the zine are appearing on the blog, some aren't. This is because some lend themselves to the written page and not the computer screen, and vice versa. Some are more like guides to Manchester that work best laid out on a page with photos etc..)

This is the self-assembly pdf.

There will also be about 50 copies around Manchester.

To request a copy, email Alternatively, there is a facebook group here.