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 at 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.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Alec Finlay's Propagator (the artwork I have seen recently that I liked the most)

Propagator, a work by Alec Finlay that highlights the poetic nature of art, life and sculpture, sits unobtrusively next to the high, curved brick lines of a walled garden at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Contemplating a willow tree, the work is housed in a greenhouse overlooking a lawn that stretches towards the undulating hills of the West Yorkshire countryside, striped with wavy lines as though someone has drawn a comb across them.
In the greenhouse – a place designed to concentrate light and warmth where time and its effects take on a different, accelerated quality – sit a series of artworks based around the art form of mesoteric poems. This way of writing takes its inspiration from a basic structure of nature, the tree, with the poem's name comprising the stem or trunk and words extending outwards like branches. Named after plants, and thereby reducing the essential nature of plants to poetry, Finlay's poems are succinct enough to fit on plaques similar to those used to distinguish between seedlings in cottage gardens: easy to miss but warranting a closer look.
Propagator was undertaken during Finlay's residency 'Avant-garde English landscape' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and offers a new take on his work in the field of publishing, where he explores ways of finding and communicating meaning. In Propagator meaning is both textual and visual, threaded through the stem and around the name of each poem to conjure a recognisable sense of the plant and its context from the combination of constituent letters which make up its title. Plants are both described literally and by their metaphoric qualities, with the poems taking on the characteristics of the plants they are describing. In the neat conciseness of Tansy, no letter is out of place: 'Threads And buttoNs Sewn neatlY'. Others are humorous, as in the knowing onomatopoeia of wheat, 'Where tHe aliEns leAve signaTures'; humour is also used to great effect when Hop is described as 'Heads cOuld drooP'. Sometimes the plant's natural qualities are united with manmade, common experience. Sea kale is visually linked with 'dereK jArman's shingLe gardEn', a place of pilgrimage for fans of Jarman's art and films, and the soporific properties of Valeriana gain a new association with bedtime listening and the unobtrusive background company of 'Vague rAdio pLays'.
Finlay's mesoteric poems also exhort gentle suggestions and instructions about how these flowers can be encountered and experienced, subverting our expectations and casting these common plants in a new light. The reader is told that 'WinDs cArry the cottoN threaDs' of dandelions, making the viewer turn their head to the sky in the hope that they can 'pIck One Now'. Lichen, it is suggested, 'greyLy Clings Hold thE skyliNe', a poetic juxtaposition which elevates the plant from its lowly reputation. Propagator is a humble installation, but one that fits closely with its environment and effectively brings out the simple beauty and meaning in what is around it, and around us, every day.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Review: On Landguard Point

How do you map a place, and go beyond its surface area to chart its movement through time, space and history? On Landguard Point attempts to do this for the flatlands of East Anglia, taking a pair of scissors to the conventional map of the coastline and inviting us to disregard what we previously thought we knew of the area's topography, starting and ending as a place in which our senses are submerged by the sea that's all around and by the earth below. Out on a limb, bordered by water on three sides, this is a landscape which over centuries has grown and receded with the sea; it has long been a site of conflict and battle, both among man and with the elements. Languard Point was an island before the expanse of shingle crept back towards the mainland, and the film introduces us to those who are “trying to maintain a sense of fixture in this ever-shifting landscape”. Our experience of the Great British weather, as well as of sound, is at its most extreme by the sea and the film sums up the coastal experience in a palette that is limited to various shades of grey and green, soundtracked by amplifications of the creaking of a flag pole, the churning of the sea, the swirling of the sky, the rumble of boats rising massive from the horizon, fog horns and, of course, the omnipresent gulls, over which rove and probe the compositions of Michael Nyman. The film plays with the way in which our understanding of place is shaped through drawing, painting, writing, folklore, music, and even food, inviting us to read a narrative over the shoulder of a typewriter, literally holding a mirror up to the land's diversity of flora and fauna and reducing the area's essence to neon announcements in a surreal piece of installation art. Local landmarks are recreated as grandiose cakes – slice of Wisbech Castle, anyone? It's an absurdist yet affectionate vision of this little corner of Britain, where truth is stranger than fiction, told through a deadpan, gentle, poetic voiceover. Made as the East of England's contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, the cultural counterweight to the Olympic Games, On Landguard Point presents a series of tableaux with a distinctly-English cast of brass bands, Morris men, historical reenactments, metal detectors, treasure hunters, archaeologists, majorettes (pom-poms-a-rustle) and the ubiquitous seaside donkey. It's an apt but uneasy depiction of a desolate but beautiful place and above all, it's a film about home and the things we do to belong: the seaside is performed, ritualised and observed, shaped by us and what we make of it.

On Landguard Point was shown at the Cornerhouse on Sunday 8 September. For more information about the project visit www.onlandguardpoint.com.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Shrieking Violet is 4 — August bank holiday zine launch with music!

The Shrieking Violet zine entered its fourth year at the start of August. This would have coincided with a new issue was it not for a slight hiccup with procuring a cover design! I offer the multi-talented musician and illustrator Dominic Oliver infinite gratitude for stepping in at the last minute and creating this issue's cover image (hear his latest rock 'n' roll supergroup, Fruit Tones, in action at Wahlbar in Fallowfield this Friday!). It seems particularly appropriate as Dom designed the cover for the first two issues of the Shrieking Violet, as well as illustrating the special Shrieking Violet guide to Sounds from the Other City in summer 2010 and contributing various other illustrations over the years. His designs never fail to surprise and delight me.

Read issue 21 online here:


Pick up paper copies at a garden gig in Chorlton on Sunday August 25, which will handily double as a zine launch featuring the best of Bristol's alt-folk scene. Issue 21 contributor Roxy Brennan will make an appearance as Two White Cranes, alongside fellow Bristolians the Nervy Betters and Welsh/Manc weird rocker Llion Swyd. For more information, including times, and contact details for obtaining the exact address, visit http://clockflavour.tumblr.com.

Due to the time and effort involved in photocopying, folding and stapling zines, not to mention the ever-deteriorating quality of copies coming off the machines and a recent price rise from 2p per sheet to 3p per sheet, this issue will be printed with nice, environmentally friendly paper and ink by marc the printers at not much extra cost. Copies are currently on sale for £2 in Piccadilly Records on Oldham Street and in the bookshop at the Cornerhouse on Oxford Street, or at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford (no price, why not make a donation to the Library). Alternatively, download and print your own copy here.

Read issue 21 in Salford Zine Library (currently housed in Nexus Art Cafe, Dale Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester).

In issue 21:

Adrian Slatcher wonders whether memory is being outsourced in our information age and what the consequences of this might be for our self-belief and creativity. Adrian has poetry and fiction in the Rialto, Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and Unthology 4. He blogs at artoffiction.blogspot.com and makes electronic music as Bonbon Experiment.

Roxy Brennan muses about the theme of nature in the sculpture and writing of poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. Roxy is a writer and musician based in Bristol but mostly she works in an art gallery, telling children not to touch things. She is largely interested in Bruce Springsteen and David Foster Wallace, but is discovering that contemporary art is pretty wild too.

Marcus Barnett delves into the story of Maurice 'two guns' Cohen and how he came to his final resting place in Blackley Cemetery. Marcus is twenty-two, graduated from Manchester University with a confusing and ambiguous Combined Studies Department degree in 2012, and holds a certificate in being able to speak a competent Yiddish from Tel Aviv University from a semester there. Since that he has been working in busy kitchens, quiet cafes and the Working Class Movement Library. His main 'things' are post-punk, modernist things (primarily: communism, buildings, progress), reading, and good food, probably in that order.

The Shrieking Violet presents a selection of small images of Manchester life by photographer Joincey. Joincey has a virtually untraceable output of pseudo/anti-music and noise-related sound art/skronk going back twenty years and, as well as playing alone and with other people in bands/groups/combos/projects as Saboteuse, Remedial Queen of England, Puff, Head Effort, Stuckometer and Wheel of Eyes, has fostered a tendency for ultra-amateur photography (mobile phone apps and charity-shop-found 35mm point and shooters almost exclusively) whose themes and stories may be inscrutable or altogether absent. Born and bred in the Potteries, he is resident in Manchester.

Nick Mitchell, founder of Manchester label Golden Lab Records, writes about hero worship and the all-encompassing joy of record collecting and the DIY music scene, as well as contributing a poem to issue 21. Nick was born in 1975 in West Yorkshire and has lived in Manchester since 1999. He works as a writer/poet and musician and has run the label Golden Lab Records since 2005. His poems and short stories have appeared in a number of publications in the UK and US. Hear Nick open for Joshua Burkett at Kraak this evening (Wednesday 14 August), as Chalaque.

James Robinson, a photographer with a penchant for pet portraiture, contributes a selection of photos taken during his recent travels around Southern India in January 2013. Originally from Lincoln, James studied philosophy in Manchester before moving to London where he plays bass for indie band Being There.

Art student Paul Gallagher adds some colour to the Shrieking Violet with his illustration 'Kaspar Hauser'. Paul is influenced by underground comic book artists as well as traditional African, folk art and classic cartoons such as the Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead. His work often uses colour, abstract shapes and patterns and faces. To see more go to http://paulgallagherillustration.tumblr.com

Writer, curator and academic Rachel Newsome contributes an essay on fashion and androgyny. A former editor of Dazed & Confused magazine, Rachel chose to leave the commercial world of media in order concentrate on writing fiction and essays after nearly a decade in journalism. Since then she has authored the novel As It Was In The Beginning (short-listed for the Dundee International Book Prize) and edited This Is Not A Book About Gavin Turk, a series of essays on contemporary art commissioned at the request of the artist. She writes essays on art and culture as well as dark fables that explore both the dark interior of the human psyche and its search for light. Set against a backdrop of contemporary consumer society, these fables occupy a landscape somewhere between consciousness and dream, and owe a debt to the short stories of Angela Carter and Ben Okri and the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hermann Hesse. Rachel is the Director of Don’t Tell Stories, which curates narrative-based spaces and situations and is a Lecturer in Fashion Styling and Image-Making at The University Of Salford. She is currently writing a series of short stories, What Remains And Other Tales.

Manchester-based artist Cherry Styles often uses photographs of herself and long-time collaborator Christa Harris in her collages; get a flavour of her collage work in this issue of the Shrieking Violet. The pair are currently working on a photo book of Cherry's pictures of Christa taken over the past eight years. See more of her work at www.cherrystyles.co.uk.

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

Manchester-based filmmaker Richard Howe continues his series on mental health in the movies by looking at Woody Allen's best film of the nineties, Deconstructing Harry. Help Richard by voting for his surreal comedy film Dream Bubble at www.virginmediashorts.co.uk/film/4664/dream-bubble#.UfKdcWC1Zc9 and tweet him about films @rikurichard.

This edition's recipe, Spanish stuffed cabbage leaves, comes from vegetarian blogger and aspiring cafe owner Paul Barrett. Paul blogs about the joys of vegetarian parenting and the path he is taking to get a vegetarian cafe up and running in the North West. He aims to open a new cafe in New Mills in Derbyshire in the autumn.

Friday, 12 July 2013

“The beauty is in the possibility”: Jen Wu's 'The Wall'

Halfway up Chapel Street, a busy car, bus and pedestrian route which links the city of Salford with Manchester city centre, a motley assortment of old buildings punctuate empty stretches of rubble and high fencing, a familiar sight in many post-industrial cities. The bricked-up pubs, burnt-out office buildings and an old theatre covered with 'danger' signs are suggestive of a time when the street was a busy shopping hub, before abandonment was forced by the area's subsequent decline. With details like bell towers, faded signs and curved frontages these buildings capture the imagination, standing out in a landscape dominated by vacant sites and new-build apartment blocks (so much so that it is possible to buy postcards featuring unconventional landmarks such as the derelict Old Nelson pub from Salford Museum and Art Gallery up the road, hoardings and all). Appreciating these buildings aesthetically, though, is ignoring the inevitable: Chapel Street is due to be transformed with extensive residential and commercial development over the next few years, aimed at attracting new residents into the area. Many of the existing buildings will be demolished.
As the demolition crews finally move in this summer, it is hoped that one wall from the Old Bank building, which was used as a community theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, will remain standing as a readymade sculptural artwork, a 'barometer' which will remain constant as the area changes around it. Working with bricklayers and structural engineers, artist Jen Wu will stabilise the wall before inviting the local community, which ranges from tower block tenants and artists to 'young professionals' resident in newer flats, to take part in dismantling and then moving and rebuilding the wall in an act of 'creative DIY', soundtracked by free and open 'demolition' and 'reconstruction' rave parties. For Jen, who has a background curating projects in London such as transforming major art gallery the ICA into a nightclub, the focus of the project is not just on demolition, but on action, creating a cycle of activity that will help bring people together to celebrate the past at the same time as looking to the future and channelling the DIY spirit which drives places such as nearby arts venue Islington Mill.

At least that's the idea. Jen conceived the work in collaboration with Islington Mill directors Bill Campbell and Maurice Carlin in early 2012, and in December started discussions with English Cities Fund and Urban Vision, which is responsible for overseeing the regeneration of the area. She says the regeneration firms “took a leap of faith” in supporting her ideas, seeing the project as a positive way of empowering and involving local people in the changes taking place their immediate environment. The buildings were due to come down in February 2013, but demolition was delayed – and then around May time the council started to get cold feet due to health and safety concerns and the changes it would entail to the original demolition contract. Now the fences have gone up and demolition is imminent, meaning Jen faces a race against time. She has been meeting with Salford City Council and Bagnall, the demolition contractor, to find a solution so that the events can take place in September rather than July as originally planned, but the future of The Wall is still uncertain; the latest news is that it looks like Bagnall will have to take down the wall and save Jen the bricks, meaning the community action will be just the reconstruction. Jen says:“A compromise, but at least it can still happen!”
Jen's interest in the process of demolition initially grew out of a three-month residency at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester which started late in 2011, where she researched the history of Manchester's former musical landmarks which have been demolished, such as the Hacienda nightclub (now rebuilt as apartments – Jen “kept wondering why I couldn't recognise it – it's depressing”) and the notorious Hulme Crescents, which were once the venue for famous parties. She also went out on Manchester's club scene and met those suffused with DIY energy in Manchester today, from Unity Radio and Islington Mill to Kraak space and the Volkov Commanders, finding that “there is something real about it. It's not like it's just setting itself up as an alternative”. Jen became interested in the ways in which spaces where people used to come together, such as nightclubs, have been destroyed and started to explore narratives of regeneration, demolition and starting over again. She documented the demolition of buildings such as the former seaman's mission and Salvation Army centre Stella Maris, which stood just behind Chapel Street next to Islington Mill, becoming interested in both the material process of demolition and the communal psyche of what the building meant to its former users. Despite both Islington Mill and Manchester Modernist Society proposing future uses for the building, which once boasted facilities such as a sprung dance floor, the council was insistent on its demolition, and it is now used as a storage space for building work in the area. Jen made a film about the demolition which was shown at suitably avant-noise band Gnod's Gesamtkunstwerk night at Islington Mill, and Gnod will reciprocate by playing at the parties accompanying The Wall events, closing the circle of Jen's convergent interests in rave and regeneration.

By holding rave parties, Jen hopes to resurrect the spirit of rave in a positive way, bringing together some of the protagonists of the 1980s rave scene in Manchester with musicians who are influenced by their music today and connecting them with the creativity and energy flourishing in Salford now. The Wall is also an opportunity for people to reconnect with the materiality of what's around them, and appreciate the solid sturdiness of brick in a city which is, after all, built predominantly of the material. Jen explains: “Everything is so virtual now, but if you help to take down a wall and rebuild a wall you are contributing to something longer-lasting. People will be able to walk past and say 'I built that'. It doesn't take specialist skills or support any ideology.” Jen has met with representatives from community newspaper M3, and the local residents' association, to gauge interest in the project, and it is hoped that the wall, rebuilt nearby, may then become the starting point of something new, such as a community centre (in an interesting parallel, one local resident was involved in a similar project to save a wall in an old aircraft hangar, which contained a half-finished wartime mural, interrupted by its artist being called up to fight, and succeeded in moving the wall to a museum).

The parameters of The Wall are constantly shifting, and the development of the area is gathering pace. As Jen says, “It's extraordinary what's been happening. Every day something new is there or something is no longer there.” Sometimes The Wall seems impossible to realise, but Jen sees Manchester as an ideal space to try things out and doesn't think The Wall could take place anywhere else. She has now been in Manchester far beyond her original residency period, doggedly trying to see the project through. She explains: “I just want to do something truthful and that I can stand behind as an artist. I didn't give up, because it could happen. Because I got a glimpse of it happening I had to carry it through. So many people said yes and got excited that I couldn't go back.” Jen has convinced those around her of the beauty to be found in a brick wall, and The Wall still exists as a possibility, just in reach of being realised. As she says: “The beauty is in the possibility. I'm always optimistic. If I'm not then who's going to be?”

For the latest news on The Wall keep an eye on www.islingtonmill.com/visual-arts-events.php.

Jen is hosting a 'supper' at Islington Mill on Saturday 13 July from 6-9pm. She will be talking about The Wall for around 45 minutes, then use the rest of the time to get feedback from people about how to re-think the work. For more information visit www.facebook.com/events/467844653307944.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Manchester bike month

I was recently commissioned to write an article about cycling for the North West edition of the Skinny, to coincide with the first Manchester bike month. Read the June issue of the Skinny online:
Manchester cycle city

Despite widely-acknowledged benefits to health and the environment, not to mention the wallet, the prospect of navigating confusing cycle lanes, traffic and potholes is often enough to make would-be bikers think twice about venturing onto city roads. “Most current measures are designed to get bikes out of the way of cars, not the other way around,” says cyclist Mike Armstrong, who uses his aptly-named blog Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester to raise awareness of cycling and call for better provision for cyclists in the city. “It is no good shoving bikes onto pavements in some places only to prosecute people for cycling on the pavement in others.”

But things could be changing. In a culture where many motorists currently see cyclists as a nuisance, Greater Manchester transport chiefs have finally recognised the need for a change in attitudes towards cycling. Plans are afoot to get three times as many Mancunians onto their bikes over the next twelve years as part of the Vélocity 2025 bid, which aims to tap into national funding to create a much-needed new network of cycle routes linking homes, jobs and leisure venues, and consultations about transforming Manchester's busiest cycle route, Oxford Road, with segregated cycle lanes, are currently underway. For transport chiefs, backing cycling makes sense. “Cycling is good for you, good for your wallet and good for the world”, explains Councillor Andrew Fender, Chair of the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee. “It’s cheaper than running a vehicle, there is no need to set off early to beat the traffic, and you’ll be fitter and healthier. What’s not to like about having the fitness level of someone 10 years younger?”

Already, there are a growing number of initiatives in the Northwest to support cyclists into the saddle and raise confidence amongst those on the roads. BikeRight! offers free bike training in Manchester, Merseyside and Warrington for cyclists at all levels, from group classes for complete beginners to sessions practising all-important skills such as signalling, turning and positioning, and one-on-one sessions for more experienced riders who want to practice particular routes. Voluntary groups and small enterprises share bike maintenance skills and, last year social entrepreneur Dipak Patel realised there was a need for secure, low-cost bicycle storage in Manchester. Patel set up his unique enterprise Popup Bikes in a railway arch on Corporation Street which, as well as being a safe place to keep bikes, offers affordable repairs and incorporates a coffee shop hosting events such as bike jumble sales and film screenings. Popup Bikes is fast becoming, says Patel, “the social glue for the cycling community, a place where people can meet and exchange stories and talk about cycling and non-cycling issues”.

As well as being a way of simply getting from A to B, sociability is often an important part of the cycling experience, and organised groups of cyclists provide safety in numbers for those who might otherwise feel discouraged from taking to two wheels. One such group is TeamGlow, which was set up in 2011 to provide a supportive network for female cyclists across Manchester and the Northwest, who often lack visibility and find it hard to feel included in the male-dominated cycling community. As well as providing advice, from buying a decent bike to cycle maintenance, and building up technique and skills, there is at least one organised ride a weekend, from short rides to long distance tours, and members are encouraged to challenge themselves to venture further on a bike. “I went from feeling like an isolated woman on a bike to being part of a group of women,” explains TeamGlow founder Glynis Francis. “I wanted to leave cycling for women in a better place than I found it and see other women have the pleasure of a social cycle ride and fresh air.”

Manchester Bike Month, which takes place this month, offers ample opportunities to team up with other likeminded cyclists, whether united around a love of real ale (Manchester cycle pub crawl, 21 June) or taking on a long distance challenge such as Manchester to Chester (June 23). Other highlights include a cyclists' float in the Manchester Day Parade (Sunday 2 June), a film night (Saturday 15 June), a unicycle taster session (Thursday 13 June) and even a bike naked ride (Friday 14 June). 

Greater Manchester still has some way to go before it reaches Amsterdam-levels of bike friendliness, but attitudes towards cycling are starting to change. The more cyclists who take to the city's roads and add their support to initiatives such as Vélocity 2025 and the national Get Britain Cycling campaign, the greater visibility there is and potential to push cycling into the mainstream. In the words of Mike Armstrong: “Provision for cycling should be direct, quicker and more convenient than driving.”

Monday, 3 June 2013

Repeat talk: 'Woman's Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine?' Working Class Movement Library, Wednesday 26 June, 2pm

I have been invited to repeat my talk 'Woman's Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine?' (read a mini-review of the talk in Rochdale to find out what to expect ... ) at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford on Wednesday 26 June at 2pm, as the Library also contains volumes of Woman's Outlook.

The talk is part of the Library's Invisible Histories series, and follows an inspiring talk by the F-Word music editor Cazz Blase on women's motivations for publishing magazines and fanzines, from punk and post-punk era zines such as City Fun to the Riot Grrrl scene. Cazz's talk included an intriguing reference to Moss Side Community Press Women's Co-op, which was active in the 1970s  (find out more about the history of radical and community printing collectives and co-operatives on this fascinating website).

More information about my talk:

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 women's 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.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Swandown DVD review

I was recently asked by the Cornerhouse if I would be interested in reviewing the DVD release of Swandown, which was one of my favourite films of last year (it premiered at the Cornerhouse as part of Abandon Normal Devices festival). As a big fan of both canals and director Andrew Kötting, I was happy to take up the chance to watch the film again.

Swandown review

In autumn 2011, writer Iain Sinclair and film-maker Andrew Kötting set off on a 160 mile voyage from the seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex, to inner-city Hackney in east London, site of the 2012 Olympics. Neither are strangers to the ripe themes of English coastal towns or epic journeys: Kötting previously directed the experimental coastal travelogue Gallivant, whilst Sinclair, who resides partly in Hackney, partly in St Leonards-on-Sea (next to Hastings), is perhaps best known for his book London Orbital, a pyschogeographic exploration of London's M25 motorway. What made the journey remarkable was that it was made by the two men in a cartoonishly oversized craft, a swan pedalo named Edith in honour of poet Edith Sitwell, liberated from Hastings' seashore-facing 'Swan Lake' in the name of 'releasing a trapped soul of the sea'. The resulting film, Swandown, is a dreamlike, fragmentary evocation of their unlikely, ambitious journey and the two men's friendship, as seen from 'silly little canals and creeks and horrible English muddy places' (Sinclair) in the closing light of an Indian summer.

The film-makers admit that Swandown is the 'black swan in the tradition of narrative cinema', and the film offers an impressionistic rather than linear depiction of their adventure. Jem Finer's ethereal score floats hazily over the film amid fragments of loosely connected archive film and voiceovers by Sinclair and Kötting musing on the mythology of the swan. The pair bob up and down, 'awash and reckless', on the English Channel (a journey that almost fails to start), glide up canals and rivers encountering fishermen, cows, dog walkers, paddlers and pleasure craft – the 'invisibles' not normally revealed in officially-sanctioned or popular imagery of the waterways – and, absurdly, get a lift up the River Thames on a tug. The film is a reminder of how much of a presence water is in the English landscape, from calm, bucolic rivers shaded by trees to the industrial waterscape of the Thames, a workaday, working river where boat traffic is overlooked by fast-flowing cars on the Dartford Bridge, and the ubiquitous inner-city canal confetti of bottles, cartons and balloons. Waterways are presented as being ripe for exploration, backwater viewing points into the secret lives of English towns and cities.

As Edith makes her way towards her destination, however, there is a growing sense of unease and a sense of the impending curtailment of physical and creative freedom. Not only are Sinclair and Kötting running out of time as Iain has to abandon Edith for the plane, a faster and more practical form of transport, needing to reach an appointment in America, but the journey is increasingly fraught with potential danger and obstacles, from health and safety to the tight security of the Olympic site, sealed off from canal craft by a vicious-looking fence. During the journey Sinclair expresses the hopelessness he feels when contemplating the huge enclosures of the Olympic site and, indeed, the whole project is positioned as an antidote to the pomp and excess of the Olympics. Hauling the pedalo up riverbanks and over muddy fields, spending a whole month in the same clothes and being able to wet themselves whenever they want to, an image of personal sacrifice akin to the more-celebrated figure of the marathon runner, Swandown is as much a spectacle of physical impossibility as the athletic feats which go on in crowd-lined sporting arenas.

Released in the year of the Olympics, as part of the so-called Cultural Olympiad, yet existing in a parallel universe to the competitive, corporate nature of the games, Swandown puts poetry back into the act of endurance, a timely, touching and irreverent acknowledgement that perseverance, as much as inspiration, is integral to the act of creativity – and vice versa.

To purchase the film on DVD visit www.cornerhouse.org/bookstore/product/swandown-film-dvd.

Photos copyright of Anonymous Bosch.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Shrieking Violet talk in Bradford, Tuesday 14 May, 6pm followed by DIY discussion with Black Dogs

I've been invited to repeat my talk about the Shrieking Violet during Bradford Zine Week (Monday 13-Sunday 19 May) at the Bradford Baked Zines Pop Up shop, 13 Market Street, as part of a series talks, events and workshops.

The talk will take place on Tuesday 14 May between 6pm and 6.30pm, and will be followed by a discussion on DIY culture featuring other self-publishers, including locally-based artists' collective Black Dogs, whose work I am a big fan of, from 6.30pm-7.30pm.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Music and photos from the Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair


Manchester musician and fanzine maker David Carden sings about the dirty (recycled) water swimmers might once have encountered, during his 'musical tour' of Victoria Baths. When Victoria Baths opened,  swimming was segregated both by sex and by class, and water was first used in the first class males' pool, then pumped into the second class males' pool, then finally reused in the (smaller) female pool!
 
David Carden sings about famous Channel swimmer Sunny Lowry, who was associated with Victoria Baths for many years, during his 'musical tour' performance in the female pool.
Other songs included a story of poolside romances inspired by the hundreds of memories donated to the Victoria Baths archive, and a zombie epic.
David also drew 5 minute portraits of visitors!

Karren Ablaze reads from her recent book The City is Ablaze, discussing her motivations for starting to make fanzines as a teenager in suburban Sale and Altrincham in the 1980s – it provided a way for her to communicate – hanging out in record shops, waiting around to interview bands, getting an angry letter from Morrissey after a messy gig at the Free Trade Hall, links with other Manchester DIY initiatives of the time such as a cassette tape radio station, and practical issues regarding how her zines were funded.



John Mather, author of the self-published Pictorial Guide to Greater Manchester's Public Swimming Pools, shares the story of his journey around Greater Manchester's swimming baths for an audience of swimming enthusiasts upstairs in the superintendent's flat, discussing the role of these buildings and facilities in the social life of the region's diverse local communities, and the area's rich history of nurturing and producing swimming champions.


Helpyourself Manchester film screening; there was also an exhibition of original gig fliers featured in the film in the gala pool:

Manchester author David Hartley reads from his work.

Making a new edition of Victoria Baths' own zine 'the Vicky' with Pool Arts.

More photos from the event:

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair, today (12-4pm): what's on, stallholders, times!

The sun is shining for today's Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair, which coincides with its May bank holiday open day today (12 noon-4pm).


Running order:

1pm - Film screening, Helpyourself Manchester, cinema space (off the sports hall)
- Talk by Karren Ablaze! (superintendent's flat)
1.30pm - Choir performance, Ordsall Acapella Singers, in the Gala Pool
2pm - Musical Tour of Victoria Baths by David Carden
2.30pm - Talk by John Mather on the Pools of Greater Manchester (subject of his hand drawn Pictorial Guide)
3pm - Film screening, Helpyourself Manchester, cinema space (off the sports hall)
 - Choir performance, Ordsall Acapella Singers, in the Gala Pool
3.30pm - Reading by David Hartley (superintendent's flat)


Helpyourself Manchester (1pm and 3pm) tells the unsung story of Manchester's DIY music promoters, followed by a Q and A with the directors, Castles Built in Sand collective. Additionally, there will be an exhibition of original gig fliers featured in the film.

Manchester-based illustrator and zinester David Carden will give a lively musical tour inspired by the history of Victoria Baths (2pm), with songs about the ladies pool, channel swimmer Sunny Lowry, a couple meeting in the Baths and the building's beautiful stained glass, and will also be on hand to draw your portrait in five minutes (for a small fee!).

See original artwork and hear from John Mather about his Pictorial Guide to Greater Manchester Public Swimming Pools during his talk at 2.30pm upstairs in the former superintendent's flat.

Listen to readings by Manchester author David Hartley (3.30pm), including from his new book Threshold, and hear Karren Ablaze! read from her recent book the City is Ablaze (1pm), about her experiences of making zines in Manchester and Leeds in the 1980s.

Dip into a hands-on zine-inspired activity with Pool Arts throughout the day, who will be asking for your help to produce VB's very own fabulous fanzine, The Vicky. 'Bring Back Baths' will use team effort, collage, lino printing and on-the-spot reportage from the fair to compile some articles about why public wash baths should be making a comeback! The first issue of The Vicky appeared during 2003 with occasional issues ever since. Bring your old comics, your sense of humour and your glue sticks! Original copies of the early issues will be on sale on the day!

The event will be soundtracked by a choir performance by Ordsall Acapella Singers in the Gala Pool. Guided tours of the building will also be on offer, including a 'behind the scenes' tour.

Also in attendance will be the interactive Left Leg Gallery.

Listen to the Shrieking Violet talking about the event on All FM's Under the Pavement Radio show here:

Read a preview of the event, linked in with a feature on zines and DIY culture, in the Skinny magazine.

Stallholders:

Emily & Anne
LOAF (Catherine Chialton and Jimmy Edmondson)
Kristyna Baczynski 
Corridor8 
Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 
David Carden
John Mather
Salford Illustration Department
Castles Built in Sand
Within Six 
Becky Kidner Diary Drawings 
Loosely Bound Zine Collective 
Young Explorer/Today Zine
Twigs and Apples
Sugar Paper
Laura Brown Word
Tommy Eugene Higson
Knickers for Bonnie
Karoline Rerrie
Vapid Slackers (Vapid Kitten)
David Hartley
Joe List 
Megan Price Mr PS
Paul Murray and Kat Smith
Marco Brunello
the modernist
Karren Ablaze!
DNYLNE and Adam Jacques
Lottie Pencheon

For more information visit www.victoriabaths.org.uk/visit/2013/family-friendly-trail, email gill.wright@victoriabaths.org.uk or phone 0161 224 2020.

Facebook event.

Please bring everyone you know!