New Stories for the Old City

Manchester has its own Literature Festival, it should have its own Review of Books, but it needs new, fecund myths, the old ones are dried-out husks.

Walking through Manchester city centre the other day, I noticed that a section of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures sleeve hangs in neon over the serving counter of a posh pizza restaurant. Don’t they know ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ by Half Man Half Biscuit? Manchester’s tedious afterimage – and it is an afterglow – is largely the fault of the films 24 Hour Party People and Control. The whole reverence for Joy Division, The Smiths and ‘Madchester’ bores me to tears. Walking the city, the little glyph under the ‘Haçienda’ occasionally flashes up in the periphery of your vision, an accent, but an accent as a hook that the city’s mythmakers have hung themselves on.

‘The Haçienda must be built’ was coined by Ivan Chtcheglov the poor, half-mad Situationist, who was arrested en route to the Eiffel Tower with armloads of dynamite, intent on blowing it up because its lights kept him awake at night. Engels urgently needs to return to Manchester to observe the homeless situation, but maybe Chtcheglov needs to return to Manchester to detonate its myths. Blast them into atoms so tiny that the original stories can no longer be read. In 2016, perhaps the Haçienda must be finally demolished. Because these stories, now flattened a millimetre thin by their endless circulation, conceal richer ones.

Bob Dickinson told me that the late, brilliant Alan Wise told him that the force of the blast of the 1996 IRA bomb created a space of physics inside the legendary red post box that was, momentarily, a gateway to another dimension. This ‘fact’ was apparently ‘read somewhere’ – in an article by an Indian physicist which was eventually mislaid. Manchester Area Psychogeography levitated the Corn Exchange only months before the bomb. Just over the way from this post-box-stargate, is the Waterstones where Jeff Noon worked: Totally independent of Alan Wise, The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall posits a portal to another universe in Deansgate Waterstones. Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, a literary event sometimes hosted there, takes place within this zone of Pure Weird. You can go and have a coffee there. The Sober and The Space Cadets are one here, yet Manchester can’t seem to produce a single decent radical independent bookshop at its centre.

Similarly, the Manchester and Salford literary traditions swing between transgressive and straight, great and average: De Quincey, the deeply conservative Mrs Gaskell, Mary Barton, North & South, then the great Shelagh Delaney. But Walter Greenwood, wooden blocks of dead socialist rhetoric dropping to the floor, in contrast with The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts. Then there’s Savoy Books with David Britton and Michael Butterworth. Jeff Noon, Vurt, Pollen and Nymphomation, Alice in Wonderland, via Manchester in the late 1980s. But one big problem is that the old psychogeographical reserves are now very drained and strained. Psychogeography is part of the university curriculum, like Defoe or Dickens, so we cannot fully rely on stories like the one above anymore either.

But this doesn’t really matter, because Good Things Are Happening. The Anthony Burgess Centre, with its highly important ‘International’ status, is a great hub for Manchester writers. But the things that spring up in the cracks of the pavement are just as important: Verbose and The Other Room are amazing particle colliders for new experiments with words and sounds, which have their parallel in nights such as The Noise Upstairs at Fuel in Withington.

But the old, bloated corpses still weigh heavily on the city: ‘Manchester, So Much To Answer For’ was a line that originally diagnosed the Brady and Hindley murders, but has since swollen to designate anything and everything that originated in the city region, brilliant, bad or plain evil. We cannot allow our city to pivot on six words that once fell out of Morrisey’s mouth, that would clearly be foolish.

This piece of writing is not meant as an exhaustive account of textual production in Manchester, or its many literary scenes, that would also be foolish, but it is a proposal that we drop the old stories and make new ones. We need to make very particular, politicised new myths. The Haçienda and Madchester myths must go precisely because they sit on the highest curve of the Neoconservative rollercoaster.

But surely, two things that also need to be brought lower in Britain are the tumescent and still ballooning influence of Iain Sinclair on literature and Patrick Keiller on film. Every other gallery show I see or piece of ‘writing on place’ I read is struggling to escape from under the flabby buttocks of Sinclair and Keiller. Their work is great, but all writing emerges from ‘place’. ‘How must it be recalibrated now?’ is the burning question.

Demolition Polka was a popular Strauss waltz, as cities exploded in the nineteenth century. We see again how the risk and hedging of capital have turned our public spaces into Demolition Poker, with Pomona seceded to banality and Rogue Studios sold off to developers. The city is being ripped up and re-laid under our feet again, and so perhaps we need to re-enter this game with rigged cards, or new strategies. What are the literary equivalents of Set-Mining, The Reverse Tell, The Soul Read, The Stop and Go or The Triple-Barrel Bluff? Manchester needs new Magic. But it needs new myths that the capitalists cannot swallow. In fact, it needs stories that will make them choke and turn bluer than they already are.

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