Sunday, 26 February 2012

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Manchester: In Residents ... #5: Ra

Ruth Allan nominated Mr Ra Page as future hot-seat contestant for the ‘Manchester: In Residents’ series, and he kindly agreed...!

‘The fact the media here only seems to be interested in Coronation Street stars and footballers is a really good thing...’

What’s your name?

Ra Page

What do you do?

I’m an editor. I run Comma Press, which is a specialist short story publishing house, with Jim Hinks, and I also coordinate a few short film projects in my spare time.

Where do you live?

I live in the Northern Quarter, just a roll-out-of-bed away from the office: which is set in the truly unique MadLab (Manchester Digital Laboratory) on Edge Street.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.

I had completed a first degree in science and philosophy, and had just spent a year dossing about in London. I wanted a way of getting back into literature after so much science, so I applied to do an English MA under Michael Schmidt at the University of Manchester. Amazingly I got in – then I never really seemed to leave the city after I graduated. I moved to Yorkshire for a while, but I seem to have worked almost my whole adult life in this fair city. Scary!

What’s great about this city?

It doesn’t look at itself too much and, at its best, it just gets on with things. The fact there isn’t much media here and what media there is only seems to be interested in Coronation Street stars and footballers is – I’ve come to realise – a really good thing. People can experiment here, make mistakes and throw themselves into their own industriousness without being too self-aware, and without wasting time worrying what other people are doing (which is something I felt myself doing a lot in London). It gives people breathing space, and time to take their own work seriously. The best thing though is my friends are here (or hereabouts).

What’s not so great?

It doesn’t seem to take visual arts very seriously. Someone once said to me, ‘If you want music go to Manchester, if you want art go to Liverpool’. My civic pride was stung, but I realised they were absolutely right. We have the will and the talent in fields like photography and film but there’s zero infrastructure. What tiny morsels of support there are for artistic development– like Castlefield Gallery or Kiosk Gallery – seem to go unappreciated. Liverpool Art dwarfs Manchester Art, it makes us look like a village, and we should face up to this.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

The Central Library. Easy. Whether the refurb will preserve the magic of the place is still to be seen. The plans, I have to say, are pretty spectacular, but I can only speak for its former incarnation. Central Library is/was a cathedral to the most important things a city can offer: knowledge, empowerment, self-improvement. Its architectural beauty, amazing staff, wonderful events programme, its labyrinthine, subterranean stacks – these were just the icing on its already cake-like shape. Hopefully the re-launch in 2014 will kick-start the rebranding of Manchester as a genuine literary capital.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

I love Manchester’s abundance of hard workers – passionate people who express their passion through their hard work; people who become synonymous with it. Jayne Compton – a legend. Kwong Lee – likewise. Guy Lovelady. Libby Tempest. Mike Chavez Dawson. Warren Bramley. Gwen Osmond. Sarah Jane Eyre. Michael Schmidt. Tim Birch. Dave Mee. Steve Wyatt. Jim Hinks. Caleb Shaffer. Adelle Myers. Olly Wilson. And the best of them are enablers, not self-promoters. They’re all my favourites!

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

At the moment I guess it’s the Castle Hotel on Oldham Street – I know, quelle cliché! It’s old-man-ish in a good way. (Can there be a bad way?)

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

A photography gallery. A good film festival. A place to go after 6 pm that doesn’t involve drinking. A council that listens to anyone other than the usual suspects. A sense of proportion with regard to its musical heritage (get over it already!). A film school. Oh, you just asked for one thing, didn’t you...

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Fast track the Central Library’s return (with the same staff as before!). Do something slightly less moronic with Urbis (a football museum – brilliant!). Ask the International Festival to stop bringing back the same guests each time and look at what Manchester actually has to offer. Ask Patrick Henry in Liverpool to do what he did there, here. And invest what’s left in Castlefield Gallery, Islington Mill, Rogue, and all the other studio spaces that don’t even seem to be on the council’s radar. Drunk with power, I would be. Drunk with power!

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

Author, Michelle Green.

Comma Press has just launched Zoe Lambert’s The War Tour, a collection of interconnected short stories about global conflict and the consequences of war. Each story is in some way linked to Manchester. Read more about it here.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Birdhouse Fund

What a terrific and terrifically simple initiative this is. The Birdhouse Fund is Manchester based and helps women get involved with fundraising events in a fun way to raise cash which is then given out in grants to other women in the area.

‘They may be women who’ve been held back by a lack of qualifications, a deprived background, or even a violent relationship. Often, they’ll need some help to get a leg up on life’s slippery ladder, and achieve their goal. That could be finishing a college course that will help them get a career going, learning new skills that will help them to cope more easily, helping them to find suitable work, or even setting them up in a safe place where the past can’t hurt them.’

Times are tough and even the most anti-feminist of newspapers admit that women are taking the brunt of the UK recession and joblessness. The Birdhouse Fund, affiliated with the Community Foundation for Greater Manchester, provides a simple and positive way to help local individual women to make a significant change.

Check out their message and contact details here.

The next fundraising event happens the 8th March, details here.

Go ahead and get involved...!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Fortnight: A mysterious interactive Mancunian art happening...

This sounds intriguing...

Emanating from the Contact but taking in the whole city, an interactive theatrical experience entitled ‘Fortnight’ is coming in April.

You register by a simple text message and then a series of messages and rendezvous will put a new slant on the city for you over two weeks of interactive japes.

The whole thing sounds wonderfully psychogeographic. If it’s anything like the Lost and Found Festival last year it’ll be great fun.

Watch the short teaser clip below for info on how to register. Get signed up, I’ll see you out there...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Manchester: In Residents … #4: Dee

‘I remember having just visited and saying to my husband, ‘Why aren’t we living here?’ So we moved here…’

What’s your name?


What do you do?

I work in an office. It’s large, open plan, 1960s style with harsh lighting. There are no plants on the desks but there is an air of muted desperation (then again I’m writing this on a Monday morning). The other three temps and I sit in an area by the lifts, together with the only permanent PA (they seem to hate the word ‘secretary’ these days). It’s almost ten o’clock in the morning and I’m on the north side of the second tallest building in Manchester, bored out of my mind. Who was it that said ‘Only the boring get bored’? Bollocks. I challenge anyone not to be bored in my place.

The views here are amazing though. On a clear day you can see to the Peaks, the Pennines, the moors, everything. Of course, if you lift your head the lawyers see you and stare at you balefully. They don’t give you anything to do, that would be too direct and honest, instead they gripe and complain and say we’re not up to scratch. As far as we’re concerned, since we’re agency paid (and low paid at that; I calculate we’re earning a third less than any ‘PA’ in the company) we’re doing okay. You could say, ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys’ but that would be unfair not only to me but to the other women here who, like myself, are ‘of an age’ and are coincidentally at the crossroads of major life changes. We have at least one hundred years of secretarial experience between us, and apart from the occasions when we get a little menopausal on each other’s asses, we get along just fine.

The morning ticks by, people tap on keyboards, drink lukewarm machine-bought drinks and wait for lunchtime. It’s enough to make you want to take up smoking again. I’ve recently (very nearly) given up and although it’s hard, it’s not been as difficult as I thought. After almost forty years (Jesus! I should be dead already…) I imagine my lungs are shot. A recent episode where I found I couldn’t breathe at all gave me such a fright. There’s also the fact that pretty soon I’m going to be a foster parent. I don’t want to smoke around children.

Later I look out of the window as the sun is setting and the whole of South Manchester looks afire as the sun dies, shortly before a great grey bank of cloud sweeps in to bring what the weathermen like to call ‘blustery showers’. Manchester is just lighting up; a ribbon of red lights show cars beginning to leave town. Buildings are aglow and although I’ve always thought of it is as a small city, I realise how wrong I am. Manchester is huge. The centre itself is negotiable in thirty minutes or so but the outlying areas spread on and on…

Where do you live?

I live with my husband and two cats in Chorlton-cum-Hardy which to my mind is just the nicest place to live. We’re in a neat little cul-de-sac with neighbours who seem to have come straight from a Sunday evening serial. I think we’re the second oldest residents on the street but we get along well with all the thirty-something couples of many persuasions who populate the tiny houses. We are all cat people; the felines themselves are friends too and pop in and out of each other’s houses with abandon.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester

It’s a sweeping tale of epic proportions. Two young star-crossed lovers meet at Blackpool Tower in 1982 and the rest, as they say, is geography... Actually, we moved to London first and stayed there until the commuting and stress got the better of us. We decided that being close to the people you love beats the hell out of spending up to four hours a day getting to and from work. We came back up North, moved close to our respective families and got back in touch with our nieces and nephews. That was the deal right there, having those kids in our lives made everything good, and now that they’re starting to have kids of their own the joy is unbounded. We moved to Manchester in 2003 having visited our niece and nephew while they were studying at the University. It was love at first sight. Everything about the place seemed right; the size of it, the places to go, the people. I remember having just visited Chorlton and saying to my husband, ‘Why aren’t we living here?’ So we moved here. We haven’t regretted a day of it.

What’s great about this city?

I’ve always liked urban life and though I don’t do as much socialising as I once did, I like the fact that when I do want all that, it’s right outside my door. Restaurants, bars, parks, you name it, they’re a five minute walk from where I live and I show the place off to visitors as if I built it myself. I love Manchester for the light rain-shine on the dark night streets, the sudden squeals of young girls on a night out, the lovely young faces on the tram first thing in the morning. I love the markets, the chats you can have in any shop, whether it’s a newsagent and a prince of the East selling you ten fags and bemoaning the fact that he can’t give them up either, or the sweet young girl in the Craft Centre in the Northern Quarter who tells you all about her cat so before you know it you’re showing her the photograph of ‘your Lily’ watching telly.

What’s not so great?

Crime. Sorry folks but a great many people out there think it’s okay to nick your stuff and right now they seem to regularly target Chorlton. Our house has managed to escape so far in our eight years here but my husband’s car has been broken into twice. Four of our neighbours have been burgled though, and one has been burgled three times!

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

Probably the John Rylands Library. I love the fact that it’s in the middle of Deansgate amongst all the brash new stuff in Spitalfields but stays aloof and apart. I do like modern architecture but I don’t get the Urbis Building. Chetham’s Music School is a favourite too. Ordsall Hall in Salford is fabulous. What was I saying about modern architecture...? I love Salford Quays too but to my mind Manchester does the old stuff much better.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

My favourite Mancunian is my nephew Greg who is a proper genius and a decent human being to boot. Although not born here, he loves the place. He is also one of the main reasons we’re in Manchester and he’s helped us to appreciate the city more and more.

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

In Chorlton: Bar 480 for the model soldiers, Dulcimer for the roaming band of musicians who play Irish music there occasionally and Escape for a last tipple before going home. When we do venture into Manchester for a drink we like The Peveril of the Peak, The Briton’s Protection and Sam’s Chop House. The Deaf Institute is also a favourite. We don’t eat out much, but Leo’s in Chorlton has some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had – including in Rome. We live near Chorlton Park, which is just lovely and we’re not far from the Water Park which is also amazing.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

Can’t think of a thing, honey.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Make all the Public Transport free.

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

My friend Karen and my husband John.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Whitney Houston

This isn’t a tribute exactly. I’m not the biggest Whitney Houston fan in the world and when my beloved Michael and Amy died I didn’t write much of anything here. But I’m not in the habit of throwing babies out with bathwater. I love pop music and that genre more than any comes one song at a time. By my reckoning, after a thirty year recording career, Whitney Houston left us with twenty good songs, ten of which I’d classify as great.

The obituaries, as they often do, have polarised into deeply uncritical and unfairly dismissive. It’s true that there were none more middle-of-the-road than Whitney; that she propelled one of the worst cover versions ever into record-breaking musical history; and that the compositions she was given were often anodyne but that vocally she was often too much, and neither side won out. Such high-octane singing can feel like caterwauling over an entire album. Any advances she made in pop (the first Black woman to break the unofficial MTV colour bar; the record-breaking run of number one singles) were done through sheer force of popularity (and timing) rather than masterplans or charisma.

You might be wondering what it is I want to say that’s positive about Whitney Houston. Firstly there are those songs and the knowledge that nobody else could have delivered them quite the way she did. A retrospective of the 1980s is incomplete without acknowledging that incredible run of singles; seven Number Ones in a row when singles were at their height, more than The Beatles or the Bee Gees achieved over a longer period (she managed it in less than three years). Secondly there is the fact that she did it all without having to constantly foreground herself as a sex object. This isn’t a hitherto unseen streak of conservatism on my part, only to say that for everyone from Kylie to Britney to Janet to Beyonce this line of ‘marketing’ no longer seemed like a career option, it seemed like an obligation. Whitney never succumbed, despite being an ex-model and patently the most beautiful woman of her generation.

My final point might sound like criticism but isn’t. Whitney Houston didn’t make soul music. She said so herself: ‘My life doesn’t go on record, my voice does.’ Nobody could touch her for technical proficiency, but proficiency can’t compete with the ability to put you in the moment, in the pain, in the life behind the voice. Nina Simone did more of that in one album than Whitney did in three decades, but that simply wasn’t Whitney’s stock-in-trade, and it’s a position I’d like to defend.

Whitney’s music was rarely considered ‘soulful’ enough for the traditional genre categories that were offered to Black women. More often she would fall into the ‘pop’ category of the big music awards but in doing so she helped to open up that most vital category to Black women who thereafter didn’t have to be confined by genre labels that subtly relegated Black music away from the mainstream. If egregiously over-bearing white women like Celine Dion are able to make a career out of over-blown sentiment and roof-raising power-pop with nothing more genuine than volume on their side, I think that particular career option ought to be open to Black women too. It is now, and that’s because of Whitney Houston. In short, not every Black performer has to make soul music, so if you’re going to stray away from those shores you might as well have seven Number One singles in a row while you’re doing it.

Pretty much every point I want to make is in this video. It’s a live version of her first (and to my mind, best) Number One single, ‘Saving All My Love For You’. It’s a more jazz-inflected cut than the one that made the album, and I think it’s better for it. The voice isn’t in competition with anything, it dances around the notes in a way that she barely got chance to do after this point. The song is a daring number about being the unapologetic other woman. Whitney is young and sophisticated. It’s a gorgeous performance. Then when Joan Rivers asks her, ‘Who are you thinking about when you sing a song like that?’, Whitney replies, ‘Just people in general.’ For a girl raised on gospel, and a godly woman until she died (much good did it do her), she might simply have thought that you saved your soul for church, and the rest was just business.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Thirty One

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a very modern charity. It was founded in 2006 to help tackle the alarmingly high suicide rate amongst young men in the UK (though CALM helplines are open to all). About three-quarters of suicides are men and if you’re under 35 and living in the UK it’s statistically the biggest killer there is.

Tony Wilson was a founding trustee of the charity and his personal investment in it needs no explanation. Appropriately enough it is Factory Foundation who have issued Thirty One, a double CD of music, chosen and compiled by Dave Haslam, to help raise enough money to keep the CALM phone lines open all week round for the people who need them. Thirty One is not only the number of tracks, it is a dangerous age for a young man to be. As Dave points out in the liner notes, many of us know someone who didn’t make it. The need for a charity like CALM is self-evident. Having an opportunity to be open and upfront about how you feel is essential for good mental health. Unfortunately ours is a culture that seems to discourage this skill in young men. It’s ten years since I took my first steps in that direction and contacted a kind lady down the road from my house in Chorlton with a much-needed friendly ear. Once a week I would talk and she would listen and between us we would try to piece together why I was falling apart. The act of talking seemed like a newly-discovered valve for releasing everything poisonous I’d wanted to keep inside. Prior to that I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I was living with my three best friends and couldn’t say a word to anyone about how unhappy I was. Talking to a concerned outsider helped turn my life around, and that’s the very thing CALM are experts at.

Anyway, onto the music. It’s often the case that charity albums are terribly worthy but content-wise, not so great. This is mercifully not the case with Thirty One. It will be a fixture on your stereo. It’s a cracking tribute to the breadth of style and talent in the North West, past and present. Intentionally or otherwise, many songs have a poignant connection to the cause behind the compilation. Guy Garvey’s spoken intro to an iridescent live version of ‘lippy kids’ (my love of which is well-documented) contains sage words about demonisation of the young, while the title of Jez Kerr’s ‘Reason I Feel Like An Alien’ speaks for itself. The mighty Everything Everything contribute their cover of Gloworm’s ‘Carry Me Home’, the lyrics of which reach out with new poignancy: ‘I did everything I could do. It’s just a phase in life that everyone goes through. Carry me home. Don’t be too long…’ Even the sweetly Northern title of Mr Scruff’s ‘Chin Up’ brings a lump to the throat.

Highlights elsewhere include Vieka’s ‘Never’; impeccably icy and avant-garde, built around Glass-esque piano and chilling samples of whinnying horses. Beating Wing Orchestra deliver a trademark global sound-clash with mesmerising vocals. D/R/U/G/S contributes an infectious and spartan bleep masterpiece while J.P. Cooper’s ‘Oh Brother’ is acoustic heartbreak in a jar.

Manc faves such as Noel Gallagher, I Am Kloot and The Whip nestle comfortably alongside young whipper-snappers like Delphic and Dutch Uncles and less well-known gems like Lonelady and Ruby Anne Patterson. Soul, techno, indie, it’s all here; imagine driving round and round the city all night in the summer with the windows open, that’s the sound of Thirty One. Buy it for yourself. Buy it for someone you love or someone you miss. Just buy it, here.

The CALM Helpline can be reached on 0800 58 58 58 and their website is here.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Manchester: In Residents ... #3: Ruth

‘I came to Manchester to go to university and I hated it…’

What’s your name?

Ruth Allan

What do you do?

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I am just launching Manchester Wire, a new, online listing magazine with Chris Horkan.

Where do you live?

I live in Hulme in the Redbricks.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.

I came to Manchester to go to university and I hated it. I used to go and stay with my boyfriend in London every weekend. Finally, when I was in my third year, I started working at the Cornerhouse café and made friends with some cool people. This changed my perspective on the city – it gave me a way in, and a way to feel part of it. I’d lived in five countries with my mum and dad and at different boarding schools, and the whole time I’d never felt ‘part’ of a place. That finally happened here, and I was delighted.

I’ve lived here for fourteen years now and I love the fact I know more about the city’s history, culture and people than most people who are from here. As a ‘third culture’ person (someone brought up in one culture, coming from another) you have the ability to be both insider and outsider, which can be lonely, but in the case of Manchester so many of my friends came here and made it their home too, that I don’t feel left out for not having a Manc accent, or for not being a native. Sometime I think I would like to live somewhere else, but what I tend to do is relocate to places like Berlin for periods of time, and then come back. I’ve got a son who is at school here too, and as I went to so many schools, I would like him to be confident and relaxed about his ‘place’ in the world. Manchester is a good place.

What’s great about this city?

The people. There are so many imaginative, motivated, dynamic, friendly, unpretentious people that live here. Who can I say… the designer Savage Wolf, the producer Illum Sphere, my MA supervisor Maggie Gale and artists like Rachel Goodyear. These are just a few I know and love. It’s also small enough to be completely accessible: you can walk from one side to the other in half an hour. I like the fact that its near other big places too, like Liverpool, and that you can drive to Formby or North Wales with ease.

What’s not so great?

The fact that you can walk from one side to the other in half an hour. Sometimes I wish it was a bit bigger… that you could walk out and be mysterious, and not see people you know. That’s what I like about London and Berlin. Sometimes it’s good to be someone in a crowd.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

I like the Cornerhouse. I love its signs and lights and the big glass windows on the top floor in the café. It feels cosmopolitan. My least favourite building is probably ‘the Hive’. Its generic, dull and full of low, depressing ceilings; the kind of boring office space designed to be functional at the lowest level, rather than allowing its occupants to function at their best, surrounded by light, air and inspiration.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

Bill Campbell. He owns Islington Mill and has overseen its transformation into a world class centre for the arts. He’s inspiring to me, as he doesn’t let practicality or dissent get in the way of his vision. For example, he has built two houses, the Engine House and Paramatta on the Mill site, as well as four floors of studios, art galleries and club spaces. Architects have balked when he has requested triple height ceilings and unusual window shapes and so on, but he has not let that hinder his vision, and rightly so, because he has created a truly unique environment. When I first met him, he was living in the Engine House (later home to The Ting Tings) surrounded by pieces of modern art that the artists in the studios of the Mill had given him. Huge wooden tongues, concentric circles of concrete, little paper shoes. They didn’t look out of place. They made sense to me as objects for the first time through his curating and the context of this incredible house. He has taste and vision coupled with a fearlessness that I respect. He proves that if you want to do something your way, if you don’t compromise, you can succeed. I aspire to be brave like that too.

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

I love Common. It’s a cool place, day or night. I also love Mr Thomas’ Chop House. They made the best steak and kidney pudding, slow cooked, tender, satisfying. It’s the best food in the world right now.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

Central parks, gold paving stones, wealth.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Cut the power. There is a lot more to life than shopping and the internet which is easy to forget when electricity is a constant.

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

Ra Page, who runs the publishing house, Comma.