Sunday, 16 June 2013

‘Manchester: In Residents’ … #24 Chrissy

'All the unsung heroes who clean, underpin and keep the city going are my favourites...'

What’s your name?

Chrissy Brand

What do you do?

I have worked in many places in Manchester in my time, including half a dozen offices on Oxford Road alone. Other cities I’ve been fortunate to work in include London for six years, and places as diverse as Oxford and Helsinki, Brussels and Barnsley. Having worked in both the public and private sectors I am now very happily ensconced as Research and Knowledge Exchange Manager at the RNCM. I’m also a published writer with a book and a decade’s worth of magazine columns. All views below are my own.

Where do you live?

When I first lived in Manchester it was by lovely Chorlton Green in a shared cottage with four others right by The Beech (but sadly not the beach). Now I divide my time between a crash pad in the city centre and a family home at the southern end of the tramline. Best of both worlds, lucky me.

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

Manchester became my home but it was nowt to do with the city's charms. Simply that I was living in London and fell in love. The love of my life was headed to Manchester to study so a year later I dropped everything and followed. It wasn't long before Manchester and the North cast its spell on me too and I have been here ever since.

But before that, the first time I came to the city was to visit a friend at Uni. I remember a long coach journey from London, staying in amazing old student halls in Whalley Range, an all night film showing which included The Blues Brothers and Magic Roundabout and then queuing at breakfast time for banquette seats at the Royal Exchange. Manchester was exciting and had a very different feel from the South. It made me realise how important it was to move away from the places you grow up in and to explore elsewhere and lay down new roots of your own.

What’s great about this city?

The diversity of people who have moved here from all over the world and now call Manchester home. And the fact you can talk to anyone, whatever age they are or image they project, if you feel in a sociable enough mood. There's an air of friendliness if you look for it.

The fact that the city is big and varied enough for so much art, culture and fun, yet small enough to feel you can be a big part of it. I love the Northern Quarter’s independence, the buzz of Chinatown at night, Castlefield on a sunny afternoon, watching a film or sporting event on the lawn at Spinningfields, the jazz festival and other music in the tents at Albert Square, and the magical Christmas markets that light up the whole city in December.

There’s also the variety of good food and drink, the ease of getting around by public transport, the history and beauty of the understated architectural gems, the sense of history, and the revamped waterways.

The amazing countryside all around makes for a perfect escape when you need it too – the Peaks, the Lakes, north Wales, the Cheshire ring canals…

What’s not so great?

The city centre is a wee bit on the small side with not quite enough ‘obvious’ sights to see for the visitor. Although you only have to look up to see street after street of honey-coloured stone and red brick dripping with the wealth from nineteenth-century merchants, so maybe I am being harsh.

More greenery in the city centre would be good, and the Castlefield beach should be permanent or at least May to September. More could be made of the River Irwell and the canals – they should be more of the beating heart of the city than the tucked away offshoots that they currently are, though I must admit great strides have been made since I first visited Manchester in the 1980s, making the canals and rivers more into a café society than a place to park your supermarket trolley.

While the quote ‘The streets of London are paved with gold’ is a lie (unless you work in the City), sadly in Manchester it is all too true to say the streets are paved with chewing gum. Why?

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

Too many to choose from really. I love the little carved statues and ornamental windows and ledges zand architrave whenever you look up above the first floor all over the city centre. Art Deco is a favourite era of mine but there's not much of that I can think of in Manchester.

But If I chose two, very different buildings, one would be the John Rylands Library. It looks like it’s made from Cheshire sandstone (is it?) and is so beautiful, especially when it takes on a magical glow with the late afternoon sun reflecting on its Deansgate frontage. I also like it because it’s all that is left in the area from that era. It reminds me of a castle, it stands out and holds its own amongst the twenty-first century shopping vibe that surrounds it.

Campfield Arcade is lovely too (funnily enough that used to house a library too). When you look at it as a whole from across the road it’s a beautiful example of Manchester’s famous red bricks, and it’s got that lovely old clock that reminds me of a more famous one outside Macy’s in Chicago. Inside is the lovely arcade itself where you can imagine you are eating alfresco in Spain, Greece or Italy. Good restaurants and bars and the culture from the Spanish Institute too. And rarely crowded.

India House and Lancaster House are fabulous neighbours on Princess Street and I had to mention them here as being buildings that give me a shiver of excitement whenever I look at them…

My least favourite is the ‘Berlin Wall’ in Piccadilly, although iy barely qualifies as architecture. It is ugly and stark. It should be a place for commissioned street art and ivy – a hanging gardens is what they should be aiming for. At least there’s a campaign underway to green it, though that seems to have gone a bit quiet.

The Arndale and what it represents, likewise the Trafford Centre, would be least favourite. Manchester has all this beautiful countryside, art and cool places to go and yet people spend their weekends and evenings shopping in American malls. I just don’t get it!

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

I’m not one for putting people on pedestals really. I’d say the exploited workforce that suffered under industrialisation in the nineteenth century should be favourites as they did so much for the city. And today, all the other unsung heroes who clean, underpin and keep the city going are my favourites.

But if we are talking famous Mancunians, obviously Morrissey for his views on the monarchy and for being veggie, and for most things he says really. I place his music second to his views these days.

The Pankhursts, although the suffragettes who would get my vote are the trio of Annie Briggs, Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester. They demonstrated at the City Art gallery 100 years ago, in 1913. We broke the glass of some pictures as a protest but we did not intend to damage the pictures’. In court, supporters in the gallery unfurled a Votes for Women banner. The full history, or herstory, is at the ever excellent Radical Manchester blog.

Alison Uttley who was to Lancashire and Cheshire what Beatrix Potter was to Cumbria but with less reward and fame. She went to Manchester University and died in 1976. Little Grey Rabbit lives on…

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

I like Dimitri’s on Deansgate and if I’m in the right mood Font and Gorilla too. Apotheca looks fabulous but it's been ages since I was there.

If I just want somewhere nearby, The Molly House can be good – enough of an atmosphere but quiet enough to chat. I'd like to try some of those pubs in Northern Quarter that look like old men's pubs but seem to now be hangouts for young creative types. I'd probably need someone to take me there though.... I like the look of Cuba Cafe Bar too but need to pluck up courage to go in!

My preferred venues would be Band on the Wall and the Deaf Institute, but if the right band is playing I'd go anywhere. I’m waiting for Flunk to come over from Norway to play Manchester, or All India Radio from Australia, or Dave Dark and the Sharks. And I wish The Egg would head north too.

My coffee shop would be North Tea Power. Oklahoma is fabulous too. My favourite cafes are Earth and Eighth Day. Bistro 1847 would be my choice for an evening meal.

Last year I had a fellow blogger and her family visit from the USA and I had to think about how best to show them Manchester in an evening. We had a busy walking tour! From Piccadilly Station we went down Granby Row past the Vimto statue along to Albert Square, Lincoln Square, through the ginnels to St Ann's Square and the Royal Exchange Theatre. Then onto the medieval quarter of the cathedral and Shambles Square, and into Victoria Station. Then back through the Northern Quarter to see all the independent bars, record stores and restaurants, and the innovative and rotating street art. I would have added Spinningfields and Castlefield if there was time.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

A museum of popular Manchester music, some city centre tree-lined boulevards, and a tower like the Space Needle in Seattle or the Eiffel Tower in France or Blackpool Tower.  

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

It would need to be a long day to implement all the changes I have planned for my fellow Mancunians! As the clock chimed midnight I would unroll my sepia scroll and get the town crier to proclaim the following:

A congestion charge on cars coming into the city. Pedestrianising great swathes of the city, planting trees and opening roof gardens to grow crops. Taking over the Old Fire Station and converting it to public space of studio spaces for artists and musicians, galleries and a children's playgrounds, cheap housing and shops.

Banning fast food shops, implementing a living wage for all who work in the area. A heavily subsidised free public transport system paid for by a tax on multinational chains that have shops in the city.

Bringing back the statue of Oliver Cromwell that was at Victoria station and was decamped to Wythenshawe Park -and putting it in a prominent space. Commissioning new statues, including one of the Pankhursts and Suffragettes, one of Marx and Engels and another of animals in commemoration to all those murdered daily.

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

These three Mancunians would have all something interesting to say: Political cartoonist Polyp, Zoe at the Vegetarian Society, and Ursula at Eighth Day.

Chrissy loves Manchester and the surrounding countryside so much that she blogs about it daily at Mancunian Wave. She can also be found on Twitter @chrissycurlz and Instagram.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

On writing and running and Reena

Like books sometimes do, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running fell into my lap just when I needed it. I was working on the first draft of my novel The Shakespeare Girl – my final portfolio piece for a Masters in Creative Writing – and I’d signed up to do the Great Manchester 10 Kilometre Run with a group of friends at work. We wanted to raise money for cancer charities on behalf of our much-loved friend and colleague Reena, who was fighting against non-Hodgkins lymphoma. When Reena lost her battle with that illness in November 2012, the run became something positive for us to aim towards, to honour Reena and the people who had caredfor her. It was a long time into treatment before we knew Reena’s chances of recovery were slim. She died at The Christie Hospital aged 33.

A regime of writing and running happened under a good deal of sadness. Early in the mornings, powered by stress and determination, I started to run. In the evening I came home from the office and worked on my novel. I was exhausted but oddly contented. Then I happened on Murakami’s book, which chronicles the novelist’s obsession with running whilst intertwining autobiographical anecdotes about teaching, marriage, and writing his novels. It had an immediate impact, encouraging me to run and write even when I felt too tired to do either, and persuading me that there could be some kind of fruitful relationship between the two.

Murakami started running at 33, an age that suddenly sounded very young. I had never knowingly run for longer than 2 km. At school I was a sprinter, and even middle distances left me anxious and bored. But I liked to cycle and swim, I was fitter than I thought, and I soon began making good progress with a ‘Couch to 5K’ running app. Before long I was running 6 km at a time and stitching together the difficult plot/sub-plot of my novel in my head as I ran. Just as I was finding a complementary relationship between running and writing for myself, I had an accident and broke my hand. The impact whenever I tried to run caused a jolt in the bones of my finger that was agonising. My training had to stop. I couldn’t type (the cast went from my little finger to my elbow) so I had to use voice recognition software for work and for my fiction. It proved to be an amazing piece of technology that I continued to use from time to time, even after my arm came out of the cast, but it was slow going in the beginning and eventually I had to get an extension to my deadline.

In the office, work piled up. I couldn’t type or do any overtime and almost every email in my inbox seemed like bad news. I speed-edited my novel and submitted it. I didn’t feel any of the relief I was expecting. ‘You’ve just sent your three year old off to day-care for the first time, that’s why,’ said my boyfriend Oisín, trying to rationalise my anxiety at letting the novel go. Just like the teacher who gets sick on the last day of term, a low-lying cough I’d just about been containing spilled over into a chest infection. I worked through it with barely a day off sick, all the while enviously reading about Murakami’s epic runs through Athens and Boston and Tokyo while I was prescribed one inhaler after another and every whiff of pollution sent me into a rattling cough.

Then the cast came off and I began running again, tentatively, with Ventolin and a steroid inhaler. My route took me around the lake at Chorlton Water Park where there were no fumes to trigger my lung irritation (now diagnosed as post-viral bronchial hypersensitivity). With the race only weeks away I decided to invest in a pair of proper running shoes. I was given a running test and was offered trainers with additional support for ‘over pronation’, which is basically running too heavily on the inside of the foot. I began training in my bouncy new techno-shoes. Then overnight I was struck with identical acute pains on the insides of my knees. I went from running 7.5 km with a rucksack on my back, to having Nurofen for breakfast and getting off the bus backwards to avoid shooting pains in my legs.

With a week to go to the run I went to see a physiotherapist about the pain that wouldn’t go away. It took a matter of minutes for him to ascertain that I wasn’t an over-pronator at all. The corrective trainers had damaged my perfectly normal tendons. I only had time for two sessions of ultrasound and massage before the day of the race arrived. My sponsorships had been generous but I was certain I wouldn’t be able to run. I felt like a fraud. My friend and colleague Lianne then reminded me in passing that in the hospital she had mentioned to Reena that we had all signed up to do the run, and that we would be doing so wearing moustaches to honour the iconically macho Ron Burgundy from Anchorman, one of Reena’s favourite movies. I decided I was going to start and finish the Great Manchester Run even if I had to walk the entire route. Some things are more important than running, and even Murakami would agree with that.

On the day of the race I stretched, freeze-sprayed my knees, took Nurofen Express, put on my elastic knee supports and joined my friends at the starting line. After the pistol I stopped and started then stopped again, walked a little way, then jogged, then stopped, walked some more,  and tried to block the pain. It became apparent I was having a different race to most of the other competitors. To start with, the opening 2 km was the hardest for me, but no doubt the easiest for everyone else. My knees took forever to loosen up and my opening gait was somewhere between a lollop and a shuffle. I couldn’t get comfortable or find my stride. When the course went uphill I was relieved, much of my training had been done on an incline. When we headed downhill, my knees buckled in pain while runners poured past me as their momentum increased.

Then, somehow, my knees found a motion that suited them and a fainter thud of pain became gradually manageable. Murakami, writing about marathon running and rendering our much shorter race a mere warm-up in comparison, had written:

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it any more.  The hurt part is unavoidable, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner…

I thought about Reena and everything she’d been through and I tried to remember Murakami’s exact phrasing as I came up to 5 kilometres, then 6, then 7, with brass bands and DJs playing at the side of the road, and a sea of brightly coloured T shirts ahead of me. I am running for my Dad, read the messages on the back. I am running for my son, for my sister, for my friend. When I ran through the blessedly cool shower I had tears in my eyes. For the first time ever, I didn’t get a stitch. When it got too hot, clouds covered the sun. With a kilometre left to go I threw in my lot and started to sprint. As I took off, a young lad at the side of the road shouted, ‘Go on Greg!’ (my name was on my shirt) and so I did. I hit the finish line at the Hilton Hotel at 1:11:11 and I made sure I was thinking about Reena when I crossed it.

You can still sponsor me for The Christie here.