Saturday, 25 January 2014

‘Manchester: In Residents’ … #27 Okey

‘I probably imagined myself discussing dense philosophical texts over crepes or something…’

What’s your name?


What do you do?

I work for Carcanet Press, which is a small poetry publisher based in the centre of Manchester. It’s a lovely place to work and I’m very fortunate to have encountered so many fascinating people and so much writing I really admire, while also wearing skinny jeans and ‘chunky knits’ to work.

The road to my current job was actually pretty straightforward in some ways, but also long and windy. When I was seventeen I saw an advert for a reading by Togara Muzanenhamo, one of Carcanet’s poets, at the Central Library. I was just starting to get into poetry, and I think I’d just read somewhere that attending cultural events alone makes you seem mysterious, so I decided to go, and I actually really enjoyed it. It also occurred to me how cool it would be to do that as a job. My concept of ‘cool’ is still very much a work in progress.

A couple of years later, when I was home from university one holiday, I asked if I could do some work experience with them, which I did and also loved. I came back again one summer to do some office work for them (less fun, but paid this time) but then I later decided I might want to be a lawyer. After graduation I did admin work in a Manchester law firm while I started my novel and interned at other law firms. Just when I was deciding that law might not be right for me after all, a job came up with Carcanet, which I was lucky enough to get.

I also do a little bit of freelance writing on the side (poetry, drama, reviews) and I’m (still) working on the inexorable post-English degree novel. I should be free of it any day now.

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

My parents came to the UK from Nigeria in the 1980s as part of the Brain Drain. We went back to Nigeria a few times for holidays but we always lived in the UK. I was actually born in Withington and raised largely around the Greater Manchester area, but we moved according to wherever my dad was working at the time. So I suppose you could say I grew up in various different places including Bolton and Heaton Mersey, and we lived in Wales for a short time. We eventually settled on Stockport. I didn’t mind moving – it was probably easier because I have siblings – and in fact I think this might explain why I don’t have a regional accent…

I went to university in Cambridge, a very small city, and my college, Girton, was about five kilometres from the city centre. As much as I loved it there, I think it made me appreciate how nice it is to live in a city where the buses continue after 6pm. I also remember one of my friends complaining that Cambridge isn’t really a place where, as an undergraduate, you can just go somewhere and not be a student: it’s too insular, you can’t help bumping into people you know. I don’t think the same can be true of Manchester.

I came back to Manchester because I thought it would be easier to find work but also because I was curious about the city. I’d never really lived in Manchester itself, at least never for very long. Now I think I’d like to live in London for a while, just at some point in the future, not just yet, I’d like to live abroad first.

What’s great about this city?

The history, I think, is my favourite thing – and how open that history is to the public; how public that history is, as well as all the nooks and crannies. One of my favourite periods of literature (and art, which I know less about) is the Victorian era: I did a special paper on it at university in my final year, and so when I came back to Manchester I started thinking more about Elizabeth Gaskell and going to see Valette’s paintings in the City Art Gallery. Towards the end of my degree, when I knew I was leaving Cambridge for good, whenever I was coming home from the city centre I would alter my route slightly so that I got to cycle across King’s Parade, past King’s College and the beautiful old lampposts under the moon. Especially when nobody else was out, it really did feel like going back in time – or rather, like being somewhere that, in some ways, hasn’t dramatically changed in a long time. As though anything (or anything historically consistent) could happen. I feel the same way walking across Albert Square at night.

But then, the interesting bits of the city’s history continue so much further back - and so much later. Last year I did some writing on Alan Turing, which was really, really fascinating – as part of my research I spoke to someone who went running with him when he was alive. That was really wonderful.

What’s not so great?

I could roll off a pretty long list, simply because I’ve lived in Manchester for so long. But I suppose my absolute least favourite thing is true of any city but here it is: that, despite the fact that some parts of Manchester are very diverse, it’s not entirely comfortable with its diversity. I remember how sad and surprised I was when, coming back from university with a shiny new degree, I realised that security guards still follow me round shops to see what I would do.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

This is probably controversial. I’ve told this to a few people and have been roundly judged: the building which was on the site of the new KPMG building in St Peter’s Square [Elisabeth House]. I fully acknowledge that, especially in the increasingly economically tough years before it was demolished, it was becoming emptier and emptier, and looking more and more unloved. But I’ve always loved it and I was so sad when I realised it was being replaced. I’m not sure why, exactly. I think it was probably because, when I was much younger, I heard very cool sixth-formers talk about how much they loved the Dutch Pancake House the building used to house; and, being very impressionable, I began to see it as the epitome of some kind of run-down urban romance. Ridiculous as it sounds, I really thought it was unspeakably, breathlessly romantic. I probably imagined myself discussing dense philosophical texts over crepes or something…

But, since that building no longer exists… I think I’d have to say Central Library, as it was before the renovations, anyway. I’ve no idea what it will look like when it reopens but I really, really loved it before and even from the outside it’s just beautiful. I remember going on school trips to the Library Theatre; being a teenager and taking the bus to the library and feeling very grown up finding a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in the Black History Month display, borrowing it and racing through it, feeling for the first time (I read Adichie before I read Achebe, the more famous Igbo writer) what it’s like to read something by someone who comes from a very similar background to your own.

I remember reading about the Henry Watson Music Library (top floor of the central library) in An Equal Music by Vikram Seth and being so excited that it existed – and then borrowing two or three times the number of pieces I was ever going to practise just because I could. I think I probably imagined myself into his novel - in fact I probably half expected to bump into a dashing violinist between the stacks but even if I did, I would have been at my least captivating: wild-eyed and clammy with delight, clutching Quantz’s treatise on flute-playing, two or three recorder pieces by obscure German Baroque composers and the PVG scores to some truly embarrassing pop music which I will take with me to my grave [Our readers need to know!].

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

A tough question but I think… I’d have to say Alan Turing. He wasn’t born in Manchester and in fact he lived in Wilmslow, but he worked at the University of Manchester after the war and socialised in the city centre (to the extent that Turing really ‘socialised’ at all).

He’s becoming more and more widely admired and accepted, which is good: even aside from his code-breaking work, I find him absolutely fascinating. I think it’s well known that some people found him an odd man to work with (he could be quite socially awkward), but then in my research I also found out what a deeply passionate person he was, how fixated he was on the relationship between a machine and a human mind. I read that when he was at school, his best friend, a boy he really hero-worshipped died very young: it’s thought that, for the rest of his life, Turing carried with him the idea – perhaps the hope – that something of his friend, some part of this boy’s essence remained on earth, and that it might be encountered again. This could well be the germ of his fascination with what we now call artificial intelligence. I don’t know that I ‘admire’ Turing for this, because you can’t really admire someone for something they didn’t choose – in fact it seems like he was haunted, perhaps even dogged by it. I read he was quite introspective and intense: once he’d fallen in love with someone he idolised at such a young age, and who then died young, I don’t think he stood a chance against the way he felt. But I do find it fascinating: the fact that he could work so steadily, that he persevered in something so jugular-close to himself, and that it might well have been love (although sadly a kind of stunted love, maybe not even real love at all, after all those years) that could drive his creativity so forcefully, I think is a really interesting notion.

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

These aren’t very original, really. There’s the John Rylands Library, especially the reading room. I love the Cathedral and I want to go and see more evensongs and concerts there. I love Platt Fields Park. I don’t really go clubbing all that much but pretty much anywhere I’m unlikely to get stabbed will do me.

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

It would be nice to live in a city that really doesn’t sleep. To be able to get the train or the tram or the bus or a doughnut at literally any hour of day or night would be something. But that’s just a small thing, and I don’t think Manchester’s missing all that much, to be honest. I quite like it the way it is, but I’ll be happy to move elsewhere when I feel like it’s time.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Make it a law for people to talk to strangers more! I’m chronically shy myself but whenever I go to London I notice how much friendlier and forthcoming people are up North; last time my friend visited from London, a stranger said two words to her on public transport and she almost had a stroke. But – and this could be my imagination – I think as time passes, strangers seem to talk to each other less, here. (My friends tell me Liverpool is way ahead of us in that respect.) I think it’s a really good thing we’ve got, this degree of openness, I’d like more of it. Manchester should be less… British.

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

Alan Garner. I loved his novel Elidor when I was at school, the way it’s set in Manchester but encompasses the surrounding countryside.

Okey reads some of his poetry at The Poetry Society, London, this evening (Saturday 25th January).

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