Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Shrieking Violet at Manchester & Salford Anarchist Bookfair, Islington Mill, Saturday 10 December

The Shrieking Violet will be sharing a table with small press Fold at this year's Manchester & Salford Anarchist bookfair.

The bookfair will take place at Islington Mill, Salford, from 10am-7pm on Saturday 10 December.

A limited edition black and white reprint of He's Leaving Home: The Shrieking Violet Guide to Hearty Vegetarian Cooking on a Budget will be available, as well as the Shrieking Violet Guide to the Public Art of Central Salford.

Either publication would make an ideal Christmas present (to buy direct send £4 to Natalie.rose.bradbury@googlemail.com via Paypal with your address). Feedback on the first (sold out) print run of He's Leaving Home included:

"The cookbook is great! Cheap, vegetarian and and all simple/practical. I was surprised how many recipes you included also." James, Berlin
"Brilliant present, thanks!" Ed, Kent
"Just used your recipe for roast potatoes, was delicious - used the rosemary we found last night on a bike ride near Salford Quays. Can't wait to try the baked beans pie! Could I order one of your recipe books for my friend please? she's vegan too and is moving back to Canada soon so would make a great leaving present to remind her of English food!" Rae, Salford

Fold will be selling intelligent, thoughtful pocket-sized publications bringing together essay on topical political and cultural issues, by authors including Steve Hanson and JD Taylor.

For more information about stallholders and talks visit http://bookfair.org.uk.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Reclaiming the streets: An interview with Nick Dunn about his new book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City

One of the first pieces of advice given to students moving to a city – particularly young women – is to avoid walking the city streets at night. If it’s absolutely essential to do so, you’re told to stick to a large group and “always walk towards the oncoming traffic”. Are the streets really fraught with fear, potential menace lurking around every corner? Are they places to be passed through as quickly as possible, potentially hazardous passages to be navigated from work to bar to club to home?

In his new book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, Nick Dunn suggests that walking after dark is not just a means of getting from A to B, but an experience that can itself be rich in interest and stimulation. When he started to regularly walk around Manchester at night, Nick says, “I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.”

“Walking is so natural to humans,” Nick tells me. “It is calming, meditative and therapeutic. It’s about wellbeing and a connection to the world. It’s an escape and a welcome respite, allowing you to be in a time and place in a way you can’t be in your daily life.”

Night time changes expectations, patterns of movement and encounters; places, shapes and materials shift in form, appearance and function. “Years ago people thought darkness rose out of the ground and might even kill you if you touched it,” says Nick. “We don’t think that any more, but it’s still immersive and sight is not that much use in a lot of areas by night.”

Walking at night activates the imagination, raising questions about what it means to be productive and creative. “Walking can be subconscious and you don’t really have to think about it – you can percolate other thoughts whilst walking,” observes Nick. “I’m not a luddite, but so much of life nowadays is mediated by screens, and we’re losing touch with the things that make us human. People would much rather live through proxy. Walking can allow you to give your attention to things. It’s an inscriptive practice.”

Over the past couple of years Nick estimates he has spent a couple of thousand hours in total walking at night, sometimes walking all night until dawn. “I’m only doing what you see lots of couples and families doing on Sundays!” he points out. Despite the boom in interest in psychogeography and walking as art practice, however, for many people cities are still not an obvious place to walk. “With a lot of British cities, you go into the city centre as a pleasuredome, to consume,” says Nick. “I’ve always loved walking around cities, but it has usually had a purpose – to see friends, to go to gigs.” 

Cities might be places to live, work and socialise, but there’s an expectation that if you want to walk you get the train to the hills or drive out to the countryside. “On the rare occasion friends have come out with me they’ve been bored and underwhelmed by the city’s ordinariness,” says Nick. “Some people expect entertainment and engagement – they’re not very good with silence.”

Nick’s spent a lot of time walking in London, an oft-trodden literary path, and many other cities, but Dark Matters turns its attention closer to home, to the particular experience of his native city. “I love Manchester but it’s not a 24-hour city,” says Nick. “Apart from the little bumps and grinds of clubs and stuff, Manchester dies at night. It feels like a completely different city. It’s not like London and doesn’t hold the imagination in the same way; it’s surprisingly quiet. Manchester still has massive pockets of quiet, whereas London is teeming with life 24 hours a day. Manchester is also very, very compact – you can walk around the centre, the area contained within the inner ring road, in twenty minutes.”

Much of Nick’s time has been spent on the edges of the city, in semi-rural environments such as the river Mersey, and in suburban south Manchester. These places, familiar to many of us and replicated over and over again throughout the city and its outlying towns, contain a “certain set of houses which are identifiable” and offer a glimpse into a “deeply personal diorama of family living”. At the same time, they’re unfamiliar, rendered “eerie, odd and uncanny at night”, and often empty apart from the occasional speeding car.

Night walking in inner-cities, meanwhile, can throw up “problems and things that don’t stack”. For example, says Nick, Manchester is not an age-friendly city. Its centre isn’t multi-generational. “I look at the future of cities in my day job [Professor of Urban Design at the University of Lancaster] and it’s very pertinent – cities at night is a global problem. The response is usually to make them safer and to use surveillance, often at a huge ecological and environmental cost. There are other ways to approach the nocturnal city.”

No two nights are the same, but Nick has done different walks in the same place, cross-hatching paths which “overlap in a big waggle dance across the city centre”. Small written snapshots of these walks featured in the recent exhibition Loitering With Intent: The Art Politics of Walking in Manchester and Beyond at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. They were presented alongside photographs capturing the invasive, uneasy orange glare, the “strong glow of LEDs and lighting” that pervades the city at night, contributing to a collage of nocturnal experiences.

Nick also led a night time wander alongside the exhibition, showing “there’s so much variety so close to the city centre”. Over a couple of hours it took in canals, elevated motorway the Mancunian Way and its half-finished slip road that hangs over the city like an ellipsis, the landscaped calm of the 1960s UMIST campus, now emptied out and partially demolished in favour of a new-build, high-rise campus elsewhere in the city, the bubble of affluent housing that is Piccadilly Village, which arose from the dust of the almost uninhabited city centre Manchester in the early 1990s and whose private canal basins are hermetically sealed off from the red light district with high security gates, and the former industrial areas of the gentrifying inner-city area of Ancoats, half-abandoned and half-reinvented as a place for living, working and consuming. The walk finished with the “beautiful compressing experience of the passageways leading to St Ann’s Square”.

It might seem odd to organise and collectivise something so inherently spontaneous and so often done alone, especially now that everything from graffiti to drinking to smell is packaged as a city tour, an experience to be purchased and consumed, but Nick’s night walk wasn’t just an architectural guide or urban walk – it was a challenge to participants to do something different. “What I get out of walking is different to someone else; walking with others is a very different experience,” says Nick. “People came as it wasn’t something they’d do on their own. You’re asking people to pay attention to their surroundings and enjoy the city – the texture, smells, sense of enclosure and sense of openness.”

Dark Matters was prompted in part by Nick’s participation in the Royal Academy's Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition in 2014, where he spoke at a seminar and got really positive feedback about his work on the nocturnal city. He acknowledges that he’s not the first person to think about walking or cities or night, or walking as a spatial practice, or to connect it with capitalism, contemporary politics and social critique – but says he wanted to go beyond walking, to sensing.

“Lots of books have been written about walking and night and cities, from sociological and geographical perspectives,” Nick explains. “I didn’t want to do that, or to generate hundreds of words of footnotes. The book is more open, and more of a framework and way of thinking about things. It’s a series of short ideas that ultimately says just go and do it. It doesn’t reduce itself to nuggets. It glories in being unfinished and starting the conversation and asking questions.” Nick also notes a tendency for walking in literature to be “very solitary, male, macho and heroic”. He admits: “I hope the book has vulnerability, uncertainty and openness to it.”

Despite a long gestation period, Dark Matters was written in a short space of time, giving it, says Nick, a sense of urgency and propulsion, a “call to legs”. Academic musings are interspersed with quotations from poems and vignettes giving the reader a distilled impression of the city by night. As an architect by training and a “designer of things”, Nick experimented with drawing and mapping his journeys, but he realised “words work best – a photo never does justice to the thickness of the night, but it’s amazing how rich and potent memories are and how quickly they come back to you”. Rather than “fuzzy photos”, then, the book uses creative non-fiction as prompts; descriptive interludes convey the idea of what Nick felt and sensed, but “don’t lead by the hand”.

Music also pulses through the book. In particular, LoneLady’s 2015 album Hinterland provides a mental soundtrack. “LoneLady’s second album is very insightful about landscapes, and desolation is very set up in the rhythm of what she does,” says Nick. The jerky, restless, funkiness of Hinterland is part of a distinct northern musical lineage, drawing on post-punk and industrial music like Cabaret Voltaire, whilst remaining resolutely of the contemporary city. It’s frail, fragmented and spidery yet flowing and robust. It’s mechanistic and human, sparse and worldly yet at the same time a product of Manchester and its restrictions, frustrations and opportunities. Ultimately, it’s a pop record. LoneLady was also part of the Loitering With Intent exhibition; a series of opaque clues, teasingly familiar yet just beyond touching distance, led visitors on a treasure hunt of the city that made even the most intrepid explorer and active gatherer of arcane facts question their knowledge and understanding of the places around them.

Dark Matters contains a strong element of critique and, as the title implies, a call to action. “It’s getting increasingly difficult to walk around the city,” says Nick. “The amount of landscape accessible is diminishing. The city is foreclosing and we are constantly being told what we can’t do. We mainly think about it as an arena for consumption, and as cities as having to attract investment – Manchester sometimes believes too much in that story.”

Physical fences and boundaries are mentally reinforced by our own expectations and inhibitions about where we go and where we don’t go. “Roles and routines are deeply embedded”, says Nick. “To move too oddly in a city, to dance through a space, to move too quickly or too slowly is to bring circumspection on yourself. You’re quickly made to feel unwelcome if you’re not spending anything. For example in Piccadilly Gardens, you self-identify as ‘other’ if you’re not about to get on a bus, or on your way to somewhere. Your motives become suspicious and attract attention from not just police and security but from other members of the public. You’re conditioned into how you expect people to behave in public.”

In spite of this, says Nick: “The urban landscape can be an amazing and wonderful thing. To walk is to read the landscape beneath your feet. The whole thing is underscored by improvisation. You hear voices behind a wall, see something that catches your eye. I make it up as I go along. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and you don’t need to be instructed – anyone with the will can do it.”

As Nick says, walking in the city is “about finding the extraordinary and fascinating in the everyday”. Everyday life sometimes seems fraught with danger, but it is also be full of beauty and wonder. As our society, culture and politics are increasingly overhung by a cloud of fear and suspicion of the unknown and the other, perhaps it’s time to embrace risk in search of freedom, understanding and even adventure.

Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City is published by Zero books on 25 November costing £9.99. For more information visit www.zero-books.net/books/dark-matters.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

William Mitchell in Harlow: chapter in Modern Futures book

I've written a shortish reflection on my pilgrimage to the 'sculpture town' of Harlow, a mid-twentieth century new town in Essex, earlier this year, focusing on the redeveloped Water Gardens in the town centre and the architectural sculptor William Mitchell's gargoyle fountains, as a chapter for the new Modern Futures book.

Modern Futures, which is published by Uniformbooks, is edited by Hannah Neate and Ruth Craggs and is an outcome of the Modern Futures research network, which brought together academics, writers, artists, photographers and practitioners for a series of events and workshops around the country exploring questions around changing perceptions of the experience, appreciation and preservation of modern architecture. The book brings together contributions prompted, explored and developed through these events, as well as reflections from a few familiar projects from Manchester such as Angela Connelly and Matthew Steele's Sacred Suburbs survey and Manchester Modernist Society.

The book can be purchased online for £12 at www.colinsackett.co.uk/modernfutures.php.

An informal launch for the book, featuring brief introductions to the chapters by some of the contributors, will be held at King's College London on Wednesday 16 November from 6.15pm-8pm. The event is free and can be booked at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/modern-futures-book-launch-tickets-28757715100.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Modernist Heroines tour, People’s History Museum, Thursday 18 August

Five years on from the joint LRM, Manchester Modernist Society and Shrieking Violet project, Manchester’s Modernist Heroines will be revisited in a free walking tour for the People’s History Museum at 2pm on Thursday 18 August.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day in 2011, Manchester’s Modernist Heroines celebrated ten overlooked women from the twenty and twenty first-centuries with connections to Manchester, from the architect Rachel Haugh to the geographer Doreen Massey to the Egyptologist Rosalie David and the sculptor and designer Mitzi Cunliffe. It culminated in a psychogeographic walk around Manchester, responding to sites significant to Manchester’s Modernist Heroines, and a publication bringing together creative and critical responses to the women by contemporary Mancunians, from interviews and essays to poetry and drawing. Read online:
The Modernist Heroines tour will be led by artist, researcher and activist Morag Rose as part of a series of events running alongside the People’s History Museum exhibition Loitering With Intent, which celebrates ten years of the LRM and brings together new contributions from writers, artists and activists as well as items from the LRM archive. For more information and to book visit www.phm.org.uk/whatson/manchester-modernist-heroines-walk.

Loitering With Intent continues until Friday 14 October.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Social Science Centre Manchester seeks members, scholars and funds

A new Social Science Centre (SSC) for Manchester will provide affordable co-operative Social Science Higher Education (HE) in the centre of Manchester this autumn. SSC is now seeking members and scholars, alongside funds to get off the ground.

Run as a co-operative, and owned by its members, the SSC Manchester will eventually be self-sustaining. The first Social Science Centre, in Lincoln, has successfully offered free, co-operative higher education since 2011, and granted approval for the new Manchester branch at its 2016 AGM in May. SSC Manchester will begin with exactly the same model and constitution as SSC Lincoln, and it is hoped that it will be the first of many more new SSC branches.

The 2016-2017 term of SSC Manchester will take place each Monday evening, from 6pm-8pm, at the Friends Meeting House on Mount Street, beginning on Monday 5 September. This area is saturated with radical history, including St Peter’s Fields, the location of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

SSC is currently fundraising to cover the costs of room hire for the first phase, September to December 2016, and printed materials. Contributions can be made at https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/SSCM.

Dr Steve Hanson of SSC Manchester commented: “The new HE white paper clearly places Higher Education in the market, and as a servant of the market, although no-one inside has been naive enough to think it anywhere else for some time. HE will not be miraculously liberated from neoconservative policy in the near future. There is no point relying on a long wait for internal change.

“It is time to create new values: a more flattened hierarchy, no fees, a message that all of us are ‘scholars’, a Higher Education co-op. SSC Lincoln were the first to do things differently after the Browne Report of 2009 and the Millbank Riot of 2010, and we will be extending this to more people with the establishment of SSC Manchester. If you believe in an alternative to the current neoliberal model, please help, either by making a contribution to our start-up costs or registering as a scholar or member.”

To find out more about SSC Manchester, and sign up, visit https://sscmanchester.wordpress.com.

Twitter: @sscmanc 
Facebook: www.facebook.com/SSCManchester

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Shrieking Violet interviewed by Mark Reid

I was recently interviewed by playwright Mark Reid for his new project The Rudiment, which has the intention of interviewing a range of creative practitioners in depth. As I feel most contented and comfortable when walking and exploring, I took Mark for a walk along the River Mersey from East Didsbury to Stockport town centre, a route I often walk.

To read the interview, which discusses the practice of writing and interviewing, inspirations and motivations and my engagement with various creative projects, from Manchester Left Writers to Manchester School of Samba, visit http://therudiment.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/meandering-mersey-natalie-bradbury.html.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

He’s Leaving Home: The Shrieking Violet Guide to Hearty Vegetarian Cooking On A Budget

I’ve written and designed a new, very limited-edition publication called He’s Leaving Home: The Shrieking Violet Guide to Hearty Vegetarian Cooking On A Budget. It’s a cookbook for my little brother, who recently left home for the first time, and aims to give ideas for cooking and eating for those who live and eat alone, using everyday ingredients.

The emphasis is on the classic, hearty, simple and solid - think potatoes, pulses, pasta, pies and spices - although unfortunately I've had to leave out anything containing mushrooms or sweet and savoury flavour combinations (both of which I love) as he hates them. The book's also lacking in curries as I felt it was too rich an area to do justice to in this volume ...

I was inspired by a remark that my brother (who really enjoys cooking) made a while ago that he would like to eat less meat and cook more vegetarian food, but lacked inspiration. For ages I planned and thought about writing down all the recipes I make on a regular basis as a birthday present for him. I spent the first few months of this year finally doing that, alongside compiling a list of store cupboard staples I always have in to make sure I am never in the position of having nothing to cook! I have no idea if he'll like or use it, but I find the idea of giving and receiving material goods for the sake of it quite problematic, and would much prefer to share and receive time, interest, ideas and experiences.

Writing it has also been quite a therapeutic and cathartic process. A few of the recipes were developed in collaboration with Daniel Fogarty (baked bean pie and peanut butter jam tarts), and he also introduced me to ground rice pie. I spent last year cooking and cooking and experimenting and experimenting and perfecting recipes, as I was so determined that if only I looked after myself well enough (and ate enough spinach!) I could make myself feel better.

Everything I cook is vegan, but I've purposefully called it 'vegetarian' and used generic words such as 'milk' and 'butter' rather than 'soya milk' and 'vegetable margarine' as I know how alarming some people find the idea of vegan cooking ...

Read online:

A paper copy can be found in Salford Zine Library at Nexus Art Cafe. It’s for my brother, but it’s also for anyone else for whom cooking for one is a chore rather than the pleasure it can and should be.

For optimum results, the recipes should be followed whilst listening to the song 'Bedsitter' from the Soft Cell album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, which I have come to regard as one of the high points of 20th century British culture.
BEDSITTER by Soft Cell from paulvernon on Vimeo.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Diagonal Noise exhibition, Castlefield Gallery: read the Shrieking Violet in the reading area

A small selection of past issues of the Shrieking Violet will be available to read and browse in the reading area of new exhibition Diagonal Noise, which opens at Castlefield Gallery on Thursday 26 May (exhibition continues until 17 July).

The exhibition brings together five artists based in Belgium, Tiago Duarte, Joke Van den Heuvel, Vijai Patchineelam, Adrien Tirtiaux and Floris Vanhoof, to exhibit existing, new and site-specific work.

Diagonal Noise will also include a reading area displaying publications by Posture Editions (Ghent, Belgium) and the exhibiting artists, alongside publications by artists and organisations based in and around Greater Manchester, including the Shrieking Violet.

In addition, a brand new, limited edition print copy of The Shrieking Violet Guide to the Public Art of Central Salford will be available to buy at the Gallery for £2.

For more information about the exhibition and accompanying events visit www.castlefieldgallery.co.uk/event/diagonal-noise.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Castlefield Gallery Launch Pad: Powerhouse Liberation Movement exhibition

Manchester Left Writers have been selected to undertake an exhibition as part of Castlefield Gallery’s ‘Launch Pad’ series, chosen by Jerwood Charitable Foundation Director Shonagh Manson.

The Powerhouse Liberation Movement will bring together film, installation, music, performance and a new publication. MLW core members Natalie Bradbury, Bob Dickinson, Steve Hanson and David Wilkinson have been searching the city (dubbed the “economic powerhouse of the north of England” by Manchester City Council) for ‘free’ spaces: spaces where notions of commonality, free expression and liberation are discoverable and can be accessed by all. MLW have recorded their exploratory journeys across the city, from the Gay Village and ancient earthwork the Nico Ditch to the satellite towns of Stockport and Rochdale. This has resulted in a series of lo-fi ‘Notebook Films’ documenting places, encounters and experiences. These will be displayed alongside maps, notes, photographs and objects found and made during the process of making the films. MLW have also commissioned a critical essay by Dr Gavin Macdonald, Lecturer in Art History at Manchester Metropolitan University.

During the public preview on Thursday 5 May (6-8pm), and repeated for Museums at Night on Thursday 12 May, MLW will perform new poems to accompany the work on show. In addition, the quintet Vocal Harum (of which MLW writer Bob Dickinson is a member) will perform a set of a cappella songs about buildings. MLW will also discuss and answer questions about their work and the exhibition at a public event on Saturday 14 May. The exhibition continues until Sunday 15 May. For more information, including times, visit www.castlefieldgallery.co.uk/event/launch-pad-the-powerhouse-liberation-movement.

Facebook event

Friday, 15 April 2016

Postcard from Manchester: Seeing your city through someone else's eyes

I was recently invited to write a travel piece about Manchester for Marco Travel International, as part of their 'Postcards' series. I was inspired to write this by my experiences of showing my friend Jenny around when she visited from Granada, Spain in March, sharing my life and city with her for a week and seeing it all over again through someone else's eyes.

Read online at: http://mymarcotravel.com/postcards/manchester-seeing-your-city-through-someone-else-s-eyes

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Postcard from Essex: Jaywick

Jaywick Martello tower is one of many defensive structures built along the eastern and southern coasts of England to keep out Napoleon's forces in the early 1800s, inspired by similar structures on the island of Malta. Those on the southern coast were built first, and the eastern Martello towers followed a couple of years later, with hundreds of thousands of Kentish bricks transported to Essex by barge. Now renovated and open as a tourist attraction, Jaywick's solid brick tower tells the story of these defences, as well as hosting changing exhibitions. A text work by poet Julia Bird encirlces the building in concrete, and her poem 'Watching the Red Arrows from Jaywick Beach', installed onto the windows of the rooftop viewing area, incorporates the thoughts, hopes and desires of local residents. Given their fortress-like appearance from the outside, the Martello is surprisingly light inside. Many are empty, but some of the Martello towers in Kent have been converted into homes; there's currently one for sale in Clacton as a business premises for £220,000. Jaywick Martello is adjacent to Jaywick's notoriously run-down 'plotlands' estates (temporary housing intended as holiday homes, but settled permanently after the Second World War). Jaywick is regarded as being the most deprived area in England - see Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope's film Jaywick Escapes, which gives voice to some of the residents and captures the isolation of life lived on the edge of a receding coastline, and at the end of the bus line. A couple of miles along the coast, past sand drifts and rows and rows of offshore wind turbines, is the sprawling seaside resort of Clacton, complete with amusements and a pier; a plaque is the only reminder of the large Butlins holiday camp which stood there until its demolition and replacement with housing in the mid-1980s. On a drizzly, windswept day, this is the English seaside at its bleakest.

Postcard from Essex: Silver End

Deep in the flat Essex countryside is a model village built for the employees of Crittall Windows. Housing was built in a variety of sizes and styles, from terraces and semis to large detached houses. Facilities were provided by a village hall, tea room and memorial gardens (and originally a department store, which burnt down in the 1950s). The Crittall factory in the village was demolished in 2008, although production continues at nearby Witham. Today the houses are in varying states of repair, from well-kept to run down with smashed windows. Although many of the houses have replaced their original steel window frames (in some cases adding bay windows over or in place of the original windows), new-build housing has adopted styles and details from the original Crittall houses. The village is celebrating its 90th anniversary this April with a variety of activities exploring life through the decades.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Shrieking Violet talk at Sounds from the Other city/Zinester film

The Shrieking Violet is excited to be appearing at Sounds from the Other City festival in Salford on Sunday May 1.

As part of Salford Zine Library’s takeover of the Deli Lama CafĂ©, several zinesters and poets have been invited to do short readings and talks about their work, with zines from the library also available to explore and browse. The Shrieking Violet will be appearing alongside other favourites such as Poor Lass, talking at 6.30pm. For more information and times, keep an eye on www.soundsfromtheothercity.com/artist-a-z and www.salfordzinelibrary.co.uk/news/sounds-from-the-other-city-2016.

Poor Lass, Salford Zine Library and the Shrieking Violet were recently featured in Zinester, a short film about feminist zinemaking in Manchester by Emily Steele. View the film online:


Zinester from Emily Steele on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Rotterdam (on living in cities)

Few people, I am sure, would describe Rotterdam as a city that is beautiful or picturesque. Interesting, yes, for its cultural scene and as an example of post-war rebuilding, but nice to look at – no, not really …

Unlike other Dutch cities such as, say, Utrecht, which could be an English cathedral city, on arrival the centre of Rotterdam appears unusually grey and faceless, and has the unrelenting, crammed-in bustle of a big city. It’s dominated by the architecture of corporate power in tower blocks muscling towards the sky. Rotterdam is one of the world’s largest ports, yet the canals and houseboats for which the Netherlands are usually known are less prominent in the layout of the city here. What is prominent are the large rivers that cross the city, particularly the wide Maas, which separates the northern side from the generally poorer southern side, accessible through an art deco tunnel. Like Manchester, there is a marked north-south divide, with many residents of the north seeing no reason to visit (or actively avoiding) the south. Unlike Manchester it is the south of Rotterdam that is perceived as being more run-down, crime-ridden and lacking in investment, although it also offers opportunities for cheaper living and creative spaces. The Dutch people I chatted to (all two of them) mentioned racism, and bureaucracy. They also complained about the high cost of renting and the expense of eating out.

Spend some time in Rotterdam, though, and some sorts of charms reveal themselves. It is the city’s striking multiculturalism, from the people on the streets to the profusion of cuisines evident in its cafes and ethnic grocery stores, which saves it from blandness. Unlike the current fashion for overpriced ‘street food’ in the UK – gourmet snacks sold at restaurant prices – this is street food in the true sense. In central Rotterdam, the air is filled with the smell of doughnuts, batter and Surinamese pastries, with snacks sold from inconspicuous carts. Surinamese cuisine is BIG here. Hailing from the former Dutch colony of Suriname in Central America, it’s very meaty, yet also has much to offer vegetarians, in the form of bread, lentils, spices and vegetables. Imagine a savoury-sweet cross between the spices of Indian cooking and Chinese flavours, textures, stickiness and crunchiness, that also somehow tastes like something you’ve never experienced before.

Rotterdam’s architecture and planning also feels genuinely mixed use, in the way that we can only dream of in many new developments in most English cities. The modernist central shopping area is rather attractive: in the centre, it seems normal to live above shops and the noise of children playing floats down from roof-top playgrounds. In contrast with our English city centres, which remain for the most part places to be passed through, brief stopping places for young, affluent, childless professionals on their trajectory out towards the suburbs or countryside, schools, churches, doctors and other amenities slot seamlessly into the commercial cityscape.

There’s also a sense of fun and inventiveness, perhaps because the city knows it’s not beautiful, and isn’t trying. The best example of this is in the cluster of cube houses, one of which is now a museum with disorientatingly sloping walls and the rest of which include residential dwellings, a hostel and even a laser quest experience.
Public art is abundant, from the big-name pop art and explanatory information boards of the centre to more commemorative and illustrative sculptures which blend into the landscaping in the housing developments of the suburbs. You could be forgiven for failing to notice it, but it contributes to an overall sense of pleasantness.
There may be little in the way of obvious parks or greenery, particularly in the central areas, but the inner residential district of Nieuwe Westen is picturesque, pretty even, a place where you get a sense of the Rotterdam that existed before the city was almost flattened by bombing during the war. Tall, bay fronted, early twentieth century apartment buildings line rows of gently sweeping tree-lined streets, separated by canals populated with swans and geese and crossed by small bridges. It’s idyllic by anybody’s standards. Although each doorway emerges from the pavement into almost impossibly vertiginous, rickety wooden stairs – which you can’t imagine attempting to navigate with a pushchair, let alone a wheelchair, decreased mobility or drunkenness – the paving slabs outside are punctuated with permanent, designed-in, numbered grids for playing hopscotch, and on-street play equipment. Living in such close proximity to your neighbours, noise travels easily from flat to flat. Luxuries such as baths, freezers and even ovens appear to be rare here, and kitchens are on the small side, but it’s compensated for by rooms that are full of light and space.
Also attractive is the city’s municipal brick modernism, particularly in the renovated, sand-coloured Spangen estate, an early example of deck access housing complete with decorative detail and in-built flower boxes. Built around manicured lawns, its centrepiece is a communal washhouse, now converted into contemporary art gallery A Tale of a Tub. It’s also heartening to swim in the warm waters of a restored 1930s pool, the airy Oostelijk Zwembad, where light filters through the glass bricks of an elegantly arched roof.

Reach out towards the edges of the city, and you discover that Rotterdam’s apparent lack of private or public garden space is compensated for, to some degree, by patchworks of holiday plots in areas set aside for weekend visiting. The network of neat, orderly sheds on the banks of canals constitute a city in miniature, a microcosm of Dutch society. Irrigated by waterways, each allotment-esque patch features a home-from-home, a retreat, with space for growing, relaxing or escaping. Something for the weekend. Somewhere for the weekend.

There’s a sense of freedom, too. Notable is the ease with which it’s possible to get around the city, with cars separated from bikes in their separate lanes. Cyclists have priority at roundabouts, and in the main both sides observe the rules of the road. There's still congestion, there's still speeding, cars which jump red lights and fail to stop at pedestrian crossings, but in general there's more politeness. With cycling such a part of life – everyone does it – anyone in Lycra or specialist clothing stands out. Cycling is a different thing here. In Rotterdam, cycling is not about speed, but for getting around. Rather than crouching over the handlebars of a racing bike, ready to be on the defensive, cycling is usually done sitting up and is an altogether more sedate affair: Dutch bikes are wide-framed, heavy, clunky. It’s also striking that children of all ages cross the city by themselves, wandering the streets in pairs or in groups, from an early age. I followed a young boy on a stunt bike, singing to himself and cycling with his arms outstretched, waving like an airplane. He blithely cycled around a motorway roundabout like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Rotterdam strikes me as a city for living in, in a way that makes you feel slightly wistful on your return to the UK. For me, the jewel in Rotterdam’s crown is undoubtedly its large street market, held several times a week and spilling out onto the streets surrounding a glitzy new market building by MDRDV. Whereas the indoor market, surrounded by apartments that face out from giant, lurid images of fruit into a curved atrium, sells artisan produce to those with money to burn, outside you can browse for necessities such as batteries, knock-down toothpaste and fresh produce at the same time as antiques and new shoes, flea-market style.
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This article is based on notes I wrote more than a year ago. I can't claim to know the city intimately, so this content may be wildly off-mark; my last visit to Rotterdam was in April 2015, but it's only now that I have felt well enough to form them into the article I was meaning to write for so long. Although my long-term partner at the time, Daniel Fogarty, moved to Rotterdam to study for a two-year MA at Piet Zwart Institute, it wasn't ever really a consideration that I would move too. I visited him there a couple of times, but whenever I returned to Manchester from Rotterdam it was a huge relief, as ultimately Manchester is where I belong, and where my life is (and, to be honest, it was a relief to be back on my road bike, racing down the A6 side-by-side with the traffic). Other than Dan, there was nothing for me, really, in Rotterdam, but I sometimes wonder whether I could have lived there, and there are certain elements of Rotterdam (particularly the street market) that I certainly wish could be replicated in Manchester.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Listen online: All FM Friday Drivetime interview

I was invited to talk about my Pictures for Schools research and upcoming talk for the Manchester Centre for Regional History at Manchester Metropolitan University on Fiona Ledgard’s Friday Drivetime show on south Manchester radio station All FM.

During our discussion Fiona asked me to read a short extract from an article I have written about Pictures for Schools for the new issue of the modernist magazine of twentieth century architecture and design, which is themed ‘Forgotten’. In the article, I chose to focus on Pictures for Schools as a forgotten idea and ideal.

I also picked some songs for the show, some of them tenuously related to art and artists, including Meilyr Jones, the Velvet Underground, WE, Pins, LoneLady, Sauna Youth, David Bowie and Sacred Paws.

Listen to the show online:
For more information about the modernist, and to purchase the magazine, visit www.the-modernist.org/forgotten.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Manchester Left Writers reading at Verbose, Monday March 28

Manchester Left Writers will be reading Precarious Passages as guests at this month's Verbose live literature night at Fallow Cafe in Fallowfield on Monday March 28.

The event starts at 7.30pm and is free. For more information visit https://verbosemcr.wordpress.com/dates-and-details.

Facebook event

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Pictures for Schools talk, Manchester Metropolitan University, Wednesday March 16, 6.30pm

I will be doing a talk about my PhD research for the March meeting of the Friends of the Manchester Centre for Regional History.

Pictures for Schools: Bringing art to Manchester's post-war classrooms 

Pictures for Schools was a scheme founded in 1947, which aimed to get original works of art into ‘schools of every kind’ so children could grow up with art as part of their everyday environments. 

Between 1947 and 1969, annual Pictures for Schools exhibitions were held in London (with the exception of 1957, when a venue in London could not be found and the exhibition was instead held at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery). Here, contemporary artworks by living British artists were displayed and sold at prices affordable to educational buyers. Contributors ranged from well-known names such as LS Lowry to students who were obscure at the time but later went on to make a name for themselves.

Local education authorities, education committees and museum services across the country made the annual trip from London to make purchases from the scheme, and extensive collections of artworks were built up in towns, cities and counties large and small for loan to schools. Several schools in Manchester benefited from the opportunity to buy work, and education committees in Lancashire, Rochdale and Manchester were among the regular buyers from Pictures for Schools. Another purchaser was Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston Loan Collection for educational institutions in the north of England.

However, over the decades schools have closed, changed name or merged, and local authorities have come under pressures such as boundary changes and financial constraints. Many of these collections have now disappeared with little or no acknowledgment that such a service once existed. Does Pictures for Schools have a legacy in Manchester today, and can these artworks still have any relevance in the twentieth-first-century classroom?

The talk will take place on Wednesday March 16, 6.30pm, in Room 307, 3rd floor, Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University, Oxford Road, Manchester M15.

Free; all welcome

Facebook event

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Song for Daniel Fogarty


When I met Daniel Fogarty back in 2010 it was so exciting as I had never met anyone like him before. I was so inspired by his passion, his determination, his way of looking at the world, his way of thinking, his idealism, his pragmatism, his convictions, his independence.
With Dan, for the first time, I felt like I had found a genuine equal, a partnership that was intellectual and creative as much as it was sexual, someone I could just get on with and be myself around, without any games or messing around.
Being with Dan felt like a journey of discovery, finding new things together, sharing, exploring, learning, progressing. We complemented each other in our skills and approaches and outlooks and personalities. Dan gave me hope for the first time that it was possible for such a partnership to exist, for such a person to exist. He opened my eyes and introduced me to so many ideas and experiences, for which I will always be thankful.
When Dan applied to an MA in Rotterdam I knew I had to support him, and I knew it would need sacrifice. Ultimately, I knew that if I loved him I had to let him go and take this opportunity and go and grow and learn and develop, and have the time and space to figure out who he was as a person and an artist. Dan made a new life in Rotterdam, with a new set of relationships and friendships, and I knew that I wasn’t a part of that and couldn’t be. There wasn’t a place for me anymore. Dan didn’t need me, in the way he might once have done. I wish there could have been a place for me, that we could have embarked on the adventure together, but in the end I had to set him free.
I hope we can find a way to still have a relationship as friends based on mutual affection, respect, inspiration and love, as well as openness and honesty. We have too many shared connections and too much shared affinity and so much more to give each other. All I can do is be thankful for the happy moments we gave each other over the course of more than four years, of which there were so many, including:
Our first meeting, over homemade sloe gin, at a Modernist film screening; Dan's submissions to the Shrieking Violet, on Granada idents among other things; Walking along the Ashton Canal to Philips Park and using Dan's umbrella to lower branches to pick cherries; Getting up early and going Sunday morning swimming in Withington Baths; Dan sending me in search of a rare fossil in the sink of the ladies' toilets in the Bridgewater Hall; Dan sharing his favourite music with me by giving me CDs, from Parenthetical Girls to Van Dyke Parks;
Jamming together on bass and guitar; Wandering the suburbs at night; Cycling around Trafford Park; Dan buying me a new bike saddle to make my bottom more comfortable; Cycling to Worsley to cross Barton aqueduct on a canal boat tour; Dan splashing along behind me at Hathersage lido in the rain; Exploring Bourneville and Birmingham together in the spring sunshine; Say Something talks at Islington Mill; Cooking banana bhajis together; Dan showing me around Sheffield; Our first ever visit to New Mills, and long walks along the canal to Hayfield and Lyme Park; Picnics and the invention of baked bean pie and peanut butter and apple sandwiches; Dan's determination to introduce me to ground rice pie and our long mission to find ground rice; Exploring the stones of Manchester’s buildings; Visiting Alnmouth with Dan's parents; Seeing photos of chubby baby Dan; Staying on a boat in Amsterdam and exploring the city together; Dan turning up to my pancake party with weird coconut chutney; Introducing Dan to my friends and peers; Visiting William Mitchell’s house in London; When Dan made me a skirt; When Dan tried my skirts on to figure out what size clothes to buy me; When Dan bought me some David Mellor 'Thrift' cutlery; When Dan made me bookcases and a spice rack from old floorboards and scrap wood; When we went for a walk in Didsbury and emerged with handfuls of wild garlic for risotto and the freezer; Taking a shared bath in Dan's parents' posh bath in New Mills, with a rose petal bath bomb; When Dan bought me secondhand books and drew pictures for me in the front;
Listening to Pulp and Bronski Beat together; Exploring Lyon in the freezing cold and having picnics by rivers; Playing charades at my parents’ on New Year’s Eve; Exploring Worsley, walking past Monton lighthouse, visiting Barton bridge and picking yellow plums for the freezer; Making chocolate apples together for bonfire night; The first picnic of the year at Port Sunlight; Dan's first exhibition at Bureau and working together on the text; ECLUB at Islington Mill; Dan printing extra copies of interesting and unusual photos for me at his photo-processing job; Dan printing me a bespoke tote bag with an archive photo of William Mitchell's giant Lee Valley Water Company mural; Potluck; Staying with Rebecca in Lancaster; Falafel with Phoebe at Safads; New year’s eve fireworks in the drizzle in New Mills; Cycling up and down over the hills from New Mills to Alice’s birthday barbecue in Charlesworth; Showing Dan around Kent; Sitting sheltering from the rain and scoffing vegan Easter eggs at Sunny Sands beach in Folkestone; Playing I Spy on long train journeys; Cycling to Sharston books; House-hunting, flat viewing, bed-shopping and setting up home together; Watching copious amounts of Charlie Chaplin and Hitchcock, and Peep Show, Teachers, The Office, Black MirrorJonathan Creek, Queer as Folk and Him & Her; Watching every single episode of the Likely Lads we possibly could, then moving on to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?; Sharing headphones for under-the-covers late-night listening to the Moth podcast; Watching Dan play bass with Sean’s band; Dan's shows, eg Cornerhouse idents, garden show; Going for Ethiopian food; Playing with Dan's family on the zip wire, and having a go on the exercise equipment on the park during Dan's last night in New Mills before leaving for Rotterdam; The pride I felt when Dan sent me his end of year report from Piet Zwart Institute; Visiting the beach at the Hague together, and Dan shielding my eyes from the sand with his baseball cap; Explaining (every few months) the difference between a dress and a skirt, and which was which; Working with Dan (who’s dyslexic) to edit, articulate, clarify and tease out the meaning, insights and observations from the streams of words and sentences he wrote as texts, publications, applications and essays, and to interpret Dan’s own creative and resourceful system of spellings: chimley (chimney); hierarki (hierarchy); heared (heard); objen (aubergine); cutelry (cutlery); autominal (autumnal); confrance/refrance (conference/reference); vinil (vinyl); pome (poem); perents (parents); thisis (thesis); rediency (residency); Morine (Maureen); Caneel Parker (Cornelia Parker); canel (canal); tearm (term); backed (baked); mounthly (monthly); intresting (interesting); arcutecture (architecture); museam (museum), memour (memoir); impressinist (impressionist);
Dan's valiant attempts to write/send me postcards, in his scatty handwriting, something that didn't come at all naturally, sometimes resulting in efforts that were esoteric and home-made.
I have been haunted by this song for several months, going around and around and around my head as I cycle the A6 and try to get to sleep. It translates all the sadness and frustration into something beautiful, something positive.
Making the music in my head reality is what I needed to do to move on, or at least a place to start from.