Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Shrieking Violet Issue 5

Issue 5 of The Shrieking Violet is now finished! It is a seasonal, Christmas special slightly preoccupied with the changeover of seasons from autumn into winter. It features poetry by Andrew Beswick and Rebecca Willmott, my article on Christmas decorations, a piece on Manchester's shortage of social housing by Adam Faulkner, a short story by Sarah Christie and illustration by Fuchsia Macaree, Karis Upton and Alex Boswell. There is a guide to where to drink warming tea in Manchester by Alessandra Mostyn, a recipe for vegan chocolate cake by Morag Rose and listings (December is absolutely full of fun things to do!). Last but not least, Lauren Velvick has stencilled a beautiful cover.

There are two versions available for download; the usual humongous pdf file that takes a long time, plus a lower resolution pdf with slightly blurry pictures that is a far smaller file.

There will also be copies around various Manchester locations as of around 1.30pm on December 1.

To contribute/tell me what I've got wrong/take advantage of the increasingly popular postal order and back issue service, email Natalie.Rose.Bradbury@googlemail.com

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Very Cherry Christmas (Cherryade Records)

When you think about Christmas music, what do you think of? Carol singers knocking on your door, Cliff Richard and Slade on endless TV reruns of Top of the Pops 2 or older generations moaning that the Christmas number one isn’t what it used to be?

For a certain type of music fan, Christmas only means one thing: Cherryade Records' annual compilation of seasonal songs, A Very Cherry Christmas. Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens once said that receiving a copy was like getting ‘a Christmas card from the gods’, and the album is also a go-to place for hearing new music. Such is its popularity that submissions started arriving in May and June from the really keen bands.

A Very Cherry Christmas fits into a long tradition of alternative Christmas records. Rachael said: “I do love the Phil Spector Christmas album (who doesn’t?), but I was more influenced by wonderful alternative seasonal compilations such as Get Thee Behind Me Santa (Puppy Dog), A Christmas Gift From Fortuna Pop! Volumes 1 and 2, Cwistmas Twee (Total Gaylord), Gold, Frankincense and Purr (Purr Records), The World in Winter (Cherry Red) and others like that.”

Rachael counts songs as varied as ‘Last Christmas’ by Pullover, ‘Christmas Wish’ by The Priscillas, ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ by Belle and Sebastian, ‘Christmas Reindeer’ by The Knife, ‘Space Christmas’ by Shonen Knife, ‘Santa Claus’ by Thee Headcoatees, 'Christmas Tree's on Fire' by Holly Golightly and Billy Childish's Christmas albums and singles among her favourite Christmas releases.

She said: “I don’t think there’s one thing that makes a great Christmas song. When you look at the range of seasonal songs out there it’s obvious that everybody seemingly has a different take on what they think a Christmas song should be.”

This year's is the fifth Christmas compilation Cherryade has released, and at 25 tracks is the longest. Rachael acknowledged: "We've had quite a range of music over the five compilations so far. Although there's been quite a lot of indiepop, we've also had a really filthy song from The Pocket Gods and an all recorder version of 'Stop the Cavalry' from Zoltan Kodaly School for Girls."

2009’s volume contains some of the most eclectic takes on the Christmas genre yet, with everything from boisterous country to languorous ballads and more conventional covers of Christmas classics. Subject matters tend towards the bizarre, from The Pocket Gods’ ode to Kentucky Fried turkey and the Tiger MCs’ tale of a tiger in the snow to current indie favourites, Lancaster duo the Lovely Eggs’ toddlerish punk screams demanding a Tyrannosaurus Rex for Christmas. It’s not all jollity though – a few songs and two spoken word tracks, including Everett True reading from his book about Nirvana, explore the darker emotions around Christmas.

“Christmas songs can be bright and joyful, silly or hushed and spiritual, but, equally, they can be dark and miserable because not everyone experiences Christmas as a happy time of year. I think it’s this contrast of feelings that makes Christmas such a great subject for song-writers,” Rachael explained.

Cherryade Records started in September 2005 when Rachael was at Lancaster University and had a show on student radio, which meant she came into contact with a lot of unsigned bands. It was after travelling to Norwich to record a documentary, and meeting people who were running their own record labels with limited experience and resources that Rachael was inspired to form a record label and Cherryade Records was born, taking its name from a song by Norwich band Bearsuit. Norwich bands are still represented, as well as local Manchester bands, although songs came in from around the country.

Rachael said: “I absolutely love Christmas and Christmas music so when we started the label a Christmas compilation was top of my list of priorities. It was a bit of a vanity project really but other people seem to enjoy it too!”

A lot of people who buy the album are collectors of Christmas music and buy it to add to their collections but I think most people buy it because of the quality of the music.”

She admitted: “It’s just a really magical time of year, I love winter, the cold and the dark, the feeling of stillness, and there’s just something really exciting about the build-up to Christmas through November and December. I love the city in December.”

My favourite tracks on the album are some of the stiller, more reflective moments amidst all the excess. Detox Cute and the Beauty Junkies (aside from having a wonderful name) coat their dreamy, slightly electro take on Christmas and New Year in a warm blanket of strings. Dutch band Persil filter the familiar phrase 'Dear Santa' through wistful space-electronics and noise-scapes of guitar reverb, like a Christmas letter beamed from far away and Foxes’ downbeat, organ and drum machine-led 'Christmas Gifts' is like Electrelane meets Christmas. Allo Darlin’s wistful ‘S P A C E Christmas’ is a whimsical ukulele based love song that stays just the right side of twee.

Equally, there are songs that just make you want to dance around, such as the Humousexual's 'Come Take My Hand in Winter', a song that is almost as good as their name. For me, though, the obvious highlight is Hearts! Attack's Shins-esque punk-pop song, based around rickety chord changes, 'It Was Christmas That Killed Us'. Shunning the bells and choral flourishes of some of the other tracks, its seasonal theme only becomes obvious once you listen to the lyrics.

Now based in Didsbury Cherryade will be celebrating the album’s release with a gig on December 12, with performances from Manchester bands The Shrieking Violets and Doris and the Jumpers, Jimmy from Lancaster band the Bobby McGee's and the 10p Mixes. There will also be Christmas song bingo with the chance to win Cherryade prizes, a Santa's grotto with presents for all and mince pies, candy canes and other festive treats, followed by an all night Christmas disco and Underachievers Please Try Harder clubnight.

Even if the thought of Christmas and sleigh-bell overload makes you want to stay inside with your hands over your ears, Rachael claims: “Even people that don’t like Christmas can usually find something to enjoy.

I think that people have an idea that Christmas can’t songs can’t have much variety or much of a shelf-life but I can think of more songs about Christmas that I could listen to all year round than songs about summer.

I can vouch that the Christmas albums still sound great in July so it’s not like you can only listen to them in December!”

Cherryade Christmas Party, Saki Bar, Rusholme, Saturday December 12.

A Very Cherry Christmas Volume 5 costs £6 (or can be purchased with all the other Christmas albums for £18 plus £2 p&p) and is available from www.cherryademusic.co.uk and all good record stores.


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Saturday, 21 November 2009

Manchester's Mr Blobby - and other decorations

You know it’s that time of year again when (aside from creeping TV commercials spreading thin, enforced jolliness for sale at Tesco and B and Q), the workmen start arriving in Albert Square.

It starts with the legs - four huge blocks big enough to support what comes next, the obese, oversize frame of Manchester’s own Mr Blobby. Early in November, Santa’s lifted into pride of place on the Town Hall, from where he can survey the town square in all its glory, his twinkling boxes of golden presents scattered across nearby lampposts.

His vantage point is dark until his welcome party, the customary Christmas lights switch on, when Santa reminds the city of his existence in a display of 100,000 glowing lights. This year, he was announced by X Factor winner Alexandra Burke plus, appropriately for such an over-the-top caricature, local pantomime stars.

Sitting atop a 32 foot structure, Santa wishes those below a ‘Merry Christmas Manchester’. Subtle it isn’t; at ten metres tall, eight metres wide and six metres deep, his scale is huge. Something so cartoonish is an absurd sight on Alfred Waterhouse's stately neo-gothic Town Hall. Santa completely overshadows other seasonal reminders such as the pair of discreet poppies that flank him on the town hall around Remembrance Day. They can’t compete; though they too are oversized, they don’t have his sheer bulk.Santa’s so fat he doesn’t even have legs, just bloated, blobby feet, and seems to prompt mixed reactions from shoppers at the Christmas markets below. A 59 year old from Swinton said: “I would prefer something more traditional. I preferred the old one in the tower, but it kept coming down. Maybe it will look better in the evening when it’s lit up.” His wife, though, said: “I like it. It’s only there for a couple of weeks anyway - it’s not like it’s permanent!”

A businessman visitng from the US said: “Maybe it’s there to draw people here, but I wish it was on a slightly more human scale! The colours and pretty and the lights are nice, but I didn’t notice it until you pointed it out!” On the other hand, 21 year old James said: “It’s a good piece of culture!” and a woman from Leyland said: “It’s lovely. I’m a fan of Christmas and all the things that go with it.”

When he was first unveiled (a similarly grotesque inflatable Santa was finally laid to rest in 2006 after succumbing to a growing shabbiness and propensity to puncture), Councillor Pat Karney proudly proclaimed: “'It is very hi-tech and very 21st Century'. It will put Las Vegas in the shade.” It’s as if the council has done a tour of those notorious houses which compete with rooftop displays every year, and decided to go one better with what they have on their roof.

Of course, it’s not just Albert Square that gets the Christmas lights treatment. The pollution of Oxford Road is offset briefly by rows of green firs. Deansgate is a wonderland of simple but wintry scenes. I have to admit, though, that my favourite is the unconventional Christmas tree in Piccadilly Gardens.

Eschewing a traditional tree (that honour is reserved for Albert Square, which hosts the fir tree that’s donated by the people of Stavanger, Norway every year), instead the shape of a tree is loosely represented in a 32 foot tower of illuminated silver balls. A real tree could look tawdry and forlorn rattling around in that empty concrete space (a conventional tree would have to be massive to make any impact on the open space of the gardens, and could too easily become tacky if overloaded with too many decorations or shabby if vandalised), but there’s something really simple yet effective about the sphere tree that I love. When illuminated at night, its fragile, delicate cages cast a monochrome white glow that offsets the coldness of Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion. The pile of wire baubles somehow makes the sparse space, which is dominated by Ando’s minimalist concrete wall, more welcoming. What could be stark and lost amongst the rich architecture of Albert Square somehow fits in Piccadilly Gardens.

Piccadilly Gardens is no stranger to unusual takes on trees. The ball tree has replaced a cone tree that was previously installed at Christmas time, and at the other end of Piccadilly Gardens, there’s already another unconventional tree, the 11foot high steel Tree of Remembrance that was erected in 2005 to remember the victims of bombing in Manchester during the second world war. These two opposing visions of trees somehow make you appreciate the few bare trees growing around the area even more.

The ball-tree is a beacon, visible from the northern quarter, guiding you down the narrow streets late at night towards Piccadilly Gardens and the prospect of home. Its only potential downfall is Manchester’s unpredictable weather, occasionally falling victim to high winds.

However you feel about Christmas, the Christmas lights add a sheen to the city that could make even the most hardened anti-Christmas cynic believe in magic - or at least spread a little glow for a small period of time. It’s nice to see a bit more colour on the city streets (imagine if the fairy lights cheering up Piccadilly Gardens were made permanent, like those in the trees outside Piccadilly Station or around Sackville Street Gardens) even if it’s just for a little while.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Shrieking Violet Issue 4

November's self-assembly Issue of the Shrieking Violet Can be downloaded here.

Quite a pretty issue, with a beautiful, beautiful front cover by Lora Avedian, illustration by Laura Skilbeck (this is a page by itself which slots into the front cover of the fanzine), Fuchsia Macaree and Jennifer Bell and photography by Adam Faulkner.

There is also poetry by Andrew Beswick.

There is an article on the proposed elected mayor for Manchester by Andrew Bowman and a report on the EDL march in Piccadilly Gardens by Adam Faulkner.

I wrote about Manchester's forgotten palaces (see previous posts). I also made my first attempt at illustration. I like the pictures better than the article, which didn't turn out quite as I hoped.

Emily McPhillips
wrote a charming short story.

There are also listings and things to make and do:

a sewing pattern by Rebecca Willmott plus recipes by Rebecca and Rosa Martyn.

The editorial contains a mini-appreciation of the poet Carol Batton, who I will probably write more about later.

There will also be paper copies around town. It is free.

I am looking for contributors for December's Issue. I would be particularly interested in receiving Christmas/ seasonal recipe ideas!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Manchester's Forgotten Palaces

I sometimes wonder what visitors to Manchester must think when they’re planning their itineraries. Other cities have their palaces (Brighton has the Royal Pavilion, for example, London is full of them) and castles, which are peppered about the country even in the smallest of towns and villages. Where are Manchester’s big tourist attractions, though, apart from the well-worn trail of museums and art galleries, maybe John Rylands or Chetham’s library if you’re feeling adventurous?

I lived with two travellers, one Australian and one Canadian, who stopped off in Manchester for six months or so after several months living in Edinburgh. Once, I asked them what they had been doing by way of exploring the city and whether they had visited Castlefield yet. I expected them to be full of awe and enthusiasm, captivated by its network of canals and inspired by its towering viaducts. Instead, they shrugged it off dismissively. Turns out they’d been wandering round looking for its castle and were disappointed when they couldn’t find it.

But I think Manchester is a city for living in, letting its majesty unveil itself to you slowly. It’s at its best when you’re submerged in its daily routine rather than flying around a few pre-determined sites of interest over a few hours or a couple of days. Manchester’s architecture is useful rather than full of grand, breathtaking follies.

That’s not to say Manchester doesn’t have its palaces. Manchester was once a city of palaces, just the city’s forgotten them over the generations and no-one’s treasured them enough to tend to their upkeep. Their opulence and high-aiming ideals have faded into the background. Not for them immaculately landscaped gardens or well-maintained facades; three palaces in particular have become shabby and neglected, consumed by the city to the extent their rich past has all but been forgotten about (we’ll disregard the celebrated Palace Hotel and the Palace Theatre, which cheated by renaming themselves palaces from the Refuge Assurance Company and the Grand Old Lady of Oxford Street, respectively).

They stand, variously, on a corner of the second busiest bus route in Europe, amidst textiles warehouses in an insalubrious area just north of the city centre, and a suburb traditionally packed with rows of terraced houses.

Fittingly, for a modern city, rather than monuments to wealth or bloodlines they’re palaces in honour of the common man, built for everyday use. These are the palaces of the Edwardian era, which used sumptuousness and splendour as an inspiration to the average man on the street rather than as an outward display of power and status. There were no empty rooms to be filled with trinkets or lavished in riches - these palaces, two of which were sporting venues, were built to entertain and amuse.

Were you to visit them now, you wouldn’t be led round by a tour guide, maintaining a respectful silence, peering at antique-furnished rooms from behind rope dividers or forced to wear shoe coverings. You wouldn’t find out the stories of generations of aristocrats and their antiques and family art collections, but learn about the social mores of the time and the concerns of the society that made them.

The least well known and most unusual of the three palaces is the Manchester Ice Palace, which opened in 1910. Hidden in a warehouse area on Derby Street, just off the main road in Cheetham Hill, this expansive redbrick and terracotta building conceals an exciting past; it was once the finest ice skating rink in the world, the biggest in the UK and twice largest in Europe, and home to the Manchester Ice Hockey Club. 14000 square feet of ice was provided by an ice plant across the road and 2000 seats held Edwardian spectators at the National Ice Skating Championships and the 1922 World Championships.

The rink was later put to more prosaic use, holding munitions practice during the war before closing in the 1960s and becoming a bottling plant for Lancashire Dairies, whose equipment can still be seen outside. Its imposing exterior, which was once clad in white marble, is now covered in signs for companies like ‘Extreme Largeness’ (which supplies shops like Affleck’s Palace) and ‘Italian Style Revolution’s Handbags’. In a cruel irony, one shop advertises ‘Sunglass in. Hot selling’ in orange letters on its door, with mannequins in the windows sporting comedy sunglasses.

The palace which has best adapted to modern use and still thrives, in a way, is the Grosvenor Picture Palace on the corner of Grosvenor Street and Oxford Road. When it opened in 1915, it was one of a number of cinemas on Oxford Road, which was then known as Manchester’s ‘entertainment street’. It fans out dramatically from its corner plot, presided over by a green dome. Its green and off-white tiled exterior makes it appear like a winged mint, embossed with decorative wreathes of richness and abundance.

It was built in the age of mass cinema, which saw the invention of the Picture Palace, a luxurious, sumptuous environment in which the public could go to see films and feel like royalty - at least, for the length of the motion picture. The comfort in which people watched the film was just as much of an escape from reality and the everyday as the pictures themselves.
In later years, when cinemas started to close in favour of modern multiplexes, the cinema was reinvented as a bingo hall before becoming The Footage bar (become a facebook fan here!) .The steps to its entrance are cracked and worn, and it’s clearly seen better days, but the building still attracts crowds; The Footage is squarely aimed at students, advertising itself as a ‘burger and beer’ joint with karaoke, sports showings and games machines, with drinks discounts for Scream Card holders.

It’s still kept some of the details of its former past, with strip lighting on the stairs, chandeliers and stained glass windows in the shape of cobwebs, streaky with leaf details. Diamond patterned tiles on the stairways lead to its mezzanine level, all wood panelling and ornate railings around its curving balcony, which is decorated in the standard geometric-pattern carpet you still get in modern cinema foyers today. Its cavernous interior contains two bars, one on the balcony level and one in the big main cinema area. Elaborately detailed wallpaper, now peeling, clings to its curved ceiling, and its decorative plaster wreathes, bows, drapes, apples and flowers in interlocking patterns are painted in a grand colour scheme of red, white and green.

The décor and whole effect is completely overwhelming, though, and I can’t imagine going there to relax now - there are screens everywhere you look, loud music blaring and constant reminders you’re being watched by CCTV. Even the toilets are depressing, covered with government health warnings (look out for penile swelling!) and posters warning you to report anyone suspicious so you can avert a bomb.

Undoubtedly, though, Manchester’s most important palace, which is a tourist attraction in its own right, is Victoria Baths, on Hathersage Road in Victoria Park. Winner of BBC2’s Restoration, it's now open once a month for the public to reminisce about the recent past.

When the Baths were opened in 1906, Manchester’s mayor declared them a ‘water palace of which every citizen can be proud’. Designed by the city architect Henry Price, no expense was spared in trying to inspire standards of hygiene and cleanliness in Manchester’s citizens. The Baths’ public health message wasn’t subtle; stained glass windows use symbols like the Angel of Purity to inspire the average man to cleanliness, sportsmen in coloured glass provide ideals of health and sportsmanship to live up to. Everywhere you look there’s incredible detail, from the fish mosaics of the entrance halls to the tiles that line the walls. No wonder such an inspiring environment produced famous swimmers like the channel swimmer Sunny Lowry, as well as the Olympic swimmers Dianne Ashton and Zilpha Grant.

The Baths weren’t just architecturally ambitious; they had their own well and water supply, and later housed an aerotone, an early type of jacuzzi. Nor were they frivolous - at a time when many of the surrounding terraced houses didn’t have baths or laundry facilities, they provided an essential washing and cleaning facility for local families. In later decades, couples met on the dancefloor that was made by covering over the middle pool during the winter months.

They weren’t entirely democratic, though. Males and females were divided by separate entrances in the early years of its life, and a very much of its time system saw the water for the three pools used first by the First Class Males, then by Second Class Males and finally by the women.

Unfortunately, such a huge palace proved too much of a burden for the local authorities, becoming derelict and overrun by cockroaches towards the end of its life, and the council closed the Baths in 1993.

These buildings were made to last. But in a way they’re too big, too grand to be adapted easily into modern life, as anything other than bar or office conversions (talks of the future of Victoria Baths tend to incorporate either office or hotel space.)

The cloest we haveto a modern day palace is the Trafford Centre, a gaudy, out of town cathedral to commerce. Look closely at our streets though, and you’ll see that the city wasn’t always dedicated to shopping and possessions, buildings didn’t outdo each other in terms of scale or glitz to try to get as much money out of people as possible.
Update: On May 27th 2010, the Culture Show included an article on the appeal of popular people's palaces dedicated to entertainment as opposed to stately homes owned by rich people.


Monday, 19 October 2009

Oxjam Takeover Northern Quarter, Sunday October 25

Forget In the City, the annual music industry showcase of new bands taking place this week - a one day festival this weekend will be a chance see Manchester's newest acts as well as raising money for a good cause.

On Sunday October 25, bands, promoters, artists, poets and comedians will join forces to paint the Northern Quarter blue for one day to raise awareness of Oxfam's 'Here and Now' climate change campaign.

Oxjam have been preparing the city with a series of events such as clubnights, busking and Speed Dating, at which members of the public were daubed in blue face paint. Alice White, Media and Marketing Coordinator for Oxjam Manchester, explained: "The message is 'shout until you're blue in the face'. All the volunteers and campaigners will be dressed up in blue."

She continued; "The whole festival is designed to be interactive, with face painting. We're also creating a huge wave of blue hands on a wall that we hope people will get involved with. We want to make sure we can get as many people interacting and hands-on with the campaign as possible, actually getting physically involved - it's not just signing a mailing list or putting money in a collection tin.

She added: "It's free and easy, and more personal than most festivals too. Bands are supporting us by promoting the gigs too - we're working together."

The all-day event on October 25 is the culmination of months of hard work. Alice explained: "The festival lasts for the whole of October, and many events have already taken place, but it's all been leading up to the flagship on October 25."

"It's different to previous years as before it was just a series of mini-events. This year Oxjam have gone a bit crazy. There are flagship events in 20 cities across the UK all happening on one day."

Eight Northern Quarter venues (Mint Lounge, Night & Day, Matt & Phreds, Odd, Common, Apotheca/ Dough, Nexus Art Cafe and Moho Outdoors) will host music from jazz and folk to punk and indie. Alice said: "There's a real range of bands, from Comfortable on a Tightrope at Odd to a special Oxjam Jazz Band at Matt & Phreds."

She admitted: "Oxjam isn't an established Manchester name like In the City or Manchester International Festival, but we've got big headliners like Peter Hook and the Sunshine Underground. It's not really about established bands, though, it's more about up and coming names."

She continued: "It's a charity event so it's open to everyone. It does represent new music in Manchester, but it also raises awareness for charity. People feel a bit daunted by charity, but this is a way to get connected to people on the city and have fun while you're doing it."

"It's going to introduce Manchester people to a lot of unknown bands they might not have heard about whilst using the platform of a music festival to raise awareness of climate change. We're making sure people hear about the bands from Manchester and unheard of bands."

It's not just a music festival, though, Alice reminded: "At Nexus Art Cafe, we've got Negotiation of Space, where a student group will create a live art performance based on Oxjam's W8 collection of women from around the world. There will be a woman in a huge dress made out of recycled materials and clothes from Oxfam shops which will become a tent with musicians like violinists playing underneath, as well as eight women dressed up."

There will also be circus performers in Tibb Street car park outside Moho Live and Sketch City creating art live in Odd Bar. The winners from Big Issue in the North's poetry competition will be performing on the day.

The festival has already provided a chance for members of the public to get involved, as it's all run by volunteers. Alice said: "We started with four members and recruited a team from across the city. They're managing and putting on events, flyering and volunteering. We'll be bringing them all together on the 25th. "

The festival has involved a huge amount of hard work. Alice said: "We've put it all together in three months, whereas most festivals take years to get together, but we gathered interest as we went along."

She concluded: "We're using the universal medium of music to draw people in. People can connect through music, but hopefully they'll also get into the campaign on the day."

Oxjam Manchester, Sunday October 25, 1pm-11pm.

Tickets, which cost £7 or £8 on the door, are available from wegottickets and the venues.

Visit http://www.oxjammanchester.org/ for band biographies/ full listings and timings.


Friday, 2 October 2009

Manchester Beekeepers Association, Heaton Park (Manchester Food and Drink Festival)

The annual Manchester Food and Drink festival started yesterday, and Manchester is full of events celebrating the city’s culinary culture. One of the most unusual will be held in Heaton Park this weekend, where the public can get a close-up look at the art of beekeeping. I visited last year and spoke to some of the keepers (an interview I never got round to using).

The Manchester and District Beekeepers Assocation, which formed in 1895, has been housed in Heaton Park in Prestwich for over twenty years. The society was awarded £500,000 by Manchester City Council and five years ago moved into the park’s handsome eighteenth century Dower House, a small building with imposing pillars and a gravel drive in the grounds of the stately home Heaton Hall.
Secretary Maggie Bohme said: “We’re very lucky. We have the best facilities in the country. We have a thriving association and get members travelling from as far away as Bolton and Bury. Some people come down in their suits after work. For many people, it’s a restful and stress-relieving activity.”

She continued: “Beekeeping is more popular than ever, although we lost 50 per cent of our colonies in a year, through a virus and other factors. Most keepers have lost a third of their colonies but don’t really know why. It could be to do with the weather or some kind of mite.”

The association has petitioned the government for more research into the declining number of bees. Bohme explained: “Bees contribute £165million per year to the economy, yet the government only spends £200,000 on research into bee health.”

Amidst buzzing (bees fan their wings to maintain a 35 degree temperature to draw water from the nectar) and the sweet smell of honey, visitors can watch bees through magnifying glasses and observation hives, as well as see besuited keepers at work in the outdoors apiary where the bees are kept.

Bob Marshall, an instructor on the society‘s Monday night beekeeping course, said: “We work the hives in small teams. Visitors can get a snapshot of what it’s like on any particular day.”

He explained: “We keep the bees in artificial swarms as it gives them more room. The Queen has a brood box with a landing board and above are supers where the nectar is stored. We use different things like Himalayan Balsam. They love that. ”

We were told the difference between different types of bees: “Drones spend their time doing nothing in the drone congregation area. At two weeks old the virgin bee mates with 12 to 15 drones then never goes out of the hive again. The drones die after they have mated with the queen. The Queen is then fed, groomed and does nothing but lays 1000 to 2000 eggs per day, which hatch after about three weeks.”

All this, plus navigation and flying, is done in the dark, with the help of the wonderfully named waggle dance, a figure of 8 dance that tells other workers how far away a forage is, and which direction it is in.

The honey is made in the extraction room, where wax is separated using a coarse filter. Visitors are advised: “Don’t buy supermarket honey as they blend it with honey from different beekeeping counties.”

Buying local also has another benefit: “If you’re an asthma sufferer, buy honey from within a three-five mile radius as it builds up your resistance.”

As well as honey, visitors can purchase hand cream, furniture polish, propolis and candles. Different types of honey can be sampled on delicious honey crunch biscuits; volunteers make specialist honey such as borage, mixed floral honey and heather honey - which is the most expensive and described as ‘heavy’.

The society also dispels some myths about bees and clear up some common misconceptions, for example clarifying that bumblebees are ‘rounder and hairier’ than honeybees. They also give all important advice on how to avoid nasty stings: “If a bee lands on you, it’s curious - it thinks you’re serious or something. Stand absolutely still - close your eyes and mouth." A bee sting is barbed like a fish-hook with a venom sack on the end.
They also make sure there’s no chance of confusing bees with certain other flying creatures: “A wasp will sting you for the sake of stinging you because they’re nasty carnivores. They don’t leave stings.”


Manchester Food and Drink Festival is on until October 12


The Dower House will be open for the Food and Drink festival from 2-4pm on Sunday October 4.

It is open to the public on Sundays from 12-4pm.

Manchester and District Beekeepers Association
The Dower House
Heaton Park
Bury Old Road
M25 2SW


Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Issue Three of the Shrieking Violet

Issue 3 of the Shrieking Violet is out today (it can be collected from the usual places - see previous postings!). There is a slight Autumn/ public art/ student/ university theme.

It features a cartoon by the multi-talented Rob Taylor (who also plays music under the name Sparky Deathcap), my piece on gargoyles in tiny print (it turned out to be much longer than I realised!), Jim Waterson on the demise of football terraces, Victoria Conway on females in comedy, an evocative piece on street collection boxes by Morag Rose, a short story and artwork by Lizzy Huthwaite, an article on murals and mosaics in Manchester by Manchester Modernist Society's wonderful E.P. Niblock, recipes by Rachel Cranshaw and Rebecca Wilmott and listings, plus illustrations by Alex Boswell and Fiona Bratherton.

The front cover was designed by Alex Boswell.

The self-assembly PDF version can be downloaded here.

To request a copy/ contribute, email Natalie.Rose.Bradbury@googlemail.com.

The new issue of the Shrieking Violet has definitely been overshadowed by the discovery there is a new issue of Belle Vue out, though. The first issue, which came out last year, was the best fanzine I've ever read and a big influence on The Shrieking Violet. The new issue contains articles by E.P. Niblock and Richard Barrett and can be found in Piccadilly Records and the Cornerhouse bookshop.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Where have all the gargoyles gone?

Manchester is a city of a million eyes. Everywhere, eyes watch you, stare at you, scrutinise you, look you up and down, look past you and through you, but rarely focus or make eye contact. There are some eyes that will never look away, though, once you meet their gaze, and will never close. These eyes of the city are cast in stone, relegated from the level of human life. They watch from a vantage point high above the city, detached from the world of the eyes attached to the heads that rush about below.

For Manchester has a parallel population, unknown to many of its present residents; gargoyles. Exaggeratedly real, these faces, often human-animal hybrids, are the guardians of the city, growing out of the brickwork. The city is their playground, where they contort and perform acrobatic feats. They nestle on the outside of the town hall, clamber up and down drain pipes upside down at John Rylands library on Deansgate and leer down at the River Medlock from the back of the Palace Hotel (the former Refuge Assurance Company), forced to forever look down into the depths below, hidden from most people but passengers on trains going across the railway tracks behind (buses are also good for gargoyle spotting!).

Strictly speaking, a gargoyle spouts water out of its mouth, as the word ‘gargoyle’ comes from the Latin for throat (think gurgle!). Medieval gargoyles were designed to collect rainwater, and non-watery gargoyles are known as chimeras. Most of Manchester’s are merely for decoration and only a few expel water, such as those on the fountain outside the town hall, where winged fish cling to the edge, their mouths forced wide open to spew water for the pleasure of the passing public.
Most are inconspicuous, but dramas are played out by these larger-than-life personalities. Though a few faces are stylised, most are astonishingly human, every last line of recognisable human experience carved into their faces. The erosion and smoothing away of stone, or layers of peeling paint from past attempts to cover up gargoyles, serves only to reinforce the effect, adding to their solemnity and seriousness.

Though gargoyles are often grotesque, their faces twisted into grimaces and mouths extended in agony, some are comic figures, at whom it’s impossible not to laugh. Rows of taunting gargoyles on the side of Manchester Cathedral hold their mouths open with their fingers, pull faces and stick their tongues out at you.

Perhaps it’s for the best that most people rarely look up, though. Some gargoyles are benign, cherubs providing a consoling view, but many people would be disconcerted if they got off the bus at Piccadilly Gardens, looked up at Somerfield and realised they were being eyed up by rows of staring lions, wide eyed and hungry. Somerfield’s pack of lions is just a small part of Manchester’s leonine population. Jowly lions watch over grand buildings, ready to pounce into action from the doors of the Old Fire Station on London Road, or loyally and proudly guard banks, reassuring customers their money is safe inside.
The city is also overrun by guard dogs. Caricatures with giant, pricked ears, they’re watching, waiting and listening. On the buildings of the Northern Quarter, dogs look defiantly out of columns and pillars as if daring you to try any funny business. At John Rylands library, gargoyles nest in corners in the stairwells that lead up to the historic reading room, as if reminding readers, before the days of CCTV, they were watching the precious books within.

Manchester is also a city of thousands of mouths. Eating, talking, gossiping, advising, shouting, singing, the city is never silent. There are some mouths that will never speak again, though. If they could, the roar the of the city would be replaced with a different tune; the singing of anguished souls, the warning cries of gargoyles forced to live out their penance in public in an act of revenge. What stories they could tell if they could speak. Maybe the man who’s holding his head in his hands on a building above Piccadilly could tell us what he did that made him freeze in permanent regret (or whether he’s just suffering from a colossal hangover!).

Manchester Cathedral is teeming with the creatures, a reminder of those less fortunate, the victims of terrible fates, condemned for eternity. One poor tortured soul, clad in human clothes as if a warning to the ordinary man, who sees something of him within himself, has been painted a ghostly green over time by moss, and cobwebs grow from his mouth like strings of saliva over his bared teeth. Forcefully propelled from the building, his mouth is permanently flung open as if in a silent warning. We’re shown the retribution and punishment, but what crimes did these pour souls commit that they were forced to constantly relive their humiliation in public?A cathedral is exactly the type of place you would expect to find gargoyles - think of Notre Dame in Paris - and the Gothic buildings of Deansgate are home to clusters of chimeras, but they’re also dotted about the city. The most unlikely place is the gun shop that occupies a corner on Withy Grove. A winged gargoyle, painted black to contrast with the white walls of the building, is crouched on the corner of the building, about to take off in flight over the Printworks. The man inside the gun shop speculated that the gargoyle was a remainder from those added to the Cathedral in Victorian times, when the building was reclad, and told me there are many more leftover gargoyles on buildings across Manchester.

Whether they’re comical or grotesque, gargoyles, like all good public art, add a human side to the city. They’re also a history of place, a record of the city and its values captured in time.

Imagine if we had gargoyles nowadays; gargoyles seem to have disappeared from modern buildings, but they served a useful purpose. The old Smithfield Market building on Swan Street, from the mid nineteenth century, belies its function with the carved heads of sheep and goats. The Old Fire Station is covered in the likenesses of damsels in need of rescue, almost mermaid like, rendered in terracotta with their hair plastered dramatically across the brickwork of the windowsills. It’s even adorned with busty, topless women perching above doorways, surely as much of an inspiration to firemen as their male counterparts, bare chested young men with rippling muscles. Though they’re some of the most recent gargoyles in Manchester, from the early twentieth century, perhaps they wouldn’t look so good in glass and steel, the ubiquitous material of the modern city (although the 1930s Chrysler building in New York is adorned with gleaming, metallic gargoyles, replicas of hood ornaments).
Perhaps the best example of modern gargoyles and adaptation of the form is in Chicago, where the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa has imaginatively reinvented the concept with his Crown Fountain, which was opened in 2004. A stunningly beautiful city that’s full of public art, in the downtown Loop area Miro and Picasso offer their opposing, yet similarly abstract, visions of women’s faces in huge, sculptural form, adding something personal in amongst the towering minimalist built environment.

In the waterside Millennium Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, Plensa’s Crown Fountain sets two giant faces opposite each other, human gargoyles in the best sense. Onto two huge towers are projected close-up videos of the faces of citizens of Chicago - truly gargoyles in which the public can see their reflections. In slow motion, they gradually purse their lips until spurting water, then finally smiling. In summer, children are taken down by their parents in their swimming costumes to frolic in the water, screaming and laughing. It’s public art at its best.

Consider if, instead of consisting of blank stone and smooth facades, the walls of our city were still exciting and had personal touches. A man frozen in blissful repose to guide the weary traveller through the last through steps towards shelter. A series of ‘before, during and after’ gargoyles detailing the various stages of alcohol consumption, from sober to merry to worse for wear, to warn drinkers entering a pub to know when to stop, could be far more effective - and entertaining - than heavy handed government poster campaigns. The caring yet expert face of a doctor reassuring a patient on the way into hospital. An enraptured face lost in the adventures held within the pages of books to inspire the reluctant scholar into a library. A friend above your front door, offering you company on your way home by yourself late at night, or just a few more friendly and welcoming faces around the city.

Update: On May 27th 2010, The Culture Show included a celebration of gargoyles by the critic Andrew Graham Smith, who describes them as 'folk art', goes to see some new garogyles at Westminster Abbey and watches them being made.


Friday, 11 September 2009

Wurlitzer Jukebox: The Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust, Eccles (open for Heritage Open Days this weekend!)

Entering into the Lancastrian Theatre Organ trust’s headquarters in Eccles is, in many ways, like stepping back in time. The main room is a replica of a 1920s movie theatre, complete with a rows of wooden, curved-backed cinema seats in faded, itchy velvet with cramped armrests. Anyone who has ever been in an Art Deco cinema will feel a sense of déjà vu, recognising the décor (a distinctive shade of rose-pink with gold trimming), chandeliers, bowl lights and pictures of silent film stars that line the walls, as well as the plush red curtains that open and close mechanically at the start and finish of a film.

It’s also home to one of the most charming museums you could hope to visit - the type where ladies serve hot drinks and biscuits, you’re entered into a raffle on arrival and the gift shop sells second hand cassette tapes, VHS videos, sheet organ music and 78 and 33 inch records (divided into categories such as ‘musicals/ opera’ and ‘fairground’). Staff are smartly uniformed like cinema ushers, with name badges, matching shirts and even striped ties featuring a picture of a Wurlitzer.

The Lancastrian Theatre Trust was formed in 1968 to save the Wurlitzer from the old Odeon cinema (now derelict) on Oxford Street in Manchester. Across the country, the Wurlitzer theatre organ, a perfect accompaniment to silent films before the war, and used later to entertain patrons before screenings, had been a victim of the process of modernisation and, as with many other cinemas, there was no longer room for it in the Odeon. The Trust ensured the organ found a new home, first at the Free Trade Hall, and then at Stockport Town Hall, where it is still in use.

Since then, the trust has rescued and found new uses for a number of other Wurlitzers, and created a musuem dedicated to Cheshire inventor Robert Hope-Jones, the ‘founder of the cinema organ’, who came up with the design that was later popularised by the Wurlitzer company in America. In 2002, it acquired a 1927 Wurlitzer from a cinema in Liverpool, which now takes pride of place at the front of the cinema, rising from a console on the stage.
The trust has around 20 volunteers, who use their expertise, whether in woodwork or IT, to restore the instruments. Volunteer and organist Alan Crossland said: “It takes a month to disconnect a theatre organ - you can’t just turn up in a van and move it. It took two and a half to three years to restore this organ.”

The organ now entertains visitors with weekly Wednesday lunchtime concerts from visiting professional organists. Crossland said: “The cinema seats 80 and we get 40 to 80 people a week. Some travel from as far away as Crewe on a weekly basis for the concerts.” The organ can also be hired by individuals or groups for tuition.

For many, it’s like a trip down memory lane. Crossland explained: “We put the words up and people sing along - they can’t say they can’t join in as they don’t know the words then!”

For the Heritage Open Days, the trust is screening old films of Eccles as well as a documentary about the formation of the museum, which is housed in an old Sunday school, and Laurel and Hardy silent pictures, accompanied by members of the trust on organ.
Crossland, whose fingers and feet whiz across the rows of keys, stops and pedals, explained: “I've been playing organ for years, although I started on the piano. I’m a church organist, but I prefer playing the Wurlitzer (don’t tell the vicar I said that!). There’s more to a Wurlitzer - the church organ has no cymbals and drums!” He also seems excited that, as well as more conventional instrument sounds like trumpets and flutes, it has an inbuilt doorbell button.

The building rings with the distinctive, seasidey vibrato tremble of the Wurlitzer, whirling its way through everything from hymns like Morning is Broken and the jaunty tune of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head to the old musical favourites Edelweiss and As Time Goes By.

Crossland explained: “I like to start with a march as I can do a drum roll and use a crash symbol, then do a waltz. I always finish with the National Anthem - that’s what they used to do in the old days. Everyone in the cinema would stand still. You don’t get that anymore.”

He added: “I also take a portion from The Two Tars, a Laurel and Hardy film. The film is about 50 minutes long, but we just use 10 minutes. I memorise the film so I know what’s coming up and then improvise, quiet, tender music if it’s a love scene, for example, or fast music for a busy scene where they’re rushing around. We show Charlie Chaplin films too.”

Hearing sound effects fly about above, seemingly coming from random directions at the side of the stage, is almost as funny as watching Laurel and Hardy bumble around themselves. Notes fall from the sky. Trumpets parp. As the slapstick duo roll and writhe around in incompetence, the organ mimics with rolls and flourishes.

One of the most exciting things the trust is offering for the Heritage Open Days (as well as talking members of staff into letting you have a play on the organ itself!) is a tour of the organ chamber, beneath the theatre, which isn’t usually open to the public (though there are viewing windows which explain the inner workings of the organ).

Crossland said: “People think the sound comes from the keyboard, but it doesn’t - it comes from real instruments.” The organ sounds like a whole orchestra, and beneath it is a complicated contraption of instruments based around a wooden framework, including sleigh bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, castanets, bass drum, church chimes, triangle, cymbal, car horn, tambourine, and Chinese glockenspiel - as well as a noisy motor which provides the wind. Watch the workings while the organ is being played and metal pipes vibrate, hammers hit chimes and cymbals seem to hit themselves.Crossland explained: “It has to be kept warm down there to keep the pipes in tune. We tune them once every five weeks and test every bell.”

The museum also houses journals produced by the trust, models of Wurlitzers, magnets manufactured by Royce (later of Rolls-Royce fame) that were used in Hope-Jones‘ organ designs, examples of later electric Wurlitzers and reed organs and a couple of Hope-Jones’ church organs (the trust has a rotating display of ‘organ of the month’, drawn from instruments nationwide).

I also found it fascinating as a snapshot of the golden age of cinema, with mini overviews of the history of ABC and Gaumont chains. I particularly liked one description of the distinctive architecture of old Odeons, many of which were bombed during the war, or are currently in the process of being knocked down and replaced by multiplexes: ‘cream or batter-yellow faience tiles, rounded corners, slab towers, neon outlining by night and, of course, the distinctive style of the Odeon lettering.’

A sign for a ‘Ballroom lounge-bar upstairs’ is a reminder of the first days of mass entertainment, when super cinemas were built as sumptuous picture palaces where people could go and marvel at the new phenomenon of film. Nowadays, sadly, this notion of going to the cinema as a special, luxury event seems almost as old-fashioned as the old motorcars and dated attire seen in the Laurel and Hardy films.

The Theatre Organ Heritage Centre
Alexandra Road
Peel Green
M30 7HJ

The Heritage Centre and Museum is open as part of the nationwide Heritage Open Days (http://www.heritageopendays.org.uk/directory/HOD008729E) on September 12, with special screenings and tours.

The Heritage Centre and Museum is usually open every Friday and Saturday from 11.00am until 3.00pm. For visits at other times, call 0161 792 1836.

Entrance is free (donations welcomed).

Trains go from Manchester Victoria to Patricroft station (from which the musuem is a short walk) every hour at 39 minutes past.

Lunchtime concerts are held every Wednesday at 1pm (doors open at 12pm).

There will also be lunchtime concerts at Stockport Town Hall on September 7, October 5, November 2 and December 7 at 12pm, costing £1.50, as well as Sunday concerts on October 11 and November 29 at 2.30pm.


Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Issue Two of the Shrieking Violet

Issue 2 of the Shrieking Violet (September 2009) is now finished and I'm really pleased with it. It's a lot more visual than issue one, as it's got illustrations by Sam Turner, Lauren Velvick and Alex Boswell, as well as a front cover by Dominic Al Bhardi.

It's got some great articles inside; Sam Lewis on the lost art of the football shirt, Catriona Gray on Manchester's symbol, the bee, Alice Kelly arguing that maths is beautiful, a fairy ring by the Mancunian Way, a short story by Tom Whyman, a poem by Richard Barrett and a recipe by Rachel Cranshaw. I have written about my favourite green spaces in Manchester (at the moment, some of the articles I have written for the zine are appearing on the blog, some aren't. This is because some lend themselves to the written page and not the computer screen, and vice versa. Some are more like guides to Manchester that work best laid out on a page with photos etc..)

This is the self-assembly pdf.


There will also be about 50 copies around Manchester.

To request a copy, email Natalie.Rose.Bradbury@googlemail.com. Alternatively, there is a facebook group here.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard, Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, Thursday August 27

Jeffrey Lewis must be the hardest working man in indie. Relatively unsuccessful in America, the New York singer-songwriter and comic book artist has built up an ever growing and well deserved fan base here over the past few years by embarking on a seemingly perpetual tour of the UK (the bohemian life of a sleeping on fans’ floors and appealing for a place to spend the night at the end of gigs is well documented in his comics, including one overnight stay in a Manchester halls of residence).

He was last in Manchester only a few months ago, but no matter how many times you’ve seen him before, Jeffrey Lewis is ever entertaining. This is partly because he has a huge amount of material to choose from, including a library of ‘films’ - large, travel-worn comic books flicked through to a half-spoken, half-sung accompaniment, a collection of timeline songs documenting everything from the story of the Fall to the history of punk, and even an album of Crass covers.

There is still room for surprises, though. Starting at the Trades Club with a rap about mosquitoes, Jeffrey Lewis flits between introspective guitar and voice based folk songs, swinging pop tunes like Posters and noisy, squalling punk with the tap of his foot on a guitar FX pedal.

For a while a lone troubadour with a guitar covered in an ever-changing crust of stickers, Lewis has been touring with his brother Jack recently (Jack Lewis and the Fishermen Three provide the support, Jack's Pavement esque pop punk contrasting with his brother's erudite, thoughtful wordiness. Jack Lewis's band swap singers and mutate into the slower, more countrified Fishermen Three from time to time, and later members from both bands adorn Jeff's set with drums, trumpet and keyboard).

What makes Lewis' songs stand out over those of his brother, though, is his poetry and imagination. His songs are highly personal narratives, like windows into his life, from The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, a cautionary tale of an acid trip gone wrong, to a wry acknowledgment of a 2.3 Pitchfork review. His subject matters are instantly familiar, but somehow he makes every day things like instant noodles sound just as interesting as more conventional comic book topics like zombies.

The thirty three year old admits the past year has been tough for him (Broken Broken Broken Heart reminds us of his publicly documented split with former girlfriend and band member Helen), and the transient lifestyle has obviously had its effect on him, not least in his thinning hairline.

For this reason, Roll Bus Roll, from latest album ’Em Are I, is the highlight of the night. Starting slowly with Lewis’ clickety clickety guitar, it builds momentum to imitate a rolling bus journey. We can all recognise the ‘rolled sweatshirt’ that ‘makes the window soft’, and the end of youthful freedoms that whiz past. Jeffrey Lewis sings ‘I wasn’t designed to move so fast, I wasn’t designed to have so much past’, but he makes it through to the end, and still appears to be enjoying every minute of it.


Thursday, 20 August 2009

Thomas Paine - Champion of the Common Man - at Salford Museum and Art Gallery

‘Government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one’. These words, written by the political thinker Thomas Paine over 200 years ago, still ring true today, and a new exhibition about Paine’s life at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery reminds us of what we have learned from him. The words, which are among Paine’s best known, are taken from the book with which he made his name in 1776, the hugely influential Common Sense.

A foreword to the exhibition by Tony Benn sets Paine up as a ‘symbol of change’. Benn argues Paine’s dictum that ‘God did not make rich and poor. He made man and woman’ is just as true now, and points out that with the British political system in a time of great uncertainty today, we could do well to look again at his theories. We’re told Paine, who argued for an elected head of state, the welfare state and end in state involvement in trade, would be ‘shocked’ if he knew that there is still no world peace, and that Britain still has a monarchy, unelected peers and no written constitution.

In Rights of Man: Part One, Paine argued that ‘the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries’. His warning against a government that is ‘accountable to nobody and not trusted by anybody’ is just as relevant today, with growing calls for electoral reform and confidence in politicians plummeting with every new scandal and blunder.

Paine was a great advocate for the need for a written constitution, saying it should codify ‘everything that relates to the complete organisation of a civil government, and the principles on which it should rule and by which it should be bound’.

He would be dismayed that so many of his beliefs, which we take for granted today, were only achieved in relatively recent times: universal suffrage, free universal education, old age pensions and the abolition of slavery and the death penalty (the death penalty was only abolished in Britain in 1969, France in 1981 and still has yet to be ended in America).

Born in in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737, the son of a corset maker, Paine took advantage of a grammar school education to become versed in reason and science and debate the ideas of the Enlightenment. The exhibition sets the scene of a grim eighteenth century life which was at the mercy of the wealthy and aristocratic. In Thetford, out of a population of 30,000, only 20 men could vote. Public executions were common, with the condemned having no right to defence. Unsurprisingly, Paine had a thirst for adventure and, after meeting Benjamin Franklin, set off for the New World, where he became a campaigner for revolution.

Paine was a passionate driving force behind the American and French revolutions, as well as an advocate of Irish Independence; in Common Sense, he claimed ‘we have it in our power to begin the world over again’. He convinced George Washington of the need for revolution, to end American’s governance from afar by the British monarchy, and even coined the phrase United States of America. He also spent time in France, where he wrote Rights of Man: Part One as a retort to the conservative thinker Edmund Burke’s attack on the French revolution.

Yet the exhibition, which is comprised of material from the archives of the nearby Working Class Movement Library, argues that Paine’s most important legacy is his championing of the rights of the common man; Paine said we should endeavour to ‘make our fellow creatures happy’, and that man should ‘respect his neighbour, to do as he would be done by’.

Paine wrote his books in plain English, and produced inexpensive editions of his works which became best sellers and were read aloud to the illiterate. As well as early editions, the exhibition displays cartoons and satire based on Paine’s work. Naturally, this spread of ideas panicked the establishment, who tried to prosecute Paine for libel.

The exhibition also displays works by Paine’s contemporaries, alongside writers and movements on which Paine had an influence, including Chartism and women’s rights. Paine was an inspiring individual: he was also an inventor, and the exhibition shows it wasn’t just his political ideas in which he was ahead of his time - he invented an innovative bridge, the design of which is still in use today.

There are plenty of fact sheets and lists of quotes to take away, as well as recommendations for further reading in the WCLM’s archives. As Veronica Trick, volunteer co-ordinator at the Library, said: “If our Library had a patron saint it’d be Thomas Paine. He’s so much the starting point, both chronologically and ideologically, for working class history.”

Thomas Paine, The Voice of the Common People
Salford Art Gallery
Peel Park
M5 4WU
Until November 22


Working Class Movement Library
51 The Crescent
M5 4WX


Friday, 7 August 2009

Waiting for the blackberries to grow

Long before the blackberry was a type of communication device, and before the ‘pick your own food for free’ movement became fashionable because of the recession/ a general concern about where our food comes from, blackberries were the original free food. The summer tradition of scouring the nation’s hedgerows and fields for ripe blackberries has even given birth to its own verb, blackberrying - or, to pick the fruit of the bramble.

Blackberrying is as much a part of the English summer as summer fetes and swimming in the sea. Our summer may fluctuate between broad sunshine and torrential rain, yet I like to think this is helping the blackberries along. I have spent many a lazy day wandering canal side and through the countryside with a bag in hand, eating some guiltily along the way yet returning home with handfuls of delicious food, squishy but not soft, sweet but not too sweet.

In his poem Blackberry-Picking, which concerns a childhood blackberry picking memory, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney places the blackberry at the heart of summer, describing the ‘sticky’ juice of blackberries as ‘summer’s blood’. He makes it sound almost intoxicating by describing it as ’thickened wine’, going on to explain how its juice creates ‘stains upon the tongue’ and leaves the eater hungry for more. Blackberrying is an annual summer tradition, a rite of passage even, something to be looked forward to through the spring and early summer months, to be shared with family or someone special. He sums up the suspenseful summer feeling of waiting for the white flowers to give way to hard green berries that turn red and then, finally, into a ‘glossy purple clot’ ready to be eaten. The poem ends with a change of mood - like the summer, the edible life of the blackberries quickly comes to an end - they can only be picked for a short time, that comes around just once a year, like the all too short summer itself.

Similarly, the American writer Sylvia Plath found inspiration in the fruit for her poem Blackberrying. Blackberries are popular in England and America, where they are also grown commercially, although apparently the type of blackberries that can be bought in shops are blander and less flavourful. In Plath’s highly sensual poem she describes the excitement of the blackberry picking experience by telling of a ‘blackberry lane’ that has in it ‘nothing, nothing but blackberries on either side’. She paints pictures of ripe blackberries as ‘big as the ball of my tub’, ‘fat with blue-red juices’. Her blackberries too are alive and rich, giving a ‘blood sisterhood’ to those who pick them. (Rich in vitamin C, blackberries are a type of antioxidant and during the first world war children were given time off school to pick them so their nutritious juice could be sent to troops.)

My first summer in Manchester I spent hours picking my bounty along the banks of the Ashton Canal, culminating in the bushes of Phillips Park out by Sportcity. I was stunned at the riches on offer - Manchester blackberries are giant and juicy and, in the areas I went, completely unharvested by anyone else. Blackberrying is often a competitive business - in my hometown down South, I have often arrived at the best bushes, which deliver year after year, too late, finding only stumps - yet Manchester’s are ripe for the picking.

If you don’t have a park or canal near you (in South Manchester, I imagine that Chorlton Ees would be ideal), the chances are that you can find them in you back garden/ in your nearest alley way. Bramble bushes are weeds that tend to spread and take over any patch of uncultivated land, from wasteland to neglected gardens.

To pick blackberries, it’s advisable to wear long sleeved clothes - but nothing that could get caught on the bushes or is easily plucked - and closed footwear. Also, wear dark colours if possible and preferably old clothes as blackberries stain easily (in the old days, the juice were used as a dye). I generally use carrier bags to collect the fruit, although you can use any kind of container, from Tupperware to old ice cream tubs.

Blackberries can be picked in August and into September, although in English folklore they should not be picked after Michaelmas (October 10) as it was said the Devil had contaminated them with bodily fluids. Even today, children picking blackberries are told only to pick from the higher branches where dogs can’t reach them when urinating. On that subject, it’s also best to avoid picking blackberries by busy roads, although it can be tempting as they ripen earlier from the pollution, and to wash blackberries before use.

Once picked, blackberries will keep in the fridge for a day or two, but can also be frozen. Blackberries are good turned into jam and in cakes, buns and pies, as well as served on their own or with ice cream and custard. The classic blackberry dish is, though, undoubtedly the crumble.

The crumble is one of the easiest, cheapest and quickest, yet tastiest and most impressive dishes that can be made. It’s virtually impossible to get it wrong, as it contains just four basic ingredients, which you probably already have in your cupboard - butter, flour, sugar and fruit.

Blackberry crumble for two

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees c
200g blackberries (if you fancy it, substitute half the blackberries for apples, plums or another fruit of your choice)
60g sugar
30g butter (or vegetarian/ vegan equivalent)
60g plain flour

Extra adornments such as ginger/ cinnamon/ oats for the topping, as desired

Grease some kind of ceramic baking dish with butter. Cook the blackberries in a pan with a little water and half the sugar (or more, depending on how sweet/ tart you want the mixture) until soft. Place in the bottom of the baking dish. Place the butter in a large pan and add the flour, rubbing it into the butter until it resembles bread crumbs. Mix the rest of the sugar in. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top of the blackberries ensuring all areas are covered and press it down a bit so it forms a tidy topping. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble starts to go brown on top.

Best served with custard.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you could make blackberry brandy for the winter, which is delicious as a fruity accompaniment to Christmas cake and ensures the summer lingers on through the cold months. This is my grandad’s recipe.

450g blackberries
225g sugar
1 litre gin

Wash blackberries and put in a large sterilised jar. Pour in sugar and gin, seal, shake well. Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for two months.