Thursday, 25 November 2010

Sloe Gin

This week, coinciding with the start of the freezing weather, I had the first taste of my sloe gin, which has been steeping for ten and a half weeks. Although it's a bit early, I wanted to bottle a small quantity to give to a friend for her birthday this week. It's a deep red colour, almost opaque, that glows warmly when you hold it up to the light. The consistency is smooth and glossy, thicker than gin, and there are two distinct tastes intensely bitter (perhaps because of the gin, or maybe because I picked the sloes early in autumn before they'd had chance to sweeten) and very sweet but with an overall fruitiness. It's so rich it invites being savoured in tiny quantities. I looked all over for the perfect bottles, considering some ornamental Vom Fass bottles from the Selfridges food hall, but it wasn't possible to buy bottles without the oil and I didn't want the problem of what to do with the oil. In the end, I bought a 250ml bottle of Devon apple juice from the chiller cabinet as it had a screw top, drank the juice, sterilised the bottle and came up with a colour co-ordinated, vaguely icicle themed label. The rest of my sloe gin has gone back in the cupboard to steep some more before I get it out again properly in December.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Ralph Brookes — Salford newsagent and amateur filmmaker

Ralph Brookes saw almost a century of Salford life. Born in 1900, he was a delivery boy for the Evening News and Evening Chronicle who then joined the navy, became a docker and went on to run the family newsagents on New Park Road in Ordsall. In the late 1950s, Mr Brookes, already a keen photographer of everyday people and places, took up a video camera and started recording life in inner city Salford on Standard 8 film*; the man who sold the official version of the news and had delivered the news to local houses started to create his own, informal stories of the neighbourhood around him. The resulting silent films show some of the radical changes the working class area underwent in the space of a few years as part of Salford Council’s slum clearance plan, which led to Mr Brookes’ newsagents being knocked down and him and his wife being moved into new housing.

The film People and Places Around Ordsall starts with Mr Brookes mingling with a crowd that has gathered to watch Coronation Street stars film a tug-of-war in Ordsall Park, which is later shown on Mr Brookes' TV screen as it is being broadcast. Mr Brookes’ shop and home stood in a row of other shops and houses bordering the park, in an area of traditional Victorian terraces not far from a real life street called Coronation Street on the New Barracks Estate.

Mr Brookes’ highly personal films are home movies and thus probably weren’t meant to be seen by a wide audience. They celebrate events such as weddings, birthdays and Christmas — showing his grandchildren dressed up smartly, the house decked out for Christmas and the table laden with festive food. But his camera also frequently visited the outside of the shop which, it seems, was a meeting place for local children who hung around and read comics or played games in the street. We’re also taken to the local nursery, full of smiling children and to the local swimming pool, as well as venturing into the shell of a church mid-demolition.

Mr Brookes also often travelled further afield, and showed the world outside his immediate community. It appears that he took his camera nearly everywhere: window shopping in a toy shop in Manchester city centre, admiring central library, taking us round the exhibits at the zoo, even on a daytrip to Liverpool on the train to look at the Christmas lights — Mr Brookes spent the train journey glued to the window, his camera speeding through the snowy landscape outside.

People and Places Around Ordsall is a collage of snippets of film spanning the seasons, shot across a wide time frame, which leads up to a scene showing the empty plot of land where his shop once stood. Though there’s no commentary explicitly stated in words, by choosing to take us into his bathroom earlier in the film, and showing us how the floor tiles match the bath, with a carefully co-ordinated checked towel hung neatly over the side, you get a sense Mr Brookes was proud of his home. Mr Brookes’ camera closes in on the compulsory purchase order made for his property in 1969, returning several times to the value of £5 which was to be given by the council in compensation.

I watched the films People and Places Around Ordsall and Christmas Streetscenes; Manchester and Liverpool in the North West Film Archive.

*There is a fascinating essay by Heather Norris Nicholson comparing the films of Ralph Brookes and Michael Goodger from 1957-1973, and their differing representations of Ordsall, which can be read here.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Swimming in history: Historic bathing opportunities in Manchester

My friend Catriona has started a local history society ( at Manchester University. I have written a guide to interesting places to go swimming for a zine she is producing for the society:

There are few types of exercise more pleasurable, relaxing and energising than swimming. Forget the modern Aquatics Centre, though: Manchester has historic swimming pools which can help you explore the stories of the city at the same time as getting fit. Some date back to times when the provision of public baths was not just for leisure, but part of a wider effort to improve public cleanliness and hygiene, and some are in buildings that are symbolic and influential to the city’s history.

Local authorities across the country started to provide public pools and laundries for their citizens after the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act of 1846. Even into the twentieth century, many people had no water in their houses, let alone an inside bathroom. In Manchester, a number of public swimming baths and wash houses were built in densely populated residential areas by the city’s Baths and Wash Houses Committee to give people the chance to wash their clothes, have baths in privacy and enjoy the comfort of hot water. Although many are long demolished, a handful survive, some of which still function as swimming pools.

The most famous and celebrated swimming baths is Manchester’s splendid water palace Victoria Baths, which opened in 1906. Unfortunately, it ceased to open as a swimming baths in 1993 and the water was drained from the pools.

This guide covers, firstly, historic public swimming baths in which it is still possible to swim and, secondly, a couple of opportunities to swim in some of Manchester’s most luxurious historic buildings.

Levenshulme Swimming Pools, Barlow Road, Levenshulme

Levenshulme Public Baths and Washhouse opened 1921. An early claim to fame is that, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Sunny Lowry from nearby Longsight used it to train to swim the channel, becoming the first British woman to do so in 1933.

Nowadays everyone enters through the same old-fashioned gates and wooden doors, but the exterior of the building still displays signs of the social hierarchy of the time, with lettering saying ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ marking where there would once have been separate entrances for the sexes. Inside, the segregation would have continued: Levenshulme Baths has two pools, one large pool which would have been reserved for men and a smaller pool for women.

Although it’s unprepossessing from the outside, inside the building’s most striking feature is a beautiful black and white chequered tiled floor in the entrance and hallways. The dramatic effect is heightened by walls tiled in white, cream, black and grey with various combinations of decorative stripes, bands, crosses and geometric patterns. Like Victoria Baths, Chorlton Baths and Withington Baths, the pools are lined with glazed brick — white with grass green bands — that glistens rainbow colours when it catches the light. Lines of cubicles face each other across the pools under a curved ceiling.

The local community has fought threats of closure to keep Levenshulme Baths open, and it has recently undergone refurbishment — although a few years ago it attracted some controversy when it started offering naked bathing sessions for gay men.

Withington Leisure Centre, Burton Road, Withington

Withington Baths is a bit like Victoria Baths on a smaller scale, and the most ornamental of the historic pools which remain open in Manchester. Simple floral motifs adorn the brickwork outside and stained glass inside, shields and drapes pattern the tiles on the staircase, the entrance hall is paved in black and white checks and the council’s coat of arms is recreated in coloured glass above the wooden entrance doors. Light floods into the pool through a glass roof supported by a sloping wooden ceiling.

Withington Baths, which was built in 1911, was designed by Manchester’s first city architect Henry Price. As well as Victoria Baths and the also impressive but now sadly defunct Harpurhey Baths in north Manchester (which are in the process of finding a new, non-watery use as part of Manchester College), Price designed a number of other significant buildings around the city, including the pump house hydraulic power station that provided water to mills, warehouses, the town hall clock and opera house in central Manchester (the building is now part of the People’s History Museum in Spinningfields) and Withington and Didsbury Libraries.

In 1914, Withington Baths became the first baths in Manchester to allow mixed bathing, and it also made no distinction between social classes — often, pools also separated ‘first class males’ from ‘second class males’. Nowadays, the facilities have been expanded to include a gym, and there’s also a sauna just off the side of the pool. Customers have the choice of using either modern changing complexes or old-fashioned style cubicles lining the side of the pool.

Chorlton Leisure Centre, Manchester Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy

Another Henry Price building, from 1929, which still featured separate entrances for men and women .

Although it has cubicles lining the pool side, Chorlton Baths is largely uninteresting on the inside, with a low flat ceiling and little in the way of decoration. The most interesting thing to see is a plaque erected a the time of opening by Manchester’s Baths and Washhouses Committee which lists the councillors present, including a Mr W Onions.

Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester city centre

There are few places more important to Manchester’s history than the site occupied by the 5 star Radisson Edwardian Hotel. The modern, luxurious hotel (which is so comfortable Sven Goran Eriksson made it his home during his time as Manchester City’s manager) stands behind the facade of the Free Trade hall, probably the most famous building in Manchester. The Free Trade Hall, which has actually been built and rebuilt a few times, was erected close to the site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, a protest for democratic reform which turned nasty when mounted soldiers charged the crowd. The building has gone on to host events important to the city’s political and cultural history, from anti corn law meetings in the 1830s and '40s to the Halle orchestra’s first concert in 1858.

If Victoria Baths was the height of luxury in Edwardian swimming baths, then Sienna Spa, in the basement of the hotel, is the ultimate in swimming luxury today. Whereas Victoria Baths’ opulence is created by an ornate décor of tiles and stained glass, the Radisson hotel’s understated black and cream colour scheme is sleek, smooth and minimalist. The small pool glows electric blue, lit from beneath the water.

Swim laps, float on your back, bubble in the Jacuzzi or sit in the sauna and steam room whilst contemplating that, a few floors above, Christabel Pankhust and Annie Kenney raised the question of votes for women in 1905, Dylan dared go electric in 1966 and was heckled with ‘Judas’, and various Manchester music luminaries saw the Sex Pistols play an influential gig in the Lesser Free Trade Hall.

Midland Hotel, Peter Street, Manchester city centre

Just down the road from the Free Trade Hall is another luxury hotel with a health club in the basement.

The huge, redbrick and terracotta Midland Hotel is significant to Manchester’s history as it was built in 1903 by the Midland Railway company next to the Manchester Central train station and used by American cotton traders visiting Manchester on business. In 1906, Mr Rolls met Mr Royce at the hotel, leading to the foundation of the famous car company, and Adolf Hitler apparently once considered it as a potential venue for Nazi headquarters in Britain. Along with the Radisson, it’s taken over by politicians every two years for the Labour Party conference.

The pool is smaller and shabbier than the Radisson’s but overlooks the gym so, whilst you watch gym goers getting hot and sweaty on a treadmill, you can feel thankful that you are splashing around in warm water — a vastly superior form of exercise!

For opening hours and swim times visit: (Levenshulme, Withington and Chorlton) (Radisson Edwardian Hotel) (Midland Hotel)

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Shrieking Violet Issue 11 media special

Issue 11 of the Shrieking Violet is out now. It is a media special I started with the aim of looking at Manchester media city then and now, considering the history of the city and print, but ended up focusing on a few specific areas I found particularly interesting.

This issue's cover is by Dan Russell of Manchester Municipal Design Corporation, which produces the Things Happen fanzine (to read the current issue, including my article about the Ashton Canal, click here).

I'm interested in the way old newspaper premises still leave a mark on the city, from the Printworks to the Daily Express Building. I interviewed Manchester Modernist Society in 2009 when they had just formed and, when I asked them each to pick their favourite modernist building in Manchester, Jack Hale chose the Daily Express building because of the way it combines form and function. I asked him to elaborate by writing an article on the building for this issue.

I've also considered free weekly titles Shortlist and Stylist, and their skewed perceptions of men and women.

Evan Cowen has written a tragicomic diary of week undertaking work experience that essential, yet often frustrating rite of passage for anyone hoping to work in the media at his local newspaper in Cumbria.

Manchester based artist, singer and performer Lowri Evans, who is currently living in Brazil, has captured a day in her life as a page from the São Paulo Folha newspaper.

Matthew Austin of Austin Brothers Films has written an account of the challenges of producing a feature film on a tight budget, and looks ahead to the premiere of their debut feature length film Cricket, which will close the Salford Film Festival at the Lowry Outlet Mall on November 14.

Other articles in this issue include my write-up of a visit to the North West Film Archive to watch documentary films about Manchester newspapers from the '60s and '70s, which are fascinating not just as portraits of the publications themselves but glimpses into the society of the time and Manchester in days gone by.

I am interested in not just the 'official' media that forms the narrative of the city, but also independent, alternative publications, and I have profiled publications that have inspired me, from the Salford Star magazine to local fanzines.

I have recently been asking Manchester based zines and magazines why they still bother to produce a print publication a very labour intensive form of communication when it is so cheap, easy and convenient to publish online. I have compiled a few of the answers.

Issue 11 also features illustration by Alex Boswell, poetry by Rachel Cranshaw and photography Manchester Daily Photo blogger Paul Capewell. Chef and film maker Rich Howe contributes recipes for banana soup and an Elvis Sandwich, whilst Norwich based singer Kayleigh Read has written a recipe for vegan moussaka.

I went a bit linocut crazy having recently rediscovered it!

Free paper copies of the Shrieking Violet will be scattered around Manchester city centre at some stage today and tomorrow. Likely places include the Cornerhouse, Piccadilly Records, Koffee Pot, An Outlet, Oklahoma, Good Grief fanzine shop in Afflecks Palace, Nexus Art Cafe, Magma Books, Manchester Craft Centre etc.

Download Issue 11 with the pages in the right order for printing here.

Read Issue 11 with the pages in the right order for reading here.

Back issues of the Shrieking Violet can be downloaded here.

To obtain a free paper copy of this zine or any back issues (free service), email your name and address to

To contribute to future issues email or join The Shrieking Violet fanzine facebook group.

In an homage to the pointless lists Shortlist magazine loves so much, here is a list of trivia relating to things I did during the making of this issue:

Went from never having seen any of Sex and the City to having seen all of it apart from the second film.
Started watching Mad Men but only got as far as the first two episodes.
Read a copy of Nuts magazine, Zoo magazine and Glamour magazine.
Used my John Rylands University Library alumni card and spent a couple of hours pretending to be studious.
Was inspired by watching the films Beautiful Losers and $100 Dollars and a T-Shirt.
Cut my fingers open several times with lino cutting tools.
Discovered and fell in love with balsamic vinegar.
Attended two debates about the media, one about ownership of the media organised by the Mule newspaper which featured Stephen Kingston of the Salford Star, Dave Toomer from the National Union of Journalists and Nigel Barlow from Inside the M60, and an Urbis Research Forum on digital media and the city which had representatives from Creative Tourist, Manchester Climate Fortnightly and Future Everything on the panel and had a pessimistic tone but seemed to conclude that media works best when it is a complementary combination of new digital media and traditional print media.
Joined twitter because everyone else has.