Saturday, 29 December 2012

Things I enjoyed in 2012


Big Star Third, Barbican, London 

Big Star are my favourite ever band, and I have my dad to thank for getting me into them when I was a teenager. Whilst I love individual songs on #1 Record and Radio City, for me their final album Third/Sister Lovers works best as a complete piece of work, with its surprise mix of rocking pop songs, strange, otherworldly clanging and heart wrenching string and horn arrangements – it's one of those records I used to spend hours listening to in the dark trying to work out how the arrangements fitted together and how all the sounds the record were achieved. In 2008, my dad offered to take me to see their singer, Alex Chilton, at Shepherd's Bush Empire, but I decided to move house that weekend instead. I came to regret this a lot, as Chilton died a year and a half later at the age of 59, of a heart attack, so I never got to see him. When I heard about an event at the Barbican with a guest cast of musicians playing Big Star's third album in its entirety with the original string and horn arrangements, a few weeks after my dad's 50th birthday, therefore, it seemed like the perfect present. We decided to make a day of it in London, but my dad was in an unbelievably grumpy mood and barely spoke to me all day, and I was worried the gig wasn't going to interest him either. I've never seen someone perk up so suddenly, though. The revolving cast of musicians from bands like REM, Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub really worked (with the exception of John Bramwell from I Am Kloot, whose nasal whining was completely out of place) and my dad was on the edge of his seat throughout the gig, smiling broadly – not least when Ray Davies was brought out as a surprise guest to rock the stage at the end. The Barbican concert hall is beautiful too – all wooden inside with really clear acoustics.

Chain and the Gang, Kraak Gallery, Manchester

I went to this gig as all girl punk band Trash Kit, one of my favourite bands of recent years, were on the bill, not knowing anything about headline band Chain and the Gang. In between bands, my friend excitably said 'There's Ian Svenonius, shall we go and have our photo taken with him?', to which I replied 'Who's that?'. Turns out Chain and the Gang singer Ian Svenius is a bit of an indie hero, having played in several cult bands over the years. It suddenly made sense why the audience was noticeably older than the usual crowd at this type of gig, and John Robb jumped up on stage to introduce them (possibly the only time I have ever been at the same gig as John Robb). Whilst Chain and the Gang are indisputably punk rock, their music is classy, stylish, musically slick and, most of all, fun, with front man Svenonius and front woman Katie Alice Greer dancing around the stage and playing off one other. 

Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield , Academy 2, Manchester

No surprises here – Dando and Hatfield duetted on classic Lemonheads tracks and took it in turn to play their own songs – except I'd never realised what a strong singer, guitarist and songwriter Hatfield is in her own right.

Trust Fund/Two White Cranes, my garden, Manchester

The last gig I'll ever have in my canal-side garden (I'm moving house soon) was a good one: Roxy Brennan, formerly of the Mountain Parade, writes sweet, simple folk songs as Two White Cranes, whilst Ellis Jones, formerly of the Bumblebees, sings falsetto over a Casio keyboard and sparse guitar under the name Trust Fund.

Dan Deacon, Islington Mill, Salford 

I maintain that Dan Deacon provides the most fun you can have at a gig – including dance-offs, a strobe light app for iPhones and making the audience create a tunnel with their hands then run through it to come out outside the building and then do the same again to go back inside. The music – euphoric dance – isn't bad either.

ATP, Minehead

I admit the appeal of ATP isn't really about the music – watching bands is always going to come second to wandering around charity shops, and exploring up and down hills and along the beaches in Minehead itself, interspersed with trips to Butlins' cinema and wave pool, but it was also great to see Minutemen, Young Marble Giants and Apples in Stereo, who were as fun as I'd hoped they would be. 

Wake Up Dead, Wim Wams, Irma Vep, the Hipshakes, Hotspur House, Manchester 

Top floor punk party with a view over the rooftops and train tracks of Manchester, in one of my favourite spaces in the city.

Honourable mentions go also to Francois and the Atlas Mountains, Rozi Plain and Being There, all at the Castle in Manchester.


Jane and Louise Wilson, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 

The best exhibition I've seen in Manchester in a while, Jane and Louise Wilson's photos, videos and sculptural installations show both the human and environmental impact of the Chernobyl disaster (and, elsewhere in the exhibition, recreate the scene of the murder of a Dubai businessman), in an exhibition that exposes the limits of human planning, surveillance and control. Read my review of the exhibition for Corridor8 here.

Martin Creed, All the Bells

Martin Creed's Work No 1197, a mass artwork which involved trying to get all the bells in the country to ring as loudly and quickly as possible for three minutes as a wake-up call heralding the start of the Olympics, was definitely the event I was most looking forward to during the Olympic year – although I found it frustratingly hard to find other people who shared my enthusiasm for getting up at 8.12am to make a noise. Other towns, villages and cities had organised All the Bells events; Manchester had none, and I had visions of being reduced to standing outside ringing my doorbell by myself for three minutes. However, I borrowed an agogô bell from the samba band I play with just in case, and at the last minute joined up with Alison Kershaw to ring some bells at St Luke's art project in the Longsight suburb of Manchester. St Luke's is based in a modern church on busy Stockport Road – one of the main roads into Manchester – and, it turns out, the church does not have physical bells but uses old cassette recordings of peals which are blasted out ahead of services and events. Calls to worship are on one side of the tape, weddings and funerals on the other; the church would be stuck if it lost the tape, said Alison! Alison had downloaded the special ringtone Martin Creed had created for the event (I couldn't, as it was only available for smartphones), and we stood, smiles on faces, banging away outside the church, church bells ringing in the background, as local residents came to their doors and windows in bewilderment. Admittedly, these were the only bells we we heard in Manchester, and some wags started the Twitter hashtag '#noneofthebells'.

Mark Leckey, Manchester Art Gallery

For this show, Leckey faced off a huge speaker stack against a giant, metallic piece of industrial machinery formerly used in a factory. On the opening night, Leckey's DJing made the room reverberate with sheer, bone-shaking noise, contrasting with the monumental solemnity of the two pieces of redundant equipment during usual exhibition hours, facing each other in silence, and the frantic activity of his youth culture film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.

Victoria Lucas, Untitled Gallery, Manchester

The best use of birds in an art gallery since Birds on Guitars (the Barbican, 2010), this simple yet lovely installation transformed tiny Untitled Gallery into an aviary by projecting a film of the gallery, temporarily populated by small, brightly coloured birds, onto the back wall, placing the viewer in a mirror image of the space. Watching the birds fly around the room was strangely captivating in itself, but what really made the film was the accidental presence of a strange figure (supposedly a bird expert) wandering in and out of the frame, failing over and over again to catch the birds with his hands and line them up on a low wire strung across the gallery.

Seven Sites, various locations, Manchester/Salford

Laura Mansfield and Swen Steinhauser's series of artistic interventions into everyday sites across the two cities, from a church to a curry house.

Hans Haacke, Reina Sofia, Madrid 

Fun but thought-provoking installations that make you look again at the art world and art's relationship with power, money and prestige.

Tracy Emin, Turner Contemporary, Margate 

I went to this exhibition expecting to be underwhelmed, but found Emin's personal, confessional drawings on the subject of sex, and her self-portraits, moving and affecting. It's rarely that I feel I can relate to a feminine topic, writer or artist just on the basis that I am a woman and am therefore supposed to have some kind of shared, woman-specific outlook on life, but I did feel a connection with Emin's work and experiences. She may not be the most subtle of artists, but I also thought her tapestries were really quite beautiful. We were there on the opening weekend, when the artist herself was wondering the building amid the crowds gathered to see this solo show in her home-town.

Michael Dean, Henry Moore Institute Leeds

One of several exhibitions I saw in Leeds in 2012, and Henry Moore Institute is another small gallery whose exhibitions always impress. Michael Dean fundamentally transformed the visitor experience, from creating sculptural door handles to carpeting the gallery's floor spaces, placing gallery assistants on the floor and filling the space with huge, tactile objects, some of which were so large they had to be made in situ.

The Humble Market, FACT, Liverpool

Part of Abandon Normal Devices festival, Brazilian/UK theatre collective Zecora Ura led viewers on a group tour through several scenarios, forcing the viewer to reevaulate their relationship to the artworks, as well their relationship with other members of the audience.

I've also really enjoyed all the exhibitions I've seen at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, which I feel really punches above its size. The venues impressed more than much of the art at Liverpool Biennial this year – with the exception of John Akomfrah's video installation The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat, which refracted memories through snippets of archive film to explore the ideas and life of Stuart Hall. In a rare (at least in my experience) occurrence for a gallery, members of the public sat still for forty odd minutes to watch the film in its entirety instead of hovering uncertainly at the back or wandering in and out. In Manchester, I enjoyed small solo shows by Daniel Fogarty and Mary Griffiths at Bureau Gallery.


Whilst neither of these books were published in 2012 (or, indeed, recently), they are both among the best books I have ever read and had me engrossed during 2012.

Waterlog, Roger Deakin 

The type of book you wish you could carry with you all the time for inspiration, guidance and a bit of comfort on bad days, Deakin uses a uniquely beautiful turn of words as he swims his way around the country's waterways, evoking the sense of freedom, excitement and spontaneity that swimming al fresco brings.

Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azzerad

I wish I'd read this book, about the bands, record labels and publications that spread the DIY spirit across America, ten years ago: it should be compulsory reading for anyone with ambitions for forming a band, putting gigs on or releasing records (skip the Mudhoney chapter, but the Minor Threat, Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Beat Happening chapters are particularly inspiring amidst the fights, drugs and decadence).


Lawrence of Belgravia 

One of the most honest and least contrived 'rockumentaries' I've ever seen, Lawrence of Belgravia follows Felt/Go-Kart Mozart frontman Lawrence over a period of years in a warts and all, fly on the wall journey into the life of a pop star. Sometimes frustrating but mainly just heartwarming, the film makes you cross your fingers for Lawrence to get his big break, snag Kate Moss, and become an indie superstar. If anyone deserves it, he does.

Make Your Own Damn Art 

A documentary following the life and work of artist Bob and Roberta Smith. I found Smith's ethos, attitude and approach to making art refreshing and inspiring. From creating a gallery in his garden shed (anyone can make a gallery, he suggests) to selling affordable artworks at art car boot fairs and playing in a middle aged punk rock band, if Smith had a manifesto it would be 'Make your own damn art: don't expect me to make it for you', something which resonates with the Shrieking Violet. It's an important message for anyone who's ever wanted to make an artwork, a piece of music or even a zine but not known where to begin, so never quite got round to it.

Utopia London 

Utopia London pays homage to twentieth century town planning and the city in which its director, Tom Cordell, grew up. Comprising interviews with some of the key architects in the rebuilding of a city left ravaged by the Second World War, the film shows the ideals and aspirations of those behind the Modernist movement, demonstrating how they aimed to build a better, more equal world by fusing design with artistic and scientific innovation. Many of the architects are now in their eighties, yet still full of spirit and idealism, and some of the film's most moving movements are when they are taken back to the sites of their buildings to see how they fared. Utopia London is thought-provoking, inspiring and uplifting: a must-see for anyone who has ever looked around and wondered: how did our towns and cities get to be the way they are?

Bata-ville: we are not afraid of the future

On the list of things I want to achieve before I die is making a documentary film. Bata-ville, in which a coach full of (mostly elderly) former employees of paternalistic shoe company Bata is taken by two lively artists on a pilgrimage from Bata's now defunct factory in East Tilbury to the company's Moravian hometown, is surreal, funny and subversive in its attitude towards history and the meaning of memories. Bata-ville is the type of film I would love to be able to call my own.


Whilst I find Iain Sinclair's writing difficult to read, he made for good entertainment in this travelogue with a difference. Swandown follows Sinclair and Andrew Kötting (director of the wonderful, poignant coastal odyssey Gallivant) on an unlikely, intrepid adventure by swan pedalo, which begins with the pair bobbing up and down on the sea off Hastings and culminates inland in the waterways of London, with plenty of laughs along the way as well as opportunities for reflection.

Nostalgia for the Light

Beautifully filmed and soundtracked yet devastatingly sad documentary which intertwines the wonders of Chile's observatory centre in the Atacama desert with the search by groups of women for the remains of loved ones missing, presumed dead, under the Pinochet regime. Nostalgia for the Light captures the grandeur, emptiness and openendedness of both the landscape and human existence, in which there sometimes are no answers, only mysteries.


I know he's a nasty man, but Michael Portillo is still my favourite TV present (his genial nature and colourful outfits make me smile), so I was pleased that the year started with another series of Great British Railway Journeys and ended with a new spin on the concept, Great Continental Railway Journeys, which saw the episodes extended into hour-long explorations of various European destinations.

Also worth a mention is the Jeremy Deller Culture Show special (for roughly the same reasons I enjoyed the Bob and Roberta Smith film).


The Royal Exchange never disappoints, and the costumes and music are always particularly impressive. I saw a swinging production of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and a tense take on Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending there.


2012 was the year in which I finally started listening to 99% Invisible's short podcasts on architecture, urbanism and design; recent highlights have included instalments on Buckminster Fuller, Kowloon Walled City and dazzle ships. As well as covering diverse subjects in a diverse, engaging way, Roman Mars has my favourite voice on the radio.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Hobart Man: life as a travelling service engineer

Over the summer, Manchester Modernist Society put me in touch with a new acquaintance called Bill Mather, and suggested his father, Roy Mather, might be willing to share some of his memories of working as a 'Hobart Man' in mid-century Manchester and Cheshire. I travelled to his home in Stretford to meet Mr Mather, and the following is based on our conversation.

When Roy Mather joined the Manchester branch of Hobart in 1945, as a service engineer maintaining automated, labour-saving devices such a mixers, dishwashers, mincers, potato peelers and coffee machines, it was the start of a four decade career that gave him a behind the scenes view of how Manchester lived, worked and played as it emerged from the rationing and austerity of the war years to become a swinging modern city.

Like many of his generation, Mr Mather left school at 14. He spent two years at Lewis's department store on Market Street before joining Hobart, a working life which immersed him in the city's social life. 'The Hobart Man', as he was known, made regular maintenance calls to canteens, bakeries, butchers, grocery shops and coffee bars (and even Strangeways prison – anywhere that provided catering on a large scale). One chain Mr Mather remembers particularly well was Kardomah, which started in Liverpool and had branches in various other cities in the UK and internationally. Kardomah had a presence in Manchester at Albert Square, Market Street and Market Square. The art deco-style Market Street branch, illuminated with neon signs, was a glamorous sight, designed by the prominent industrial designer Sir Misha Black, and Mr Mather remembers that Kardomah was a popular meeting place, serving thirsty shoppers an exotic and sophisticated range of coffees, as well as live music.

These were the days of mass employment at places like Trafford Park. Cheap lunches – the main meal of the day – were provided to workers in huge canteens, and workers socialised together when the day was done at working clubs. The Hobart Man was a regular visitor to companies such as Kellogg's, Brown & Polson and AIG (later GEC/Metropolitan Vickers), which had bases in Trafford Park, making sure the giant mixers, potato peelers and dishwashers were running smoothly. Nearby, the busy Manchester Docks were still filled with big Manchester liners with names like Manchester City and Manchester Renown, which sailed as far as Canada. The Hobart Man serviced equipment in the ships' galleys; one memory which makes Mr Mather laugh is leaving a ship's galley with the machinery in bits, with the intention of getting spares and returning the next day, but climbing onto an identical-looking sister ship instead and having to jump off when the ship started moving. He reflects that this was a dangerous thing to do as, “in those days, if you fell in you wouldn't live long there was so much pollution”.

Initially, Hobart had a showroom and offices at 97 Oxford Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, in between a shoe shop and a Boosey & Hawkes shop which repaired musical instruments (this was taken over for the production of aircraft parts during the war, Mr Mather remembers). There was a workshop in the basement and a philosophical society on the floor above. The premises was later demolished to make way for Manchester's highway in the sky, the Mancunian Way, and the street would be unrecognisable to today's the Hobart Man. Now the heart of student land, lined with takeaways and university buildings, Oxford Road and Oxford Street once had a reputation as being Manchester's entertainment streets, home to several cinemas and picture houses. Mr Mather also recalls calling on a number of restaurants when it still was a bustling high street, including the Palace Restaurant, next to the Palace theatre, and the Prince's restaurant on the corner, as well as Lyons cafe and Duncan & Foster, which had a restaurant at All Saints and bakeries on York Street.

At first, The Hobart Man had to carry his tools on the bus or the tram. Tyres were among the goods which had been rationed during the war, and a shortage of vans in the 1950s meant it wasn't until later that Hobart staff got Escort vans. Hobart moved on to Redgate Lane in West Gorton, and Mr Mather was allocated a 'patch' covering Stretford, Sale, Altrincham and South Cheshire – as far as Crewe and Nantwich. In the days of a reliable and predictable postal service, instructions were sent through the post each morning with the day's jobs. He recalls: “Every day was different. You didn't know where you'd be going in the morning.” There was a certain freedom, and Mr Mather made sure to time his jobs to where he knew he would be offered the best lunch! He also put his local knowledge of the roads to good use at the weekends, going on cycling trips around Cheshire with other members of Hobart staff and the then-burgeoning Youth Hostel Association.

One of many other perks to the job was being given a 'wrap' to take home after a maintenance visit – a bit of meat, perhaps, some sausages, cake, or a bag of sugar or flour (remember, rationing of sugar and sweets, introduced during the war, continued until 1953, and meat until 1954). Mr Mather's children still recall the excitement of him bringing liquorice and blackcurrant toffee home from Benson's sweet factory in Bury every July when the factory shut down and The Hobart Man was allowed access to the staff shop.

Hobart closed its Manchester branch in 1982, amalgamating with the Liverpool branch and moving to Widnes then eventually to Warrington. The company introduced pagers to notify staff of jobs, meaning that The Hobart Man no longer had the level of freedom enjoyed by Mr Mather earlier in his career. However, Mr Mather has fond memories of his time as a Hobart Man and still wears the engraved gold watch that was presented to him in 1970 to commemorate twenty years of service. Mr Mather's might seem an ordinary career, yet you could call him a flaneur, a wandering observer for the modernist era; his everyday memories bring to life Manchester's forgotten streetscapes and working history in ways that mere photographs could not.

With thanks to Roy Mather for sharing his memories, and his son Bill.

There wasn't space for this article to fit into the modernist magazine's forthcoming 'Cuppas' edition but the new issue, which will be packed with more cafeteria and cafe themed writing, is launched next Thursday at North Tea Power.