Monday, 28 April 2014

Interview with Huw Wahl, director, To Hell With Culture (free screening at Federation House, Thursday May 1, 7pm)

From poet, novelist and critic to anarchist, educational theorist and co-founder of the ICA, Herbert Read was known as many different things at different times. From the First World War until his death in the late-1960s Read was responsible for a prolific outpouring of books and essays, with many of his ideas pervading the way art, culture and education were seen in relation to society after the Second World War. However, despite being a towering figure at the time, today Read is far from being a household name. A new film by Manchester-based filmmaker Huw Wahl, which premiered at the ICA earlier this month, offers a portrait of that re-presents some of Read's ideas and invites the viewer to consider what currency they might still have today.

While Read wrote on everything from child art and industrial design to existentialism and Jungian psychology, Wahl's film, entitled To Hell With Culture, takes as its starting point Read's 1941 essay of the same name, which launched a searing critique of an elitist notion of 'culture' as something which is rarified and separate from the rest of society. Another equally rousing assertion, 'to hell with the artist', derides the concept of an artist as a special person who stands above other types of workers. Read's message, says Wahl,  “seems quite complicated but can be very simple”: culture isn't something to be collected and set aside to be accessed in museums, but it's there everyday, as an integral part of life, and every person has the capacity for creativity.

It was Read's take on creativity, and the direct terms in which it was stated, which attracted Wahl to the essay. “'To hell with the artist' is a wonderful thing to say,” he says. “It's a very powerful statement. I liked that a very meek and mild man wrote a very strong essay about how culture should be something you shouldn't really have to talk about, saying 'it's just there'.” He adds: “One interviewee in the film said 'he writes very good English', and the the way he writes about creativity is very vibrant and direct. He allows contradictions in what he's saying, but there's also some kind of continuity. It's different from a lot of writing today. A lot of writing now is very embedded in the institution and critical theory, post-modernism, structuralism, etc, whereas Read's was a very modernist, vital, loving way of writing.”

More than seventy years after To Hell With Culture was written, the film presents Read's ideas in aesthetic form, as a visual essay which draws a line from modernism to the present-day. Wahl went back through Read's archives at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, which houses correspondence and manuscripts, and his library, which is now held at the University of Leeds where Read studied, to get closer to the man and his ideas. A shy, bookish figure emerges, who was completely absorbed in his work and avoided the limelight; very little footage of Read exists. “He was a poet so he knew how to communicate, which was probably a good thing as he wasn't a charismatic man by today's standards of mouthy celebrities,” explains Wahl. “Although he has a lovely presence on film, gentle and deeply thoughtful, he wouldn't have been on the Culture Show. He was lucky to be around at the time of men of letters.”

Although Wahl is a member of the Manchester-based Castles Built in Sand collective, which takes an anthropological approach to film-making and culture, To Hell With Culture is his first solo venture into full-length film-making. Wahl embarked on the film at the start of 2013, shortly after finishing an MA in photography at the University of Central Lancashire. As well as interviewing members of Read's family, including his son, the art critic Benedict Read, Wahl spoke with artists who were directly influenced by Read. Among these were Canadian artist Luis Jacob, as well as Wahl's father Ken Turner, a painter, performance artist and co-founder of radical environmental art collective Action Space, which took art out of the gallery and into everyday life; Turner read and was inspired by Read's work in the 1950s.

Something else which comes across strongly in the film is Read's connection with the Yorkshire landscape, and his ideas about the authenticity of nature. “He was very patriotic as a Yorkshireman,” explains Wahl. “He was very rooted to that land and to nature.” The voices in the film are also punctuated by Read's poetry, including a reading by the Mersey Sound poet Brian Patten of 'My Company', a love poem about Read leading his company into battle at a young age during the First World War. “I've never really been into poetry,” admits Wahl, “but I really got it. I was really touched.”

Although Wahl acknowledges that “many of Read's ideas have been carried out”, and he by no means agrees with everything Read had to say, he believes To Hell With Culture can still pose important questions about the way culture and creativity are viewed in society today. “I was told that 10/15 years ago people would laugh at you if you started talking about Herbert Read, but now people are going back to modernism because they want something a bit more solid again,” he observes. “In some ways society is a lot more free but in other ways there are a lot of restrictions. Systems are a lot more closed now.”

At the time Read was writing, and in the years immediately following the Second World War, there was concern that craftsmanship and British culture was under threat from cheap, mass-produced items and imported cultural forms. Educators and critics placed a strong emphasis on fostering skills of 'discrimination', promoting sincerity and honesty in design and attempting to 'improve' public taste. “Read was talking about beauty,” summarises Wahl, and though this type of discourse can seem na├»ve, paternalistic even, today, post-modern society has seen the culmination of the idea of culture as commodity that Read cautioned against, with creativity recognised insofar as it can be packaged and sold back to us. “We live in a disposable, consumer culture where culture is dictated to us and everything we're surrounded by is ugly,” says Wahl. “There is still a sense that some people know better than others – we place some people on pedestals and say others are scum. Culture is controlled as a commodity and it's all about the free market and what can benefit the market. The artists who do well are those who have a brand or who can shock. It's the opposite of what creativity's about: it's not about being successful or competitive. There is something very basic and human about being creative but it's been corrupted by the idea that money is a good exchange for creativity. Read was saying that culture should be there within society and that a very different society can be created through education and art.”

Wahl considers the three tenets of a natural society Read identified in To Hell With Culture – all production should be for use and not for profit, each should give according to his ability and each receive according to his needs, and that the workers in each industry should collectively own and control that industry – to be “very simple and incredibly relevant”. He also finds the idea of everyone being a special kind of artist to be “still such a strong and important thing to say”, and has been encountering present-day parallels in Ken Robinson's ideas that creativity is “something that is there to work on and something everyone should be given the opportunity for”.

To Hell With Culture has been kept deliberately short – it clocks in at just under an hour – so that space could be left for discussions afterwards where people can create their own conclusions and ideas. As Wahl says, the film is a way to “remember the person but take the ideas”. He explains: “Artists are always questioned about what they are trying to do and their purpose. It is useful for artists to think about what an artist is in society, what they do and what they might be aiming for.”

To Hell With Culture will be shown at Filmonik, 3rd Floor, Federation House, Balloon Street, Manchester, on Thursday May 1, 7pm for a 7.30pm start, free, followed by a Q&A with director Huw Wahl, art historian Danielle Child (who appears in the film) and Castlefield Gallery director Kwong Lee.

Keep an eye on Huw Wahl's blog for screenings around the country this year, as well as at Leeds International Film Festival.

Huw Wahl and art historian Dani Child are organising a screening and accompanying one-day symposium, 'To Hell with Culture? Re-examining the commodification of culture in contemporary capitalism', at Manchester School of Art on Thursday October 30 as an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas raised by the essay and the film further in a contemporary context.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Star and Garter: secret history of a nightclub

I can vividly remember the first time I went to a nightclub. I was 18, had recently moved to Manchester and followed the flow of freshers to 'indie' club 5th Avenue, where I had my bum pinched and objected to a lanky youth 'playfully' stealing the hat off my head: not the greatest introduction to going out at night. I can also remember the second time I went to a nightclub, because I went alone, unable to convince fellow students to walk five minutes down the road to the Star and Garter, in the bleak and unprepossessing red light district behind Piccadilly Station. I spent the rest of the evening talking to strangers, engaging in what I probably thought at the time were deep conversations about things like the influence of Albert Camus' The Outsider on 'Killing an Arab' by the Cure.

At the Star and Garter's flagship night Smile, billed as the longest-running indie night in Manchester, I realised for the first time that other people of my age liked the same kind of music as me – and what's more, that it was actually possible to dance to this kind of music (or in my case, shuffle awkwardly whilst staring at the floor and/or jump clumsily up and down to more energetic songs). As a club for people like me, who might not otherwise go out, it's been sad to see the venue gradually wind down Smile after the night celebrated its twentieth birthday last year, with the long-term future of the building looking uncertain. Proposals to add a platform to the east of Piccadilly Station as part of the Northern Hub scheme – construction is due to start in 2016 – would see trains pass window-rattlingly close to the already ramshackle Victorian building, leaving its future as a club unviable. Although several different proposals have been put forward for the distinctive triangular building's place in the development, from relocation (urban legend has it that the building was already moved once, in the mid-nineteenth century, although the council disputes this), to rebuilding, to extending the station around it, none seem feasible in the long-term. As current licensee and upstairs resident Andy Martin says: “You can't hide us behind a station and expect to have passing trade. It will either fall down or be out of business within a year of the platform opening – and if it closes Wetherspoon or another chain will take it over (although no big business in their right mind would).”

Andy, a former computer game reviewer, grew up under the influence of bands like the Smiths in Blackley, on the northern fringes of the city, surrounded by his siblings' record collections. Like mine, his first memories of Smile conjure the joy that comes from realising that there are other people who feel the same way as you about the songs that have soundtracked your life. “There was a circle of us all jumping up and down to 'Teenage Kicks',” he reminisces. “I'd never had that in a club before – a load of people who didn't know each other just loving a song. We all shook hands at the end. It was very polite.” However, he also admits that, like any other club, its basic function is the same: “It's a meat market. You go out and notice people and the guys wear cheap aftershave.” He observes that the traditional pub layout of the Star and Garter, with seating downstairs and a function room upstairs, helps facilitate this: “A massive USP is the club being on two floors. You can go upstairs in a darkened room and dance around and come downstairs with whoever you've pulled and realise you've made a massive mistake and go upstairs again.” The only difference to other clubs is the clientele. “We attract intelligent people here,” says Andy. “People who are now GPs, archaeologists, psychologists and who work for the CPS. I've helped every single one of them into a taxi. Thick people stick out here like a sore thumb.”

Andy's involvement with the Star and Garter initially came about through another cult band, Nigel Blackwell's Half Man Half Biscuit, following a gig at long-departed Manchester venue the Boardwalk in 1996, where he got talking to the band's manager, a “cantankerous old Scouser” selling t-shirts. To cut a long story short, Andy “fluked it with Half Man Half Biscuit” and ended up putting the band on the following year. A friend had heard good things about the Star and Garter, which could be hired out for £50, and the gig attracted a gaggle of “forty-something-year-old men forming mosh pits”.

Andy later started working behind the bar and, when the Star and Garter's owner started looking for someone else to run the pub, Andy and sound engineer Dermot O'Dea took it over. Andy made a few changes such as extending the opening hours of Smile, replacing skittering vinyl with CDs, employing long-running DJ Andy Woods and hosting one-offs such as album launches; previously, says Andy, “every night was like a Manic Street Preachers fan night – City Life said it was like gatecrashing a house party, just playing songs to mates”. Then followed the “halcyon days” of Smile, when the NME made it club of the week, there were queues around the block by 9.30pm and the club got so crowded that Andy had to operate a one-in-one-out policy. “Our USP has always been that we're off the beaten track,” says Andy. “There's no passing trade so it's an effort to make it. You have to know what you are going for and what night is on. You don't go for the massive selection of craft ales at the bar or the cocktail list – you go because you like the Smiths or the band playing.”

However, the Star and Garter has always been far more than just Smile. It's had its own line in nights dedicated solely to one artist – from the Belle and Sebastian disco started by Roxanne, who later moved to Glasgow and now plays in Veronica Falls, to evenings dedicated to Depeche Mode and Pixies. Most famous is the Smiths night, which has now been going for twenty years and attracts everyone from teens to hardcore fans in their sixties.

The Star and Garter has also been a place for unsigned bands to get onto lineups with more established punk and metal bands. It's been a stepping stone, too, for several bands who now sell out far bigger venues, from hosting Low twice in the 1990s – where everyone sat down – to Jeffrey Lewis. Even Status Quo played there in 1999, after the venue was shortlisted for their Under the Influence tour. “It was the most surreal experience of my life,” recalls Andy. “150 people dancing to the Quo – it was like something out of a Michael Jackson video. And I had to record United versus Juventus for Parfitt and Rossi while they played.” A similarly surreal experience was heavy rock band ArnoCorps' 2012 gig, where 150 fans arrived dressed as Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It was like really good Smile party – everyone happy,” remembers Andy.

The Star and Garter has also acted as a showcase for local musicians and comedians, including at an open mic run by Akoustik Anarkhy which was attended by Manchester luminaries such as Badly Drawn Boy, the Longcut and Nine Black Alps. Andy remembers it as “glorified karaoke without the words on the screen and just mates doing cover versions on guitar” – including Andy's own renditions of Half Man Half Biscuit songs. Another night, Anti-Hoot, played host to unknown comics as well as fondly-remembered Bolton poet Hovis Presley. A poster paying tribute to Presley, who died prematurely in 2005, now hangs on the wall, featuring excepts from his wryly romantic poem 'I Rely On You', which pops up as a reading in local wedding services.

Pre-social media, the Star and Garter also functioned as a meeting place for unlikely special interest groups, from holding Anti-Nazi League meetings in the 1980s, to accommodating the 30-strong West Bromwich Albion supporters' club of Manchester, to hosting a PSV and HGV drivers' club which “used to show slides of 1950s buses to a ripple of applause”. With its haunted house looks, the Star and Garter must have provided a particularly fitting venue for the Vampire Society, whose members sat and read excerpts of Dracula. Most recently, the venue hosted Smiler, a spin-off group from the Rod Stewart fan club, with special guest Don Stewart (brother of Rod) making an appearance. And he's not the only person with a claim to fame to have visited. Andy has a special Smile poster signed by Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks as well as members of Half Man Half Biscuit, TV stars and, most obscurely, people who made music for vintage computer games.

The Star and Garter has also itself been a screen star. Although it's purported, probably incorrectly, to have featured in Manchester film noir classic Hell is A City, it has definitely appeared in Cracker and the Body Farm as well providing as the locale for a John Simm fight scene in Prey and a murder in Prime Suspect. Unfortunately, though, its seedy location could well be the Star and Garter's downfall. Big plans have been proposed for decades for this area, hemmed in by a train station, a taxi rank, a major bus route into the city and a collection of forbidding, slime-ridden railway viaducts, from the Whitehall of the North to an inter-city hub at derelict Mayfield station to an urban park. None have yet materialised, although Andy says, “there's nothing wrong with the area other than that it's never been invested in”. The Grade II listed status of the building, too, doesn't help, with the building suffering from damp and work needed on the roof yet no grants for like-for-like building work forthcoming. But it's part of the fabric of the area, and Andy's picked up snippets of information about its history and former inhabitants over the years, from its first licensee, a Miss Wetherspoon, to being a hotel with its own living quarters and dumb waiter, to housing a brewery and, later, a “trainee MASH type place for the home guard during the war”.

The Star and Garter's recent decline has coincided with the ascendancy of other areas of the city such as the Northern Quarter. Part of the problem, says Andy, is that Smile's audience has grown up – and “the new generation suddenly got hit by a massive choice of places to go, so Smile became a fallback”. Andy explains: “When we first started there was the Night & Day, us and the Roadhouse – we were the small venues. Then the council threw a load of money at the Northern Quarter and every Tom, Dick and Harry started opening a bar. It was even mentioned on the news.”

In the meantime, as both the Northern Hub and, further down the line, HS2 loom over its future, the Star and Garter soldiers on, continuing to host regular "cheap and cheerful" punk gigs. Alternative karaoke night Guts for Garters is proving popular, along with new music showcase and indie-pop disco Light it Up (Saturday May 10), '90s nights A Different Class and This is Uncool, queer party Bollox (Friday April 18) and guilty pleasures rock night Party Hard (Saturday May 3). Other upcoming events include a fundraiser by online Morrissey fanclub the Mozarmy (Saturday April 26), with special guests including Hayley from Coronation Street. It's also hoped that Smile can be resurrected for doorman Ian's 70th birthday in June.

As Andy says, the Star and Garter might not be renowned for its cocktail list or craft beer, but as the city gains in sophistication it's all too easy to lose out on opportunities for genuinely life-affirming communal music experiences. What we lose if we lose the Star and Garter is the bread and butter of Manchester's night life, the type of place where you can go just for the sheer joy of the music and any pretensions to post-industrial glamour or the array of drinks behind the bar are only a secondary concern.