23 March 2014

How Should a Library Be?

When I moved to Manchester, back in 2010, I was particularly intrigued by this big, round building in the center of town.

 The Central Library.

Ewan MacColl, that famous English folk singer, songwriter, communist, labour activist, actor, poet, playwright, and record producer, was at the Library on its opening day. I imagine everyone in the city must have immediately fallen in love with its beautiful, Classical, Pantheon-inspired stature.

But I had just missed it... in 2010, before I got here, it was closed for renovations - set to open in 2014. I didn't think I would get to see it. My visa was meant to expire in February 2014. I'd be back in Atlanta, or somewhere else by the time the renovations were done. I thought, if I ever visited Manchester again, maybe in a few years, I would like to wander around it.

But there was no way I'd get to actually use it, no way I would ever get used to it being open, being available, being just another resource in this great town.

It was asbestos-ridden, I'd heard from friends who'd lived here longer. It was crumbling. I've only ever gazed at it from the outside, unsure what secrets it might hold.

Yesterday, it opened.

And it is stunning.

The entrance is called the Shakespeare Hall, filled with stained glass and natural light and smooth pale stone.

Manchester must be the world capital of secular stained glass. This window is entirely devoted to Shakespeare's plays. 

The building, it turns out, is 6 stories high, with a massive reading room in the center. They've put the NorthWest Film Archive in, with little viewing booths & there's the BFI Mediatheque in, too. There's a performance space. Event spaces. A cafe.

The ceiling window lets in plenty of white daylight.

I love the old signage they've left on the stones in the reading room.

The reading room is so perfectly round that if you stand in the center, you'll hear voices from other parts of the room. It's a weird, ghostly sensation, talking to someone you can't see, listening in on people who don't know you can hear them. As an audio nerd, I tried to get some recordings... but I'm not sure how they came out. I stood in the center, listening for a long time. The whole room echoes and echoes - apparently, when the building first opened in 1934, it was a big problem for people who came to the library to... you know... readNewly developed sound-absorbing material has helped quite a lot.The corridors that swing around the reading room are stunning, too. So many intriguing views and angles. It's really beautiful.

This corridor leads from the Central Library to Manchester's Town Hall, another of my favourite, favourite buildings in the world. It's a pretty glamorous corridor, hey?

Outdoors, there used to be an open walkway between the Library and Town Hall.
Photo from The Shrieking Violet

Sadly, the Council have decided to enclose Library Walk in a cage of glass, allowing them to gate & and lock it at night, under the guise of 'public safety.' I mean, sure, Victoria Park is where students are regularly reporting sexual assault and theft - but if you want a way to keep homeless people away from a recently renovated building, I guess you have to claim it's for 'public safety.' 'Public control' sounds more accurate to me. Of course, the places where Greater Manchester Police most often tweet about violent crime in the city are nowhere near Library Walk - but why let that in the way of gating off public space from the kind of people you'd rather not hang out near pretty public buildings?And therein lies my, and many people's, concern. The Central Library is a public building. It is not just meant to be a gorgeous, formalist, beautiful building. It should, at its heart, be a library. A resource.  From what I saw, on most floors of the library, there just weren't all that many... books.

They've done something really nice with the music collection - there are musical instruments around it, so people can have a go playing the sheet music. There's a drum kit, a piano. That's neat and I rather like it.

But the main lending library is stuck down in the basement of the building. With no natural light, the part that people will use most is worst placed.

And while event spaces and film viewing booths are great, I'm not sure the new Central Library actually holds the same collection it once did. Only one floor of the newly opened building has stacks of reference books. In 1968, the Central Library had nearly 1.66 million volumes. How many more must it have collected since? Manchester's Central Library was famous as a public, not university-based, library for its non-fiction reference investment and collection. 

They did do a cool thing with the stacks - famous faces from Manchester's history are on them, and when you open one stack or close another, you either disjoin or join up the images. This image is Rutherford, of atom-breaking fame, with a face divided by books.

But there's only one floor of stacks! 
A while ago, Manchester City Council was going to pulp a lot of its reference books rather than find space for them in the new library – supposedly because no one ever requested those books anymore. Of course, that doesn't mean no one ever will, or that those books are useless. The 'Friends of Manchester Central Library' stopped that from happening.
But books cost money and space to store. Those books are being stored in a warehouse now. They haven't been pulped. Yet. They also haven't been catalogued, so the public don't know which books are there... and therefore can't request them. I'm worried that in five or ten years, when no one has used them because no one can see them - the city will feel justified in actually pulping them. I like the new Central Library - I think it's a beautiful restoration of a gorgeous building. I like that it's got film viewing booths and event spaces. But in the course of its renovations, it's lost a lot of its non-fiction reference books. It seems like it might have become a glorified internet cafe. It's supposed to be a library. Where are all the books?

02 March 2014

Sweet, bitter, and Saltaire

This month, two of the three founding members of Bad Language are packing up and moving to London. While Bad Language will continue, stronger for the three years that they nurtured it, their moving tastes bittersweet. Dave Hartley has written a wonderful post about what Bad Language has meant to many of us here in Manchester. I strongly recommend it.

I wanted to write this post, though, for Dan and Nici more personally. I can't thank Dan & Nici enough (as well as Joe Daly, the third Bad Language founder, who isn't going anywhere, at least for now *shaking my fist at him*). You see, in the dark and cold months of my first winter in Manchester, in 2010-2011, Bad Language became my whole world for a while.

It's the monthly literature night, in the crowded back room of The Castle Hotel, where I not only felt welcome - I made friends, I read my stories and I made Manchester my home. They've published my writing and asked me to read at amazing events like last year's Box of Tricks Counter Culture Club and Manchester Museum's Northern Elements show.

More than that, Dan and Nici became my friends. We played and loved boardgames together, and commiserated about work and interviews together. Nici, who is also an excellent masseuse, sorted my back out last year, when I was having real problems from sitting too much at work (and wearing heels all the time). They both read stories at my wedding, a contribution that made the day special and unique and made me love the Manchester literature scene more than ever. I'm so proud to be a part of it.

When I moved to Manchester, I knew it might be hard to make new friends. By a certain point in life, most people have already made more friends than they can really keep up with. Dan and Nici, and Bad Language as a whole, welcomed me in. I once managed to almost repay their kindness by getting a high-profile guest to headline Bad Language. I know we'll see each other when I visit London and when they visit Manchester... but I can't pretend that I won't miss them.

The sweet news, though, is that they've left Bad Language in good hands. Joe Daly will keep hosting, of course, along with one of the most welcoming, friendly, encouraging and big-hearted people I have ever met in my life: Fat Roland. He's the best. The best. I'm excited to see how Bad Language evolves under this new leadership. Prediction: more weird.
This is the kind of thing Fat Roland does. 


Last weekend, when Jonti and I were in Leeds, we decided to take a day trip out to Saltaire. Surprisingly, the name of the village has nothing to do with 'salt' or 'air.' Rather, it was founded by Victorian industrialist Titus Salt, and it's near the River Aire - 'aire' meaning, most probably, 'strong river' in Common Brittonic.

Titus Salt felt the slums of Bradford were bad for the workers in his textile mill - so he moved his whole operation out and created the world's first model village. This changed urban planning forever. It was a true Work-Live-Play environment.

A rainbow from the window of Salts Mill.

Today, Salts Mill is home to a privately-owned David Hockney gallery with the largest collection of Hockney works in the world. Hockney is a pretty well-regarded British painter. Salts Mill doesn't show him off very well, though. The first floor of the gallery is just a giant art supply shop, with some Hockney works hung around the perimeter - and there's no information about the works. No titles, no dates, no word about what materials were used. Essentially, you don't feel you've learned anything about Hockney, though you have wondered whether you should buy a new set of coloured pencils.

The second floor is pretty much the same, except a book store replaces the art supply shop.

And the third floor is a cafe, behind which is a pretty decent gallery space, where you only slightly feel like your attention is constantly jarred by the sound of an espresso machine. Apparently, this total lack of information is entirely intentional, as my friend Richmal told me the owner is worried that if people know too much about the artworks, they'll nick them. Richmal grew up in Saltaire and used to work in Salts Mill - so I believe her.

Which makes me wonder what the point of an art gallery is, exactly. This one seems to be particularly about selling books and art supplies and coffee. Jonti and I weren't too impressed, though the recent stuff Hockney has started doing with Photoshop and his iPhone are lovely. When he finishes a new iPhone drawing, he emails it to the gallery - and they immediately put it into rotation on the screens that display his iPhone pieces, which is a neat use of technology & immediate art.

Disappointed in the Hockney gallery, we thought we'd at least see the village and we dropped into the Visitor's Centre, where they gave us a Heritage Walking Tour booklet. 

The tour took us around a block of the village, but it didn't really provide much information. It told us which houses were for single male workers (the big ones) and which houses were for single families (the slightly smaller ones, with gardens out front). The tour told us that Titus Salt hadn't built any pubs into the town, because he didn't want the workers drinking. Makes him seem a bit of a boor, doesn't it? "To work for me, you'll live here, and you'll have no beer, sirs, and you're welcome!"

We walked the tour - and we just felt like we had missed something. Somehow, Saltaire put all the effort into getting a UNESCO World Heritage Site classification... and then didn't bother doing very much for all the tourists who would want to visit such a place. The Reformed Church is apparently stunning inside, and they've spent a lot of money cleaning it up... but it's only open for a few hours on a Sunday. We couldn't see it.
From Wikipedia

Wikipedia told me that Salt didn't build any pubs because he himself was a Methodist and teetotal - which makes him seem a little less hypocritical, if no less patronising. Richmal told me that one of the houses has a tower, and the person who lived in that house had to climb it every Sunday & make sure no one was doing their washing; Sunday being God's day of rest, after all.

These, I think, would have been nice things to learn while we were walking about.

In Sydney, the council had saved a few of the oldest convict-built buildings, and kept them furnished in the style of that time, as a museum. But in Saltaire, there is no such 'model house,' for visitors to wander. All the homes are privately-owned. Richmal's sister still lives there, and apparently often has tourists knock on her door, hoping for a look round. Needless to say, she doesn't want random visitors all up in her house.

We found a lovely pub, hilariously named 'Fanny's Alehouse.' It's on the edge of the village, built after Titus Salt's time, obviously. Good beer there...

And then we came across the Victoria Hall, where Jonti took a particular liking to the lion.

I found out later it was built as part of the original village - a community centre of sorts. A beer festival was going on, but they let us in to see the building without buying tickets to it. 

It really was a pretty building. But I really wished the history was more available within the town - even just on the leaflet they gave us in the Visitors' Centre. I was glad to talk to Richmal later, as she confirmed that I hadn't missed anything - the town really just doesn't make very much of its history.

It seems like Titus Salt was quite an enlightened Victorian industrialist, caring at least enough about his worker's health to make a huge investment in this town. He even built a park in the town, for leisure and exercise. It's in the rules of the park that you get a hint of the problem that would soon arise with this kind of fatherly enlightenment and these company towns.
  1. The timing of closing will be indicated each day by the ringing of a bell.
  2. No person will be allowed to enter or remain while in a state of intoxication.
  3. No child under the age of eight years will be admitted, except in care of an adult.
  4. No dog will be admitted…unless led with a chain or string.
  5. No horse, ass or mule will be admitted.
  6. Visitors are not to interfere with the cannons or flagpole….nor to throw or leave about any orange peel.
  7. ‘No music, singing, preaching, lecture or public discussion, and no meeting for the purpose of making any religious or political demonstration will be allowed without the written sanction of the firm’
  8. No stone throwing, disorderly and indecorous conduct, profane and indecent language, gambling or pitch & toss.
  9. Soliciting of alms is strictly prohibited.
  10. ‘No wine, beer, spirits,or intoxicating drinks are to be consumed in the park’.
  11. ’Smoking is not allowed in the alcoves, nor spitting on the paths’.
  12. ’The playgrounds are not to be used on Sundays’.
Good luck trying to form a union or protest your low wages, Salts Mill workers. Very best luck, indeed.

23 February 2014


It's been a while since a new blog post - but, if I'm being honest, for the last two months, I haven't done much worth telling you about. I haven't learned a bunch of exciting new facts about Manchester or even done very much outside of work.

Work is really tiring, and most weekends, I've just been recuperating, apart from a few cinema visits and one really boring ballet.

But finally, this past week, I took a week's vacation - and Jonti and I decided to visit a new place: LEEDS!

Another Northern Industrial town, just about an hour away, Leeds was the perfect match for
1) a few days off
2) bad winter weather - which makes the countryside unbearable - and
3) not wanting to deal with an airport or much travel.

The Leeds Corn Exchange now houses several independent shops - it's been done up recently, and the ceiling is stunning. Lots of old commodity exchange buildings of Britain have lovely ceiling windows - in Leeds, I learned that this was a functional decision! Without such ample skylights, traders wouldn't be able to properly examine the wares. Leeds Corn Exchange was especially admired for the even, uniform light shed by its skylights.

One of the real shining benefits Leeds has over Manchester is an enormous, lovely market, with fishmongers, butchers, produce stalls and cafes! Kirkstall Market is amazing. I've said it before, but a city really needs a market. 

Preferably one with beautiful dragons.
It looks like a selfie, but it isn't. I took this picture of handsome J.
I learned that Marks & Spencer's started out as a small penny stall in Kirkstall Market! I was really surprised by this - M&S is one of those classic, middle-market British brands, with branches on every street corner. It's crazy to think it started out as a tiny little stall - and even more surprising that the stall today makes great coffee. Had a delicious macchiato.

There is some really interesting street art project going on in Leeds.
And the Tiled Hall in the Art Gallery is a gorgeous room. The ceiling was mesmerising.

There were sculptured faces of famous male writers and artists all around the room: Homer, Dante, etc. This face had no name.

But this name had no face. Poor Goethe!

Leeds devotes a lot of its city centre to grand, luxurious shopping arcades. They're beautiful, but... they're just lots of expensive shops. 

We went to the art gallery and the city museum. I picked up a free local paper, to see what might be going on, but I couldn't find anything that excited me. 

Honestly, after a few days, I found myself feeling a bit unconnected to the town. I think it's probably a really nice town to live in. There are lots of great bars and restaurants. 

I'm not joking about the bars. There is some excellent beer out Leeds way. I probably drank more beer in the last 3 days than I have since December. 

But that's pretty much all Jonti and I really got out of Leeds. A nice market, some good restaurants, some good drinking. I can't help but feel like I missed something exciting about Leeds...

Despite all that, it was a lovely place to spend a few days. It's compact and visually engaging. It's got a nice Town Hall. An imposing building. Pretty.

'Not as pretty as our Town Hall,' I said to Jonti. I just couldn't help comparing Leeds to Manchester at nearly every turn.

And maybe that's at the heart of my ambivalence towards Leeds. I liked it. But I love Manchester. I love this city, even without a market. It was a Sunday morning, over three years ago, when I realised a one-year MA wouldn't give me enough time in Manchester... and I'm still not done with it.This is how good I felt the morning we were heading back to Manchester, even though it was the end of our holiday.I'll try visiting Leeds again sometime - hopefully with friends who have an infectious love of the place - and maybe I'll feel differently about it then.

26 December 2013

Watch it, Gretel

Not only my first Christmas with Jonti, it's also my first Christmas as a married lady... and it's my first Christmas in Wigan with his family!
I thought I'd bring some new traditions. One was macaroni and cheese at the Christmas dinner table. Another was stuffing. I personally found it surprising that stuffing was not already on the table. There was an empty turkey.

My favourite of the new traditions is a total faff.
Gingerbread houses.

I mean, have you ever made one of these? You have to make the dough, roll it out, cut out house-shaped pieces, cook them, (if you want stained-glass windows, you have to crush boiled sweets into the window holes, cook them again), and let them crisp up.

All before you can actually try to build the houses. 

Oh, and you have to make the icing.


We used Mary Berry's recipe for gingerbread and icing. Katherine and I spent 3 hours making all the house pieces on Saturday - enough for four mini gingerbread cottages! 

We learned a lot of lessons. 1. Don't make too much dough. It doesn't keep. Several small batches of dough will get you further than one massive batch.

2. Give each house at least 2 doors, so air can circulate, and the tea lights won't keep extinguishing.

3. Don't forget a few windows on each side wall for prettiness!

I think everyone had fun. I hope they did!

We used these templates for making the house pieces. We might try adding a chimney next year. 

At the very least, we liked lighting the candles inside them, and seeing the windows glow.

And of course, we liked eating them! Have any of y'all ever built a gingerbread house? What's your best tip for getting them right?

07 December 2013

6 Bottles, so many messages

On Sunday night, Jonti and I got to do one of the loveliest tasks possible. I'm not even sure you could call it a task.

You see, ever since the wedding, Jonti and I have been trying to machete through all the leftover tasks on the weekends. Some are not very fun: I still haven't put those flip flops up for sale through the interwebs. But most of them are incredibly fun, like the thank you cards - have you gotten yours yet?

Some tired midnight, over 2 months ago, Katherine had helped me glue labels on the 6 wine bottles Jonti & I had collected & cleaned in the weeks before the wedding. Even Neil made a real effort for the cause, with some assiduous wine-drinking.
Of course, a lot of people didn't get to write their messages to our future selves on the day itself. My parents, I think, didn't even notice the bottles on the day - but to be fair, my parents were the most popular people at the wedding! They had way too many people to talk to...

Even Jonti's parents didn't have a chance to write us messages. 

So, the other day, we had finally collected the last messages from everyone. Jonti's parents and my parents. And we wrote messages to each other. We looked forward, 50 years to the future, and thought about what our life might be like then, what our love might be like then. We thought about the other people who we'd be reading messages from on that day, 50 years from now, and whether they'd still be just a phone call away. We thought about all the things outside our control that could mean only one of us is left to smash that bottle... or that neither of us might. We thought of how strong our love is now – and what 50 years could do to it...

We cried a little.

We held each other, and we made our promises again.

And then we closed our bottles with corks.

And sealed them with candle wax.

We are a little bit annoyingly in love. 


Atlanta folks: Don't think you're getting off easy - we're going to have bottles at our Atlanta wedding, too. Start thinking of your messages now!

PS: Someone has already apparently done a Star Trek quote, so you know - high standards.

01 December 2013

Jodrell Dreams

I didn't know much about Manchester before I moved here. I had heard it was grim. I had seen and fallen in love with the first 2 series of Shameless. Anne-Marie Duff and James McEvoy were a heads-on-right, circumstances-entirely-wrong couple I admired. I wished I had the resourcefulness of Debbie (pronounced Debb-ay).

I had seen 24 Hour Party People quite some time ago- and I'm not entirely sure I even realised it was about Manchester. I had read The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Again - had you asked me where, exactly, Engels was on about, I probably would have said, "England."

And then there were, of course, all the clues in everyday life that should have alerted me to Manchester as a unique place with a unique story in history. Clue 1: Bedding linen is called 'Manchester' in Australia. Clue 2: That Gandhi himself called for Indian independence from 'Manchester,' that cotton cloth spun and woven in England.

It seems, in fact, I did know a few things about Manchester before I moved here - or at least, I should have known that I knew these things.

But I stand by my first statement. I didn't know much.

Because what would have had me truly ants-in-my-pants jumping-bean excited about coming to Manchester - what I cannot believe I didn't know about this place before I moved here - is the science.

I've written about it before on this blog. John Dalton, the man who realised the world is made of atoms, realised it here. Dalton's very eyeballs are kept at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, under lock and key, in a secret location only 4 people at a time even know (or so I was told when I volunteered there). Alan Turing, the man who invented the freaking computer, invented it here. James Prescott Joule, that gentlemanly combination of physicist and beer-maker, who laid the groundwork for the law of conservation of energy, was born in Salford and died in Sale, both in Manchester's easy reach. Joule was president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1860 - and the group is still active today!

The scientific history of Manchester went along with it being an industrial powerhouse - the industry needed to constantly update itself, and it needed the engineering knowledge that the sciences brought.

Back in 1939, the University of Manchester's Botany Department bought three fields about 25 miles south of Manchester (out in Cheshire). Over the decades, the University bought more bits of land around those first three fields. The area was called Jodrell Bank. And in 1945, with equipment left over from WWII (such as gun laying radar), Bernard Lovell, an astrophysicist, began using Jodrell Bank to investigate cosmic rays. He would have done his investigations from Manchester proper, had it not been for interference from the Oxford Road trams - which were DESTROYED to make way for buses and cars and more road.

Today, Jodrell Bank's telescopes investigate radio waves from the planets and stars. In 1947, it had the largest radio telescope in the world, and in 1957, the Lovell Telescope was completed. At the time, it was the largest steerable dish in the world. Even now, it is the third largest. 

And more than that - Jodrell Bank is cool. Not just science-nerd cool. Lately, Jodrell Bank has redefined itself as a part-time summery outdoor music venue. A city known for its music and for its science - it's fitting to link the two up. The Flaming Lips played there, in what was an apparently amazing show in 2012, I think. This year, back in January, I bought tickets for a Sigur Rós show at Jodrell Bank. I'm not a particularly big Sigur Rós fan... I've heard their music, I have a CD or two... but mostly, I went to see the telescope.
Back in January, I thought I would be leaving Manchester at the end of 2013. I thought I might never get to see the telescope that still makes Manchester part of the world's space exploration community. 

Of course, by the time the show came around, at the end of August, I was well into wedding-planning! It was a gorgeous evening out at Jodrell Bank - an end-of-summer chill, only a little drizzle. 

Before the band came out, Dr Tim O'Brien gave short talk on the history of the Lovell Telescope - and the science that it's currently doing. A live Skype link-up with astrophysicists in South Africa about the Square Kilometer Array - Manchester is the HQ of the project! 

Then, Dr Tim asked the control room to please turn the telescope around, to face the audience. 

And Sigur Rós came out, with a beautiful screen of ethereal lights behind them. They are an Icelandic band, and they don't sing in English - so their music takes on an ethereal atmosphere. 

And then they started really using the telescope as part of the show. The nice thing about going to a gig where you're not a huge fan is that you never really worry that you're going to miss your favourite song. At some point, I wandered away from my friends, toward the back of the green, to see more of the telescope. I'm glad I did.

Back in the front with my mates, they had projected an image of the moon onto the face of the dish, so it looked like the moon was enormous and just behind the stage. 

And then they pulled out all the stops. With lasers.

When the show was over, we walked, as one huge crowd, back toward the parking lot. I took one last look; the telescope had already turned it back on us...
Back in January, I decided to see Sigur Rós, because I might never have the chance to see the Lovell telescope again. Late November this year, I got the official documentation: I can see all the Jodrell Bank shows I want and/or can afford: my visa was approved! I can live in the UK until 2016! 
Roll on, summer 2014 - I can't wait to see what Jodrell Bank's line up is...