17 August 2014

Latitude!

I guess America does have a lot of music festivals - but they seem to me, at least, to be a particularly British thing to do. To go, for several days, to a huge campsite, and sleep in tents only feet away from other people sleeping in tents... it's something I never did in the States.

I tried, once, in Australia, and failed miserably.

But British people love a festival. I know several who will spend hundreds of pounds, on a single festival ticket EVERY YEAR to go to Glastonbury - which, remember, is 5 days long. Your food, drink, travel there and back...  are not included in the ticket price.

This year, I was invited to go to Latitude Festival as an In The Dark Radio performer.

In The Dark Radio is a collective of radio enthusiasts (you know, people like me!) who run listening events. I've been running it in Manchester for a few months, now - it's a great way to make other people geek out on radio.

Jonti and I approached it as a sort-of-cheap holiday. I had to do some hours at the In the Dark hut, he had to buy an actual ticket, but other than that, I definitely recommend Latitude.

We organised a car-share to get there with some strangers. That could have gone poorly, I suppose, but we got lucky. Annette & Sonu are people we'd actually like to be friends with.

We got our lovely new tent up the first afternoon.
















The sky over Henham Park, in Suffolk. Latitude is in one of the many beautiful parts of England.

The In the Dark Radio hut was built by an artist collective called Morning.

You are not supposed to squat on the swings like this guy did. You are supposed to swing gently and listen hard to the excellent radio we play into the hut.


I'm sure I do not need to tell you why this is adorable. I'm also sure that you, too, despair at the Oxford Online Dictionary's decision to include 'adorbs' as a word.
It rained a bit on Friday night, but by the time we were festivalling again, the rain had drained away.At some point on Saturday, Jonti and I needed some time alone together, not with 35,000 other festival go-ers, and we headed back to the tent just to get some quiet alone-time. When you are willing to lay in a boiling hot, bright, humid tent in the middle of the day, you are in serious need of quiet alone-time.
On Saturday night, though, there was an enormous storm. Because we had a lovely new tent (see above), the storm was intense, but it was not in tents. LOL.We had scheduled a late night 'adults-only' radio session on Saturday night - Nina, the director of In the Dark, had it on her laptop & iPhone. As we all showed up at the hut, shivering and soaked through, we tried to plug in Nina's iPhone. It was water-damaged and wouldn't work. We tried to plug in her laptop. It didn't really want to work. Finally, we got the night playing, but our hut was just filled with drunk people sheltering from the storm. They didn't want to hear it. We wanted to get back to our tents, get dry & get into bed.We stopped the event early. Thank goodness. I trudged back through the mud and rain, hoping the tent was dry, and not entirely sure that I would sign up for a festival again, to be honest. But apart from the storm on Saturday night, we were lucky with the weather. 
And we got to see and do some very fun things. One of our favourite bands, Future Islands, played, and we got right up to the front row. Hozier & Haushka, both bands we hadn't heard and fell in love with... We saw the Royal Shakespeare Company do Revolt, She Said, Revolt, which was powerful and incredible.We saw Arthur Smith do his comedy/storytelling bit with Leonard Cohen songs, and it was truly wonderful. Until the bit at the end where a grown man came hopping out of back stage with a mask on and nothing else. Until that bit, I was very charmed by this show... And Jon Ronson gave a quirky Jon Ronson-style talk.As we were packing up the tent on Monday morning, I thought, yeah, I'd probably do it again. Bring on Glastonbury!--Side note: This time next week, I'll be visiting you Atlanta lot. Get ready! I can't wait to see y'all! I can't wait for you to meet Jonti! 



14 July 2014

This One Night: True West

Or: Another Blog Trail!

First Draft is one of Manchester’s excellent monthly events – it slants toward theatre, so it’s slightly different to the literature & story-heavy nights I often go to. Abi & Rachel, the organisers, invite performers of all stripes – theatre, yes, but also comedy, music, literature – to try out material early, before it’s polished, before it’s perfect. It’s not for some sort of art school-style submission to criticism from the group – rather, it’s because the first draft can be the most exciting draft.

It’s the draft that, after months of re-drafting and cutting and adding and cutting again, ends up actually being 2 stories & 1 novel & 3 other stories besides which really belong in the bin. It’s the hit and miss draft. Or sometimes, it’s just the miss draft.

For example:

Abi’s invited me to do a few First Draft nights, and I’ve found them really useful. My first time, I worked very hard on not working very hard on the story I was telling. I wrote the story on a Sunday, walked onstage on the Monday and read out the first draft of my story almost completely unedited.

It was the fastest I’ve ever given up on a story in my life. Ordinarily, if I’m writing a story, but it’s not working, I wrestle with it for weeks or months before I’ll finally admit there’s something wrong with how I’m writing it. It takes me ages to think maybe I’m trying to stick too many stories into one, or layering too many wonky metaphors... and only then will I leave it to be picked over for scraps to weave into later stories. But getting up and reading that story – out loud, to strangers & early – made me recognize it for what it was. A miss draft.

ANYWAY

The lovely folks over at First Draft have expanded on the ‘This One Book’ blog trail, which keen readers will remember from this post.

They invited me to contribute to their ‘This One Night’ blog trail, wherein, I will tell you about a live performance that has been significant to me. Read the first installment of “This One Night” on the First Draft blog, a beautifully told tale of Abi’s first Macbeth.

Here I go:

Until very recently, live performance, especially theatre, has never held much interest for me.

Partly, this is down to Bob-Fosse-based trauma (“Oh, no, they’re coming off the stage. Into the audience. No. Oh, please don’t throw the glitter at me… Oh, no. Oh, please, please oh the spandex. Oh, no no no.”)

And terrible musicals.
Image from: www.goodspeed.org/productions/2006/pippin














Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen some amazing productions. Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth in St Peter’s for the Manchester International Festival was brilliant. Daniel Kitson’s Tree: stunning, funny, harsh. The Confederacy of Dunces: fantastic. As a kid, I really flipping loved theatre magic. My sister once made the mistake of taking me to a Penn and Teller show – I spent hours that night telling my parents what the tricks looked like, in an attempt to figure out how they worked. Magicians will tell you: that is the wrong way to go about it. What a trick looks like has nothing to do with how it works.

Generally, cinema has been more my style. Cinema feels more immersive – the camera follows characters, rather than characters presenting themselves on a stage. I like edits: I like that I don’t have to actually watch a character storm out of a room and slam the door. I like that the actors won’t notice if I think it’s terrible and walk out halfway.

ANYWAY

Jonti & I had travelled to Glasgow to see it at The Citizens Theatre – one of Jonti’s best mates, Phill Breen, was the director. Jonti had told me Phill was amazing. I was expecting something rather theatre-y.

The curtains opened on True West. I gasped. For the next two hours (or so, I can’t remember how long it was) I forgot that I was watching a stage, that there were real people presenting themselves as characters on a stage & that walking might ever be a thing I would want to do again.

Image by Pete Le May petelemay.co.uk















I just watched, transported, immersed.

Written by Sam Shepherd, True West is the story of two brothers – one an uptight do-gooder and the other a complete disaster – who are pent up in their mother’s house for a weekend. The do-gooder tries to write a play. The disaster, with no small threat of violence, horns in on the play. The do-gooder eventually loses his shit and nearly strangles the disaster. And then their Zoloft-happy mother comes home.

Throughout the play, Breen ratcheted up the tension between the brothers to unbearable levels – the house seethed with neuroses, thinly guised contempt and frayed tempers. The stage design, which included a ceiling, floor and three full walls, made the house feel claustrophobic & airtight.

I’ve never seen a ceiling built onto a stage before. Usually, lighting rigs are up there. The ceiling enhanced the claustrophobia, but it also meant Breen’s lighting designer had to get damn creative.












The actors made deeply flawed characters sympathetic & simultaneously unlikeable.

And somewhere between the staging, the lighting and the acting, this play became cinematic. It took on colours I’ve never seen on stage before.

I’ve never seen a show like it.

As we left that night, I told Jonti, “Your friend Phill is some kind of genius.”

Oh, oh, I cannot express to you how it gripped me.

Maybe that’s because I keep telling you what this show looked like.

Let me instead tell you this. After seeing True West, I couldn’t sleep for hours. I was – and still am – trying to figure out how it worked.

BREAKING NEWS:

From 4th September to 4th October this very year you, too, can see the brilliant Phillip Breen's True West at London's Tricycle Theatre.

YOU. LUCKY. PEOPLE.

Get your tickets now.

08 July 2014

This One Book: Lolita

John Gall's original cover design for the Vintage edition,
 reissued in 2005.
This cover design was never used - it was too suggestive.























Recently Dan Carpenter started a blog trail (over here). He shared the story of a book that changed how he thought about books and writing, when he was around 14 or 15. And he invited two other bloggers to share their stories of the books that changed them as adolescents.

The idea was based on the formative nature of our early teenage years & how, sometimes, a book read at the right time will shape the way you think about books and change your brain forevermore. It’s certainly true that some books must be read at a specific age or time in your life to mean much to you. I read Fahrenheit 451 in my 20s – it was way too late & I found it adolescent & tedious. I read Animal Farm when I was 12, and I was like, ‘WHOA. SATIRE.’ I’m sure it wouldn’t feel like that if I were to read it again.

Simon Sylvester & Dave Hartley took up Dan’s challenge – and Dave invited Ben Judge and me. I have taken quite some time thinking over this. Because, while Animal Farm introduced me to satire, it hasn’t really affected how I think about literature or as a writer. Trust me, I am no satirist. And as an adult, many books that I’ve read have influenced me & changed how I think about literature (Kavalier and Clay, House of Leaves).

But I’ve been trying to nail down which book deeply affected me when I was a young teenager, when I was 14 or 15. I wasn’t able to just run a finger across the spines of my book collection – at this point, my book collection is scattered across two continents, in 3 basements & a seriously overstuffed bookshelf. Oh, and some are propping my bed up to keep it from breaking. Seriously.

Here’s the thing:

As a teenager, I was in advanced literature classes throughout high school (ages 13-17). For the first year, it was fairly easy going. We read a lot of shortish novels (Heart of Darkness, The Metamorphosis, The Portrait of Dorian Gray) and extracts from longer novels (Great Expectations). We did a few weeks on poetry & a few weeks on grammar. I loved the few weeks of poetry. I loved it so much I tried to write my own poetry. I loved the alliteration & clever tricks of language. But my poems were terrible. I had to stop writing poetry.

And then shit got real.

10th grade: we read a novel every fortnight & wrote a paper on every one. (The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman)

11th grade: we read 10 Shakespeare plays & wrote a paper on every one. Some of them were easy (Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night). But some of them weren’t (Richard III).

12th grade: we read a novel every week & wrote a paper on every one. (Crime and Punishment, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath, Tess of the D’urbervilles)

We had reading lists for the summer holidays (usually about 6 books) and a paper was due on one of them for the first day of class. I had 6 other classes to attend every day, with their own Advanced Placement statuses & their own ridiculous amounts of homework. To clarify: AP Biology, AP Spanish, AP History, as well as 12th grade maths, chorus & another class that I don’t remember now.

This sort of education ensures that I have read more of the ‘classics’ (don’t let’s start) than many of my British peers. It ensured that I easily earned highest marks on my Advanced Placement exam – I got really good at reading & comprehending vast sections of text quickly, picking out a major theme, finding a few quotes & passages to back up my argument about said theme, and writing a paper about that book damn fast. I still appreciate this education – I like having the skills to understand the book behind the plot. But it came at a price.

By the end of 12th grade, I could read a book and analyse a book within 2 hours. In fact, I was analyzing it as I read it. I never properly read a book; I was just sifting through them for themes/passages/quotes that I could use for the paper I’d have to write the next day.

Many of those books affected me deeply – I have re-read some in more recent years – and I still find them moving and wonderful and resonant. But at the time of first reading, I was simply a bulldozer, ploughing through words, powered by a relentless curriculum.

It wasn’t until later – the summer after high school, I was nearly 18 – that I got my ‘this one book.’

Nabokov’s Lolita

That summer, for the first time, I had the leisure to read, re-read, absorb and truly relish my reading – but not all the books I read that summer (ahem. Harry Potter) mattered like this one. For Humbert Humbert and for me, Lolita changed everything.

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Well-spoken, well-written English is revered round my house. I didn’t start saying “y’all” and “ain’t” until I had moved out & was nearly 20 – it was a quiet rebellion, as I slowly allowed my mouth to take in and form and create the Southern accent & colloquialisms I’d never been allowed to have at home.

Perhaps well-spoken, well-written English is revered round my house because my parents were born just as the British were wrested from India – and empire has a slow way of diminishing in hearts and minds, if not in land and influence. English, I remember being told, is the most expressive of all languages because it has more words than any other language & whenever it doesn’t have a word for something, it gladly makes one up.

Or maybe well-spoken, well-written English is revered round my house because it isn’t in great quantity. We are a bilingual family and it seems our English is all mixed up em-thhem Gujurati ne Hindi sathe. Though English is not my first language, I did well at school & I’ve never had much trouble with English – but I never thought I’d be able to write it all that well. I had one too many languages in my head & being able to write well meant, in my mind, knowing one language (preferably English) extremely well. To write, one must be expert in English – to be expert in English, one should probably not have a Gujurati/Hindi-based confusion between, say, ‘turn off’ and ‘close’ or between, maybe, ‘tall’ and ‘long.’

(I regularly ask my husband to close the light & I often notice, in passing, that that stranger across the street is very long. He must be at least 6’6”.)

But then. Lolita.

From its first poetic sentence to its first-person oh-so-entirely-unreliable narrator to its achingly, head-shakingly clever tricks of deception, etymology & pronunciation, Lolita had me. 

With its repetition, its way of playing with the Russian sounds in English words, its crafted, lyrical language, Lolita had me.

Nabokov became some sort of multi-lingual hero to me. He apologises, at the beginning of the book, for any poor English he displays. English, he explains, is not his first language. He apologises, in essence, for using English better than most monolingual writers of English.

Lolita taught me that I could be poetic without being a poet, and I could write well even though I was bilingual – that in fact, being bilingual might even help.*  **

I know Nabokov affected my writing, though I didn’t start writing until over a decade later, because I still recognize my rather unsuccessful attempts to emulate his lyricism and cleverness.

Lolita affected my reading, too – for the first time, I enjoyed a ‘classic,’ lingering over the pages, marveling at this particularly clever little rhyming dance, sighing over that lovely turn of phrase, wistful and envious of the author’s skill. Humble humburger and I were entirely unprepared for Lolita’s magic. I’ve never felt beauty in language quite like it again.

Lolita changed everything.

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To keep the blog trail going, late as I am to it, I'd like to invite 
1. Trisha Anne Starbrook, one of my American co-conspirators in Manchester
2. Fat Roland, because I get the sense that once that guy learned how to read, he pretty much just couldn't effing stop.

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* In fact, I later learned Nabokov was fluent in approximately 6 languages. I began to despair. “One could,” I thought, “do these things, but perhaps only if one was Nabokov himself.

** Don’t worry, I’ve recognised all these nasty vestiges of imperial thought & gotten them out of my head since 1999, when I first read Lolita. 



24 May 2014

How Strange It Is To Be Anything At All...

Neutral Milk Hotel have been one of my favourite bands for years. The sound of Jeff Mangum's voice always pulls me back to those late summer nights of 2005, when I would turn up 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,' close out the till, gush buckets of water across the coffee-stained floor, mop up the gritty grounds with bleach and hot water, and wonder where the hell I was going to end up in 10 years...

I remember those days, feeling lost. Like I wasn't doing anything useful... like I wasn't useful.

And Neutral Milk Hotel gave me something, every night, a wisp, a thread that held my heart together, those nights when I hated myself for losing time, every night, to this goddamn mop bucket.

The band had already broken up, by the time I heard of them, so I never thought I'd see them live. Jeff Mangum, for some time, seemed like he might never pick up a guitar again. 

But then he did. And the band reunited. They came to Manchester last week. Back in 2005, when I wondered where I'd be in 10 years, I never imagined the strange answers that have become the true ones: in Manchester. Working at the BBC. Married. Or married, but to someone that - back then - I hadn't even met yet.

How unbelievably my life has changed. How strange it is.

The show was amazing. It made my heart swell. It made me so glad to be alive, in this time, in this place. How lucky I am to get to see Neutral Milk Hotel in the Albert Hall, a perfect venue for them, big and beautiful, with stained glass and a huge organ.
















For the past few months, I've been involved in this contemporary theatre project, called "Summer." It's not a play, but it is a performance, and honestly, I'm not really sure what it is - except that it is about being alive and about just being.

I'm one of the performers, along with about 30 other people, who are all different ages (the youngest is 18 months old, I think, and the oldest person I've met in it is in her 70s).

This is Cristina. She's in Summer, too.













Rehearsals have been strange, but in a fun way - a lot of walking around and working out how to interpret the sometimes-strange instructions they give us ("Walk, sit, run, lay down, or jump in lanes. When I tell you, you can walk, sit, run, lay down, or jump in grids.). For the photoshoot, they threw water on us. It is sometimes a totally ridiculous way to spend an afternoon... you can read more about it on Creative Tourist.

All Quarantine ask of us is to be ourselves - and the performance is based around all of our personal stories & lives. Between the Neutral Milk Hotel show and Summer, I've found myself daydreaming a lot this week - going over memories of summers past, who I used to be (quite hard on people), and who I still am (quite hard on myself).

Jonti and I have been packing all of life into our evenings. Apart from Saturday rehearsals & work, we have seen 2 concerts (Neutral Milk Hotel & Benjamin Brooker) and a play. On Tuesday, we went to Aumbry, an amazing restaurant near Manchester. We had a five-course tasting menu, and it was stunning. One of my dishes was too salty, but apart from that, it was absolutely delicious and surprisingly unfussy food.

That night, Jonti and I talked about being friends to people and building friendships with people, and being hard on people and being hard on ourselves. He said to me, "With friends, there will always be moments of good will, and there will always be moments of ill will. There will always be moments of cruelty and moments of kindness. That's what we do."

How strange it is, how lucky I am, to be married to this amazing man, who has so much empathy that he sees even ill will, even from his friends, as part of the flow of life.

11 May 2014

Elfin Ears!

It's been another long while.

Sometimes, it feels like I have so much to tell you all about, I get overwhelmed by it. And I avoid writing it. And then more happens that I want to tell you. It's a vicious cycle.

I apologise. That's just a cliche. This cycle really isn't all that vicious. Because it's a blogging cycle, and really, it can't get vicious.

Since I last posted, my family came to visit me. The big six: my mom & dad, my sister & brother-in-law, my niece & nephew. It was really important to me that my sister saw Manchester, my new home. I've been in this town more than 3 years now - and I'm glad she's seen it.

It was 10 days of Dalal-Parekh craziness, made all the more fun with some extra Small action. Jonti's parents rented a massive cottage in the Lake District and took us out on some walks.

Looking over Lake Windermere in Ambleside.
Dramatic skies.

Alan, Jonti's father, took us all on a walk out to Rydal cave.
We saw bats. We think

















There is a strange British obsession with horrible American foodlike substances. I suppose it's because things like aerosolised cheese can't legally be sold as food here. They brought Easy Cheese for Jonti's cousin Philip, and my friends Neil & Joe. Look how happy it made Joe.
Joe eating a gross thing
and very happy about it.




















This trip was the first time my sister met my husband.

I still think that's a really strange thing. I never never thought I would have such a tale to tell.

I still feel bad that she wasn't able to be at the wedding. I know we're going to have another one in Atlanta. But I also know it upset her. And I can't fix it, of course, because it's happened.

I was happy to see all of them - my niece and nephew are growing up and that's awesome and weird. But more than anything, I was really glad that I got to see my sister. I feel like I broke that secret pact we made when we were little, that pact where we said, "I promise I will not let you miss anything."

We didn't make a pact. But I still feel like I broke something.

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They flew out on a Tuesday morning - and that night, Jonti & I went out to see Mark Z Danielewski do a Q&A. Danielewski is the author of House of Leaves, a book that will change how you think about books in a good fun theoretical ambitious critical excellent way.

He's the kind of writer who attracts PhD theses like banana-eating attracts mosquitoes. It was a strange Q&A, as his fans lined up to ask him questions about how obscure French theorists inform his work. And he answered with grace and intelligence, shifting from an incredibly theoretical question to a profoundly human answer. He said things like, "When people ask me how I know a book is done, all I can tell them is that ... it's when the story starts to eat itself."

I loved this night. Benjamin Judge & Dave Hartley have written fuller reviews.

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We had lovely weather for the Easter holiday earlier this month. Jonti & I tried to go for a countryside bicycle ride, but we failed at that pretty miserably and ended up pushing our bikes up a seriously steep hill on an A road, riding along another A road, and eventually realising we had no idea where the track we were supposed to be heading toward started. It wasn't a total wash, though - we sat in Mossley park, in beautiful sunshine, warm and bright & we read our books and had a lovely picnic.

The next day, Katherine decided to drive us out to the beach! We went out to Formby and had *another* picnic! I know. Two picnics in two days. I'm totally spoiled.





















I feel that because I grew up in landlocked Atlanta, I'm still kind of a kid at the beach. Water, the seaside, sand, seashells - these things are all still really surprising to me. Yes, I spent two years living in Sydney - but I didn't spend much time at the beaches. In my experience, most of Sydney's beaches were too busy & the water was too full of used tampons.

Katherine and Jonti walked ahead of me, as I constantly stopped to pick up seashells. Muttering to myself, "Oh, that's a pretty one... I wonder what animal this is??... This one has a hinge... Oh, neat." Occasionally, I yelled. "JONTI! WHAT'S THIS ONE?"

He would slowly walk back to me, take the shell from me, and quietly say, "I don't know. It's just a shell."

He spent his childhood coming to Formby regularly & he's totally over the shells. So's Katherine. But I took a whole bunch home and washed them and I'm going to keep them forever. Well, probably more like for awhile.





















Near Formby beach is a red squirrel sanctuary. Red squirrels are indigenous to Britain. They have been losing habitat and food to the invasive species known as the North American grey squirrel... in other words, because of squirrels that are from where I'm from.

It makes me sad, because I love grey squirrels. I love their bushy tails and their awesome jumping skills. When they stand up on their hind legs, they look like they're wearing little white shirts. I love them. But here, in the UK, they are a bad thing. I was hoping that red squirrels wouldn't be as cute in real life as grey squirrels, so that I could go on loving the hell out of all the grey squirrels I see in Manchester. For cuteness.

But then, I saw three red squirrels in the woods near Formby Beach. And oh my god, they are even cuter than grey squirrels. They have elfin ears, y'all. They are smaller than greys, and they have wispy little bushy tails. THEY ARE GINGER. They are the best squirrel. I dare you to find a better squirrel.


















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We've been going to see lots of music lately. Sounds From The Other City (SFTOC) is a Salford-based music festival, with loads of Salford pubs and music venues hosting all-day gigs. This year was SFTOC's 10-year anniversary. They made decorations & party hats out of posters from previous years.





















SFTOC provided an excellent excuse to see a bunch of venues I wouldn't otherwise have seen, like Salford University's Peel Hall. Gorgeous entryway.


















It was a really fun day, and though I really only 'discovered' one band that I really like from it, that band is so metal awesome, they've made me wonder whether I am at heart truly just a metal fan.*

They are Sly and the Family Drone. They are two drummers, who are proficient & work together to play across each others' drum sets at the same time, as well as a mixing desk of some sort (played by one of the drummers) & a dude making strange noises through a harmonica fitted to a microphone. A video on Youtube will not give you the experience of watching these guys. They are some new kind of music, like metal-jazz or something, and they are super awesome. They played just outside this strange teepee or cut-up tent or whatever it is with cool light projections all over it.




















We also went to see Future Islands the other night, on the recommendation of Miss Laura Barton. Have y'all already heard of Future Islands? They were a great show.

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Oh, and I've been working a lot lately. I left my contract at the BBC to go freelance and get back into production, and I've been working fairly solid since then. It's an exciting and scary time to go freelance again - but I think I'm ready.

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And I'm keeping some news in my back pocket, so I can post more than once a month. Promise.

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*Probably not.

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. 
ALL. THE. TIME.























Saltaire

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.