10 October 2010

Up then, Brave Women

It was a mild and windy Sunday, 10.30am. I was waiting on Manchester's Cross St, near the Manchester Wheel, which is a sad sort of London Eye, only much smaller and with no queues whatsoever. I was staring up at the Printworks, which used to be a publishing house for newspapers and is now a clubbing centre with an IMAX theatre, some chain restaurants and a dodgy-looking bar called "Old Orleans." Or maybe I'm not remembering that correctly. You see, I was distracted by the 12 or so people abseiling down the side of the building. This is not what I'd signed up for.

I was looking for the meeting point for a walking tour on radical women's history in Manchester. The tour was titled "Up then, Brave Women!" and I wanted the tour. I didn't want the tour to involve harnesses or hooks or the Printworks.

Luckily, someone noticed how out of place I looked; the consternation on my face gave me away. "Over there," she said, pointing down the street at a group of people about 200 feet away.

I wasn't sure whether I could detect a whiff of distaste in her gesture or not. Probably not. Probably she just didn't want to be holding a clipboard on a Sunday morning administrating a heap of teenagers scrambling down a building.

Led by Michael Herbert, who assured me there would be no abseiling at all, and who is a historian with the Working Class Movement Library, the walk took us through the medieval part of Manchester, or what's left of it. Chetham's School of Music is next to Chetham's Library, and Chetham's Library is amazing. Old and dark, books in alcoves behind iron gates, it wouldn't be out of place in a Harry Potter movie. Dumbledore's private book collection. Engels and Marx used to read here and write and study– you can still sit at the very table where they sketched the beginnings of an idea that changed the world. And there Michael let us in on the people who aren't often remembered: the Burns sisters, the women who showed Engels around the working-class districts of Manchester, showed him the slums and horrible living conditions of the working class. They gave him the fuel for his theories. Mary Burns and Engels had a covert relationship, never marrying, but living together just the same. Engels didn't believe in marriage; he saw it as unnatural and unjust. After Mary died, Lizzie Burns became Engels' "wife," but he never really credited them in his work, and given they never wrote their own stories, they are largely forgotten. Michael described the frustrations of history. I marvelled at the fact that I had been a (poor, very poor) Communist for a few years and had never heard of these brave women. I don't suppose I really read all that I should have, though.

We walked through the sites of the early co-operative movement. Turns out MCR is the home of the first official co-ops as we know them. Can you believe I moved here before I knew there even was a Working Class Movement Library? Before I'd heard about this whole "home of co-ops" thing? Tell you what: so far, the weather hasn't been too bad, and with history like this, I've been getting along with this town just fine. Just fine.

Michael told us about Robert Owen, one of the founders of the co-ops movement. As we stood by the romantic statue of him outside the Co-operative Bank, I pulled out my handy-dandy pocket street map to try to remember where we were. Women involved in the co-operative took it upon themselves to make reading groups, to come together and work. Women's fight for suffrage began in the co-operative, and it was a serious one. Emmeline Pankhurst fought for suffrage with militant passion; when arrested, she began a hunger-strike, and in her autobiography, she describes the trauma of force-feeding: "Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office."

At the Manchester Cathedral, he told us about Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker movement, which eventually told hold in America. After four stillbirths and four children who all died before they were 6, she began claiming she had visions from God, and she began the Shaker style of prayer. Which is loud and involves dancing and shouting. She believed in gender equality, and she didn't ever want to get married, and this sort of thing made a lot of men uncomfortable. As it does. Below is a picture of Michael outside the Cathedral; it seemed he mostly spoke off-the-cuff, just pulling interesting stories out of his head. Engaging tour guide, to say the least. He has dates in his brain, my friends. Dates in his brain.

Eventually, Michael asked me where I was from, given that most Mancunians don't need a street atlas to get around a town that basically has 6 main streets. We got to chatting, in between walking tour stops, and as we headed toward Town Hall, he asked me to join him and his partner for a coffee after the tour. Being the kind of person who has to do walking tours alone, because I'm interested but don't know anyone, and furthermore, being the kind of nerd who absolutely loves history, libraries, and anything to do with books, I gladly accepted. A historian, a librarian, the exact person who knows all the neat stuff I want to know about this town, invited me out for coffee. I couldn't believe my luck.

In fact, only a few days prior, I had been walking along with Craig and unwittingly revealed my naive sense of a truly good world. "But Craig," I said, "People should know the names of amazing librarians! Why aren't there really famous librarians, you know, like household names??"
Craig smiled at me, his eyes soft and misty. "You're right, my dear," he said. "That would be nice." And in his voice, I heard something I haven't heard in a long time: someone protecting my view of the world from harsh reality.

The Free Trade Union Hall is now a Radisson Hotel, where Labour Party folks stay when they're in town. They're trying, you see, to forge a connection between themselves and the radical history of working class Manchester. And by using the word "forge" there, I'm implying forgery, not hot hard thankless skilled metal work. The Free Trade Hall is nothing to do with current right-wing definitions of "free trade." It began as a meeting place for the Anti-Corn Law League. The Corn Laws were British protectionist policies, keeping foreign-grown corn out of Britain until British corn prices rose. Ordinary people couldn't afford the food, and began an opposition. Only the facade of the current Free Trade Hall is original. The rest was damaged in bombing, so the Radisson just tore it up and slapped a box-hotel on the back. At least the front looks nice. And it's near the site of the Peterloo massacre, where cavalry charged, sabres drawn, into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators calling for parliamentary reform. Interestingly, because the Labour Party were conferencing during our walking tour, we were unable to visit the site of this historic battle for democracy. Guards kept us out, of course, keeping the politicians safe from our historical curiosity.

Overall, the tour was brilliant, and not least because I made some cool friends. Also, Michael shared an abridged version of the walk with me, so when you come visit, we can do a historical re-enactment of my walk.

Since that tour, I've been out to a movie with Michael and his partner, Bernadette, and they've introduced me to more amazing people. Example: Fergus, who just happens to be a librarian at Chetham's!! Maybe I can talk my way into a special tour. We'll see--

Later in the week, I took a Tales of the Manchester Dead tour, which was also fascinating. Beginning at St. Ann's church, tourguide Ed showed us the gravestone of Thomas Deacon, which calls him "the greatest of Sinners and the most unworthy of primitive Bishops." I reckon it might be the most insulting tombstone in the world. St. Ann's is a beautiful old church, with several of its original gravestones propped up against the building.


We walked around Town Hall, taking a look at dear Albert who died of cholera, and we passed under this beautiful bridge, which reminded me, just a little, of Cambridge's Bridge of Sighs.

Ed told us about the Moors murders, and the strange things under L.S. Lowry's paintings. He told us that the famous red pillar box near the Arndale that was the only thing to survive an IRA bombing unscathed is a duplicate-- the real one did survive the bomb unscathed, but broke during site clean-up. He took us by the building where the last death penalty in England was issued. The beautiful Peace Gardens, created to assuage Manchester's guilt over its role in the development of the Bomb. In fact, Manchester was the world's first nuclear-free zone. 

All things I will show you, my friends, when you come to see this amazing town, dripping with history, every dark nook filled with nerd-out potential, if only we remember to bring a torch, or better, some matches.

Also, my nephew tells me Manchester has a Legoland, so I can't imagine what more enticement you could possibly need.

This is the former school board office, currently being used as a temporary city library, because the current one is under renovation until about 2013 or something. It's a beautiful old building, called Elliott House. I realize this post might be a bit library-heavy. And I haven't even mentioned some of Manchester's heavyweights-- ah, well. You'll have to remain in suspense.
Apart from the big stuff, the science and the history and the nice weather lately, there are little things around Manchester that pocket my days with little joys.

As I wander around campus and town, I find myself surprised by the Northern Hemisphere things that I haven't seen in over two years. Leaves, in the autumn, they are technicolour.

I find myself surprised by the hilarious vague copyright infringement.

I really love Manchester's Town Hall.

And Manchester's canals are absolutely lovely.

 This is one of the Deansgate Locks, clever water-control devices that allow boats to go downhill. I'm sure Jeremy could tell me more.

A house for ducks, along the canal.

A fat cat that lives in my residence hall, named Zorro, who looks a little my own little boy, Gabriel, the poor little bugger.

 And the sudden, breathtaking sights.

But there are things here that make me ache, as well. When I talk to Craig in Sydney, and he tells me about a ginger toddler named Mira. A ginger toddler that I absolutely adore, who has blue eyes and loves to spin and has two of the best parents in the world. When I talk to my nephew and niece in Atlanta, and they tell me they've won prizes in Hindi class for storytelling (congratulations, again, guys! I'm so proud!). When I hear from my sister about her recent battle with a mouse in her house. When I think about Craig. At all.

These are the times I try to remember all the reasons I had for doing this. These are the times I send sad emails to my friends.

A few days ago, I got a response from my dear friend Judith. "Be of good courage," she wrote. "A year will fly."

And I thought about the brave women of Manchester, of Sydney, of Atlanta, the brave women in my own family.

These are the times I try to be like them, a brave woman. Of good courage.

Up, then.

1 comment:

  1. The locks are more important to let boats go uphill/upstream instead of downhill/downstream. Powered boats can go uphill/upstream, but they can run into problems at waterfalls. The real advantage of locks is getting boats over water falls, shoals, rapids, or other areas of shallow flow.

    That makes me think of the movie 24 Hour Party People about the Manchester music scene, becasue at the beginning Tony Curtis is interviewing a lock worker. If you haven't watched it, you should.