Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities: Manchester

Manchester is the latest in a series of anthology and live events organised by indie publishers Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Edited by Thom Cuell, the Manchester edition will be launched on July 28 at Plant in Manchester, and features contributions from Anthony Trevelyan, Bryony Bates, Tristan Burke, Sarah-Clare Conlon, Sian Cummins, Peter Wilde and Valerie O’Riordan. Here, some of the contributors share their thoughts on the city and its influence on their writing.

Tell us about your contribution to Cities

Tristan Burke: Much of the rhetoric around Manchester, both from the city’s institutions (its council, public arts institutions, universities, civil society organisations) and its artists (writers and musicians predominantly – Manchester’s contributions to the visual arts and cinema still seem remarkably slim), is of relentless positivity. Manchester is celebrated for its radical history, cultural innovation and for being a city of the future. All this is true of course, and Manchester’s history of protest and creativity (radical politics, religious nonconformism, women’s suffrage, vegetarianism, the mass trespass, LGBTQ rights, Factory records and all the other stuff we’re so overly familiar with) should be celebrated. But this ignores an important parallel history of the city, which can predominantly be located stemming from the industrial revolution, but perhaps reaches back to the Roman occupation of Britain. This history is of Manchester as a space of control, power and violence. This history of Manchester is an inevitable corollary to its radical history. The city’s proud Victorian industrialists were themselves radicals (as Marx and Engels insistently remind us, “the bourgeoisie have played the most revolutionary part”) but they also built their factories and the city as an architecture and technology of control, monitoring and discipline for their workers, and, perversely, for themselves. This continues to be reflected not only in the basic street layout and architecture of Manchester, but also in the persistence of its Victorian institutions as key elements of city life today (the town hall, the prison, the art gallery, the university, most of the housing stock) and in the governance of twenty-first century Manchester, which must have one of the most conservative Labour councils in the country and which is particularly enamoured with social control through architecture in its current urban planning policies.

My contribution to the book is an attempt to think about Manchester’s history of control, discipline and violence through a montage of anecdotes, some based on my own experience of calling Manchester my home for ten years, some from family stories (my father grew up in Blakely in north Manchester – north Manchester is all but excluded from ‘official’ images of the city today – and his father worked in the Printworks when it was a print works), and some completely fictional. I wanted to offer a very different account of the city to the celebratory accounts which appear in government propaganda, tourist literature and much contemporary fiction, though I hope the light of radical possibility is still made possible by my work.

Sian Cummins: The story I’ve written is about a homecoming to a thing that meant something, as well as to a place. A secret piece of silliness, discovered by accident, stays with someone bewildered and out of their depth for longer than their official education.

Valerie O’Riordan: Mine’s a story about a very lonely builder who’s also very bad at reading social cues and manages to ruin a new friendship as a result. It’s part of a series of stories I’ve written set in a slightly fictionalised version of Manchester. I’m not overly interested in writing about the city centre – and besides, that’s been done before, and better – so my stories feature grotty suburban high streets and pound shops and building sites.

Anthony Trevelyan: ‘Repossession’ is a story bringing together – or loosely collocating – some of the dominant impressions of the city that built up in my nervous system during the ten years I lived there. Its physical terrain is very much that of my time in the city (the shabby-chic whirligig of the Northern Quarter) and its obsessions too are those that grew upon me in my urban decade: the life of the city, the constant, enigmatic suggestion of its secret life, as well as its tolerant inclusion of cranks and eccentrics and oddballs of every type. Obediently and intelligibly the story works in terms of the already-perennial trope of the Northern Quarter eating itself, or dismembering itself: I only hope somewhere there’s also a more optimistic implication that the city lives through its narratives of self-destruction and that its accumulation of hazards, seeming and actual, is an enduring part of its indestructible life.

Sarah-Clare Conlon: I’ve put together as a pair two stories that I had originally written for other projects and have now reworked for the Cities anthology. The first, One for Sorrow, was part of the Re/Place site-specific storytelling commission for Chorlton Arts Festival a couple of years back, and the second was for the follow-up, Re/Place(d) for Didsbury Arts Festival, so they’re nicely anchored in Manchester. They were never meant to be a pair – in fact the Chorlton one was part of a completely different set of four flash fictions – but both are about birds and both are set under the flight path to (or from) Manchester Airport, so they kind of feel as if they belong together.

Peter Wilde: I’d read a few bits and pieces about Nico – model, actress, Velvet Underground chanteuse – and the days toward the tail end of her career in Manchester, and the whole period really intrigues me. I liked the idea of someone trying to have a go at her and biting off far more than they could chew. I also liked the challenge of writing about a city without mentioning street names and specific locales to see if I could conjure Manchester.

Bryony Bates: Coleoptera is a poem about evolution, climate change, extinction and etymology. It was originally inspired by the baseline test scene in Blade Runner: 2049, where Ryan Gosling’s character is being tested for signs of human emotion through aggressive questioning about an extract from Nabokov:

“Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.”

I started looking up the eytmologies of words from the text, and found that ‘cell’ is related to ‘coleoptera’, the scientific name for beetles. I read more about beetles and their multiplicity on Earth, which linked in my mind to the way that words evolve and how one root word can become many different, apparently unconnected words – the etymological connection between ‘shit’ and ‘science’, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to separate’ is one of my favourite examples. Eventually the poem became structured around taking a word back to its root to look at which other words or concepts are implicitly related, and then following the thread of a different word to see where it takes me. Eventually, it all comes back to beetles.

I am still writing this poem; it is eventually going to be much longer than the version in the anthology.

What’s your favourite piece of writing about Manchester?

TB: Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854). These three volumes can still tell us more about Manchester then any number of novels about the “bohemian” drifting of twentysomethings in the Northern Quarter.

SC: The Lemn Sissay poem ‘Rain’ on the side of Gemini on Oxford Road.

V O’R: Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals is definitely up there: it’s raucous and feminist and really deeply rooted in the city’s geography.

AT: Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley. For a long time Riley has been one of our greatest writers (and by ‘our’ I don’t mean Mancunians – I mean human beings) and it’s really quite appalling that it’s only now, when she’s on something like her twenty-seventh book, that people are starting to cotton on to the fact. Forget the Woolf comparisons (misleading, unrepresentative, and weirdly snobbish): reading Riley is like reading Saul Bellow or Toni Morrison, in that all the words are familiar but look, look, here they are doing things you’ve never seen them do before – and it is absolutely impossible to see how it is done. Which, I suspect, is as near to an attempt to define literary genius as you’re going to get out of me.

SCC: One of the first writers I heard read live when I came out from under a cloud of driving every day to work a permanent job in deepest darkest Lancashire and started going to events was Nicholas Royle, whose short story Maths Tower really drew me in. If you don’t know the real-life urban myth, then the University of Manchester’s Maths Tower on Oxford Road was a Brutalist beauty allegedly put up the wrong way round back in the Sixties. It was demolished in 2005, but not before I sat one of my finals there. I didn’t do maths, by the way; I did French. Nick has written a number of novels, the most recent of which is called First Novel – presumably to fox the unawares – and is set in the aforementioned Didsbury. It includes references to real people and places, which I always find appealing and a little bit voyeuristic.

PW: I suspect a lot of people will say this but the Max Ferber sections of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants are pretty damn great.

BB: I think the best writing about Manchester can be found in MEN headlines, especially the short versions that appear on newspaper boards and usually contain the word ‘horror’ e.g. TAXI GANG KNIFE HORROR or PUB MACHETE WEDDING HORROR. In the paper itself, these stories usually get a paragraph underneath a full-page exposé of increasing delays on the Metrolink.

Where’s your favourite place to write?

TB: At home, in a box room, in silence.

SC: Anywhere goes, as long as it’s not in bed.

V O’R: I do most of my work at home, because I’m lazy and a cheapskate, but I’ve been known to get stuff done in Manchester’s beautiful Central Library or my local Levenshulme café, Trove.

AT: I’m very boring about this sort of thing – I’ve always liked the routine of having one fixed space to work in. For years when I lived in a flat in the Northern Quarter I had a desk at the back of the main living space where I worked; I loved having my little capsule of writerly calm slap-dab at the centre of all that Tib Street uproar and madness, the city night shattering all about me while I tinkered with commas. More recently my wife Gemma and I have lived in two different houses, and in each I’ve been able to bagsy a spare bedroom as a study. This year we bought a house in Stockport, and I have a very nice writing room in it – a large former bedroom overlooking a nice cottagey bit of lane, with a clinically stark white desk and bookshelves lining the walls. One of those studies you see pictured in Guardian features with Ian McEwan or whoever lolling smugly in the middle of it.

One irony of all this is that I always use absolutely the skinniest and most lightweight laptop my money can buy, as if I’m going to be permanently scaling rock-faces and jumping out of aeroplanes with it. But I don’t do any of that. I just leave it on my desk.

SCC: I write at the dining room table, be that creatively or for the copywriting part of my day job. It’s a G Plan and has plenty of its own stories to tell – I don’t know whether that helps.

PW: I wish I had a favourite place. I write in the midst of bedlam most of the time.

BB: I almost always write at home; I used to mostly write in bed, but I’ve migrated over the past couple of years to the kitchen table. If I ever really need to get unstuck though, I get into bed – being that physically relaxed often helps me push past any psychological problems I’m having.

If you could one thing to sum up your city, what would it be (could be a place, a person, an event, a piece of art, anything)?

TB: It is only through productively opening Manchester’s joyous contradictions that its Victorian Workhouse-Northern Powerhouse legacy can be effectively challenged (firstly by recognising it), so I wouldn’t want to name a single thing. I love the little area around the Salisbury pub under Oxford Road Station though, which is a pocket of space where the calendar time of city development no longer works properly, it is, or at least it has the potential to be “exploded out of the continuum of history” as Walter Benjamin would say. The authorities won’t allow that area to exist much longer though, it’s too dangerous to their vision of what the city should be.

SC: The street names. Sparkle Street, Soap Street, Alan Turing Way…we have a lump in our throats even when we’re stuck in traffic.

V O’R: The massive biannual anti-Tory demonstrations in town during the Conservative Party Conference! Don’t fuck with this city…

AT: The silver tree that twines its way sinuously across the redbrick face of Affleck’s Palace. It is the image that offers itself immediately and unprompted whenever I think of Manchester – a gothicky bit of whimsy with something at once appealingly pagan and inclusively modern about it. Come one come all under the tinselly branches of Affleck’s. Or something like that.

SCC: When I first moved to Manchester to study, back in the Nineties, I made a beeline for Cornerhouse to watch foreign films, and I kept going, for foreign films, art openings, birthday cards, food and a certain amount of wine, until it shut down in 2015. It was a great hub of creativity in the city – I met lots of writers and artists there, for the very first time and subsequently as a go-to meet-up point. The first-floor bar looking up the Oxford Road Station approach offered a great vantage point, and was my home for three days as part of a Cornerhouse commission when I worked on a special writing project about the bicycle Cambridge hoops outside. The Cornerhouse concept relocated to HOME, so I guess that’s my spiritual home now.

PW: Adolphe Valette’s Manchester paintings work for me. (To a soundtrack of Unknown Pleasures.)

BB: Frank Sidebottom’s version of Love Will Tear Us Apart

What’s the literary scene like?

TB: Still too much performance poetry and shilling for the tourist board

SC: A few years ago the live lit scene was very close knit and there was something like a ‘Manchester live style’, which you did well to steer away from if you wanted to keep your own voice. That said, it always felt warm and democratic. Since becoming a parent I’ve seen less of it and things have probably changed! There are quite a few small publishers here and that’s good. Indie bookshops are really embedded here

V O’R: The literary scene seems to be going from strength to strength: when I moved here nearly ten years ago there were a couple of nights, but now there are absolutely loads, and they’re all very open and friendly and diverse, which is brilliant.

AT: I’m no expert on Manchester’s literary scene, but I have the impression there’s a lot of it, and quite a bit of it is rather forbiddingly exciting. In recent years I’ve sort of dipped in and out of the spoken-word scene, which taken by itself is impressively massive and multi-directional and complex, and the little corner of it where I’ve always been happiest is the regular (and now pretty legendary) cabaret evening Flim Nite, created and curated by Jasmine Chatfield and Jack Nicholls. Quite a few times now the Flim Nite guys have let me clutter up their stage with my awkward mumblings and ill-considered musings, and I’ll keep doing it as long as Jack and Jasmine keep letting me. Without a doubt it’s the most warmly welcoming and honest-to-goodness fun avant-garde performance event you’ll ever get your arse down to, and I heartily recommend that you do.

SCC: The literary scene in Manchester has always been a busy old place, and certainly for the last ten years there have been some amazing regular nights and one-off events to be involved in as both a participant and as an audience member. Some of these are now coming to an end, but they are being replaced with new formats and new hosts, and it’s great to see this continuity along with the ongoing amazing support that is dished out at the grass roots level. There’s also of course the ‘institutional’ stuff, which means international authors and poets are now par for the course in the city, and that makes Manchester as important for learning as it is for creating – and they do say we need to read (or at least listen) in order to write.

PW: I’m a hermit. I don’t participate. Particularly in recent years. Wouldn’t want to be part of any club etc etc. But I glimpse liveliness when I peer out through the turret windows.

BB: There’s a lot going on and it’s very open and supportive – people are excited to find new work and new writers, there isn’t a feeling of competition. For poetry specifically, which is what I’m most familiar with, there’s a great experimental scene which I would say is part of a broader scene in the North West at the moment centred around some great live poetry nights: Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, No Matter, Zarf in Leeds (though it’s currently on hiatus), Electric Arc Furnace in Sheffield. There’s a real sense of coherence and collaboration, and I expect someone looking in from the outside could perhaps identify a distinct style or school of poetry here – I’m too close to it to work out what that is, to be honest.

How has being in Manchester affected your own writing?

TB: By training, I’m a specialist in nineteenth-century literature, so it couldn’t be a more exciting and intellectually fulfilling place to be, though this avenue to thinking about the city has, perhaps, made me cynical.

SC: Manchester is a very self-conscious, self-referential city and it can be hard not to write about it. It’s in the character of the place to let things resonate unrestrainedly, so just to name something or someone can feel like an emotive piece of narrative on its own. That’s good and bad. There’s a fine line between tapping those touchpoints of passion and avoiding cliche. I’ve written a lot about Manchester, in my fiction and a lot of city life and travel stuff. Sometimes I can’t get enough of it, sometimes I need a break. I’m taking a break now, writing something set in Germany and North Wales.

V O’R: I’ve done both my MA and PhD in creative writing at the University of Manchester, which has obviously been very significant to my development as a writer, but the most significant ongoing thing for me is that there’s so many creative practitioners of all disciplines living and working in the city – it’s a really energetic and supportive environment.

AT: I think the greatest impact Manchester has had on my writing is confidence. Before I came to live in Manchester I’d lived in a fair few other places, including a couple of cites, and none of them gave me confidence – quite the reverse. It often seemed to me necessary to maintain a secret and separate supply of writerly confidence that had nothing to do with any aspect of my surroundings, practically a form of willed psychosis. Then I came to Manchester and suddenly I didn’t have to bother with that any more. Manchester runs on confidence, hums with it, flings it off from every pavement and windowpane, and all you have to do is wander round a bit taking it in. Confidence may still be a psychosis, but at least in Manchester you can feel we’re all in it together.

SCC: The supportive and very much interlinked aspect of the arts scene here is unparalleled, and receiving appreciation and encouragement and platforms to publish and to perform has been absolutely crucial in the development of my creative writing career, and even in the development of my actual career, which was originally writing and then editing, and is now writing and editing equally, which has crept up on me a little. In a good way.

PW: I think a version of Manchester is frozen in my mind and when I do step sheepishly into town, I’m constantly reviewing what is the same and what has changed. I tend to be fascinated by what goes and those things that pass usually work their way into what I’m doing.

BB: I started seriously writing poetry about five years ago, and moved to Manchester four and a half years ago, so my development as a writer has taken place almost entirely in this city. I think the fact that there is such a good live literary scene has had the biggest influence, or biggest set of influences. I’m a performer as well as a poet, and I started doing readings not long after I’d moved here: the fact that my poems have often developed through performance as well as just writing in solitude has definitely had an effect on the way I write and how my poems sound. I think Manchester has a definite ‘go hard or go home’ attitude, and that’s encouraged me to never second-guess myself or my ideas – my best writing is where I am most completely myself.

You can buy the anthology and find out more about the launch event here