The GardenDespatches from The Satyrs’ Forest

Posts tagged as “Manchester”

Affleck’s Palace: tidbits from Manchester

A stairwell covered in music posters
A statue of Frank Sidebottom

It has now been over three months since i visited the city of Manchester. What once was a vivid memory has been obscured by the fog of ever-ticking time. But there is unfinished business to be dealt with — so let me sing to you, dear reader, of Affleck’s Palace.

Cottonopolis’ pop- and counter-culture mecca found its place in a bourgeois defunct department store; its hollowed husk has been stuffed beyond recognition with dozens of stores over four floors, from fashion to cassettes to Hatsune Miku–themed fizzy pop.

An anime-themed bubble tea shop

It’s an absolutely disorienting place to get your head around. The meme up in Newcastle is that the Grainger Market is an Escherian nightmare where nothing is ever where it was last time, but Affleck’s is a whole other level (three of them, in fact). Stairs lead to more stairs which lead to corridors which somehow lead back to the same stairs. It took me five goes to find the cassette tape store, and when i did, it was closed for a fag break. It’s the sort of place where a non-specifically foreign woman who you never see again sells you a cursed trinket that brings ruin to your family.

A bath bomb store covered in bamboo  and tie-dye cloth

I can only tolerate hippie shit in small doses, and, thankfully, this little bath-bomb dispensary was the perfect small dose. Incense sticks? Tie-dye decorations? Sure, why not.

A shop selling various LGBT-themed wares

This shop claims to be Europe’s largest LGBT specialty store, which i’m sure is true, if only because half of Europe has the same attitude towards gay and trans people as a moderate Westboro Baptist.

A wall stocked full of funko pop vinyls
Bad and naughty intellectual properties go to Funko Pop Jail, where they belong.

And if counter-culture isn’t your thing, there’s enough stalls hawking Disney merchandise to keep you occupied. (I clapped when i saw the thing i know!!!)

I hardly even remember getting in or out of the building, which leaves me at a loss for how to end this post. Maybe it’s more of a feeling than a real place — you just wake up one day, teleported inside, and have to complete a vision quest to buy a cone of rose-flavoured ice cream to find out how to leave.

Arts and crafts: tidbits from Manchester

In a gallery hangs a large landscape painting depicting the Gods and Goddesses of the classical world
I included this photo to show that the gallery still makes plenty of room for the “old masters” — but, to be honest with you, it sums up everything i dislike about some renaissance and baroque art. Just a huddled mass of mythological figures, with no life, no colour, no attention paid to the greater picture. Sad!

Manchester is not particularly renowned as a home for the aristocracy or patrons of the high arts, so i was pleased to discover upon a visit that the Manchester Art Gallery is one of the finest of its kind.

The Mag (as nobody calls it)’s success lies not in the size of its collection — it’s no larger than my local, the Laing — but in its presentation. Like many museums, its curators have lately been making efforts to diversify their collections and make them more relatable to the average yoof of today. It’s a process that can often come off as haphazard and rushed1, but the team at the Mag have pulled it off with care and respect.

A painting of a black woman covered in coal laying on a cloth-covered black table, as if deceased
Berni Searle, In Wake Of, 2014.

Newer works are dotted in each gallery in such a way that they complement, rather than denigrate, the greats of old. A visa rejection letter from a group of Pakistani artists hangs alongside Victorian paintings of eastern caravans; where a gallery about protest and revolution could have added some shrewd, vapid letterpress and called it a day, the museum’s curators have instead chosen to incorporate a thoughtful self-portrait by a South African painter, made in the wake of the Marikana massacre.2

A portrait of a dashingly handsome Shakespearean actor

The captions accompanying each artwork face a similarly complicated task. Be too conservative and you’ll disappear up your own arse into a world of romanticist masturbation; be too reactionary and you’ll come off as cloyingly didactic, engaging in pseudohistoric iconoclasm for iconoclasm’s sake. The Mag hit a stroke of genius here: after a brief description in the typical style, the captions adorning prominent works also include conversations and thoughts from a variety of perspectives, be it historians, curators, or the artists themselves. It’s a brilliant way to further inform the visitor without beating them over the head with one opinion, alienating them with arcane academese, or leaving out unsavoury histories.

A lit up colourful glass tapestry marked with traditional Ghanaian patterns
Someone, please, tell me what this painting is called. I have to know.

Other highlights on the lower floors include a portrait of the early black tragedian Ira Aldridge (the very first work in the museum’s collection, which rather surprised me coming from the people of 1858), a Ghanaian tapestry that i was surprised to learn was actually made of glass, and a lovely painting of an industrial scene lit by hazy fog whose name — to current me’s infuriation — i neglected to include in the photo, taken from an angle so inconvenient that reverse image search returns nothing of relevance. Past me is a bastard and i’m killing him when i get the chance.

Upstairs sit the gallery’s temporary exhibitions. The most prominently advertised was on the topic of the history of men’s fashion, something i regrettably could not get myself to muster up any interest in. I’m sure it’s quite interesting if that’s your sort of thing. The other (smaller) exhibition sits in a surprisingly grand hall which, from what i can tell, normally houses the museum’s pottery galleries, and it’s about tea. No wait come back i sw—

An all-black, marbled tea set

I jest, but there really is some fascinating stuff in there. The room’s cabinets are packed with advertisements, old jugs, and all sorts of other things detailing how hot drinks have shaped Britain and the world over the years — from sparking conversation to funding colonisation. But there was one thing that stuck out to me the most. A newly-created work of art, perhaps meant to inspire some thought or another in the viewer, but that our whole group agreed could only be described as one thing:

A collection of tea stoppers, hung on ropes in such a way that they really quite resemble a dreamcatcher made of buttplugs
Buttplug dreamcatcher.

PS: I had to ask what the abbreviation “dbl” (“double”) on the signs for upcoming trams meant. My poor exurban soul simply could not comprehend the idea of a transit system that consistently ran so punctually — i had been thinking it stood for something like “delayed by late”.

PPS: This was meant to be the last post in the series, but my rambling about the gallery got so out of hand that i thought i’d spin off its intended complement into its own part. Tune in next week3 for one last dispatch from Affleck’s Palace.

Old book smell: tidbits from Manchester

Modern, Ikea-like bookshelves adorn the halls of an ancient library
The tail end of the room which houses the Central Library’s extensive music collection.

Manchester’s influences on British culture and life spread far and wide — music, politics, industry, TV — but it’s fair to say it’s not exactly renowned for its literary output. And yet, nevertheless, i found myself wandering the halls of two great libraries in Cottonopolis.

A ceiling stucco decorated with coats of arms

The first and grander of the two is the Manchester Central Library, whose imposing hall first squat itself upon St Peter’s Square in 1934. Upon walking in, there are a number of things the discerning visitor might notice. Hir eyes might wander upwards to the expertly crafted stained-glass window of Shakespeare and his protagonists, or all the way up to the ceiling, generously coated with the arms of authorities priestly, princely, and popular. Or, if our hypothetical visitor is a Geordie, shi might instead notice some things that the rest of the country’s eyes would gloss over: clean, well-designed signage; sleek open space; swooshy modern æsthetics… All paid for out of the council’s pockets.

A stained glass window depicting the works of Shakespeare

There are no decaying bridges, no council computers running Windows XP, no decade-old untouched brownfields. When ministers talk a big game about “levelling up the North”, this is the North they’re talking about. Cumbria? Newcastle? Middlesbrough? Isn’t that in Scotland? It’s best not to dwell on these things (for cynicism doesn’t do the mind good), but one can’t help but feel like they’re rubbing it in.

The Central Library is a treasure trove. It houses an impressive collection of musical paraphernalia, from sheet music to encyclo-glee-diæ to biographies of Saint Noel Gallagher. Its central atrium is home to the “archives plus”, where Mancunians can drill into their city’s history without needing to be fluent in acadamese. The reference library on the upper floors is so tightly packed that it uses mechanical bookshelves which reveal themselves with the push of a button. By all accounts, it serves the people of Manchester well. Perhaps that’s the problem: for a tourist like me, it’s hard not to get jealous.

The Portico Library is an older, humbler affair, constructed at the height of the industrial revolution and taking up but the first floor of its classically-inspired building. Anyone can enter, but i’m afraid the full collection is a members-only joint; my group were just here to check out a book a family friend had paid to be restored. (A page fell out while we were handling it. Whoops!)

While the back catalogues might be off limits to us plebes, there’s still plenty to pique the passing itinerant’s interest. The central hall is still decorated in its original homely Victorian fashion, having a delightfully idiosyncratic way of catalogueing its books: “biography”, “travels and voyages”, and “polite fiction” (a vestige of the time when the middle classes were still joining “polite” society).

A tiny, Middle Eastern-style cardboard house

An exhibition of architectural art circles the middle seating area. While much of it was the usual arty bollocks, i found myself captured by the adorable cardboard houses of Thu Le Ha, an artist and volunteer at the library. Ms Ha has a vanishingly small online footprint, but i hope she keeps at it — this is the sort of thing the world needs more of! Cute little whimsy.

And that’s all i wrote. Next up, some less wordy centres of Mancunian culture.

P.S. On the way back from the Sigur Rós gig, we bore witness to a throng of teenyboppers and weary parents making their way back from a different gig held at the famous Arena. What could possibly inspire such turnout from such a young crowd: Taylor Swift? Olivia Rodrigo? Some K-pop act i’d never heard of? Nope — they were there to see the Backstreet Boys.

Some things never change.

A jolly good show: tidbits from Manchester

Hello. I’ve been to Manchester. I thought i might tell you about it. Wait no come back i promise this isn't just showing you my holiday ph

The last time i went to that wonderful southern city, i was hardly ten years old, and hadn’t much of a chance to explore — a mistake i was itching to rectify this go around. Over the next few days i’ll be sharing some of the things i saw, heard, and third verb goes here.

First things first, our trip’s raison d’être: Sigur Rós were on a world tour, and though they might not have been schlepping up to Newcastle, i sure as hell wasn’t going to miss the chance to see them.

A case with some tea and incense strewn about, branded "Flotholt: Sigur Rós × Fischersund"

Sigur Rós are a post-rock band, and their gig made clear that it’s with a strong emphasis on the “post-”. It was an all-seated audience, with vanishingly little banter from the band (one has to imagine they’re not 100% confident in their English), excepting a brief pantomime bit at the end of „Andvari”. No complaints from me, though: a laid-back, almost classical atmosphere quite befits their ætheral soundscapes. I mean, could you imagine people going wild in the pit to „Vaka”?

As „Popplagið” came to a close and everyone shuffled out the venue’s doors, i noticed a curious item at the merch table: an officially licensed Sigur Rós tea and incense kit. What a world we live in. (I didn’t buy it — there was only one left, and i probably wouldn’t be the one to make the most use out of it.)

A Google Earth render of the skyline of Manchester, containing a modest few tall buildings

As an official, Lisa Nandy–certified resident of a Town™, i was left slightly dumbstruck and intimidated by the dense forest of tall buildings that is Manchester’s city centre. Sure, it’s not like i’m a stranger to the idea of a city, but of the two big cities i have most haunted over the years , Newcastle only has a stumpy luxury apartment and a few council houses strewn about the suburbs, while Amsterdam’s skyscraper district is sectioned off behind the other side of a ring road, far from the centre of town.

But Manchester? Nay — Manchester is England’s second city, and they’ll show it any way they like! Dozens upon dozens of architectural phalli jut up from the ground in all directions, a veritable orgy of capital. I pray thee, have we as a species learnt nothing from the tales of Icarus and the Tower of Babel? Nothing‽ This is hubris writ large, i tell you!

Or, you know, something like that. Their green spaces don’t even have cows.

They both serve the same purpose, really, but i just want to rub in that where we up north has a fully-fledged metro, Manchester merely has to do with trams. Sure, ours might be delayed every five minutes, and theirs might be uber-reliable and extend throughout the urban area, but who’s really winning?

Montage of portraits of Emmeline Pankhurst and the brothers Gallagher
(I don’t actually know or care which Gallagher is which. Apologies.)

Manchester has no shortage of iconic residents — Morrissey, Danny Boyle, Burgess, Wanksy — but Mancunians have taken it upon themselves to idolise two people above all else. Everywhere you look, there are statues, plaques, and posters in their memory.

The first is Emmeline Pankhurst. An early leader of the suffragette movement, she and her allies often used violent tactics to get their way, from breaking windows all the way up to arson. You can see why the left-wing, industrial city, birthplace of the labour movement, would be proud to honour her.

The other is Noel Gallagher.