Saturday, June 09, 2018

ETIHAD by Kate Feld


The following is the text of a speech I delivered at Manchester Histories Festival on June 7-8 2018, about the situation of Ahmed Mansoor and its relevance to the people of Manchester. I have hauled this long-defunct blog about life in the city out of retirement for the occasion; given the subject of the speech, it seemed appropriate to post it here. 

If you'd like to find out more about Ahmed Mansoor and the Manchester street naming campaign, go here: freeahmed.net



A year or two after I moved to Manchester in 2003, I started a blog about life in the city. As I got to know the place better, my posts became more critical. I began to question certain ways we have of doing things here. My website became a place for comment and debate. And I shared my opinions freely on social media.

The people in power wanted to silence me, and all the others too. There were warnings. I heard them, but I kept publishing. And then they came to my house early one morning. Twelve plainclothes security officers broke down the door of the home where my wife and I slept, along with our four young sons. That was March 20, 2017. Since that day I have been held at an unknown location.

That’s not true, is it? At some point there I stopped telling my story and started telling someone else’s. I’m not in prison. I stand here in front of you, a free woman in a free society. Free to voice my opinions. Free to ask questions. The man in state custody is called Ahmed Mansoor. I am here to speak for him.

Ahmed Mansoor
Ahmed Mansoor is a pro-democracy campaigner, blogger, engineer and poet who lived in Sharjah, outside Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015, he’s called the million dollar dissident, because of the incredible lengths his government went to to bug his iPhone. But a better name for him is the last dissident. The last person who was telling us what was really happening to people in the Emirates. There’s no one else. Nothing follows but silence.

The United Arab Emirates is an autocratic police state which has used the full power of its authority to repress dissent, and quash reform. In 2011, a small group of Emiratis signed a petition asking for elected representation. They were rounded up and detained. Ahmed was arrested then, and released after 8 months. They’d been on hunger strike. When he got home, he picked up his young son for the first time, and the boy started screaming. He did not recognise his own father.

But Ahmed would not be silenced. Last month he was tried – apparently, without a lawyer – and sentenced to ten years in prison for “publish[ing] false information, rumours and lies about the UAE” which “would damage the UAE's social harmony and unity.”

We don’t know where he is now, but there is every reason to believe he is being tortured.

You might have heard his name on the news. Seen a headline flash up on your phone. Or not. Things that happen far away often seem kind of fuzzy, like they don’t occupy the same reality. We all have so much to worry about closer to home.


Looking to Ancoats from Piccadilly Basin Manchester, Kate Feld 2018

Some Manchester trams now show the name ‘Etihad’ as their destination. In Arabic, Etihad is a noun that means union or alliance. 

In 2014, our city entered an alliance with Abu Dhabi, richest and most powerful of the seven emirates. Abu Dhabi United Group, owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nayhan, the country’s deputy prime minister and a member of the royal family, signed a £1 billion housing deal with Manchester City Council. This was six years after it bought Manchester City Football Club and renamed Eastlands stadium Etihad, after the royal-owned airline, which became the club’s official sponsor.

We don’t know the details of the housing deal, because Manchester City Council has kept them secret. A freedom of information request was denied citing ‘the risk of prejudice to commercial interests.’ But over the next decade it will create 6,000 homes in East Manchester.

The name of this new entity is the Manchester Life Development Company: ‘since 2014 we have been carefully planning, place making and developing across Ancoats and New Islington,’ it says in the brochure for their first property, Murray’s Mills. You could make a great erasure poem out of that property brochure, which would be appropriate, since it is a document of erasure:

The head-turning fa├žade.
Historic features. 
Desirable communities. 
Sympathetically revitalising this irreplaceable
heritage. Maximising the city’s growth potential.
Shared values of placemaking.  
For us, it’s all about staying true to Manchester’s irreverent, characterful roots. 
Satin anodised ironmongery.  Secure gated access. CCTV around complex. Fully fitted Mackintosh designer kitchen. 
Right now the next chapter of Ancoats’ history is being written. 24/7 concierge.

The last photo in the brochure is a detail from the model flat. On a shelf sits a turntable, with The Verve’s Urban Hymns album sleeve carefully positioned below. Close by, a piece of graphic art reads: ‘This is The Place. We ❤ Manchester.’

I like that phrase: place making. What is there before place making happens? In school I was taught that in 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered America. Is that what they mean by place making? Great Britain has a fine tradition of place making all over the world. All those lines drawn on the map, making places.

Pay attention. Place making is happening here, right now. Our city’s being sold out from under our feet and its streets are filling with the bodies of people who have no place. Do you see them?

L.S. Lowry wrote this about his art of the original modern city: ‘An industrial landscape without people is an empty shell. A street is not a street without people… it is dead as a mutton.’


Abraham Lincon statue, George Grey Barnard, Lincoln Square Manchester

In 1862 Mancunians knew just how easily complacency can become complicity. The American Civil War and the Union cotton blockade starved our industry of raw material. Of course, Lancashire had imported three quarters of the cotton slaves picked down in Dixie. The mills fell silent; families went hungry. There was rioting, and calls for the Royal Navy to break the blockade. Confederate flags were flying in Liverpool. But after a debate at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester mill workers voted to uphold the embargo. They formalised it in a letter of support to President Abraham Lincoln, with a lightly edited quote from the Declaration of Independence: ‘all men are created free and equal.”

In a letter back to ‘the working men of Manchester, England’ Lincoln praised their act, at the height of the cotton famine, as “an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.” That’s why there’s a statue of Lincoln not far from here, in Lincoln Square – his name is part of the fabric of our city. Like the word Etihad.

Some of us are campaigning for Manchester to name astreet after Ahmed Mansoor, to honour his heroism. To show the world this is still a city which believes all men are free and equal. A letter to the council and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham bearing the signature of 34 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and English PEN, argued that Ahmed Mansoor Street would be ‘“a fitting honour to bestow upon an individual who embodies so many of the qualities that the city… celebrates as a key part of its history.”

There’s been no response from Mayor Burnham. Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese stated that it was city policy ‘not to name streets after anybody still living or with no connection to the city.’

In April 2017, Manchester City FC named a street outside Etihad Stadium Sir Howard Bernstein Way in recognition of the former MCC Chief Executive’s work ‘facilitating’ the UAE’s investment in Manchester.

In November 2017, Sir Howard Bernstein was appointed ‘strategic development advisor’ with City Football Group. 




I think history is more than historic features. It’s who we are. And I wonder: what will they write about our Manchester? Will they say we stayed true to our ‘irreverent, characterful roots’?

It seems to me we prefer our irreverence in the rearview mirror. Visit Manchester has proclaimed this the year of Radical Manchester. Book a radical history tour; tea and biscuits will be served. Learn what it feels like to have a feeding tube forced down your neck while your wasted body bucks and retches! Live the experience of telling your starving children again that no cotton means no work, and no work means no food.

But that’s what radicalism demands. Acting against your own interests to make change. Refusing to be silent, even when your own life is at risk. Ahmed Mansoor knew what happened to people at the state security facilities, but rejected offers to get him out of the Emirates. According to someone who worked closely with him, Ahmed felt it was his job to document what was happening in his country: ‘”If they come for me, they come for me,” was his standard line, and it was always delivered with a shrug and a soft, resigned chuckle.’


They came for him, and now there is only silence.


I’ll end with one of Ahmed’s poems, translated by Tony Calderbank. This is called Final Choice.

I have no other means now
but a tight-lipped silence in the square and through corridors.
Since I have tried everything –
screams, chants, signboards,
obstructing roads,
and lying on the ground in front of the queues.
Cutting through the procession with eggs, tomatoes, and blazing tires.
Hurling burning bottles and stones.
Stripped naked in front of the public.
Carving statements in the flesh.
Walking masked in front of cameras.
Dressed in shackles.
Tied and chained to garden fences.
Swallowing rusty razor blades and splintered glass.
Hacking off fingers with a machete
and hanging myself from the lampposts.
Dousing the body with kerosene
and setting it aflame 
I have tried all this, but you didn't even turn to look.
This time, I swear
I won't utter a word, or move.
I will stay the way I am
until you turn to look
or until I am petrified.


Still from performance at Manchester Art Gallery 7 June 2018, courtesy Peggy Manning

This speech was performed at the launch of Manchester Histories Festival on June 7, 2018 in the Lowry and Valette Gallery at Manchester Art Gallery, and on June 8, 2018 in All Saints Park, Manchester.

The work of many journalists, researchers, activists and translators contributed to this piece. In particular I’d like to thank Frances Perraudin and Helen Pidd of The Guardian and Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News; Nicholas McGeehan, Manu Luksch, Peggy Manning, Susan Ferguson, Benjamin Feld and Manchester Amnesty International; and Tony Calderbank, translator of Ahmed Mansoor’s poetry. Thank you also to Manchester Art Gallery and the Manchester Histories Festival for their help and support. 

 (c) Kate Feld  2018  katefeld.com 

                                                                                                  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Manchester Live Literature: Autumn 2016

As usual there are more literature events then we actually want or need around here, getting in the way and making a nuisance of themselves all autumn long. Everyone you know has written a book and needs to launch it pronto. You wanna to go to a poetry reading? We've got slam, feminist, experimental and Petrarchan sonnet nights. There's probably a short story slam happening in your pocket right now. Go on, have a look. Wait. Don't.

Take this Thursday. Just a simple Thursday evening in August, when we're all supposed to still be on holiday, right? New publisher Dodo Ink launches Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn with support readings from Jenn Ashworth, Lara Williams and Anthony Trevelyan at Blackwells' at 6:30. Up in the NQ at exactly the same time it's Book Bash at Kosmonaut, a new 'book social' from publishing guy Mike Murphy, AND across town The Other Room gives us experimental poetry from Joey Frances, David Kennedy, Wanda O'Connor and James Wilkes in The Castle Hotel from 7:30pm. Disgusting, isn't it?

Next week! Wednesday August 31 Bad Language's monthly open mic is headlined by Anna Chilvers, author of Tainted Love. Oh, and next month BL co-host an event with Edge Hill University Press celebrating the publication of a new anthology, Head Land, featuring stories from the first decade of the prestigious Edge Hill Prize; Jon McGregor, Rachel Trezise and Zoe Lambert perform at The Portico at 7pm on Thursday September 29 (£7, book.)

On Friday September 2 great weather for MEDIA present The Careless Embrace of The Boneshaker- the second Mcr event from this NYC based indy press, featuring performances from Rosie Garland, Harry Jelley, Rebecca Audra Smith, Amy McCauley, Chris Stewart, Nadine West and Emma Wooton alongside editor Jane Ormerod. 7pm at 3MT, £5 (book)

Then Saturday 3 September is the Anti Slam, a new event hosted by Paula Varjack and Evidently's Kieran King which somewhat alarmingly promises us that the poet with the lowest score wins.  It's judged by Lenni Sanders, Rebecca Audra Smith and Fat Roland. Potential for good bad poetry high. 7:30pm at 3MT

On Thursday Sept 8 at the Burgess Foundation it's the launch of a new anthology from MA students at the Centre for New Writing (6:30pm) with readings from contributors. Saturday September 10 at Central Library is the launch of Elevator Fiction- a new anthology of flash fiction and micro narratives from BAME writers published by Commonword (2pm, free.) That evening sees Nous magazine celebrate the launch of its 'work' issue with readings and music at Fuel Cafe in Withington from 7pm (free). 

Tuesday September 13 Blackwells celebrates my birthday with Blackwells Book Quiz 3: What We Quiz About When We Quiz About Quizzing.... Okay, so the folks at Blackwells haven't mentioned that 'my birthday' part yet. (I like books and also book tokens. And yessir I've got a bit of a soft spot for book-themed novelties.)  The following night live storytelling champions Tales of Whatever tackle the internet on September 14 at Gullivers (free, 7:30pm). Let's hope no one gets seriously injured this time.

Max Porter, author of the much-praised Grief is the Thing with Feathers is in conversation with poet Andrew McMillan at Waterstones Deansgate on Wednesday Sept 21 at 6:30pm (£5, book here) - this should be a great event. Also on Wednesday Sept 21 Pen:Chant moves to Gorilla and welcomes a pretty varied and interesting lineup, including strange comedy trio Gein's Family Giftshop, beatboxer Bellatrix and MOBO-winning/ Mercury-nominated alto-saxophonist and MC Soweto Kinch plus open mic. And on Monday 26th September Fallowfield's finest open mic Verbose returns from holidays with a Bare Fiction magazine special featurng headliners Michael Conley, Rosie Garland and Rachel Mann (7:30pm at Fallow Cafe, free).

And then? And then? Well in October (7-23 October to be precise) it's Manchester Literature Festival so you should probably go to that. All of that.  Incidentally my own outfit The Real Story is running a special MLF edition of our live nonfiction night on October 22 at the Burgess Foundation headlined by the great Horatio Clare, and we could use a couple more essayists to read at it. If you're interested, check out our submission guidelines here. You can also buy tickets (£6/4) here.

I have gotten wind of a special event First Draft are doing on 31 October at Chetham's Library (this is in addition to their regularly scheduled October night on Monday 17th at 7:30pm at The Castle Hotel, with performers responding to the theme 'crush.') Save the date for some spooky stories... Look, I'm not even going to talk about the rest of October. I mean, I'm tired of writing this post and you're not actually still reading this, are you? Wait... you are? Don't you have that Petrarchan sonnet to write? 

Monday, March 07, 2016

Manchester writing and live literature: Spring 2016


Another day, another slightly desperate call for female performers at a literary event hits my inbox, and I'm reminded of that old saying: "women: can't live with 'em, can't convince them to get up on a stage and perform their writing."

So we know that the majority of writers are not men. Writing happens to everyone (worse luck). But when it comes to putting the writing out there, either by performing or publishing it, lots of the women get lost. Why? Is it because we live in a patriarchy that rewards men for being confident and outspoken, and punishes women for being confident and outspoken? Is it because women with children and/or careers are less likely than our male counterparts to have the time and energy to devote to writing and performing? Is it something about this or that particular event/publication that makes women feel unwelcome, or is it a more systemic problem? And what do we do about it?

These are the questions that keep right-minded writing people awake at night. I am not going to answer them here, just ask them in mildly annoying rhetorical fashion. But some of these questions will be addressed at Regarding Women: a performance in the portraits gallery at Whitworth Art Gallery that's part of the Wonder Women-themed Thursday Lates event this Thursday March 10. Rosie Garland, Lara Williams and my good self will perform work on the male gaze and female identity. In newly-commissioned poetry, lyric essay and fiction we'll explore what it means to speak, write and act as a woman. It starts at 6:30pm and is followed by a whole FREE evening of entertainment including DJing from Violent Femmes, comedy from Gag Reflex and an art pub quiz.

Later this month we're back at the Whitworth as Lara Williams' debut short story collection, Treats (Freight) launches at a standalone Thursday Late event 24 March featuring an army of writerly support bands. Plus actual support bands. Should be a fun night.

Elsewhere there's plenty on this spring. Headlining this month's Bad Language is Nikesh Shukla on March 30 and the aforementioned Lara Williams headlines April 27. They've also got a couple of special events later this spring: poets Hollie McNish and Jo Bell read and converse in an enticing double bill at the Burgess Foundation (tickets going fast.) And on 12 May it's 'Voices of the City' - a host of local writers perform new work inspired by archival film footage of Manchester at the Jewish Museum for Museums at Night.

On Monday 14 March poets Carolyn Teague and Daisy Thurston-Gent headline poetry performance monthly Evidently Salford at The Eagle Inn. Storytelling night Tales of Whatever presents tales about Road Trips this Wednesday 9 March downstairs at Gullivers, and have posted a list of upcoming themes for their monthly nights on their website - get in touch if you want to tell a story and work with the organisers to develop your performance. On Monday 28 March Verbose at The Fallow Cafe in Fallowfield features the Manchester New Left Writers plus their typically eclectic open mic.  Ever-inspiring performance night First Draft collaborates with Manchester Sound Archive for Voices, a sound response themed event Monday April 18 - and an intriguing event called Perspectives on 18 May at People's History Museum.

Manchester Literature Festival presents Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh in conversation with author Kevin Sampson on Sunday April 3. He'll be talking about new book The Blade Artist, writing, music, film adaptations and the legacy of Trainspotting in the 20th anniversary year of the film's release. At The Centre for New Writing events series, Howard Jacobson reads from new Shakespeare reworking Shylock is my Name at the Martin Harris Centre on 11 April, while on Monday April 18, writers Vona Groarke and Adam Thorpe read at the Burgess Foundation. And Poets and Players is bringing Carrie Etter and William Letford to Manchester on 19 March and Andrew McMillan and Ira Lightman on 29 April.


Looking ahead to June, our live nonfiction night The Real Story has just confirmed a really exciting headliner: Amy Liptrot, whose stunning memoir The Outrun has been garnering rave reviews all over the place. Describing it as 'a future classic,' The New Statesman said 'Liptrot is an Orcadian warrior with the breeze in her blood and poetry in her fingers." We're really looking forward to hosting her first Manchester event. Save the date! It happens on Thursday 23 June at Gullivers, at 7:30pm.

And remember Aspidistra Books, which we blogged about way back when? Well, their business model has changed and they're now setting up shop as an online bookseller with a sideline in literary events. They're keen to hear from any Manchester literary types who are interested in working together on events, particularly LGBT folks. Email Joseph Parkinson on hibsjoe07 at gmail.


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Manchester Writing and Live Lit: Autumn 2015

These days the writerly activity in Manchester has saturated the city centre and is spreading out to The Suburbs. Do not be alarmed! It's okay. Nice people live there. If you're a nice person living in Stretford, for example, you're lucky because the great Dave Hartley, himself a legendary lynchpin of the live lit landscape, has made a new open mic night at the Sip Club. It's called Speak Easy, and I'll be tramming it out there tomorrow evening October 8 (7:30, free) to read along with a bunch of fine writers. I've only been to Stretford once, for the purpose of loitering around an abandoned cinema...

...which, weirdly, I'll be reading a story about in another southern suburb later this month. If you're near Fallowfield, you probably already know about open mic night Verbose at the Fallow Cafe. I'm at the next one on Monday 26 October with Sarah Butler and David Gaffney in a reprise of the Re/Place project, a series of stories about South Manchester landmarks commissioned for Chorlton Arts Festival (7:30, free). And both of these relatively new nights are open to all flavours of spoken word performer, from fiction to nonfiction, from rhyming verse to weird experimental poetry.

As always the city centre is crazily busy with readings and events all Autumn: Evidently have American performance poet Adele Hampton and Joe Cooper Monday 12 October and Pen:Chant bring Jess Green to Islington Mill on the 14th. There's a pretty stellar lineup at First Draft on Monday 19 October, an intriguing Bad Language/Tales of Whatever/Manchester Science Fest mashup on Sunday 25 October at Gullivers, and way too many enticing things at the Burgess Foundation and Chapter One Books. But wait, am I leaving something out? Oh yeah, Manchester Literature Festival is happening 12-25 October (****INSERT SUBTLE LINK HERE****)  It may be true that I work on it and am contractually obliged to say how great it is but I'm pretty darn excited about this year's Rising Stars events, which offer the chance to see some incredible rarely-seen-here writers for little more than the price of a NQ pint. So there.

There are plenty of non-performy opportunities for developing and publishing work in the city: Are you wild about site specific writing? Postmodern urban landscapes? Islands? You’re in luck. New writing project My Pomona wants your words. Pomona is a (sort of) island on the outskirts of the city. It’s been in the news a bit lately as Peel Holdings have announced some controversial new plans to develop it. Also, Tapes n’ Tales are a new podcast featuring writers reading their own stories, made right here in Manchester. They’re open to audio submissions of short stories between 2-7ish minutes.

Comma Press has launched MacGuffin, a new platform for short fiction in both app and internet form. They publish new writing in audio and text format, and they've already amassed a really impressive range of work including some live performances from city open mic nights; go have a wander. Comma and Creative Industries Trafford are running a short fiction writing course with Sarah Schofield at Sale Waterside next month, where the Northern Lights Writers' Conference takes place on 14 November.

The mighty For Books' Sake are running their women-only Write Like a Grrrl course again starting in November. Poet Joy France has taken up a new artist in residence post at Manc alternative cultural insitution Afflecks, so look out for some workshops and events there soon. Sleepy House Press are now doing regular writing workshops, too. On 13 October at Central Library there's a free poetry workshop with Shirley May based on the music of Nina Simone. And poets might also be interested in a one-on-one critique session with the wonderful Jo Bell. I think that's enough to be getting on with.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ramsbottom Festival 2015 Preview

Summer's well and truly over, and we know this because it has stopped raining. We also know this because Ramsbottom Festival is happening this weekend 18-20 September (and wonder of wonders, the forecast is for partly sunny weather Saturday and Sunday! Friday looks, well... considerably less dry.) As usual, you can expect arty sideshows, family events and way too much good beer. You can peruse the full musical lineup here but here's the headlines: Friday headliner: The Wonder Stuff. Saturday Headliner: Idlewild. Sunday headliner: The Proclaimers. But who else can you see? These guys, for starters...

Jesca Hoop


The Magic Numbers



Black Rivers


Slow Readers Club



The Go! Team


Blue Rose Code


Walk



Adult Day tickets from £24, for booking and full information visit the Ramsbottom Festival website.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about doughnuts: Breakfast at Common

Common is dead, long live Common. The old Common is no more. Yeah, it was a little beat up around the edges, but what gives? I liked the fact that the walls looked like a bizarro comic book. I liked the booths. I liked the day-to-night menu of casual eats and, sometimes, root beer. The whole thing was as comfortable as an old pair of jeans, dammit.

But earlier this year Common decided it wanted more out of life. Common looked around and realised it was time to grow up. Why? I have my theories. There's money to be made on Edge Street now. Whatever's at street level and isn't being turned into a speciality tequila bar or a cafe hawking £5 goji-guava detox shots is (or will soon be) a restaurant, because this is where people want to part with their leisure money. Say you found yourself in possession of a bar and restaurant unit smack bang in the middle of this. Wouldn't you raise your game and go for the kind of customers who aren't going to spend 3 hours hogging a table with their laptop and a couple of Americanos? I would.

Anyhoo, when the newspapers came off the windows there was a more foodily ambitious menu. There was table service, FFS. And decorating. Out with the loungetastic booths, in with wooden stools. Common now has the intentional blankness of interiors in a Saturday magazine supplement (architect duo Isaac and Caroline converted the former Balham Brush Works on a shoestring at just £2.3m) The crockery is covetable, the light fittings unique. It looks great. If it was a new restaurant, I'd probably eat there and like it. It's just, well... why'd they have to do it in Common?

Yet look under the surface and there's still some rough in this diamond. The astonishingly strong craft beer roster is still there. The trusty burgers are still there, and it's still a good place to hang out once you get used to it, though the clientele has definitely changed. And, with vastly expanded sub-noon offerings, it's now a solid choice for breakfast and brunch, my favourite two meals of the day.

Where to eat is a crucial decision if you're feeling way delicate following a long night; the wrong choice here could bruise your soul. You need somewhere comfortable where they are going to smile and play okay music and feed you nice things and you can pretend you're not in public while reanimating yourself with gallons of coffee beverage. If this is how it is with you, I prescribe Common's cured salmon, asparagus and poached egg bathed in hollandaise on a slice of Trove sourdough; like a cooler Eggs Benedict. One particularly fragile Saturday it sorted me right out. My brunch buddy went for small plates from the lunch/dinner menu which I guess is something people do, but he spent the meal looking longingly at my eggs.

Another weekend, in slightly sounder fettle, I tried the shak shuka, a skillet of eggs baked in a sweetly piquant mixture of spiced tomatoes and peppers, accompanied by more of that heroic sourdough, and was glad I did. My companion's Full English received cautious approval. Yes, the portions weren't as big as you get elsewhere, and no black pudding, but the impeccable quality of each individual component got it a thumbs up. We ate in the front bit not the dining room and we both appreciated eating in a space light and airy enough to nudge us into the idea of daytime. They had the papers in, too.

Oh. Wait. We need to talk about doughnuts. Common has unexpectedly started cranking out the most incredible doughnuts right there in their basement kitchens. They fill them with all sorts of stuff like banana custard or vanilla and plum jam or (gasp) ice cream down there. Those who want to try them should get there early as they regularly sell out. If you're the kind of person who likes that sort of thing, you may flip out and want to bulk buy them and you can do this easily because they sell them by the dozen and half dozen, pre-order only. They are really freaking fantastic doughnuts and you will pay £18 for a dozen. Yes, £18. That's only £1.50 a doughnut, which, well... I dunno, I suppose it's all about your priorities. Some people in those Saturday magazines pay £60 for a single lipstick (!!!!) Is it wrong? Is it right? I donut know.

Common, 39-41 Edge St. Northern 1/4, Manchester M4 1HW. Breakfast menu served 10am-2pm daily. Full disclosure: Common asked me to come in and have a meal on them and write a review. For this post I went once on their dime and once on my own. And they're not giving me free doughnuts. Though, you know, I wouldn't say no to one.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: High Tea in Wonderland, Manchester International Festival

Performances that involve food make me nervous. One of the reasons I became a food writer was a predilection for the theatre of the restaurant, the entrances and exits in the stage set of the dining room, the sensory drama running counterpoint to the little dramas unfolding at every table and behind the kitchen doors. In my experience, adding actual theatre to proceedings can make for cringey times.

But ex-Aumbry chef Mary-Ellen McTague's name in connection with High Tea in Wonderland is enough to make me risk a food/theatre mashup. The chef who built a national reputation in two-knocked together terraces in Prestwich has always seemed like the kind of person who is rightly careful about the projects she will attach her name to. And I don't mind telling you I am excited like a giddy little girl about the opening of her new restaurant in the Roadhouse site this Autumn. Even if the theatre was shocking, I knew we'd eat well.

Threatening to upstage the food and the acting was the setting, the upper chambers of the neo-Gothic Manchester Museum, where its botanical collections are stored. We were granted rare access to the garrety attic bits of the spectacular building: curved ceilings, secret tower rooms, wallsfull of ancient wood storage drawers and baize green catalogue boxes with the odd taxidermied animal grinning from an  unlikely corner. At last, I have found my dream office suite!

We were led around by a very dapper white rabbit, pelting up the stairs after him into a series of rooms where we encountered the characters from Carroll's story in proper sequence. My favourite was the turbaned Catepillar, an actor I recognised from something but can't place. Her languid take on the hookah-puffing master of psychedelia was spot on, her barbed exchanges with the audience keeping us all delightfully wrongfooted. It well judged; no ghastly dinner theatre here but just enough of a taste of performance to keep us engaged.

And of course, there was the food. We started off with a tea party, sweet little cakes and teapots arranged on a long work table amid flowers and botanical samples in a display that would give Cath Kidston multiple orgasms. Then in each new stop on the tour, there was something tasty to eat or drink with a clever link back to Carroll. In the catepillar's lair we got a winning combination of mushroom consomme and a delicate pink macaroon decorated with the indelicate words BITE ME. You expected it to be sweet, but it turned out to be beetroot flavoured and filled with chicken livers.

The servers broke character to tell us about the butter content in the astonishingly rich meat pies (don't ask) and to tell us how the image of Mary-Ellen on a playing card got onto our dessert with the Queen of Hearts... Okay, look, I'm not going to go into detail about every single thing we ate, and why should I? You can't go into a restaurant and order it. All that's left are fond memories and a single teaspoon in my drawer with the words STEAL ME etched on its surface. Just following instructions.

Image courtesy Mary-Ellen McTague