Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Merry Chrismizzle

Merry Christmas everyone. Have a happy holidaze, and I'll see you on the flip side.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New blogs: Part 2

I've long been a fan of Len Grant, the Manchester-based photographer and writer whose work focuses on telling the stories of the people the media typically ignores: asylum seekers, addicts, people fighting like hell to win their way back to a better life - sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. So I was delighted to learn that Len's current project is a blog: Her First Year documents in words and pictures the story of baby Mia and her mother Frances, who are living in supported accomodation for vulnerable young mothers. It's a beautiful project in every way, please go check it out.
On a day when we're all fairly disgusted with the lack of attention paid to women's sport in the UK, it's good to see new additions like Girl On A Terrace , a lower league football blog from the perspective of a female Rochdale AFC fan. Any more sport blogs out there written by women? Give us a shout.
Anyway, here's the second part of the enormous list of new (to me, at least) Manchester blogs I had to add to my blogroll. If I've left anyone out, send me an email.

arts & culture, design/fashion blogs:
Old Fashioned Susie
northwest is best
Beauty's Bad Habit
Curious Damsel
Pepper and Buttons

literature/writing blogs
Katie Anderson Writer
Beau Brummell Press
I hug my books
Julian Lee Robinson
Craig Pay
You, me, and the story
The Poplar Tree | it's not chick lit or pulp fiction
Chetham's Library
Music blogs
Carnival Saloon
Film/Television blogs
Cathode Ray Tube
Foodie blogs
Little Red Courgette
Tea and Sympatico
City/neighbourhood blogs
Manchester Meanders

Digital/tech blogs

Personal blogs
.....haven't had a dream in a long time
On the Edge; A Freelancer in the Recession
what red said
The Fag Casanova
My Wonderful Life
Image copyright Len Grant

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Art of Blogging at Cornerhouse Thursday

Just a quick post to say I'm running a session called The Art of Blogging at Cornerhouse Thursday evening. It's not a "how to start a blog" session (one of those is planned for early 2012), rather this one is meant for people who already have a blog and are looking for some pointers and inspiration.

We'll be looking at a number of successful blogs and discussing strategies for developing a distinctive voice and identity for your blog, finding things to blog about, building a readership, and using links, photos and comments well, among other topics. It's going to be an informal, discussion-based session, so come with questions and problems and we'll do our best to address them all. It's taking place from 6-8pm at The Annexe at Cornerhouse this Thursday 10 November, £4/£3 concs. You can book tickets here.

UPDATE: As of Weds afternoon this has now sold out. If anyone missed out and would like to attend another workshop like this, or even a workshop about some different aspect of blogging, please let me know in the comments - it helps us plan future sessions.

Gorgeous image of Cornerhouse cinema from zawtowers (via Flickr)

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Manchester Blog Awards 2011 recap (and new blogs)

So I think the 2011 Manchester Blog Awards were the best yet. A hefty dash of creative nonfiction was provided by the winners of The Real Story competition from my digital lit sideline Openstories. The five readers were wonderful and benefitted from an exceedingly friendly audience who really listened. And then came loads of excellent shortlisted bloggers reading a tasty smorgasboard of different writing - from short stories to microfiction to razor-sharp satirical emails. And then came the ever-popular Socrates Adams reading from his new novel Everything's Fine, which I just read and can say it is (as expected) deeply funny and exceedingly well-written. And then the crowning of the new winners, a very deserving bunch. Apologies to the one or two people who were disappointed by the absence of acceptance speeches, or our shocking lack of sufficient hoopla and fol-de-rol. Next year, maybe we should have the awards presented by celebrity dogs on unicycles. Whaddaya say?

On the night I got to thinking about the many amazing writerly partnerships and endeavours that started up from people meeting at the blog awards (I'm thinking especially of the Flashtag Manchester brigade and their various individual projects, side projects, events and one-off collaborations.) It might seem to someone unfamiliar with the Manchester writing scene that everyone at the blog awards knows each other. And yes, many of the writers shortlisted for blogs every year do know each other. Some met at the same event years ago and went on to do things together. More will have met there this year. Others know bloggers from writers' groups, university writing courses, or by being involved with one of the other bountiful opportunities available to writers in Manchester (the events and publications of the Bad Language collective, Tales of Whatever, The Night Light, Blank Media Collective, etc. )

The point is, writing brought these people together. If you're standing on the sidelines feeling left out, don't be a wallflower. There will always be the odd stuck-up ignoramus, but for the most part this is one of the friendliest and most inclusive writing scenes I've ever encountered. Come along to one of the aforementioned events and introduce yourself to the guy sat next to you, or to a writer whose work you liked, or to the girl behind you in the bar queue. Who knows what could come of it? What I'm saying is: it's definitely a clique. It's a clique that's big enough to encompass Greater Manchester and we're all personally invited to join it, kapeesh?

Anyway, we always hear about loads of new blogs via MBA nominations. They're additions to the ALREADY INCREDIBLY LONG list of new blogs I have been meaning to add here for ages. Hence the massive bumper edition of new blogs.... so many I'll have to publish this in two or three parts over the next few weeks. I'm not going to be able to do my usual helpful introduction to each one this time, but will simply give you the links. They'll all then be added to the categories in the Great Manchester Blogroll at the side. Happy readings.

Writers' Blogs
What Vanishes
Emma Jane Unsworth
Nici West
Josef A Darlington
I blog every day
Bad Penny

Personal Blogs
Richard Frosty
Jilted Generation
Oddments and snippets
Random Thoughts

Arts&Culture/Design/Fashion Blogs
Cava Coma
Manchester Cycle Chic
Manchester LAB
Caitlin's Country
Clothes Pony

Music Blogs
Having a party without me
Unchained Melodist

City/Neighbourhood Blogs
Mancunian Wave

Tech Blogs
Tony Tickle

Journalism/Media Blogs

Sport Blogs:
Naturally Cycling Manchester

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Indian Summer

With two big festivals I'm involved in Creative Tourist's Manchester Weekender and The Manchester Literature Festival right around the corner, I've been insanely busy and never seem to have the time to pootle around the city the way I used to. Yes, there's been a complete absence of pootling, not much pottering and certainly no meandering for as long as I can remember. But with the insane Indian Summer we had going on last Friday I gave myself an afternoon and evening for some good old fashioned moseying around Manchester. First I went to my favourite city centre park: St. John's Gardens. You know Piccadilly Gardens? It's pretty much the opposite of that. Clean, green and leafy, quiet and in Friday's heat, kinda sleepy. I lay down on the grass listening to music and almost fell asleep.

Then I went to The Book Barge. It's a floating bookshop shoehorned into a narrowboat that has been moored at Castle Quay for a few days. I was imagining a musty, dusty floating cabinet of curiosities. But it is nothing like that: clean and light, with a clever use of space and an immaculate stock of intelligently curated new books, serendipitous seconhand ones, a thoughfully-selected children's section and the sort of ephemera that book lovers drool over (Penguin tote bags, unjustly obscure magazines, bunting.) I ran into Adrian from The Art of Fiction. And I picked up a Puffin of Joan Aiken's The Whispering Mountain for £1. So I was happy.

I spoke with proprietor Sarah Henshaw about The Book Barge in this audioboo: The Book Barge comes to Manchester (mp3)

After a lovely few days in our city The Book Barge is now chugging away from Manchester to Skipton for the weekend. You can follow them on Twitter at @thebookbarge

From Castlefield I walked over to the opening of Asia Triennial Manchester, one of the nicest launches I've been to in a long time. Had a good chat with artist NS Harsha about his Spiritual Garlands comissioned by the amazing John Rylands Library. The garlands are intricate chains of individually-sculpted heads visitors to the library can wear around their necks, the chains emphasizing the way that ideas and knowledge pass from one person to another via books. I wished I could have gone on to Cornerhouse to see Rashid Rana but will have to save that for another time.

Then some very important business. Namely, barbecue. Our city recently became home to two new barbecue joints and after hearing good things from a number of people I headed over to Southern Eleven at Spinningfields. My first impressions weren't great. Too many hard shiny surfaces, which in addition to seeming uncomfortably trendy also meant it was loud. But we were able to sit on the patio. The staff were absolutely wonderful they really took care of us. And the other thing I want to emphasize about this place is it's an amazing deal: low prices and big portions. We didn't leave feeling like we'd just been mugged, as is so often the case when dining out in Manchester.

I do love my barbecue, so I'm happy to report that the food was good. Pork belly ribs came with a brush-on pot of barbecue sauce and were nicely executed, though would have been better if a little more of the fat had been rendered on mine. Mac n' cheese was mighty fine. Onion rings and fries were both overseasoned; the first with chilli, the second with a superfluous combo of parmesan and truffle oil (and unfortunate that they were the pale, weedy kind instead of the skin-on, dark brown artisan variety that seem to be all the the rage in the USA these days.) Jalapeno cornbread tasted good but was a bit too fine and cakey in texture. And the Tennessee Rose cocktail I had was tall, pink, icy and flowery - just the drink for such a tropical evening. I forgot to take any pictures, but The Greedy Girl has just reviewed it as well and has some lovely pics on her site, so pop over there if looking at 'cue is what you wanna do.

NS Harsha Thought Mala image courtesy Asia Triennial Manchester

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ramsbottom Festival 2011: The Recap

So I've just about recovered from the inaugural Ramsbottom Festival. Here's a little summary:

Rain factor:
You have an outdoor music festival in Ramsbottom. In September. Of course it's going to rain. The question is, how much and when. This rain wasn't too bad - it came and went, it was a bit of a drag, but you could mostly ignore it. There was always a place to get out of it if you wanted to.There was no wading through mud. We even had a few hours of sun on Sunday.

Best in show: The Waterboys. It was the very last band of the festival, it was dark, cold and wet, but they still made it very possibly the rockingest Sunday night Ramsbottom has ever seen. Those guys are professionals. The encore of Fisherman's Blues had the crowd twirling like idiots and sent us all home smiling (and shivering):

Runners up: Cherry Ghost, The Travelling Band and Young Knives all turned in solid performances on Saturday, Capercaillie rocked on Sunday. Can a traditional Celtic band rock? The answer is yes.

Miss (Non)Congeniality award: Badly Drawn Boy. I've always been kindly disposed to the beardy one's music, but after seeing this performance I'm less kindly disposed. He started things off by having a hissy fit about the sound and finished up by grousing that he should have been the headliner. In between: a whole bunch of meh. Stay in Chorlton next year and knit yourself some new hats, dude.

Personal disappointment: Missing Steve Cropper Friday evening. It was very wet, but still.

Taste sensation: Salted Caramel and Peanut Butter ice cream on a toasted brioche from the wonder that is Ginger's Comfort Emporium (long may they reign.) Really freaking good.

Best non-live-music-related activity: Silent Disco. Lots of fun.

Unexpected impressive thing: Whalley Range All Stars "PIG" performed inside a specially-built pig. The play was ten minutes long and only ten people could watch it at once. The audience had to don curly tails and stick their heads right into ten holes along the pig's belly, so they looked like a line of piglets.

Best thing for kids: The bouncy pirate ship, apparently. I spent about two hours standing next to this handing a very polite teenage girl money while my daughter bounced. And bounced. And bounced. Lots of kids about on Sunday, not so many on rainy Saturday. And don't ferris wheels look cool at night?

Comfort Factor: Weather aside, the festival was a pretty comfortable place to hang out. The drinks were excellent and keenly priced - Outstanding Beers' very pleasant festival real ale at £2.50 for a reasonably sized pint, fancy shmancy cider for £3.50. I think they had some weird mixed-drink-in-a-bottle stuff going on too, but I didn't get involved in that. In short, a far sight better than the shockingly bad beer selection (Bud and Coors?? In plastic bottles? Really?) at the Manchester International Festival pavillion this summer. You got served quickly at the bar. The food vendors were good and again, nobody was ripping you off (£5 for a massive plate of tasty Tibetan Kitchen.) There were enough toilets, so you didn't spend hours in the loo queue, and they stayed reasonably clean. Thumbs up.

Best flavor of Rekorderlig Cider: Strawberry Lime. I know, me either.

Unexpected funny thing:
The VIP area resembled a cattle market - a roped off, exposed-to-the elements plot with bare benches, about as far from the stage as it could be. I think I saw two people in there all weekend. That kind of sums up the festival's ethos nicely.

Hero of the day: Stripeyman. The tirelessly boogieing, permanently ecstatic painted fellow below will dance on in the memories of festivalgoers for many years to come. I'll have what he's having.

In summary: a very good time. Of course, I walked down the road to get there, was sensibly attired and got in for free, so admittedly it would have to be awful for me not to have enjoyed it. But it surpassed my expectations in pretty much every way (apart from the weather, sadly.) Hey, I'm looking forward to next year already.

All images Brian Connor (via Flickr.)

Friday, September 09, 2011

Ramsbottom Festival Sept 16-18 2011

I don't want to be a smug, horrible person, but I've got to say it: Ramsbottom is pretty wonderful. I really do love living here. It's hard to keep this in mind at certain times (like when I ocasionally miss the last tram to Bury.) It's bloody miles away from the nearest (non-steam) train station. There's no decent bakery, no bookstore, and the town shuts down on Wednesday afternoons which is both quaint and annoying. And old-fashioned mill towns in the Pennines can be bleak places in the winter. But it's a beautiful place with an old-school community feeling, and I mostly love it.

So I realise I'm becoming almost insufferably happy to be living here now that the Ramsbottom Festival is about to kick off. It's a proper music festival, with camping and nice food and beer and DJing and kids' activities and multiple stages. And crucially, good music. I'd be excited about a festival like this starting anywere around Manchester. But to have it delivered virtually on my doorstep, a few days after my birthday, is like God's way of saying "sorry about that whole hurricane-and-vomit vacation, I've still got your back."

The festival takes place at the lovely Ramsbottom Cricket Club on 16-18 September. Bury Met, a real gem of a performing arts venue that we are extremely lucky to have right down the road, have programmed a weekend full of music with something for everyone. As with much of their programming the overall focus is on relaxed, sunshiney acoustic pop, folk, celtic and roots, with a welcome jolt of high-test indie and blues. The last supplied by Steve Cropper, Stax guitar legend. You know, Booker T and the MGs? Green Onions?

Indie fiends will be happy with The Young Knives, Cherry Ghost and Guillemots. Yup, it's pretty cool that a band as big as Guillemots is going to be playing at Ramsbottom Cricket Club.

Folkier folks should come on Sunday, when The Waterboys headline and the lineup includes Celtic band Capercaille, led by glorious singer Karen Matheson

...and ahab, amusingly identified as a "German funeral doom trio" in their Spotify bio:

There's a fair number of performers from Manchester, but thankfully there's an emphasis on quality local talent. And world class talent that just happens to live here, like Chorlton's own Badly Drawn Boy. The beardy one always puts on a good show, and he doesn't have far to come for this one. I'm hoping he'll play his near-as-dammit Smiths cover "I saw you walk away." Which I would find totally objectionable if it wasn't so good.

Other Mancunian standouts include raspy-voiced Kirsty Almeida and her charmingly ramshackle band...

...and 6music frequent fliers The Travelling Band:

It's also good that they're serious about making this a family event, with reduced prices for kids, a creche, rides and children's activities. If I were coming from Manchester, I'd take the East Lancs Railway from Bury and arrive in style by steam train (the ELR station is just outside the entrance and they're doing cheap tickets for the day with parking at the stations in Bury and Rawtie). Definitely don't drive - parking is a nightmare here at the best of times. A bus and tram daysaver is the way to go from anywhere else in Greater Manchester - you get the tram to Bury and pick up the Rammy circular which runs every 10 minutes. Booking info here. See you there!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

After the deluge

Bad things tend to happen when I'm on holiday. I'll spare you the details of nightmares past, but let's just say it's a trend I've been trying to ignore for a few years. I mean, who wants to head off for vacation harbouring dark imaginings about what will happen this time?

What happened this time was that Hurricane Irene jumped out of the 24-hour-news cycle and bit us in the ass. We were staying at my dad's place in Waterbury, Vermont - safe, one would think, from the kind of extreme summer weather southerners are more accustomed to. But Irene took a path right up the east coast, through New York and all the way up into Vermont, where the mountain ranges that usually protect us from such dramatic storms made little difference. The worst flooding to hit the state since 1927 ensued : roads washed out, homes and businesses destroyed, power cuts, everything under a layer of toxic mud.

We can be thankful our family wasn't evacuated to sleep on cots in a church, only to wake up and find our house and all its contents destroyed, like a few people I know in Waterbury. Everyone was safe and dry in our house. We lost power for 24 hours, and yes, it was unfortunate that the power cut coincided with my eldest experiencing a barfing bug, but, well... and if our flight cancellation meant we had an extra week in Vermont, well, great! Except for the fact that we couldn't leave the house (yup, still barfing.) And we know we were lucky to get flights back to Manchester even a week later than the original departure date, it coulda been so much worse. Yes, even if the flights involved a hellish three-leg journey over 20 hours that will take several months to recover from and included inept and borderline rude airline staff, demonically tired toddlers and bumpy, endless circles in the air above Heathrow. Maybe we will have recovered by next summer. Or not? I may not go on holiday again until my children are old enough to drive.

But seriously, tiny Vermont, the most beautiful state in New England, on the Canadian border - yes, the state that most British people and indeed many Americans have never heard of - this state is in a bad state. And it's my home. I know folks there are doing all they can to help each other get through this, but it's come at a difficult time for so many people. If you can spare a little cash, send some their way.

Photo: downtown Waterbury, courtesy USA Today

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Filey by Campervan

I've been trying to get over to the North Yorkshire Coast for ages, but hadn't managed to in the many years I've lived here. It's just a hair too far away for a day trip with small children. But with a VW Campervan at my disposal thanks to the lovely people at Jolly Campervans in Huddersfield (who even dropped it off and picked it up at our house), it was at last within my reach. And so it was that me and my partner packed the two kids - and the unbelievable volume of brightly coloured kid-and-baby gear even a weekend trip requires - into the van and headed East for a long weekend. Were we crazy to be taking a 3 year old and a 10-month old camping? Hmmm.

While Mancunians traditionally go to the seaside towns of Lancashire and North Wales for their summer holidays, my resident Yorkshireman informs me that the North Yorks coast becomes like Leeds-on-Sea in summertime. For the simple reason that it was almost exactly due East of where we live, we opted for Filey, a small town near Scarborough and this was luckily a fantastic choice. We stopped off at Castle Howard for lunch (lush farm shop, very cool adventure playground) and rolled into the campsite by late afternoon. Filey Brigg Caravan Park is run by the council, tidy and spacious with sea views, and a five-minute walk from the unspoiled beach and the tidepools and rock formations of the Brigg. The small seafront is council-owned too, and maybe that's why it had quite an old fashioned feel to it. That and the fishing boats.Everything was scrupulously clean and family-oriented with a small funfair and a few stalls selling rock and fresh seafood. I even ate cockles, which is apparently an important part of the traditional seaside holiday here in the UK. The last time I encountered cockles it was in the small hours at the sadly defunct Malt and Hops in Chorley, when I was utterly amazed to learn that anyone would try to sell drunk people cold sea creatures in styrofoam pots. But you know, they were great.

We also ate some excellent fish and chips at The Brown Room in Filey town, which still uses dripping to cook their chips in like many of the chippies along this coast. It really does make a difference - they were much crispier than normal. The chips were noticeably better. But my attempts to order a fish muffin met with utter failure.

The van itself was beautiful. It had a name: The Baron, because Jolly Campervans names all their vans after characters on Danger Mouse. The Baron was fresh off the boat from Brazil, where they still make these beauties, but had been converted to left-hand drive and thoughtfully packed full of modern conveniences like digital radio, proper coffee and Fox's Biscuits. Traveling by VW bus is a wonderful way to see the world. You can't go to fast, so secondary roads are the way to go, and you really get a chance to look around and get a sense of the place you're driving through. And it's strangely liberating to be traveling in the place you're going to be sleeping in.

I'd never stayed in a campervan before, I thought it would be cramped, but once we figured out how to set up the massive canopy tent (essentially a large canvas room that fits on to the side) we had plenty of space. I was charmed by the cunning way everything fits together so neatly - the tiny but incredibly handy kitchen, the ingenious compartments, the pop-up cathedral ceiling. Not so charming: spending several hours lying in a bed located directly under a screaming, teething baby. But that can hardly be considered a design fault. Eventually, the little dear calmed down and nodded off, and the second night went much more smoothly. My eldest daughter is already clamoring for another trip in The Baron. Next time maybe Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay? I'm definitely up for it - once teething is safely behind us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

#MIF11: Doctor Dee

Doctor Dee was a grand, blazing spectacle. On that level it was extraordinarily successful; it was good fun to watch. The staging, sets and costumes were ingenious and beautiful. From the opening moments, when Scooby the raven flew from the back of the hall for his star turn, you felt that this was going to be something really different. And it was. The way that projections were used, the cunning tricks with books, paper and balloons, the choreography and the curving beaked raven masks... it was mesmerising, in the way that watching a series of beautiful, evocative tableaux can be hypnotic.

But once you'd had your fill of spectacle, there wasn't much else on offer. For me, Doctor Dee failed on the most basic level: as a story. It lacked heart. It lacked developed characters and anything resembling a proper narrative. (Albarn has apparently said it's closer to masque than an opera, which may be an effort to excuse the lack of narrative structure, but the masque isn't a form that we know much about these days so that doesn't really mean anything to me.)

I was beyond excited to see this. It's hard to imagine a more interesting subject for an opera than Dee, who I'd read lots of mysterious things about over the years. The man was supposedly the model for both Faust and Prospero, and seems to be the closest thing to an actual magician we've ever had.

Yet with all that Dee supposedly did and was, the best they could come up with was a vague interaction with the court of Elizabeth, some noodling about with scrying bowls and blindfolds, with it all culminating in the wife swapping incident that we're supposed to believe was his downfall? Sorry, but I need more than that to work with. It felt half-baked; rushed and under-researched, and as if it was missing an experienced writer's guiding hand. I can't help but wonder how different it might have been if Alan Moore hadn't left the project early on. If reports that Moore was the one who had the idea to do an opera about Dee are true (and it certainly sounds like the kind of subject he'd pick) then his participation would have been fairly essential to the whole thing coming off well.

One of the most crushing errors of judgment here has to do with the way Dee himself is presented. He never sings, which makes him a curiously inert presence on stage. Albarn sings Dee's part (sort of) and also that of a narrator at the same time, perched above the actors like a leather-jacketed angel. The effect gives us the impression that Dee is not someone who does things, as such a powerful and illustrious man must have been, but is someone that things happen to. He's one of the weakest characters in a pretty nebulous and weak bunch; only Walsingham (in tremendously cool stilts) and unearthly-voiced medium Edward Kelley make any impression at all. But all are secondary to Albarn, who opens and closes things and is at the forefront even when he's not in the spotlight, somehow.

I have a lot of time for Damon Albarn. I like his music and he always seems like a good guy in interviews. I'm not even going to take issue with his "Englishness" obsession, which I don't really get. But I mostly wished he would have butted out a bit more here. I suppose that wouldn't necessarily appeal to the same audience, would it? His fans want to see him. But the ENO is hardly a backing band. They did astonishingly well with what they were given. The music for Doctor Dee reminded me a lot of what I'd heard of The Good, The Bad and The Queen; mournful and plonky but charming in a vague sort of way. It had a few soaring moments, but the music didn't feel very connected to what was happening on stage. The lyrics Albarn sang seemed foggy and remote from the story they were meant to be amplifying. Rather than clarifying or commenting on the action, they somehow abstracted things further.

So, I didn't like it. It must be pointed out that I seemed to be in the minority. Most of the audience was on their feet cheering themselves hoarse at the end. Go figure. For me it was a triumph of style for sure, but not so much on the substance. And you need both.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

#MIF11: Bjork's Biophilia

So this turned out to be one of those general admission, crick in the neck gigs where you really need to get their early. Trouble was, I didn't, and as a result I stood in the back of a crowd of tall men catching glimpses of Bjork between heads. My own fault. It was a proscenium gig in a big old warehouse, so I don't know what I was expecting. Never mind. It is a mark of how good this performance was that I didn't really even care that I couldn't see much of Bjork. This is because the projections were a whole show in themselves, and because there was so much happening with the music that not being able to see was kind of sensory blessing ( a theory I'm looking to test further at Amadou et Mariam next week). I didn't get to see any of those instruments she famously made herself for these gigs. But I did get to see her costume, a ruffley blue number topped by a big red afro wig with what appeared to be a chinstrap. Must have been devilishly hot.

On first listen the new music was wonderful, with a crystalline, fractured beauty to it. I think her new songs were about things like DNA, cosmology, the origin of life, and viruses, but I'm not quite sure; parsing her lyrics live is a challenge. Nobody sounds like Bjork, her voice can transform itself from a small, feline, warm creature to an avenging banshee howl in a few heartbeats.

The Icelandic women's choir, Graduale Nobili, provided an incredible texture to proceedings, like the layers of sound created through overdubbing in production but done live. I've never heard an Icelandic choir before so I don't have much to compare it to, but their sound had a stark, Eastern European dissonance to it. The choreography added a nice element to the show. Sometimes they jammed on their own, swinging loopily in their glittery choir robes, other times they loomed over Bjork like angry maenads. After seeing them perform after the show in Albert Square, I'd definitely be up for seeing the choir on their own (they're playing at St. Phillip's on July 14.)

The performance must have taken a lot out of Bjork. It was clear she threw every ounce of herself into it. And it's an intense experience for the audience too, taking all that in. So it was a great decision to end it with a raved-up version of Declare Independence, in which audience and performers joined in for a joyous jam, a needed release of energy after all that intensity. We all left smiling.

Image from Bjork Spain

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

#MIF11: Sinead O'Connor

As we filed out of the venue in Albert Square, I was walking closely behind a white-haired rather posh sounding gentleman. "The music was smashing," he remarked to his companion. "But of course, she's a complete crackpot."

This nicely sums up what most people think of Sinead O' Connor. (If they think of her at all, and judging by the blank expressions on the twentysomethings round my pavilion table when I announced I was off to see Sinead, they increasingly don't.) Nice songs, but completely Dagenham. She tore up a picture of the pope on telly, for chrissakes. In the 80s she was a beautiful young woman with a stunning voice, but she shaved her head and wore shapeless clothes and made a habit of saying angry things that made people uncomfortable. Then she went all religious and wanted to sing a lot of songs based on scripture, didn't she? The record industry loves it when you do that.

This was all in the background when I went to see Sinead O'Connor last weekend. The woman who took the stage was simply dressed and seemed nervous. There was a strange dynamic between her and her backing band which became clear when she told us she'd only met them the week before. There was a white cotton banner embroidered in rasta colours with the word "Joseph" draped from her music stand, and a piece of paper facing her instructed her to BREATHE. She periodically jumped into kind of a nervous boxer bounce.

Her set was a nice combination of new and old. I'd heard she didn't perform old songs any more, but The Emperor's New Clothes was one of the first she played, followed by many of her old hits. Her acappella version of I am stretched on your grave raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Beautiful, unearthly and harrowing. For me, that alone would have been worth the price of admission.

But her newer songs, most of which I had never heard, were lovely; her voice is lower than it used to be but just as magnificent, and her songwriting skills are still very much in effect. I'm not a religious person, but I found her songs from the Theology album touching, and wondered why sacred music is so little tolerated in the world of rock and roll, where ironic detatchment often seems to be the default setting. Songs from her forthcoming album, Home, also went down well, as did a reggae cover of Buju Banton's Untold Stories. The only place where she lost me a bit was a long sermonizing number called What is a real VIP?, which could have done with some editing.

She has a salty sense of humor, which was increasingly in evidence as the show went on, and curses like a sailor. I found this mostly funny, even later on when she had a nerve-induced attack of turrets - yes, she's rough around the edges, but she seems like a real person, a far cry from the standard plastic persona of the musician on display. On the strength of this performance, I'll certainly be giving her new music a listen.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Introducing: The Real Story

Hooray! I'm delighted to be able to share the details about Openstories' new project, The Real Story. So here's the deal:

The Real Story is a celebration of creative nonfiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with fiction. Look, we like making stuff up as much as anyone else does, but we’re more excited about the creative possibilities of telling the truth. We love true stories (even mostly true stories), personal essays, memoirs, diaries, sketches and literary journalism. After all, life is much stranger than fiction.

We’re kicking things off this summer with a writing competition. We are inviting people to submit unpublished personal essays or brief memoirs of 2,000 words or less. The topic can be anything – your childhood, travels, reflections on life, a person you have loved – as long as it tells us a compelling story from your point of view.

The best submissions will be published alongside specially commissioned photographic portraits of the writers on a new website to be launched in October at the Manchester Literature Festival 2011, and some of the winning writers will be asked to read their pieces live during the festival.

To enter, email your submission as a double-spaced Word document to info@openstories.org with “Real Story submission” in the subject line. Please include your full name and contact details and a 50-word biography. All submissions must be received no later than August 27 2011. We regret that we cannot consider entries from outside the UK.

If you’d like to learn more about using your own experiences as the basis for nonfiction writing, we’re holding a primer workshop, Life Writing Bootcamp, at Manchester City Library on Saturday July 30 from 11am to 4pm, with writer and Rainy City Stories editor Kate Feld. The workshop will cover developing and writing personal essays, memoirs, and first-person blogs. The cost is £25 (£20 concessions). Places are limited. To book call 01706 823264 (this is now the correct number, there was a typo before) or email info@openstories.org. See you there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Literary Events Summer 2011

Some more literary happenings flitting through the transom of my mind:

I'm going to be moderating an event for Creative Trafford called Approaching Agents and Publishers on Monday June 27, from 1-4pm at The Waterside in Sale. It's a rare opportunity to talk to some very well known agents and editors (John Jarrold, Sophie Buchan and Ollie Munson) who will be coming up from London specifically for this event. We'll be covering everything from how to prepare your manuscript to the latest trends in publishing; it's going to be a fantastic opportunity for North West writers who are serious about getting their work published. There's a limited number of tickets (£8/6)and they're going fast, so booking soon is recommended on 0161 912 5616.

A couple of calls for submissions to mention here: Comma Press is looking for stories for its new collection, Reveal (deadline July 1st) and CRESC and the centre for New Writing are running a competition, Framing the City, for the best creative writing that reflects change in the city of Manchester (deadline August 6).

Finally, I'm a little sad to say that submissions are now closed for Rainy City Stories, the website I edit that published new writing linked to locations in Manchester on a map of the city. It's been lots of fun and I'm proud of all the amazing writing we've published over the last two years, much of it from new writers. But it's time for me and my partners in the organisation that runs RCS, Openstories (Chris Horkan of Hey! Manchester/Oh Digital fame, and Cathy Bolton, director of Manchester Literature Festival) to turn our attention to our next project, The Real Story. Details on that one coming very soon...

Monday, May 09, 2011

Spring literary happenings

Word people: There are so many great events for writers and readers floating around in Manchester at the moment it's really hard to keep up. Here are a few particularly good things on the horizon:

The shiny new International Anthony Burgess Centre has an appealingly eclectic series of events up and running, including Elemental Opera's performance of the complete Mahler Song Cycle over two nights, and poet August Kleinzahler, as well as literary salons, book launches and workshops. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Amid all the gloom and doom following the announcement of the Arts Council's Portfolio funding roster (RIP Greenroom, fingers crossed for Castlefield Gallery, Litfest and folly) there was a bright spot for Manchester literary folk: Comma Press, Literature Northwest and Madlab joined forces and won funding to create a new writers' centre at the Edge Street space. Look out for more events like their upcoming short story writing workshop.

Chorlton Arts Festival
has a couple of good literary events on tap: Womens' writing website For Books' Sake is coming to town for a one-off event Friday 20th May at Lloyds Hotel. Books & Blues, a free celebration of the famous and forgotten female blues voices throughout the ages, will feature spoken word, storytelling and live music plus a bookswap booth and prize giveaways. On Thurs 26 May, Flash Mob Literary Salon will feature readings from the writer-organisers of the super short writing competition (Sarah-Clare Conlon, Ian Carrington, Tom Mason, David Hartley and Benjamin Judge) as well as the reading of the winning entries, wordgames and silliness and a special guest appearance by Nik Perring, author of micro fiction collection Not So Perfect.

There's a fanzine convention happening at the lovely Victoria Baths on May 14, with stalls featuring self-published books and zines to browse, talks, a film showing and workshops. To have a stall on the day, either as an individual zine or group of friends, costs £10 (email Natalie.Rose.Bradbury AT googlemail.com.)

Station Stories is a site specific live literature promenade event using digital technology and live improvised electronic sound. Six writers (Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, David Gaffney, Tom Jenks, Nicholas Royle and Peter Wild) will read live their specially commissioned stories inspired by the station and the people who use it and work there. Audiences are linked to the writers' microphones by wireless headsets, so they can hear them while wandering around the station. It's a collaboration between Manchester Literature Festival, Bury Text Festival and the Hamilton Project, and takes place 19-21 May.

Monday, May 02, 2011

May in Manchester

Hello friends. Oh, it's lovely to be back in the cosy confines of blogger. I've been unable to get on here and tell you about cool stuff happening in Manchester because I've been busy with my new job, which is ... telling people about cool stuff happening in Manchester. Now I have even more of you emailing me with cool stuff to tell everybody about, but less time to get that much-sought-after information out of my inbox and on here. So if you've emailed me about something supercool you're doing lately but found me strangely unresponsive, this is probably why. I'm sorry. I'd like to say this situation will improve. But I cannot.

Anyhoo. The ever-so-cuddly Adam Buxton, half of the insane genius comedy duo Adam & Joe, is coming to Manchester May 18 to introduce a screening of the BFI's BUG: The Evolution of Music Video at the Zion Arts Centre in Hulme. If you've never heard Adam & Joe (!!!) stop whatever you're doing and go check out their amazing 6Music show here. This event is part of the Diesel School of Island Life programme, which also includes interesting things like wild food foraging May 14 at Fletcher Moss Park and a talk on sloganeering at Cornerhouse May 30, as well as the more typical major brand promotion fare of DJ nights at the Deaf. To sign up to get tickets, go here.

Last spotted in Victorian London,
The Burlington Fine Arts Club
will be resurrected as a members-only, BYOB pop up social space during the Manchester International Festival. It's an effort to give local artists a space to exhibit, network, discuss ideas and a place for everyone to engage with Manchester’s grassroots contemporary art scene. Each section will be curated by a selected artist, DIY collective or independent gallery... and if you're interested in doing one of these residences, today's the last day to apply, so get on it.

FutureEverything is almost upon us. There's always some good stuff on but I'm hearing especially good things about the art and music programmes this year. If wishes were horses, I'd be driving my landau over to see On Ways to Disappear Without Leaving a Trace (pictured above) 65daysofstatic soundtrack Silent Running, Warpaint and Beach House. I have even remembered not to call it Futuresonic approximately 50 percent of the time I've referred to it in conversation - a marked improvement over last year for me. If you're a a blogger covering the festival this year, they're asking for people to send content to their portal here.

Another one for the Manchester-based arts and culture bloggers: Opera North are inviting a few bloggers to attend an upcoming production of Carmen at The Lowry and write it up, following a successful similar event in Leeds. It will be an ‘access some areas’ event with a backstage tour, the chance to have a meet and greet with cast members and pre-show. It happens Friday May 20 at 5:30, and if you're interested email julia.lumley AT operanorth.co.uk

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Manchester Blogmeet March 8

The next Manchester blogmeet will be happening Tuesday March 8, from 6:30 to 8:30 at Common on Edge Street. As usual, all Manchester-area bloggers are welcome to come along, schmooze with your kindred, and drink some fine beverages courtesy of our generous sponsor.

This particular blogmeet will be sponsored by leather jacket website I Love 2 Love, which we'll be hearing a bit more about at the event. Thanks for your support, guys.

The blogmeet will be held in the Kestrel Suite at Common, which is the room to the back and the right of the area with the booths. No need to rsvp or book a place, just come along. Don't be shy, we're a friendly bunch. We will force you to wear a non-ironic nametag, however. You've been warned.

Common image Tim France, courtesy of Common

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New blogs: The Okasional Edition

Okay, it's been a while, so I've got loads of new blogs for your delectation:

Back in December I wasn't quick enough to get to the latest incarnation of the Okasional Cafe, the itinerant venue that has been periodically squatting in vacant buildings around the city for as long as I lived in Manchester and probably much longer (The photo above was taken on Charles Street). If you don't want to miss the next one, keep an eye on the Okasional Cafe blog.

One of the most hotly anticipated openings of 2011 (at least at my house) is Common's new venture, Port Street Beer House. I've been watching thirstily as it takes shape on the beer house blog. Their about page says it all: "For those of you enthused by the world of beer we hope to provide a warm comfortable environment for you to sit back and appreciate the ever expanding world of craft brewing." We're enthused! And it's open now.

Once again, we've got plenty of new writers' blogs, including little bird stories, Tupenny Tales, Troubleau, Urban Masterplan Working Party, and blogs from writers Claire Massey (formerly of the Fairy Tale Cupboard), Hayley Flynn and my MancSpecFic comrade Craig Pay. Also, bricolage and be, the culturally-oriented blog of Dr. Beccy Kennedy.

Bloggers Ben Judge and Clare Conlon have only gone and started a new blog where you can ask them anything and they have to find, figure out or make up the answer. Go on, you know you want to.

Jennifer Grace Cook moved here from the states for one reason: to find a man. You can read all about her quest at A Girl's Guide to a Noble Manchester. Other new additions to the personal blogroll: Tales from the tower and Mad Balance Plus a stray food blog, Northern Food, that got lost on the way to my last post.

Others: Newsicmoos is music news of the electronic variety. School Boy Couture is about gadgets and design.Plastic Circles is all about the design of music packaging. Screen 150 is short and snappy movie reviews (150 words, natch) and welcomes your contribution. Happy reading.