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


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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Review: Invisible Dot Cabaret, Manchester International Festival

I can't really remember there ever being much good comedy at MIF before. This year it's like someone there woke up and remembered that it existed. And thank god they did. The Festival's onslaught of serious heavyweight highbrow culture (Three words: Hans Ulrich Obrist) needs a bit of leavening now and then. And of course there's a good audience for comedy in Manchester, so this was a shrewd move, though it's unclear how this fits in to the festival's all-new-work ethos, which has come to seem a bit like something that applies for big ticket items but not the gigs and performances booked around the edges. Yeah, okay, they've just got successful comedy night Invisible Dot Cabaret up from London to curate a run, but when they're putting on stuff this good, what do we really care? And with Edinburgh not long after MIF, it's likely that at least some of it was relatively new material as pretty much everyone we saw there was heading up north to do a show.

By all accounts we were lucky with the changing lineup the night we went; a friend who saw them another night earlier in the run said it wasn't that great. But we got James Acaster hosting the whole thing and starting off with a brilliant set that showed off his mordant wit and intensely likeable stage persona. He stitched the evening together beautifully and proved a very generous compere to the last. Following Acaster was a winning set from the excellent Gein's Family Giftshop, a hometown comedy trio that's clearly well on its way to a national profile. Things get pretty dark in their little world, and it's a twisted, uncomfortable universe that I'll certainly be looking to revisit at the earliest opportunity.

My favourite act of the night was the deeply weird BEARD (Rosa Robson and Matilda Wnek) who started off with a surreal, near-silent physical gag, and then moved into an astonishingly smart and nervy set that had the audience rapt. There's a lot of white space in their material; they use silence and tension in fascinating ways. Following them was Tom Basden, writer of The Crocodile which was also showing as part of the festival, Basden came onstage with a guitar and sang very silly songs and gently mocked Mancunians, all of which went over extremely well, bringing the audience back down to earth and sending us out into the night with a smile.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Neck of the Woods, Manchester International Festival

A woman stands at the edge of the forest. No, a girl. There’s a wolf lurking about and all that the presence of a predator in the dark suggests. We’ve all heard this one before. Neck of the Woods, a strangely uncategorisable theatre performance falling somewhere between live art, one woman show, concert and reading, wasn't entirely successful, though I didn’t hate it as much as some. Overall, I was glad I saw it, though my attention started to wander at points. But there are many things about the production, directed by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, that troubled me.

The performance began in a pitch darkness that stretched on for so long the audience started to get anxious, with the sound of a woodcutter… sloooowly… felling a tree crashing in our eardrums. It was a bold and effective start; ending the same way felt lazy. No question, the ingredients here are top of the line: The presence of Charlotte Rampling is enough to get me anywhere, along with roughly 75 percent of the audience.  Pianist Hélène Grimaud played solo piano music riffing on famous works and overlapping in the way you imagine the text was meant to. And Sacred Sounds Choir, a Manchester-based outfit formed as part of a previous MIF, didn’t sing but provided the soundtrack, producing all of the sounds of the forest: distant wolves howling, spooked birds and wind in the trees, while their white-gloved hands writhed in the dark. Lovely. 

But there was no cohesion to the story. A large portion of the script (written by Veronica Gonzalez Peña) was simply Rampling reading a retelling of Red Riding Hood. While being told a bedtime story by our Auntie Charlotte is a delicious proposition, we know that story. Us knowing that story should have freed the writer up to expand on it, take off from it, make some art to do with it, like Angela Carter’s short story  In the Company of Wolves, wonderfully adapted for television by Neil Jordan, or even Catherine Storr's Clever Polly and The Stupid Wolf – but this never happened. The other fractured narratives presented alongside Little Red Riding Hood were weak, feeble things that alluded to themes of child abuse but were too oblique to really connect.

And when you’re in a situation where the dramatic action consists of a woman telling stories alone on stage, those stories better work. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter if the music is amazing and the sound is incredible and your actress is a Legend of the British Theatre and there is ultra-high-quality staging and lighting and costuming – even if all of those things are unquestionably brilliant, your audience will leave the forest feeling a little flat.

Sure, you can’t always hit it out of the park, and a festival consisting mostly of new commissions can always defend itself by citing the edgy, still-evolving nature of its work. In response, we’re expected to preen over the city’s identity as artistic lab for the world, as refined versions of MIF productions move on to New York or Paris. This would be easier to swallow if we weren’t being charged finished-article prices. A Neck of the Woods ticket cost £35. I went with a friend, who paid full price because MIF’s imprint meant quality. In this case, it didn't. (In an even more dispiriting corner of the programme, Bjork tickets were £45, which seems bewilderingly expensive for what is essentially a standard album tour gig.)

In the end, it comes down to respect; respect for the audience, and respect for the artists, performers and venues involved in making the works. Many crimes are committed in the name of art, but why should we indulge them? If the incredibly experienced actor in a one-woman show doesn’t get the script in time to learn her lines, there’s a problem with the artistic process. If the artist responsible for it reacts to bad reviews by walking through a theatre with an axe down his trousers and going on a rampage that damages the building and himself, it can’t be waved away as ‘artistic temperament’. No doubt all at MIF are relieved to be hightailing it out of this neck of the woods. No wolves here after all, just one very big turkey,

Friday, July 24, 2015

Live Literature in Manchester: Summer 2015 (or what's left of it)

Our new independent bookstore/cafe Chapter One Books is open Tues-Sat 8am-7pm, on the corner of Dale and Lever Streets in the Northern Quarter.

You know how things slow down in the summer? Not here. Nope, Manchester’s literary scene never goes on vacation. The big news is that we’re getting a new performance night. Crack literary magazine BareFiction are launching a regular night in the next month or so. Editor Robert Harper says they’ll be inviting poets, fictioneers and theatre people to get involved. Follow them on Twitter or Facebook to stay in the loop. I’ve heard other rumblings about new literary events launching in the city, but cannot divulge them yet. 

It’s Edinburgh preview season, so warm-up shows are go: First, Fat Roland’s made a show called Kraftwerk Badger Spaceship (using his patented Fat Roland brand random word generator) and he's previewing it at Gullivers on Sunday July 26. Then writing duo Jasmine Chatfield and Lenni Sanders aka Dead Lads preview their poetry play Nuclear Roomates at 3MT on Tues July 28. Also, Sarah Jasmon launches her debut novel The Summer of Secrets at the aforementioned Chapter One Books on Sat 14 August with support readings from Jo Bell and Tania Hershman and Benjamin Judge and Graeme Shimmin followed by an 1980s themed disco. All of these events are FREE and will be FUN.

Bad Language have announced a  show with comedy duo Molly Naylor and John Osborne Sept 28, a set at Kendal Calling, a 45 date stadium tour and plans to invade Belgium and install a puppet government. Their regular night’s on Weds 29 July with Kirstin Innes, too. Sheesh.

First Draft have welcomed Harry Jelley to the Captain’s Table and introduced a new format – inviting contributions written to a prompt – with the next evening on the theme of 'All Shoved Together' August 17 at The Castle. Rad live storytelling night Tales of Whatever is down to hold its next event 12 August at time of writing, but check on Twitter to confirm closer to the date.

And then there’s our live nonfiction night, The Real Story. (See how I waited to mention my night last? I wasn't raised in a barn, you know.) The next one is Weds 19 August at Gulliver’s with headliner Michael Symmons Roberts, the Forward and Whitbread Prize winning poet who also happens to be a pretty wonderful essayist; he'll be reading from essay collection Edgelands. Rounding out the bill are a diverse group of writers including novelist Marli Roode, Nick Thompson, Adam Farrer and me & my co-pilot Nija Dalal. 

If you’re curious about The Real Story, creative nonfiction and the writing/live lit scene in Manchester, Nija and I are going to be talking about all of that on Ella Gainsborough and Kieren King’s radio show on August 13 from 8-9pm. Kieren and Ella run the ace Salford spoken word night Evidently, and they’re just launching this weekly dose of spoken words on Fab Radio International. Check it out.

And finally, look out for the announcement of the full Manchester Literature Festival programme going out here and here and here around the second week in August. The Festival is happening 12-25 October and it celebrates its tenth birthday this year. It’s going to be extra good.