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Monthly Archives: May 2017

Sadness… and hope in Manchester

Dear friends

On this blog I usually write about my love of  science-fiction,  but today I am writing about the desperately sad events in Manchester on Monday evening when 22 people were killed in a bomb explosion at the Manchester Arena at the end of a pop concert.

I came to Manchester in 1973  to go to  University and,  apart from  some  sojourns in Liverpool and Bolton, have been living in and around the city  ever since.

I have so many memories of going out in Manchester:  Captain  Beefheart at the Free Trade Hall;   the Buzzcocks at the Electric Circus;  Rock Against Racism  in Alexandra Park;   Xray Spex  at Rafters; Iggy Pop at The Apollo;  the Dexys at the Bridgewater Hall;  great theatre at the Library,   Contact and  Three Minute theatres; great pubs like  Tommy Ducks (sadly missed); scruffy clubs like The Continental;  eating in  the legendary Plaza curry cafe on Upper Brook street ;  and countless protest marches,  against war, against racism… and in favour of a decent  society that values people, not profit.

I have  written  several books on aspects of the  history of Manchester,    and walked its streets many times over the last 30 years taking   people on history walks  and delighting in  showing them how Manchester – the birthpalce of the Industrial Revolution –  was also  the birthplace of the trade union movement, the Co-operative movement and the campaign for Votes for Women which lasted 60 years.
 A city is not its  buildings and statues, though, it is its people,  and in  the wake of the dreadful horror of Monday evening we have seen Manchester at its best with countless acts of  quiet bravery, compassion and help for strangers.
 When teaching courses  on Radical Manchester I have come  to know the novels about Manchester and thought I would end with some quotes from  two  of these.
Howard  Spring, who worked for the Manchester Gurdian, wrote Shabby Tiger, published in 1934,   which Nancy Banks- Smith  once described as   “a great good morning of a first novel. About being young and poor but alive and kicking and living in Manchester”.   In this passage  he describes one of the main characters, Anna Fitzgerald, walking around Manchester
So with her sombrero rakishly tilted, the green broken feather more dissolute-looking than ever, her hands thrust into the pockets of her faded raincoat, Anna strutted through the blue-and-white morning. Manchester wasn’t so bad to-dy. Clouds were bowling across the narrow sky-line over Mosley Street and St Peter’s Circus Cross stood out, white and fair. The steelwork of the new library was etched in intricate tracery here and there, like flies fatally meshed. Through a gap in the boarding she looked down into the great hole out of which the building was rising, and whistled jauntily. It was grand to look at. Men wheeling barrows, men running up ladders, men clambering about the web, walking like tightrope experts across precarious gulfs; cranes grunting and lifting and moving their tall fingers in wide arcs upon the sky; shrill whistles of command, brisk rattle of hammer on steel and slither of chains upon pulleys. All grand to look at in the blue-and-white morning.

In his  utopian novel The Sorcery Shop, published in 1907,  Manchester socialist Robert Blatchford dreamed of  a future Manchester of sunshine, beautiful buildings, flowers,  children, music  and poetry. In this passage  he talks about the treatment of children:

The children can find homes in a hundred households. They can take food anywhere. Every house is open, every table free to them, and, still more happily, every heart is open to them also.  No child here is denied food, no child is denied instruction, no child is denied loveNearly every child is taught to draw, to model, or to carve, or to do all those things; and every child is taught to sing, and to dance and draw  and carve, and can read and write the universal language, as well as English, before they are in their teens. They pick up other things as well; botany, astronomy, geography,  gardening – many things…the children, boys and girls, all swim, and row, and play at cricket and many other games. 

and in this passage  he describes the centre of  this future Manchester…

The great square presented an animated picture of rich colour, and noble form, and eager, happy, human life. The place was a garden: a garden of green lawns, and bright spring flowers, and sparkling fountains, and stately trees – a garden surrounded by marble palaces, and canopied by a blue and smokeless sky. Here the people – the beautiful, brave, impossible people – gathered in their thousands – walking, lounging, laughing, talking, as though the square were occupied by troops of friends. 

thanks for listening..

love, peace and unity




Choose Life or Death? We Who Are About To…by Joanna Russ (1977)

Joanna Russ (1937-2011) was  one of the most influential science  fiction writers of the second half  of the  twentieth century. This novel –  which  takes its title from a phrase quoted by  Roman historian Suetonius and   allegedly  uttered by prisoners in the fighting arena  “Caesar,  we who  about to die salute you, ”  – was first published in the UK  in the  Women’s  Press groundbreaking  science fiction series. (You can find a full list of the novels in the series here).

So you might  expect a novel appearing in a science  fiction  series to be, well, a science fiction novel. Yet  the science  fiction element  starts and stops on the first  two pages in which a  group of  eight passengers – travelling to another planet  by some kind of  manipulation of the fabric of space  – end up on an unknown planet which  might not even be in our own galaxy. So far, so Lost in Space.  However,  this isn’t a cheery tale  of plucky humans bonding together to survive in challenging conditions. Far from it.

In the  first half of the book the majority of the  survivors, who have no survival skills and are relying on  strictly limited supples of food and water, decide that they must carry on and build a “civilisation.”  The book’s  female   narrator, a musicologist and a Quaker,  (who records the ensuing events on a voice recorder, perhaps for posterity, perhaps not)   responds that “Civilisation is doing fine…We just don’t happen to be where it is.”  She believes that the others  are deluding themselves and that  they should prepare to accept their inevitable  death.  She  sums up their situation to herself:

Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computers that could have sent back an instantaneous  distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had them which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You’ll get around to us in a couple of thousand years. 

We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water -distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unsuitable for anything else).

At dawn I held hands  with the other passengers…although I hate them.

O God, I miss my music.

She  also objects to the  proposal that the younger  women  must become pregnant as soon as possible, whether they want  to or not and whether they like the man or not.  The survivors have reverted to male control, sometimes by violence,  with the women  sidelined, other than as future mothers.  The narrator  quickly becomes ostracised and decides to leave the others to their own devices. Or so she hopes.

Joanna Russ

In the second half of the book the narrator,  now on her own,  slides into a hallucinatory state as she thinks back to her former  radical  political activity as a Communist  in the  “twenties riots” and starts to see people from her distant and more recent past. The end is perhaps predictable from the start.

This is  an intelligent, extremely well written   novel exploring issues around male and female roles in society and how we  should die in a good way,  but the science  fiction element is  a merely  a mcguffin to launch the narrative, and having served its need, is swiftly dispensed with.  The events could just as  easily  have taken place on a deserted island after a shipwreck.