Last weekend the biennial Manchester Histories Festival took over the city with a fantastic array of events, talks and tours. I went; I saw; I historied. Here is my story:
Day 1: Thursday
I go along to the Festival launch event at Manchester Art Gallery. We kick off with speeches from Manchester Histories CEO Karen Shannon and various representatives from Manchester City Council, the universities and Manchester School of Art. There is a huge amount going on over the next 4 days!
Next up is writer Michelle Green reading the opening to her suffragette-inspired story ‘There are Five Ways Out of This Room.’ I definitely want to hear the rest of this!
Then I am instructed to wander the galleries, where I should take in the art and enjoy the performers I will encounter along the way. PERFECT. Repurposing a venue to create a new experience and encouraging a new perspective on things is my favourite. Rosie Garland performs her poem ‘Syrinx’ in front of the painting of the same name, one of the works ‘attacked’ by suffragettes in 1913. Her reading is electric, so cleverly-paced and full of purpose. I heart Rosie. We all basically refuse to stop clapping at the end.
And I see another of my Manchester favourites, Kate Feld, reading some of her creative nonfiction, a thought-provoking speech entitled ‘Etihad’, about ownership of spaces and cities, belonging and nonbelonging, freedom of speech and lack thereof, the construction of buildings and the destruction and distortion of history. She is angry, affronted and articulate and we are all gripped by her words about the alliance between Manchester and Abu Dhabi, the shortfall between the Western pillar of supposed democracy and the treatment of journalist Ahmed Mansoor.
Wow. If tonight is anything to go by, the next few days are going to be great.
Day 2: Friday
My morning meeting goes longer than expected, and I’m not going to be able to get to Alexandra Park for their film screening event. Drat.
So I go straight to the Mechanics’ Institute on Princess Street. There are 3 trustee guys from the Institute giving this tour, and their patter is excellent. They keep setting each other up for anecdotes about Cuban tour-groups and suchlike. They are great.
It turns out the Mechanics’ Institute is the original home of The University of Manchester, Manchester Met University, the Trades Union Congress and the Co-op! There is a lot of history to hear about, and the collection of stained-glass windows for different trades unions is fascinating.
Day 3: Saturday
Riding the high of a successful early-morning dentist appointment (!), I am ready and raring to go for an 11am talk at MMU by Dean Kirby on his book ‘Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum’. Yes, I am easily lured in by such a promisingly grim title, and Victorian Britain is my happy place, especially the savage slum parts. Kirby is an excellent speaker, full of colourful stories and details of life in the slum, complete with notable characters and discussion on current plans to develop the area. Kirby can trace his own ancestry to Angel Meadow, and he’s particularly interested in gathering further stories of local families. Head over to angelmeadowbook.com to add your story, and find out more.
Day 4: Sunday
Today’s event promises to be a whopper. The MHF Celebration Day at Central Library, with over 70 stalls dispersed throughout the building all hosted by different societies and organisations from around Greater Manchester. I get there around 2pm, and embark upon my carefully-thought-out strategy of ‘meandering about the place and seeing where I end up’.
WELL! 2 hours later and I leave feeling happy and informed, armed with brochures, leaflets and guides on all manner of things, including Manchester Astronomical Society (Thursday evening tours available if you do the secret knock), the International Brigade Memorial Trust (“How much do *you* know about Manchester and the Spanish Civil War?”) and the wealth of things relating to Ancient Egypt in Bolton, of all places.
I also pick up a copy of short story anthology ‘Protest’ at the Comma Press stand, so I’ll be able to finish Michelle Green’s suffragette tale. I catch the fabulous set performed by Manchester Community Choir before heading home. I am exhausted.
Day 5: Monday
Ok team, we made it, the final day. I arrive at the People’s History Museum for something I only know is a music / art performance called ‘Panoramas’. It turns out to be a joint project with the Booth Centre, arts organisation Arthur + Martha, and singer-songwriter Matt Hill, and the ‘panoramas’ are scrolling artworks that play alongside songs and spoken word created and performed by a group of people that have experienced homelessness.
I am blown away. The pieces are frank and heartfelt, as well as original and really bloody good.
Then I go to the John Rylands Library for their ‘Power to the People’ exhibit, a selection of items relating to suffrage, politics and wellbeing, and the life of the city. Two knowledgeable staff-members talk us through various letters and books, including an Account Book from the Peterloo Relief Fund, which UNESCO have included on their UK Memory of the World register. It will be the centre-piece of the Library’s Peterloo centenary exhibition next year, so kudos to you if you were there today to see it up close and personal.
And there you have it. I am done. I’m very pleased I made it to something on each day, and in some of Manchester’s most historic, beautiful and interesting venues. And everything I attended was so well-organised, accessible and didn’t cost me a penny.
Thank you Manchester Histories Festival; see you in two years!