New Century = Last Century

I read this last week. A music mag timed to coincide with the launch of the refurbed New Century House venue in Manchester.

New Century. Seems very last century. All the blind empty Manchester clichés are collected in one place. Its message seems natural because it has been repeated thousands of times. The city as ‘defiantly non Tory’ is almost meaningless when the Labour Party hegemony is neoliberal right. The ‘revolutionary spirit and zeal’ here is capitalist revanchism. This magazine is timed to cull cash from naive, excited freshers.

Most of the content sounds like drunks at closing time who can only repeat the same jumbled words, brutalism Sex Pistols blah… tiny moments inflated into a careerist, hot air balloon. The tedious local ethnocentrism, that a Manchester building is somehow a middle finger to Westminster. Really? seen the news? As I write, the truss Government is reversing the post-WWII social contract even further. They are not afraid of working northerners, northerners now vote for them.

And that news carries an older message, that Westminster will cut the city council budgets to ribbons here: all this empty aesthetic posturing does nothing whatsoever to resist that politics, in fact it positively aligns with a polity of individualistic consumer capitalism. It benefits retailers and estate agents and their money people before it benefits anyone else. Or perhaps you believe the trickle down is rain, rather than someone pissing on you from behind.

Young people should be doing what punk did in only one way, and that is asking who these old people are, with their now meaningless nonsense, before rejecting it forever. But what they often do is make bands that sound like the old bands, that make the same noises, with the same generative set of supposedly ‘transgressive’ messages. There is no year zero here, no new aesthetic. It is still a postmodern city. Zine culture is often on university syllabuses as something young people put on CVs to show an employer they can manage a project. I know, I have taught that session in the past. Rock’n’roll culture, in its expanded form, is in turn just part of a wider spectrum of career options, via which you are already aiming for something ‘in the industry’, the spectacle-economy, that is. You become a DJ, while gaming your way into the real tricks.

When I interviewed Jeff Nuttall he called rock’n’roll culture ‘stand up wanks using somebody else’s fist.’ He was right and when he said that the culture wasn’t even half as empty as it is now (I think it was 1998). I resisted his take on it then. Now I embrace it fully and finally, I say reject it all: it only absorbs energies that might be used for better purposes. Give me only Adorno. My Marcuse has been mothballed.

Back to the magazine. The writing just gets worse, the further in you get. Other people’s xeroxed cliches are photocopied again and again, until they have no relationship with life in the city. Turn over another page. In this case, Stuart Maconie:

‘…from vegetarianism to feminism to trade unionism to communism, every upstart notion that ever got ideas above its station, every snotty street fighter of a radical philosophy, was fostered brawling in Manchester’s streets, mills, pubs…’

Kirsty Allison – who wrote the worst article in a publication of terrible articles – describes the writer of that empty doggerel ‘Poet Maconie.’ His quote appears even stupider when lifted out of its calmer fabric. It becomes a raised arse cheek and single gaseous emission, which is what ‘Manchester culture’ is, in this iteration.

It is a copy of a copy of a copy of a dead history which never happened like that in the first place. Because all the exciting sexy bits are strung together into a necklace of fetish to wear to the rituals. And those rituals aren’t just the doxa-droning leftwing meetings anymore: every wonk in expensive brogues in the city comes on to the podium smoothly and confidently extolling this goofy nonsense, usually to sell some neoliberal shtick, ‘of course, this is a radical city.’ The empty dead years of oppression are never strung together along with the glittering ‘radical’ baubles. They need to be, it is that dead hand of oppression that causes the tiny sparks of revolt. It won some battles, in some places, but it did not win the war, look around you, open your eyes.

The sparks of revolt were the anomaly, not the rule, and the aesthetic rebellion of Factory was no revolution at all, it went hand-in-hand with the city as a money machine, it was at least half Thatcherite. The people who say this is a radical city are now often the very people who are invested only in the city as a surplus-skimming assemblage, the new machine era capitalists. It is radical, as in radical right, as in shatter communities rather than halt the money elites. But nobody thinks, everyone switches off and sinks deep into their narcissism, that they live here, and so of course this must be a radical city and ergo, I must be radical too. Smugness and solipsism combine into a powerful amnesia, on an internal, subjective landscape. Outside, deep cynicism and unbroken lines of brutality and stupidity, they reach back to the 1970s, the 1910s, the 1840s…

In Manchester, read everything in inverse. Here, the truth is a lie and the lie is a truth. When they say ‘this is Manchester we do things differently here’ it means this is Manchester we don’t do things differently any more. This was a globalising city, it is now just one of the many globalised cities, and globalisation is ending, leaving what once were interconnected nodes a little more isolated.

This is the era of the balkanisation of globalisation.

But still they come back every few months to desperately and excitedly tell us Manchester is essential and edgy, using examples that are already scattered ash, and so while doing this they prove that it is neither essential nor edgy. It is half-asleep stoned nonsense lazily on the make. Like Ian Brown’s recent tour dates. They tout a supposed ‘LA street culture’ in the city but there are magazine vendors one could call aesthetically hipster here who are being needled by the council because they aren’t the kind of thing they want to see, or rather, they don’t bring enough revenue in. The ‘Manchattan’ skyline is apparently exciting, an indication of cultural health, rather than a vast and permanent reminder in physical form that MCC are almost entirely in the service of capitalist expansion. I hope you remember the recent Saudi land deal scandals. It is not that long ago. The writers of New Century appear to have forgotten already.

What’s more disturbing is that the worst piece in New Century is written by the editor of Ambit, a publication once famed for innovative combinations of words. In the list of references is Sean Ryder’s Selected Lyrics, published by Faber. Some time ago you could go to Rylands and see Ian Curtis scribbles in vitrines. I am fine with the idea of pop artists being as good as canonised ones, but Curtis lyrics, and Ryder’s secondary school taunts, they are just not it. In any case, this isn’t what the original spirit of punk and post-punk was about, endless veneration. But of course, when it comes time for you to go, you don’t want to – I get that – but come on, it is way after time.

The massive bloated arts complex Factory is surely a huge sign on the landscape of the final termination of any vital city imaginary. Its name alone couldn’t be more stone dead, I’m struggling to think of a more fossilised word to use. I worked at URBIS and saw the sad, pathetic Sid Vicious scrap of paper in the vitrine, insured for hundred-thousands. URBIS, at the end, was Factory Mausoleum 1.0. It was also the first iteration, after the Sheffield Centre for Popular Music, of a thinner 1990s culture, which this New Century magazine still coughs up. Rebellion as consumerism and consumerism as rebellion. A non-revolution of surface posture. Counterculture as smorgasbord of ‘cool’. Envelopes of style with nothing therein. Vaughan Allen the last head of URBIS is now at CityCo and withers the Corbynistas on LinkedIn, and apparently sees few problems with the recent Truss-Kwarteng budget. I’m not a Corbynista either, but these people, if you are on the left, are not your allies. Reject the City Elites.

‘We’re all the children of Factory bluds’, this white person Allison concludes, blathering LA gang references into a meaningless manifesto. One problem with writing like this is that often The Hacienda appears as White City. It wasn’t, actually, it was a hybrid dancefloor culture, but the white facet of the prism always projects the images, and then that particular lens prints the historical document. British Hip-Hop, Caribbean Carnivals, they are not in the ‘new century’, an entirely unconscious bias, as the writers write their habitus, only.

Allison then postures about posturing about being a terrorist in 1996. Another copy of a copy of a copy. I caused a bomb scare coming out of Manchester. A real one. I was very tired and left a bag on a train, in ’95. There was nothing sexy or cool about it. It did nothing good in the world. It was a stupid mistake. I haven’t made a piece of writing about it.

‘We’re all the children of Factory’ is the problem, it is the psychic block, which needs a talking cure to shift, right out of the collective mind, forever. All of the empty ‘radical’ posturing and broken litter needs clearing away before any realpolitik change can take hold.

When they raise a signifier such as ‘Sex Pistols’, hoping that will do some work, do they imagine that nobody notices the signifiers underneath have completely rotted away. John Lydon is in America, wearing a MAGA cap.

But what is gloriously positive about all of this is that the scene is now blown wide open. Clearly. These are all signs that there is nothing left. This magazine is like a wax-sealed gift to the future. It says ‘carry on, we are no longer fit to.’ Ambit, gone, Faber, gone, Manchester as radical, completely gone. Blown. That means it is levelled, ready for re-making elsewhere, and that might or might not be in this city. Young people, you are pushing at an open door, make your own genuinely radical culture and make these old farts vanish.

These people desperately try to prove how essential they are, and by doing so clearly demonstrate they are neither, via a platform which is the antithesis of the radical and essential: this magazine is city property and cashflow business; it is spectacle into coin; this is the ideology being sold, underneath it all. This is always where the Situationist dream ends, as an inverted version of itself. When they start putting ‘psychogeography’ on as part of the planning and placemaking consultation, and in the undergrad teaching, you know it is all beyond redemption. It is time to remove yourself to such a distance that you can see it anew. And from there make again. They are selling you an hallucination.

But the majority of young people have no place in it, the dream they are selling, at this point in history, they are Sold Out, at the same time as this magazine invites them in.

Someone will say ah well you’ve got to remember the state of the city back before all this, and I do, even though I was young. I remember it was all black and to go to M&S we parked on what looked like a bomb site, which turned out to be the grim foundations of Angel Meadow. We had a flasher waiting near the car one day, my dad sent him running. So yeah, it has been smartened up and refurbed.

But the Martin Parr book on Manchester presents this story, and it is another representational problem. The old black and white photographs in strange living rooms that look like anthropological curios, are all at the front of the book, and the shiny hyper-coloured postmodern Parrs at the back. A narrative metaphor, also, for Parr’s rise and success. A simplistic before-after picture. If the city’s change mirrors your change in fortunes – and for the better – you are going to sing its praises. But you are not everyone. The capitalist takeover has left little future for anyone but themselves. The young are sold expensive flats with new names, ‘apartments’. They might have a concierge but they have to game it hard to live there or leave.

A question mark hangs over every aspect of their lives, job stability, property ownership, pensions, a basic stable future in a working infrastructure, life without the threat of nuclear obliteration, the question of children… They high five each other and affirmate over the city not so much from genuine love but more because they have to do this to get on. The ‘negative’ is over-ruled, in desperate times, actually, one finds there the most social conservatism.

20 years ago I had an NHS dentist, a permanent job and a functional rather than dysfunctional doctor’s surgery. All of that was in the bag, so we were looking for all the extras, more music, more art, literature. Now we have far too much of the latter, and the quality is spread so thinly that much of it is just an irritation, and I don’t have any of the former.

But young people have No Future like never before. What the hell was John Rotten bleating about, in the face of their challenges? Reject it, young people, make your own culture which challenges all of it and its logics. It is not just ‘boring’ – which was ironically the prime accusation of punk – it is beyond boring, it is a pernicious form of boring, a boring that drills, a boring that rots empty spaces in the fabric of life, where real culture and community could be, that eats everything around it, a cash-fuelled black hole. Reject reject reject.

It is hyper-rot. Give it the name, wherever you see it, and call it out: over there, hyper-rot, over here, what? You decide.

It says Issue Number One on the front. Which suggests someone might be oblivious enough to make another. Probably if it makes them enough money. Not if it changes the world for the better, which it won’t. It might just make it a tiny bit worse though.

There is a good antidote available, however, in Shock City magazine. See their Twitter @ShockCityManc

IF YOU ARE GOING TO USE THE IDEAS IN MY WRITING FOR ACADEMIC OR OTHER WORK PLEASE REFERENCE THEM OR YOU MAY FIND ME WRITING TO YOUR DEPARTMENT HEAD/MANAGER

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Cultures of Repair Chapter

Interesting to see Mark Rainey is running an event on the temporality of repair in Galway. I submitted a chapter to him for a book on the subject back in 2013, but the book was cancelled. Almost a decade ago. I’m collecting all my work up into volumes at the moment – they will be available as books – and this will be in the 2013 section. I think this has held up well, particularly its last few lines: ‘To fix need not be to return, but we need new resources which allow us to proceed from a shattered present, rather than from a stable set of myths from the past.’ The idea of a positive politics of nostalgia has fared less well, the most tolerable example across a whole decade is probably Baron Glasman’s Blue Labour. Here is the chapter:

More Work Out

Here’s a roundup of some things of mine that have come out in 2021:

A Shaken Bible came out: https://www.boilerhouse.press/product-page/a-shaken-bible-by-steve-hanson

The launch is here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSRNyhYEr1KscjMZOLhCHbQ

Knives, Forks and Spoons Press put Proceedings out: https://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk/product-page/proceedings-by-steve-hanson-74-pages

Also this paper on Engels and the 200th etc with Mark Rainey: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/19427786211014680

We’re also about to put out the seventh broadsheet edition of Manchester Review of Books: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/

The paranoiac putsch!

Currently in the news is the Nashville bomb and speculation about whether the bomber was a paranoid anti-5G conspiracy theorist or not. It is, I think, too easy to cast this kind of phenomena aside as ‘fringe’ at the moment. Also in the Guardian is news of a Lib Dem attempt to side with equally paranoid Bath residents over the siting of a new 5G mast.

‘Paranoid delusions enter the mainstream’ Nick Cohen explains, ‘when the mainstream opens the gates and welcomes them in.’ But perhaps any account of the history of this ‘movement’ should start with those who armed themselves to resist the installation of the telephone in Saint-Etienne des Gres in 1903, believing it Satanic:

‘It has been found impossible to establish the telephone at Saint-Etienne des Gres, in the Tarascon district, says the Paris correspondent of the “Telegraph.” Under the odd impression that the invention was the work of the Evil One, the inhabitants determined to oppose its entry and resolved to arm themselves with agricultural implements and to make a fight for it. The carter conveying the apparatus thereupon said he would not risk his life in the adventure and the cart has been left at Tarascon.’

Nick Cohen insists that the stakes are now higher, as people are rejecting vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus, in extreme cases believing that people are really dying from 5G mast output and not COVID-19 at all. He calls this ‘bullshit’, as the electromagnetic output has been measured and is safe.

‘The best reply to anyone who passes off cowardice as open-mindedness’ Cohen states – aiming at the Lib Dem councillor making political small change out of the 5G madness – ‘is the old advice not to be so open-minded that your brains fall out.’

If, he continues ‘you are in search of a new year’s resolution’, I will ‘offer the follow-up that, if you are with a political movement, employer, social network or partner that insists you let your brains fall out for the sake of a quiet life, run as fast as you can.’

Notes

From the anthology 1900 eds. Mike Jay and Michael Neve. See also Nick Cohen (2020) ‘Lib Dems hook up with 5G cranks and give a boost to wild conspiracy’ in the Guardian Dec 26 2020.

Thoughts on the Social Science Centres

I started the Manchester branch of Social Science Centre (SSC) in 2016.

The Social Science Centre offered opportunities to engage in a co-operative experience of higher education. Run as a not-for-profit co-operative, the SSC was organised on the basis of democratic principles, with all members having equal involvement in the life and work of the SSC. We studied themes that drew on the core subjects in social science: sociology, politics and philosophy.

In 2016, SSC gained members and scholars alongside funds to get off the ground. Run as a co-operative that was owned by its members, the hope was that SSC Manchester would eventually be self-sustaining.

The Manchester branch of SSC was not the first: The first Social Science Centre, in Lincoln, had successfully offered free, co-operative higher education since 2011.

This original Lincoln branch granted its approval for the new Manchester branch at its AGM in May, 2016. SSC Manchester began with exactly the same model and constitution as SSC Lincoln. Everything else was put into place after that inaugural AGM.

A key aspect of both SSC branches was that the ‘teaching’ sessions were co-produced: we built knowledge through the discussion of texts rather than having an academic coming in to tell you things; although there were academics who know a lot of things at SSC, and everyone involved had access to them.

The hard student-teacher dichotomy was made fuzzy. There were members and scholars, members ran things to whatever extent they wished to, and scholars came in and engaged with what we did for free, but there wasn’t much of a barrier between the two.

Crucially, the teaching was politicised: We ran two courses beyond our core Sociological Imagination programme; one on Donald Trump and another on Brexit. People from the political left and right attended both those courses in Manchester.

SSC Manchester temporarily wound down its activities in late 2017 and did not re-start. Since SSC Manchester halted, SSC Lincoln has also closed.

But my conversations with the SSC Lincoln academics back in 2016 often turned to a speculative future in which universities had to shed big numbers of staff and even went into administration. With such a large amount of talent jettisoned by a broken economic model – we hypothesised – the SSCs might gain an autonomous groundswell. New ones might begin.

In 2016, that had not happened. In 2020, with Hard Brexit on the way, after the coronavirus crisis, with a government in power which actively wants to shut down humanities teaching – in favour of instrumentalised business universities – the circumstances we discussed have now arrived.

Universities are shedding contract staff fast. Their existence in expanded form is today completely questionable. Their ethics even before the crisis were often in doubt.

I started a second branch of SSC, rather than an idiosyncratic personal version of it, because I wanted to take the SSC from an anomaly to a phenomena. Put more plainly, I wanted there to be two of them, not just one. It was a simple but important aspect of the project.

Unfortunately, the gravity and inertia of things brought both down. But I always maintained that whatever happened in the future, the two branches would be an existing example and model for possibilities that others could take up.

I am now asking that others consider those possibilities: The Manchester SSC branch could easily be restarted. It was never formally closed.

Notes

The SSC Manchester WordPress: https://sscmanchester.wordpress.com/

SSC Lincoln: https://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/

A critical essay I wrote for JCEPS on the future of alternative HE under ordinary funded models: http://www.jceps.com/archives/3630

 

Recent-ish work

Here’s a list of things I have put out recently.

I have put out two volumes of poetry, SING volumes one and two:

Volume 1 is here:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sing-1-Dr-Steve-Hanson/dp/1793137560/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=sing+steve+hanson&qid=1585910462&s=books&sr=1-1

Volume 2 is here:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sing-2-Dr-Steve-Hanson/dp/1712400320/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=sing+steve+hanson&qid=1585910468&s=books&sr=1-2

These books collect the material from a year-long project in which I read in public, on the streets of Manchester.

I have also put out four chapbooks of work in progress for SING. A booklet of additional materials was typeset but never made it to print for lack of funds. That is here in PDF form.

I have since pitched a single-volume new work to the excellent Knives, Forks and Spoons press. Scott Thurston is involved and I am hoping he will write the preface for that.

I have published two books with poet Richard Barrett:

The Acts (published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) https://www.dostoyevskywannabe.com/experiments/the_acts

The Wake (published by Nowt Press) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wake-Steve-Hanson/dp/1676174486

I have been working up until very recently on a book called Last Days of Pompeii. This began as an experimental campus novel. It was meant to take in how it felt to pass through the long interregnum of Brexit Britain and ended in the first waves of the coronavirus crisis.

What started as A Book of the Broken Middle – already published by Fold Press (ISBN 978-0-9932600-4-9) – is due to come out with Boiler House Press as A Shaken Bible. This will be part of the Beyond Criticism series, BC Editions. The first run of books includes a republished Macbeth, Macbeth by Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey:

https://www.boilerhouse.press/beyond-criticism-editions

Related to that work is an article on Andrew Shanks’ translations of Nelly Sachs’ work for Blackbox Manifold at the University of Sheffield:

http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/issue23/So%20Many%20Scattered%20Seedings.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1Z3uoA578E0jvpmwP39PwFfUQedl29cRV4JtZKKxIwjayCQsjyFNgOKsg

Although my main output has been more literary recently, I put out my essay E is for Enlightenment (2019) as a book-form piece. I am currently re-editing that and will replace the link when it is live.

This book really follows up my paper on postmodernism for JCEPS: http://www.jceps.com/archives/6458

A chapter on the Concrete Abstract (with Dr Mark Rainey) came out in The Routledge Handbook of Henri Lefebvre, The City and Urban Society, Edited by Michael E. Leary-Owhin, John P. McCarthy. ISBN 978- 1138290051.

Dystopia, Chile, also put out a chapter online, with visual work, that I did for them, City of Blades – for a projected print book that never got off the ground: http://dystopiadigital.com/2020/02/26/manchester-2019-city-of-blades/

I also set up Manchester Review of Books with Joe Darlington and Some Roast Poet with Adrian Slatcher.

https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/

Some Roast Poet has put out three poetry journals under the name of ‘Some Roast Poet’ (1, 2 and 3) and has published monographs by Steven Waling and John G. Hall:

https://someroastpoetry.wordpress.com/

The entries below also tell you where a lot of my other work is. My other blog before this one kept a good record of everything that came out during that time, too:

https://steveaitch.wordpress.com/

Use them as guides.

The Thommys

My partner Natalie Bradbury has been contributing to an end of year culture roundup for some time. It’s called ‘The Thommys’ (not the Oscars, and Thommy started it, see?) This is my first. It’s probably the most banal thing I have ever written. There’s an end of year roundup, 2019 and as I joined at the end of a decade there’s also a (patchy) ten year review, 2010-2020.

New paper on the end of postmodernism

I have a new paper out on the end of postmodernism for JCEPS. It’s really just a flag planted in some big territory in order to start some more work on the subject.

It just dropped with the new issue of JCEPS this week, but they forgot to include the page of graphs and left in some peer review feedback, which makes the end of the paper seem garbled.

I’m hoping that will be solved soon but with a shrewd bit of Photoshop and Acrobat faff I have solved its issues and you can read it here here.

Report on urban identity, belonging and citizenship

This report for the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths has just come out.

It emerged from work undertaken for the Foresight Future of Cities programme, as a member of a team put together by COMPAS at the University of Oxford. The brief of that research project, to risk being reductive, was to examine the last fifty years of urban patterns of identity, belonging and citizenship, before trying to project those patterns forward across the next fifty years.

The Foresight Future of Cities programme focused on urban renewal, but specifically on the risk factors these processes may face, from flooding to riots.

However, after the project was completed, it struck the authors that their work on identity, belonging and citizenship – undertaken before the general election of 2015, before the referendum on UK European Union membership went to ‘leave’ and the whole subject became a white hot cipher in ‘Brexit’, and before the general election of June, 2017 – had a much wider use on a changing British landscape.

It strikes us that precisely because of what came after the Foresight Future of Cities programme, identity, belonging and citizenship is going to be one of the key intellectual sites for British researchers of all kinds in the next five to ten years. The work on Englishness now seems almost prophetic.

We have therefore taken steps to have this work updated and then to have it published in the hope that it might inaugurate necessary ongoing debates about identity, belonging and citizenship in Britain, as the island morphs into new subjective shapes.

There is no better place for this work to emerge at the start of 2018 than the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) at Goldsmiths. To connect this work to their roots, emerging somewhere between the Chicago and Frankfurt School, via crucial figures such as Paul Gilroy and Michael Keith, is to give the research a much needed politics.

Many thanks are due to Les Back, Director of the CUCR, for considering the report and providing a home for it.

Scrub Transmissions No.2

The Scrub Transmissions series is an occasional installation project run by Julie Campbell aka LoneLady, in which she ‘cements an MP3 device into the fabric of a structure, somewhere in the city or its outskirts.’ It is a ‘rumination on the built environment’, a ‘discreet intervention.’

The first of these was sited under the Mancunian Way. This time it is Miles Platting, a ‘clump of unassuming inner city factory districts’ where LoneLady walked ‘to burn out anxiety patterns and seek consolation’, as it ‘seemed to offer a habitat, a place to belong.’ She wanted to listen to ‘the voices of the landscape’ here, ‘before they are scrubbed out’.

The word ‘scrub’ is used in a double-edged sense, as in scrub land, waste, but as a verb, to clean up, and in urban terms, to gentrify. LoneLady’s greatest edge on the rest of the pop world has always been her imaginative capabilities.

But there is something powerfully simple going on here too: One thing that pop music does is move people out of their private spaces and into public ones. Ever since the music hall and beyond, this has meant an audience, a stage and performers, a night out.

By siting an MP3 player in the urban landscape that you can go and plug into, LoneLady moves private bodies into public spaces again, but this time not into a venue. She wants you to see and hear what she sees and hears when she takes those recharging walks into Miles Platting, walks that may not be possible forever, or at least not in this form.

The history of sound and field recording has always had an ecological dimension to it. The Vancouver Soundscape Project captured the noise of shipping, horn blasts and steam whistles which became like an Edgard Varese piece, musique concrete, but with a critical side high modernism didn’t possess, or if it did, a la the vorticists, it had destrustructive tendencies. The Vancouver Soundscape Project mapped industrialising processes through sound.

So I set off to find the second Scrub Transmissions intervention, with writer Natalie Bradbury, and I made a field recording of our journey there.

The map provided to locate Scrub Transmissions No.2 – posted on the LoneLady website – doesn’t give you a didactic route in, it tells you where the site is in relation to Piccadilly Station and Piccadilly Gardens. But in this case all roads lead away from Rome, as you move through the whacky, thumbs aloft, grinning facades of peak Northern Quarter shop window displays, over the intermittent dereliction of the A665 ring road – only a digit away from the number of the beast in ‘666’ – to the now gentrified streets of Ancoats.

Alex Rhys-Taylor, a Sociologist, asks us to expand the way we take in landscapes, to add to the dominant visual sense of them sound, smell, taste and feeling. Rhys-Taylor wrote about the now-cliched Bow Bells in London’s east end, being within earshot of which supposedly gave you bona fide cockney status. Taylor went there in the early 00s and heard no bells. He heard jacked up hip hop beats, industrial drills and car drones.

More recently, the last bell foundry closed in the east. What this tells Rhys-Taylor is that the social world in which one could hear the chiming bells of the churches, landmarks via which people genuinely oriented themselves in this version of the city, has gone. But crucially, he does not insert a bucolic vision here, where the past could be redeemed and the bells could be heard again, people are just navigating by other means, cars, GPS, public transport, all of which can still be heard.

It might be tempting to assume that all of that applies to that very loaded area, the mythical east end, but not here. But this is not the case: The back streets of the Northern Quarter and Ancoats are currently undergoing transformations that will render them not back streets at all. They aren’t just being ‘cleaned up’, the total transformation of their surfaces will change the spaces completely; they are being turned inside-out, like a sock. Or rather, they are being turned outside-in, as all the stitching – the wires and rusting pipes – vanishes under the appealing patterns of the commercial city.

One could still see the same thing in Soho maybe forty years ago, there were back streets and front streets, but now, mostly, as the demand for space intensifies, there are only front streets. This is the opposite of what Engels observed in the 1840s, where front streets served to conceal the poverty out back.

The Manchester streets have been changing from places where private bodies traditionally made themselves public, the Free Trade Hall conversion to a Radisson hotel for instance, to spaces where public bodies make themselves expensively private.

The sound of angle grinders and road rollers drone out of the whole area, as though the buildings themselves are painfully growing out of the cavities they are in. It is the foggy sound of an anaesthetised migraine toothache, decorated with the occasional machine screech of molar growing pains. But this mixes with the smell of food, the nouveau bakeries and delicatessens. Again, Rhys-Taylor makes these observations in relation to London.

We move slowly away from the ring road and up past Will Alsop’s chips building, the crassest height of post-Olympic bid, post-IRA bomb regeneration postmodernism. It already seems to be slightly grubby, beginning to confirm Owen Hatherley’s predictions about the slums of the future. Manchester Modernist co-founder Maureen Ward explains that this has been a strong part of Manchester’s narrative over the last twenty years or so, the urge ‘to entirely restructure its landscape and public spaces into a series of distinct marketable quarters or villages, effectively commercialising all aspects of the “city experience”‘.

She explains that this ‘is part of a wider trend globally to repackage our cities’ and as ‘Debord would argue, our personal lives’ which are placed ‘into commodified packages for consumption rather than “living” in any tangible sense.’

This nod to the Situationist Guy Debord is utterly appropriate: Some people refer to this building as the ‘chip butty’, the ultimate working class food, carbohydrates delivered inside more carbohydrates, coming out of a culture of draining manual labour. But this iconic working class food has been forced into irony, like much else on the cultural landscape in Manchester and elsewhere, its working class origins are only tolerable if they are placed in scare quotes followed by ‘LOLZ’. This is New Islington after all. Blair’s sick grin hovers over the whole zone.

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Dale Lately recently wrote in the Guardian about the Manchester ‘pawn shop bar’ Dusk Til Pawn and similar trendy haunts. But up above the chips building the landscape changes and the irony gets far bleaker, as we pass the abandoned Bank of England pub, on Carruthers street, a name conjuring a butler, or perhaps an upper middle class civil servant.

The Bank of England is shuttered in black steel, a single CCTV camera scans the side, or  more likely, it doesn’t: The dead eye of zombie capitalism; it is ten years now since the crash of 2008. Credit and mortgage lending has been severely tightened by banks who caused the crash in the first place with risky lending.

The landscape changes again, yards full of lorries rear up, and shuttered industrial units, fragments of old industry. Here the dominant sense of the city is the grey noise of wind and traffic that seems so bleak and ubiquitously anonymous. It is a little like the area around Strangeways, it feels by turns abandoned, legitimate and shady.

What we hear in Miles Platting is the sound of post-industrial slump, uneven development as dark ambient music; again it might be tempting to think this is just grey noise, but no, the ‘scrub’ is transmitting perfectly clearly, its message is as obvious as that in the East End. Here is one of the last pieces of city-as-carcass. A last bit of dead flesh yet to be removed by the cosmetic surgeon.

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After a wrong turn into some artist studios we find what looks like a factory reception after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. We walk through into the open air. Graffiti proclaims ‘FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE’. It is utterly chilling here. But it is honest, it is the place where those on the edge go, the necessary victims of capitalism. Here is the underbelly of the great pornographic spectacle of Manchester.

The MP3 player embedded in a breezeblock, the goal, is only the dramatic centrepoint of the piece. The journey to and away from it provide the fluctuating prelude and finale. They fluctuate because each journey will be slightly different, although the sound here, at the centre, does not alter. We plug Natalie’s headphones into the MP3 socket. LoneLady begins with a spoken meditation and the track starts.

I am reminded of a Janet Cardiff piece in London from 2003. The ‘audience’ picked up a portable CD player with headphones from Whitechapel library. They put the headphones on, pressed play on the CD, then followed the instructions, out into the street and right, then right again, then left. At points the narrative would talk about specific things, ‘see that man over there?’ In London, the chances of their not being a ‘man over there’ in the daytime are slim. The art, then, played with the line between myth and reality, fiction and fact, sound and walking, story and seeing.

But here, although each person who journeys to find the MP3 player will have a slightly different experience, the landscape itself is both narrative and narrator. The MP3 player is a kind of omphalos. There is a sense of an adventure game, to find a jewel – perhaps the pop fandom provides the urge – but once launched, we are into a wholly different space.

For a person growing up on Blake’s Seven and Tom Baker-era Dr Who, it is possible to feel like you are finding some sort of matter transmitter, or like some Michael Moorcock character, an anti-chaos device. In short, a broadcaster of meaning in all of the draining, primary-coloured meaninglessness.

This, in the end, is the wider purpose of the work and it is rooted back in the concerns of high modernism, particularly Beckett: The world is chaos, it verges on the pointless, it is up to us to find and make value in it.

Today we are privileged, we only have to find, as LoneLady is an exemplary maker of meaning.

Notes

Here is some selected photographic documentation on an A3 PDF.

Here is LoneLady’s page explaining the work: http://lonelady.co.uk/blog/scrub-transmissions-miles-platting/