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Mancunia - Book Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
Published August 21st 2017
A Manchester of the mind
Manchester was famously the location of the Hacienda nightclub, but is Manchester a utopia, or at even a fallen one? This is the starting point of Michael Symmons Roberts' seventh poetry collection.

Mancunia takes inspiration from the satire Utopia by Thomas More, first published in 1516.

One of the translations of Utopia (first published in Latin) is 'No-Place' . As its title suggests, Symmons Roberts' new collection is a combination of real Manchester locations and its famous figures, intermingled with an imagined city.

Utopia, Thomas More, Mancunia, Michael Symmons Roberts
Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia by Marcok at it.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons


Symmons Roberts has previously mined Utopia for creative inspiration. In 2016, he wrote a play, for BBC Radio 4, to mark the 500th Anniversary of Thomas More's classic work.

Here are five poems which name-check significant Manchester locations and/or people.

North Tea Power cafe, Tib Street, Manchester
North Tea Power cafe, Tib Street, Manchester


1) On Your Birthday

"Steam from Northern Tea Power frosts its glass,
vintage frock stores shake their racks for moths
."

This line could refer to a cafe on Tib Street, in Manchester's fashionable Northern Quarter. Tib Street is close to what was Smithfield Market. It is now the place to find independent shops, hairdressers and bars, including Matt & Phreds jazz club.

You can also read poetry as you walk on Tib Street as Lemn Sissay's poem Flags is engraved on paving stones. Sissay is now chancellor of Manchester University.

On Your Birthday mentions the Northern Quarter's traditional name - Ancoats.

Friedrich Engels, HOME arts centre, Manchester
Soviet-era statue of Friedrich Engels outside HOME arts centre, July 2017


2) A Mancunian Diorama

"The author of Condition of the Working Class in England being led through slums by his Irish lover."

A diorama, according to the Oxford dictionary, is a "model representing a scene with three-dimensional figures." The poem is also an inventory of Manchester's most notable people and events, including: computing visionary and second world war codebreaker, Alan Turing, the novel A Clockwork Orange, "a world-famous nightclub",'"a Roman fort Mancunium'" the 1996 IRA bomb, and George Best ("world's first rock-star footballer"), amongst others.

The Condition of the Working Class in England was written by Friedrich Engels. He was an industrialist - at least by birth - who went on to co-author The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx.

In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) , Engels wrote about Angel Meadow, Ancoats, in these terms:

"If anyone wishes to see in how little space a human being, how little air – and such air – he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither."

His Irish lover was Mary Burns - a working-class Irish woman, who guided Engels through Manchester and Salford, showing him the worst afflicted districts, for his research.

At this year's Manchester International Festival (MIF17), Turner Prize-nominated artist Phil Collins returned Friedrich Engels to the city where he made his name – in the form of a Soviet-era statue, driven across Europe. The statue from Maryanivka, Ukraine is now outside HOME arts centre.

By Ian Roberts (Irwell 002) creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0


3) Manchuria

"The customs declaration says:
one peppered moth, one phial of Irwell water."

The River Irwell forms the boundary between Manchester and Salford, and runs close to the Manchester Spinningfields district. - another urban regeneration project.

Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange , wrote of the Irwell, in a letter, as: "The muddy and graveolent river that crosses Manchester."

The peppered moth is famous in both the history of Manchester and the theory of evolution. This species of moth changed colour to adapt to the polluted air of industrial Manchester and what William Blake, in his poem Jerusalem, called 'Dark Satanic Mills'.

Media City, Salford Quays
Media City in construction February 2008


4) Miss Molasses

"On the wind-cut roofs of Quay House, Dock House, Bridge House,
you can keep a night-long vigil, lie in wait for her."

In the notes at the back of Mancunia, Michael Symmons Roberts - who was born in Preston - mentions that his grandfather worked at Salford Docks.

The docks formed a key part of the Port of Manchester from 1894, until they closed in 1982. Cargo came from around the world. A lot of the trade was with Canada - St Francis and St Louis basins are named after Canadian lakes.

Molasses refers to a dark brown juice obtained from raw sugar during the refining process and used to make Rum.

The poem mentions the "myth of the Salford mermaid" with "a brunette sweep of hair."

Salford City Council recognised the importance of the derelict docklands and purchased them in 1984. A year later they adopted a development plan which led to the Salford Quays of apartments, offices, bars, shops and The Lowry arts centre, which greet visitors today.

MediaCity, where both the BBC and ITV have studios, started life in 2007. The MediaCity tram stop opened in 2010.


5) Mancunian Miserere

"As I walk west on Cross Street have mercy on me, O God,
for the cold of my fingers, the clam of my palms."

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 - 1815) was a Victorian writer who lived in Manchester at around the same time that the population of Peppered Moths was changing colour.

This Dissenters' Meeting House, later to be known as Cross Street Chapel, was opened in 1694 and is the parent church of non-conformity in Manchester.

William Gaskell, husband of Elizabeth, was minister at Cross Street Chapel for 56 years (1828 to 1884).

The Gaskell Society still meets at Cross Street Chapel. The Gaskell Room in the Chapel has a collection of memorabilia including early editions of her novels.

Elizabeth Gaskell is referred to in A Mancunian Diorama as "the novelist who marked out North and South."

Mancunia, Michael Symmons Roberts
Michael Symmons Roberts - author image ©AlastairCook


Mancunia is not a guidebook or history book but it is an inspirational travelling companion. It includes a range of poetic styles - as you would expect from a Professor of Poetry (at Manchester Metropolitan University). The poems are both deeply personal and soaked in the history of Manchester. It is a reminder that the history of any city is found in historical evidence but also influenced and defined by the imaginations, individual life experiences and creative legacies of its inhabitants.

The paperback is published by Cape Poetry, priced £10. It is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the attack at the Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017.

Michael Symmons Roberts will be reading from Mancunia at Manchester Literature Festival on Friday 20th October at Central Library,

Manchester Literature Festival events

He will also be at the Edinburgh Book Festival (25 August), the Greenbelt Festival (27 August), Waterstones Tottenham Court Road, London (21 September), Cheltenham Literature Festival (11 October), and The Print Room, London (5 December).

Mancunia, Michael Symmons Roberts,Jonathan Cape Poetry
Mancunia, Jonathan Cape Poetry, book cover
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Why? Reimagine Manchester through poetic insights
Cost: Book priced £10; for readings and events see venue websites
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