Wednesday, 22 August 2012
On Smithsons by Cyprien Gaillard
I’m in a tiny darkened room in Manchester’s art gallery. In front of me is a small screen counting down seconds until a short film starts. In front of the screen are two leather benches occupied by three middles aged people. The two are obviously a couple and the other a stranger. The awkwardness of silently watching a screen counting down, rather like being in a lift together, starts some uncomfortable conversation.
“I must say, I don’t really understand modern art” whispers the woman with an air of conspiracy to the lone stranger.
“I don’t even know why I’m here really” shrugged her partner.
Why am I here? For years now I have been coming to Manchester. I fell in love with a girl who lived in Didsbury in 2003. Though, as it sometimes does, the love for the girl faded away, my love for the city still remains strong. Being a fan of Indie music and from a small town, Manchester promised an almost impossible glamour and allure. Take a walk around the city centre, the shops fronts will be exactly the same as any other town or city in the country, but look above them at the red brick that is somehow uniquely Manchester. Look at the bridges and archways, the proud majesty of the statues, the buildings that mix new neon and chrome with the antiquity and gorgeous stability of the old. How the iron bridges and Victorian grey skies of the Smiths mix with the artistically day dreamy café’s and cellars of the Factory era and the glass and the continental chic circa the Hacienda.
This is the Manchester I fell for. With respect for its proud history of industry, its tradition of supporting workers and unions, despite Peterloo, the glorious revolution, Richard Arkwright, John E Blakeley, Alan Turing, LS Lowry, the Pankhursts, etc etc it was the Manchester of the Smiths, Joy Division, the Fall, The Buzzcocks, and Tony Wilson that stole my heart and opened my eyes.
I started, like every provincial tyke exploring the big city, in the records shops. To smell the musty bouquet of dusty cellars mixed with the PVC of the record sleeve holders is to smell heaven. But I recall the moment I properly fell in love with the city. I was having a post record shopping cup of tea in Night and Day café. The girl who served me was wearing a stripy top, a neckerchief, peddle pushers and ballet shoes. She looked like something out of a Kerouac book. You didn’t, I ruminated dunking my biscuit, get girls who looked like that in Shrewsbury. I sat people-watching with the premise of reading a book of poems by Edith Sitwell when it struck me-you could be whoever you wanted to be in Manchester. I noted the mix of couples chatting over a glass of wine, a lone office worker reading the Manchester Evening News, and a silly sausage from Shrewsbury pretentiously reading poetry. There was (hopefully still is) a bloke who used to get to the Northern Soul nights in the Thirsty Scholar. He’d be there every Friday night dressed up as Joe Strummer circa Combat Rock. He wouldn’t dance or anything. I’m not sure I saw him even speak, he’d just sit there dressed up as his hero, having a pint with his missus and watch the world go by.
In Manchester, whoever you where and whatever you enjoyed, you were accepted.
Of course, it’s the people of Manchester that make it what it is, the friendliness and bohemian eccentricity of its inhabitants. The wit of its bar staff and shop workers, the stranger in the queue to the club asking how your nights going. This is the heart and soul of the city. Once, again post record shop, I was having a pint with a mate in Dry having a look at my purchases. There were decks right by the stair case to the toilets in those days. The guy running the bar (I’m sure the gaffer was having a day off) was spinning a couple of records. It was about four o’clock, and we had had a couple. Gingerly, we asked him if he fancied playing a new remix I had just bought, to see how it sounded in a big room.
“Put it on” he said “There’s a bag of records there, help your self”
I didn’t need asking twice. I had never DJ’d before in my life but after a quick schooling in how the faders worked and how to get the sound into the headphones but not out of the speakers, I was away. Minutes ago I was punter enjoying a Red Stripe and here I now was playing records in a legendry venue. I was there for about an hour and half, playing to the post work drinkers, and I loved every second. I got two office girls dancing to Stoned Love and after playing Bring the Noise a bloke came up to shake my hand. “No-one plays Public Enemy around here” he bellowed in my ear “Nice one!” A man approached the decks and bollocked me for not having any Kraftwork, and another asked very politely if I had anything “a bit more, you know, banging”. A woman came and asked if I had any drugs followed by bloke in a cagoule asking if I WANTED any drugs. It was a perfect schooling in what to expect when playing records and somehow very Manchester. When the time for the train home approached, I put the last record on (There is a Light that Never Goes Out) and went to thank the guy who let me play. He was pretty drunk, chatting up one of the girls who danced to the Supremes. He thanked me, put a fiver in my hand and told me he’d see me again “with your own records, cock”. I felt like a bloody king. It was the first time I had ever DJ’d and, despite once opening up for one of my most treasured bands, still my favourite.
One of my other favourite places is Manchester art gallery. I come to Manchester quite regularly, when ever I’m a bit run down or devoid of inspiration or just need some new records and always stop by the gallery. My favourite painting is Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse. No matter what’s going on my life, freezing time for a moment and gazing at that painting with its lush aquatic greens always makes me feel better. I remember being in there once when a builder (hard hat and fluorescent safety jacket and all) spent his dinner break wondering around lost in all the art. I’ve never seen that in London. I left a message on one of those suit case tags in the kids section to my ex-girlfriend back on 2003. It’s still there, but I doubt you’ll find it. I love this building. That’s why I’m here now, waiting for the short film to start, my friends have gone clothes shopping, I’ve got an hour to kill so I came in here.
The seconds finally count down and the film starts. The opening strains of Asleep by the Smiths begin and the thoughts you have read above flood my head. The music accompanies shots of high rise tower blocks against green trees and what you might call classic buildings. I will later learn that the shots where filmed in New Jersey, but somehow, with its haunting music and late autumnal feel, with its juxtaposition with the old and the new it seems very Manchester. The film is called the Smithsons, a nod to both the Smiths and American artist Robert Smithson who predicted ‘architectural chaos’ in New Jersey. He was proved right when the tower blocks were erected after his death. Maybe Mr.Smithson would disagree, but I think the blocks seem somehow right amongst the forestry. The short recalls a film called Finisterre, which documents the changing face of London. The feel of Gaillard’s film is subtle and affecting. Note the way the wind sweeps through the trees echoing the chilly sweep of the Smiths song.
The film finishes, I turn away from the dark quietness back to the bright lights and noise of a Manchester on its half term holidays.
“Well that was boring” opines the middle aged man to his wife “Yes” she replies “But the music was quite nice.