In Haunt

Manchester Something Rich And Strange What is Manchester? That is the question a brand new book 'Manchester: Something Rich and Strange' seeks to explore, through a range of writings and stories as diverse as the city itself. It was published in November 2020 by Manchester University Press and launched in an online event with the People’s History Museum (PHM) on the 26 November.

Edited by Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler, this captivating collection pulls together a variety of perspectives, with 25 contributors in total – not only writers, but also academics, historians, architects and artists. It is this range of accounts that make Manchester what it is; a place of layered history, unusual urban geography, atmosphere and intrigue.

Manchester: Something Rich and Strange delves below the ‘surface’ narrative of the city – the oft-advertised shopping districts and tourist attractions– and takes the reader into the under-appreciated and overlooked aspects like never before. It explores not just the city, but Greater Manchester, a place where people live, work and wander through, time-over.

Determined to shake up our set definitions of ‘Manchester’ itself, this book tells a story of the city through a range of themed sections – with a number of contributors responding to each – including the likes of ‘Monuments’, ‘Movement’, ‘Underworld’, ‘Dregs’, ‘Secrets’ and Destruction’: factors that influence our ever-influencing perceptions of place.

From Dr Morag Rose’s (of the Manchester-based Loiters Resistance Movement) exploration of Spirit in the ‘Atmospheres’ section, to Professor Nick Dunn’s encounter with a Ring road in the ‘Movement’ section, these are writings as rich and strange as the title itself. Poet Andrew McMillan gives a powerful reflection on Violence, Peter Kalu provides an alternative angle on the Car wash, Qaisra Shahraz considers the meaning of Immigrant, and so much more. This book marks an opportunity to consider Manchester’s multi-layered location from a whole new aspect.

According to Co-Editor Sarah Butler (Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University), when considering her approach to Manchester and the book itself: 

"I was born in St Mary's hospital on Oxford Road in Manchester, and grew up in Stockport. I moved away for university and stayed away for sixteen years, before returning in 2012. I remember talking about coming 'home' but realizing once I got here that I didn't know Manchester any more. I had changed. It had changed. And so for the last eight years I have been re-finding Manchester, and re-making my relationship with it. Working on Manchester: Something Rich and Strange has been a real pleasure and privilege because it has immersed me even more deeply in the complexities of this city I call home, and has brought me into contact with a diverse group of talented and passionate writers who care about Manchester as much as I do."

Pictured below: Some of the many underground spaces beneath the city, from the Stones of Manchester website. By Paul Dobraszczyk. 

By Paul Dobraszczyk

Dr Becky Alexis-Martin, who contributed to the collection, reflects:

"My chapters, Ginkgo, Radium and Arsenic, facilitated a deep-dive into a secret history of place. It was a luxury and a pleasure to be able to consider the hidden significance of a city that I love, through materials and species - from the Cake of Death to Manchester's pacifist heritage. Paul and Sarah have done an amazing job in bringing together so many different writers."

The book also contains a series of enchanting photographs, as well as full-colour artworks from Dr Sean Mills, allowing for a visceral, visual experience that reveals Manchester’s unusual angles, hidden histories and under-appreciated aspects.

Here at Haunt Manchester, we decided to speak to Co-Editor Paul Dobraszczyk to find out more:

Hello Paul! Congratulations on the book! What was the initial inspiration behind it?

“In 2016 I decided to try and walk the entirety of Greater Manchester to get to know places near and far, to discover what if anything gives this large urban region its identity. Over two years, 400 miles and 12,000 photographs later, I still don’t know. Is it the unmistakeable brick monoliths that were once cotton mills? The long rows of terraced housing? Warehouses, both grand and mundane? Civic buildings such as town halls? Or maybe underground spaces - sewers and tunnels connecting up city and region? All of the images included here are from the website I created out of photographs taken on these walks, which I called the Stones of Manchester (www.stonesofmanchester.com). 

“Many of the photographs in the book came from that project; and the book tries to achieve something of the same expansiveness but in words - to explore the city through writing. The 60 words that form the basis for the individual pieces were chosen by the writers but all speak of some distinct facet of the urban region of Greater Manchester. So, for example, in the ‘c’s we have: canal, car wash, chimney, cloister, clough, cobble, co-op, corridor, and cotton. Grouped into 11 larger themes, these 60 words challenge us to think anew about what and who gives Manchester its identity, from the city centre to the fringes of the urban region.”

Pictured below: The mills of Greater Manchester, a screenshot from the Stones of Manchester website. By Paul Dobraszczyk. 

By Paul Dobraszczyk

Can you tell us a bit more about the structuring process of the book? For example, did you devise the section titles and then invite contributions?

“What's interesting is that the structure really wasn't defined in advance. I had issued quite a general 'call' for writers and also approached some friends and other people I knew of who were writing about the city. But each writer chose their own words (usually 3) and there ended being only a slight overlap in subjects in just a few of the 60 pieces. Once Sarah and I had the chance to read and edit the articles, we worked out relevant themes, with a surprisingly good fit emerging for all the articles! I think this method was quite risky but it was also in tune with the basic idea of discovering the city through writing and photography and of letting the structure emerge out of this rather than imposing it in advance.

"We also wanted to get a diversity of voices, something that reflected the diversity of the city - we were pleased to get a 50/50 split between male and female writers, but it proved more difficult to get fair representation for Black and Asian writers. More work needs to be done here to get their voices heard, whether building confidence in writers or challenging publishers to become more diverse (and not so concentrated in London!).”

Our experience of Manchester ever-evolves as the city evolves, with the Covid-19 pandemic having a significant impact on how we experience place too. When was the book put together, and do you think its writings are the reflection of a particular moment in time?

“For me personally, the book was a response to two things: first, the acceleration of regeneration in the urban core, encompassing both Manchester and Salford; and, second, the powerful calls for unity after the Arena terror attack on 22 May 2017. My own explorations were about a search for this unifying identity, far away from the elitist development of the urban core and the cliched soundbites so beloved of Manchester's marketeers. The book was about trying to capture something of the city's diversity, both in terms of those who write about it, and also about the places that are written about. 

“It seems a little ironic to be releasing a book about connection in the middle of a global pandemic, when I'm sure that most of us feel very disconnected from the city and its people. I've been really struggling with this over the past few months but maybe this opens up more room for imaginative experiences of the city - experiences in words and images rather than in situ. It will be fascinating to see how our engagement with the city changes once things return to some level of normality.”

Pictured below:  Looking north across the urban region of Greater Manchester from Spond's Hill in the Peak District. By Paul Dobraszczyk. 

By Paul Dobraszczyk

What can be gained from delving below the ‘set narrative’ of a place, so to speak?   

“This is an excellent question! We're really drawn to stories about places that sum up essences - they're comforting, they draw us together and make us feel that we belong somewhere. But all too easily, these can exclude, usually things or people that make us uncomfortable or are disconcerting. I find it interesting that no-one would ever attempt to define the 'essence' of London, or any very large global city; but people seem obsessed about doing so for Manchester. Maybe this is a sign of an inferiority complex! I would argue that provincial cities contain just as much complexity and richness as capital cities, but that it has to be searched for, often in places and spaces that are mundane and overlooked. We also need to be open to whatever we find, however difficult it might seem, at least on the surface, to find meaning in such everyday things as cobbles, alleyways, bricks and rain.”

Do you think this book has opened your eyes to aspects of Manchester you had perhaps never encountered before? Can you give us some examples?

“Together with the photography project, this book has transformed my view of Manchester and the urban region which has Manchester at its centre. I had not expected to find so much richness in the atmospheres of the city: the colour of the sky; the smoke that descended on the city during the industrial revolution and more recently with the moorland fires in 2018; the different kinds of rain which we're all too familiar with. I was also amazed at the way the same kinds of buildings reappear all over the urban region - cooperative buildings that were once the bedrock of every industrial community; civic buildings in all of the towns, many of which are still important seats of government; mosaics and tiles in all different kinds of buildings; the variety of religious architecture, particularly churches, mosques and synagogues.”

Pictured below: The Owen Street towers epitomise the recent regeneration of the urban core, photographed in 2019. By Paul Dobraszczyk. 

By Paul Dobraszczyk

The book is available now

Image credits in the captions 

By Emily Oldfield 

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