Like so many seaside villages and towns on the north-eastern coast, this place is a grand old pantomime dame hoping to one day be relevant again in an age that has long passed her by. Like the main character in The Illusionist, she struggles to compete with modernity – Beyonce, Transformers and Netflix. No one wants knobbly knees, kiss-me-quick hats, fish and chips by the seafront braced against a northern wind. In every town, you see optimism now well passed youthful vigour and quietly snoozing on a slow Sunday afternoon. When the Victorians realised that you could pull money out of the ground in this area, the revolution began. Massive hotels with their own train stations, piers stretching out so far that ships would disembark from them, miles upon miles of flat sand and the faintly twinkling amusements to amuse – but no more than that. It’s hardly a belly laugh. Now the hotels are all gone, broken up into flats for the broke and the broken. The piers are gone, battered by ships and storms and now so many stumps festooned with sad blue plaques. It’s amazing how often you see pictures and relics from the Victorian age around here, as if trying to remind you that if the Vicky’s could so you might too. But it’s hard in the age of the aeroplane… All that iron wrenched out of the ground to build the railways to bring them here. Now they trundle under the silver whippets above, smirking out trails behind. It’s not just the seaside resorts that seem to have been forgotten either, reduced to ghosts under the sulphorous shadows of their ancestory.
My good friend and humble narrator Raishimi (author, dreamweaver, visionary, plus Olympic and Commonwealth gold medalist at Street Fighter II) used to live near an old mining village. The houses were purpose built for a clay-mining company manufacturing bricks, rows of butted terraces and an old farmhouse converted into a pub for the thirsty workers. Now gentrified and one of the more expensive places to live in the area, the Mercs flower and the well tended gardens shine. The old pits and mines, now so many lumps and bumps to be adventured upon by children, are quietly content to forget their former life and move on as a nature reserve.
I drive through a lot of old mining villages with identical stories up here. There are no Mercs and often no gardens, just shabby houses leaning against each other for support. The mines are filled in but the buildings remain to rot and decay, now so many grey monoliths with windowless black eyes. A damp mattress. A burnt spoon. No gentrification, no white collar services, no other option but to look out of dirty panes and squint at the ghost of an old railway viaduct now demolished for materials.
Some survive and some don’t. It feels so random, even up here. Why should this little village I photographed today be any different to another five miles down the coast? Why should either of them be any different to a resort on the south coast where the Victorian relics have not yet lost their shine but exist as so many nostalgic pieces of antique silver. When will return the glory of your prime…
I don’t take many colour photos these days. The deeper I get into photography, the less attractive it seems to me. Occasionally, if the sky is a brilliant blue or a sunset is particularly violent I will take the camera out of Monochrome. But for the most part it is nailed shut.
I’ve thought about why it might appeal so much to focus on monochrome and I think it’s to do with exploring what a photo can do when you have less influence on the final outcome as you would with a piece of writing or a painting. For me, the very nature of a black and white photograph immediately removes it from reality. A picture in colour is just that – a faithful reproduction of the image. But the world, clearly, isn’t viewed in black and white. It is that initial breaking of the barrier, the instant acceptance that what we are viewing is not entirely real that allows the mind to then start to explore beyond a mirrored image of what the photographer saw through their viewfinder. Once we’ve established in our minds that what we are seeing isn’t ‘real’, we begin to look for as much unreality as possible. And that is when a mass of cloud will start to move through a trick of the shade. It’s when a shadow becomes emotionally significant, or a burst of white light spears down like a rapturously divine finger. It is Constable versus Turner at his most apocalyptic. A bucolic river scene or carnage at sea. The eye lingers on the chaos because we want to make sense of it all.
Flashback to the turn of the millenium, fifteen or so years ago. It is a strange time – frightening and euphoric. I’m approaching the end of my school career. Teenage angst is slowly draining away to be replaced by a purer sense of myself as a person, who I am and what I like. Most importantly, I’m not caring as much about other people’s perceptions regarding those two subjects. The desperate insecure desire to please everyone at once is dissipating. I’m growing up.
I’m also a voracious reader of the music press. Every music magazine that’s being published, I’m buying. I stay up until late in the night reading every single review, plotting my next purchases. The local record shop, F.L Moores, is my Aladdin’s Cave. No chart music, just racks and racks of rock, indie, metal, jazz, folk, dance, drum and bass, country; anything you can think of they sold it. I pass through it at least four or five times a week, usually with Mr Nicholas – shine on you crazy diamond. It’s long gone now; closed down, boarded up, at least three other failed businesses since. But the CDs I picked up still remain in my racks, the physical evidence of a coming-of-age.
At some point, whilst flicking through the endlessly enigmatic covers, I pick up a CD by a group called Godspeed You! Black Emperor whom I’ve recently read about. I take it home, I listen to it, I don’t understand it. Fifteen years later, I’m still not sure I understand it. But I know I love the energy I get from it.
Cut to the present day. I’m in a small crowd of people, all beards and ironic t-shirts staring down into their phones or chattering quietly amongst themselves. I smell of my own sweat and my shirt is clinging to me. I’m drunk. I’m also dancing like my body is literally on fire. Being the only moving object in a sea of statues means I keep treading on people. Crashing into people. I apologise, again. A laser drifts over my face. It seems to sweep across the crowd and then find me every time no matter where I stand. I close my eyes and behind my eyelids I see my skin illuminated with flickering green. When I open them again, I look up and see the windows of this former church building and realise that this old atheist is having something close to a religious experience. But it isn’t god, just Godspeed. I’m watching a band I never thought I’d get a chance to see. I’m in the company of a band I thought had broken up until a few years ago. I’d be lying if I told you they are my favourie band, but it’s not the point. It’s a moment I never thought I’d experience, just as when I felt tears during Motorcycle Emptiness as the Manics pirouetted across Wembley Area in 2002. When Broken Social Scene tore up Shepherd’s Bush. When Matt Berninger grabbed a handful of my tit. If I can recount ten moments where I’ve felt truly at my happiest, at least half will involve live music. The thunder of a bass drum in your chest never goes away. The heart never forgets it.
A drone track drifts into the unmistakeable thump of Mladic and suddenly I’m irritating everyone again. Fuck them. They should be dancing. Why is no one else dancing?
Later, a well dressed and older man comes onto me in the toilets. He does at least have the manners to wait until I’ve finished pissing and have washed my hands. Tells me that I’m handsome. Tells me that I look like I’m having a good time. I smile and tell him I’m having one of the night’s of my life. A quick hug, and it’s back to the lasers.
I leave the gig into a seething Manchester friday night. I’m more or less dancing down the street but no one notices a dancing drunk in Manchester, even if he does have a face of ridiculous serenity. I try for a rock nightclub, still pent up with relentless energy but the queue is too much for me so I skip back to my hotel room. In an act of uncharacteristic malevolence, I steal all of my corridor’s Do Not Disturb signs and leave them in my room. I put my music on my headphones at full blast and dance around my hotel room until I finally collapse; exhausted, repulsive and ecstatic.
I wake up with hair in many different directions. Hangover cures and the company of Lady C. Stories are told, exploring is done. Thrown into the amphorphous mass of a city that knows who it is and what it wants, strangers smiling to those whom they know. At one point, sucking on a McDonald’s Fanta and trying not to make sense of it all, I walk around an old church hidden between tall buildings and allow a drift of blossom petals to fall on my face.
Manchester; you might be too cool to dance, but I’m really starting to like you.