Since the announcement of Michel Butor’s death a few days ago, obituaries, hommages, appreciations and recollections have appeared in the quality press across Europe . But not here in the UK. Not a word.
It wasn’t always thus. In 1956, Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, was published, with an English translation appearing in 1960 (Passing Time). The setting was immediately recognisable to British readers – a northern English city, rain drenched and fog bound, grimy and sooty, where you can’t get a drink until evening, and you can’t get a decent meal anywhere, at any time.
This was Manchester, where Butor, fresh from teaching in Egypt and ‘inundated with sun’, came for a two-year stint as a lecteur at the University. Manchester, masquerading as Bleston, where Revel, a young Frenchman, came for a one year contract translating documents for a shipping company.
It’s not the city’s landmarks that make it so recognisable. Butor keeps some features but plays fast and loose with their relative positions, adds a second Cathedral, and configures the railway stations in a kind of noose around the city centre. He transforms Belle Vue into Plaisance Gardens. His street names mingle the authentically Mancunian (Chorley) and the generic (New Bridge, Birch Street) with odd-sounding names such as Continents, Mountains or Geology.
Anyone trying to use the frontispiece map as a guide to Manchester would very soon get as lost as Revel did – quite apart from the liberties Butor has taken with the real city, the map shows only those streets and landmarks which play a part in the narrative. Manchester’s Strangeways prison does, however, retain its distinctive shape and is a brooding presence at the heart of the novel.
Manchester’s rain and fog, the smoke from its chimneys, the days without daylight, the sprawl of the city in which one could walk for hours and not reach the countryside, the black water of the canal – these are both the reality of 1950s Manchester and its myth.
And the novel draws you in with its opening chapter, which blends poetry
Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling
with the mundane miseries of travel
this was not the fast through train which I ought to have taken and on which I was to have been met; I had missed that by a few minutes at Euston, which was why I’d had to wait indefinitely at some junction for this mail-train
and foreshadowing, of the mundane miseries still to come, and of the darker and deeper threat to be faced:
I remember standing up and smoothing out the creases in my raincoat, which was then still sand-coloured. ….For my vision was still like clear water; since then, every day has clouded it further with a sprinkling of ash
It’s reasonably clear at this stage that the narrator is writing in May about the events of the previous October. As the time scheme for the novel becomes more complex, the darker undertones become more prominent, and the reader will either be mesmerised, as caught up in the threads as the narrator himself, or merely mystified and frustrated.
Poet Allen Fisher was in the former category, and that tantalising opening section inspired his own poem, ‘Butor. Passing Time again’:
window-pane covered on the
litdrops, a myriad
restring parcel of
drizzled down from the grimy
sealing a thin blanket of noises
enfold me begin to thin
Philosopher Richard Wollheim’s 1969 novel A Family Romance uses a diary format to chronicle a man’s plans to poison his wife. The protagonist is reading L’Emploi du temps and ruminates on the notion of murder and argues – seemingly with Butor but more accurately with Revel – about the way in which the diary records events, looping backwards and looking ahead – but ultimately coming to a realisation that ‘a man might change his mind’.
the hero, a young Frenchman, … picks up a crime story called ‘The Murder of Bleston’, Le Meurtre de Bleston. … He wants to murder Bleston and wishes someone actually would. (p. 15) … The author of the book I’m reading attributes to an author within the book an interesting theory about the book he’s writing. He – the author within the book – is a writer of detective stories, and his theory is that every detective story is constructed around, we might say is a string stretched between two murders: the murder committed by the assassin upon the victim, and the murder committed by the detective … upon the assassin (p. 55)
As against the author of L’Emploi du temps I invoke a notion of completeness which insists, not that everything is in, nothing out, but rather that any signle thing that is in should bear upon it the marks of every other thing, in or out. … If my criticism of Butor is justified, what he ignores – namely, that addition alters what is added to – is something that is not a necessary feature of all writing but is a feature of, and a defect in, his writing (p. 122)
I have argued … that the later entries [in Revel’s diary] are either disruptive or superfluous. Disruptive, that needs no explanation: superflueous, in that if the later entries do not nollify the earlier ones, then they have been anticipated by them, everythng that they have to say is buried in the earlier ones if only we dig deep enough. Alternatively, if Butor really felt he still had something to say, why did he not rewrite the diary as a totality? (pp. 161-2)
It gave better than any other book I’ve ever read the feeling of how where one is affects who or how one is. … perhaps it’s not so much a matter of what a place does to one as what one does to the place or rather what one can’t do to the place, ‘the intractability of Bleston'(p. 229)
In criticising L’Emploi du temps, what I never appreciated is that a man might change his mind (p. 236)
For artist Steve Hawley the novel seemed to anticipate interative fiction, and it inspired his film, Yarn:
a “recombinant narrative” or generative cinema DVD video installation, using archive footage of Manchester of the 1950s, and a voiceover spoken by a computer programme, which uses the capacity of the DVD medium to present different scenes and spoken text so that the narrative never repeats itself.
The experience is like the 1001 nights, in that the story has no beginning and no end, but rather an immersion in a narrative world where fact and fiction are blended.
I have explored elsewhere the response of W G Sebald, who came to Manchester 15 years after Butor, to L’Emploi du temps. This is evidenced in his long poem, ‘Bleston: a Mancunian Cantical’, published in English translation in 2011. The darkness of Bleston fed into his state of melancholy, his alienation from his birthplace and his preoccupation with the landscape of trauma.
So, different readers will find different ways of reading this complex novel. In doing so they echo Revel’s own efforts to make sense of what is happening to him, of what Bleston is doing to him, or what he can or can’t do to it. As he reads the detective novel Le Meurtre de Bleston he extrapolates from the hints and clues in the text and conversations with friends, coming to believe that the novel is a fictionalised exposé of a real murder and thus that his revelation of the pseudonymous author’s real identity threatens his safety, and ultimately that a road accident which befalls him is an attempted murder. He casts himself as the detective, just as he casts himself as Theseus once he discovers the series of tapestries telling that story. He casts the city as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as the Minotaur within the labyrinth of its streets, and himself as embattled, attempting to resist its power.
There are so many threads that one can follow through the labyrinth of the text. But given its capacity to draw in British readers in particular through the fascination of seeing ourselves through others’ eyes, and through the dry humour of the portrayal of a 1950s northern city, it is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers. Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.
Meantime, his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape can be found in translation at quite a reasonable price, if you feel inclined to explore its Gothic mysteries…
Allen Fisher, ‘Butor. Passing Time Again’, in Gravity (Salt, 2004)
Steve Hawley, ‘Locative Narrative and an IPhone App: Manchester as a Mythical City’ http://www.stevehawley.info/writing.html
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, translated by Iain Galbraith (Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969)
A writer more written about than read, perhaps. A demanding writer, ‘difficile et crypté’, yes. And impossible to sum up, as obituarists are doubtless realising right now, as the news of his death crosses the globe.
All the tributes will make the obligatory reference to the ‘nouveau roman’, despite Butor’s insistence that he was never really a part of this group, despite the fact that it was never really a group anyway. All the tributes will mention La Modification (though the French Minister of Culture has apparently referred to it today as La Consolidation…), his best known work. But a glance along the shelves of even a modest Butor collection such as mine will show the diversity of his oeuvre.
Four novels, all from the 1950s, including the aforementioned La Modification, as well as the novel which has obsessed me for the last 10+ years, L’Emploi du temps. Mobile, an ‘étude’ on the US, a sort of road movie in poetic form.
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape), which plays with autobiographical elements and Gothic horror tropes: ‘history, fact, illusion, myth, dreams, legends, black magic and memory become indistinguishable’. The series Genie du lieu (Spirit of Place), meditations on the places he lived, worked in and visited, from Egypt to Australia, and back (again and again) to Paris with whom he had a love-hate relationship throughout his life. Another series of meditations, on dreams, Matière de rêves, as well as Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire. Essays on literature, and Illustrations, texts to accompany imaginary images. Dialogues with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and with Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos. And collaborations – with composers such as Henri Pousseur, and with visual artists with whom he produced ‘artists’ books’, where his text worked with/alongside/as part of the piece. Poems by the hundred, some few collected in the Anthologie Nomade.
Butor was born in a suburb of Lille, third in a family of seven children. His father worked for the railways, but was also an artist. They moved to Paris in 1929, where they remained apart from a spell in Evreux during the ‘phony war’. After studying at Lycée Louis le Grand and the Sorbonne, Michel taught in Egypt, then took up a two-year post as lecteur at Manchester University (‘a difficult change of climate’). He published his four novels with Editions de Minuit, and they gained considerable critical acclaim, winning prestigious literary prizes. He married Marie-Jo, had four daughters, travelled and taught around the world, his last academic post being at the University of Geneva. Retired since 1991, he continued to write, particularly in collaboration with other writers and artists, but the loss of Marie-Jo in 2010 meant that ‘the powerful creative spirit, the enthusiasm for reaching new frontiers of understanding and knowledge, and the appetite for travelling, all were less intense’.
Attempting to sum him up might be a lost cause. His Complete Works (which was acknowledged to be far from complete) ran to 12 hefty volumes. A ‘perpetual innovator’, he was preoccupied with crossing and blurring borders and boundaries, between countries, between people, between creative genres. He was a poet, a philosopher, an academic, a specialist in music, painting and literature, and a great traveller, and he built a body of work that was unclassifiable and complex.
He saw art in its broadest sense as a ‘ gigantic weaving, with a profusion of individual strands and threads’, to which all the arts and all artists contribute. There is no such thing as an individual work, no such thing as a completed work. The boundaries between text and music and painting are not fixed, they are ‘three faces of the same enterprise’, this ‘immense cultural weaving’.
And while readers and critics acknowledge that his works make strenuous demands upon them, what is also acknowledged is that he was a man with ambition but without arrogance or ego. He believed in the importance of his own work as part of this cultural fabric, but not in his personal importance. He was no austere ascetic, but loved wine, and jazz, and detective novels. He was generous and warm, as his many interviewers have invariably noted.
He was also idealistic. He believed that art could change the world, that it was vital. Poets to him were the researchers and the technicians of language, and it was through working on and with language that they could change the world. His adolescence in Paris during the Occupation, when violence and the thread of violence were ever present, when words were dangerous and silence could be resistance or collaboration, when knowledge was rationed and ideas a clandestine currency, haunted his work and fired his beliefs in art and freedom. He didn’t write to sell books, he wrote to find a unity in his life, writing was a ‘spinal column’.
Butor’s writing does not lend itself generally to uplifting quotations. But today one does spring to mind.
Every word written is a victory over death.
Passage de Milan (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1954)
L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1956), translated as Passing Time, by Jean Stewart (London: Faber, 1965)
La Modification (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957)
Le Génie du lieu (Paris: Grasset, 1958)
Essais sur les modernes (Paris: Gallimard, 1960)
Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire (Paris: NRF Gallimard, 1961)
Mobile: Etude pour une représentation des États-Unis (Paris: Gallimard, 1962)
Description de San Marco (Paris: Gallimard, 1963)
6 810 000 litres d’eau par seconde: Etude stéréophonique (Paris: Gallimard, 1966)
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe: Capriccio (Paris: Gallimard, 1967)
Dialogue avec 33 variations de Ludwig van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli (Paris: Gallimard, 1971)
Où: Le Génie du lieu II (Paris: Gallimard, 1971)
Matière de rêves (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)
Boomerang: Le Génie du lieu III (Paris: Gallimard, 1978)
Improvisations sur Michel Butor: L’Ecriture en transformation (Paris: La Différence, 1993)
Stravinsky au piano (Paris: Actes Sud, 1995)
L’Utilité poétique (Saulxures: Circé, 1995)
Anthologie nomade, ed. Frederic-Yves Jeannet (Paris: Gallimard, 2004)
A week after the Brexit vote, I attempted to corral my thoughts, rein in my emotions and say something about what had happened, and what it might mean. I talked in particular about what was already being reported as a spike in racist abuse and attacks, just in those first few days, often explicitly linked to Brexit – ‘we won, why are you still here?’ and so on.
At that point, this was something I was reading about in the press. But as I’ve talked to friends and colleagues since then, it’s become apparent that it’s happening right here. Of course, why wouldn’t it? How could we imagine that we would be immune? That’s what prompted this sign, in the window of the Hicks Building, home to the Physics & Astronomy department at the University of Sheffield, a place which celebrates the global nature of science and academic study.
This is just one incident. It happened to someone I know, someone who spoke with passionate articulacy about what it meant, personally and for his colleagues and fellow citizens. It happened yards away from the sign pictured above, it happened whilst I was revelling in music at the start of Tramlines, which seems to me to sum up everything I love about this city, it happened close at hand, in my city, at my University.
Matthew Malek had a near miss with a driver going at an unsafe speed. There were minor remonstrations, as one might expect. But when the driver shouted ‘“Learn how we walk in this country, immigrant bastard!”, the nature of the encounter changed radically. Matthew is a British citizen – irrelevant, apparently, because he has a New York accent, and his features show his Egyptian (Coptic) heritage. What struck Matthew most was the use of the word ‘immigrant’ as an unequivocal term of abuse. ‘He spat the word in precisely the same tone that I have heard others use the slurs “nigger”, “faggot” and, on occasion, “Jew”. It is a tone adopted for the express purpose of degrading and demeaning.’
The driver seemed ready to translate verbal abuse into a physical attack. Had this happened in a less public place, at a less busy time, with fewer CCTV cameras to record the encounter, he might well have done so.
Matthew has lived in the UK for over a decade and this is the first time anything of the sort has happened to him. He shared his account because he felt it was important that people know that ‘the rising tide of racism’ is on our doorstep:
We have all seen the news reports of a rise in racial violence over the past month… but it is not just happening somewhere “out there”. It is happening right here, in Sheffield, in a Northern city that celebrates its friendliness and its strong ties to community. It is happening right here, on our university campus.
We celebrate our internationalism, we draw students and staff from all over the world. And having welcomed them here we want them to be safe, we want them not to feel afraid, not to feel alone. We can and must be witnesses, we can and must speak out, we can and must stand with each other. We have far more in common than that which divides us.
Stop Hate UK helpline – 0800 138 1625
Tell MAMA supports victims of anti-Muslim hate and is a public service which also measures and monitors anti-Muslim incidents. Call us: 0800 456 1226, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @tellmamauk, SMS: 0115 707 0007, WhatsApp: 0734 184 6086
Tramlines. A concentration of musical joy into one exhausting, exhilarating weekend.
We saw 18 bands – could have fitted in a few more, perhaps, and certainly there were so many more that we wished we could have seen. But heavens above, what we did see…
The sheer variety is one thing. Even limiting ourselves to a cluster of City centre venues, we went from indie pop to instrumental jazz to hypnotic electronic trance to grunge to ska to bluesy soul.
Only two bands were known to us, and both of those only through previous Tramlines. Nordic Giants‘ visceral post-rock with accompanying films left us stunned last time and no less so this year – we stumbled out of the City Hall ballroom and took refuge in the Cathedral for Beaty Heart’s psychedelic drum pop.
And we went back for more from Allusondrugs, having been blown away by their urgent psych-grunge with accompanying manic leaping about and flailing of locks a couple of years back. Still just as potent, and the venue enabled the more fearless members of the audience to hurl themselves about with abandon too, joyfully thudding into one another, and screaming out the words. The bass player – and his bass – surfed the crowd too at one point.
Saturday afternoon means the World Stage, in the Peace Gardens. The sun shone for us all and the music was infectious and energetic. Steel City Rhythm‘s reggae fusion featured mad ska dancing and we all danced too, albeit with rather less energy and agility. And Danish band Whiskeyordnen turned up in dapper suits (jackets were soon discarded) and delivered what they variously describe as Worldtheaterjazzfunkrock, Chaoslounge, Fusion, Technojazz, instrumentally tight and delightfully engaging.
Sheffield Cathedral has always been one of our favourite Tramlines venues. It’s not just the deliciously transgressive feeling of sitting on the floor of the Cathedral drinking Moonshine (this year sitting just behind a dude in a Antichrist Bootcamp t-shirt…), it’s that, with the right band, the acoustics become part of the performance. Most bands playing there for the first time are very powerfully aware of the nature of the place, the associations it has and the atmosphere that its architecture creates. This year the music seemed especially well fitted to the venue.
Mt. Wolf, Meilyr Jones, Beaty Heart, Dan Mangan, King Capisce all played with it in various ways, allowing subtle or soaring vocals to resonate, rhythms to echo, and harmonies to multiply. Meilyr Jones at one point abandoned the stage to swim across the stone floor, still singing. And Dan Mangan too left the stage and the amps and performed for us as we sat on the floor around them. The finale was Moon Duo, whose space-rock sounds were accompanied by a light show playing hypnotically across the Cathedral stone work.
What I’ve found myself unable to do this year is to pick one absolute, no real contest, stand-out moment. We didn’t see a duff band this year, and that wasn’t achieved by playing safe. With the two exceptions noted above, we knew nothing about the bands we chose to see, other than the brief (and often enigmatic) blurb in the programme. We took a punt on them, and were rewarded with performances that were at the very least enjoyable and engaging, and at best exhilarating, engrossing, moving and intoxicating.
Throughout the weekend, the city was suffused with music. It seemed to be spilling out from every doorway, every venue packed, the vibes, or so it seemed to us, joyous, positive and inclusive. There’s lots to be anxious about just now. We know that the city is not as united as it seemed to be, as we flitted between gigs and street food emporia. We know too that the aftermath, a sea of cans and bottles and general debris, will not look so lovely and will take a heck of a lot of clearing up. But if we can be united in music for a weekend, dancing together in the sun, that gives me hope. We walk back to the road, unchained.
The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played our songs and felt the Yorkshire sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land
It was ragged and naive
It was heaven
Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day
Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love
upon a white balloon
And fly it from
the topest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same
We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size
We talked with tall Venusians passing through
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared
the ivory vibrant cloud
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And we walked back to the road, unchained
“The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.”
(David Bowie, Memories of a Free Festival)
Our Tramlines 2016 was:
Friday 22 July
Leadmill: Northern Adolescence, Gramercy Park; Cathedral: Mt Wolf, Meilyr Jones
Saturday 23 July
Peace Gardens: The Unscene, Steel City Rhythm, Bell Hagg Orkestar, Whiskey Ordnen; Cathedral: Dan Mangan; City Hall: Nordic Giants; Cathedral: Beaty Heart
Sunday 24 July
Crystal: Starkins, Allusondrugs; Peace Gardens: Sushi; Leadmill: Reflektor, Hot Soles; Cathedral: King Capisce, Moon Duo
PS Early Bird Weekend tickets for Tramlines 2017? Sorted.
(This is an edited version of a talk given at the ‘Everywhere & Nowhere’ postgraduate symposium of the Landscape, Space & Place group at the University of Nottingham, on 20 June 2016)
It might seem odd to posit the city of Manchester as an imagined place. However, from the beginnings of its rapid growth in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the real city was mythologised by the many from around these islands and beyond them who came to see the miracle or shock city of the age. Manchester in the Industrial Revolution became an archetype of both shock and wonder, awesome and awful at the same time. As it grew, with remarkable speed and with no discernible plan, it attracted comparisons both with the greatest of human and divine achievements, and with the works of the devil.
For Disraeli it was ‘as great a human exploit as Athens’, for Carlyle, ‘every whit as wonderful, as fearful, as unimaginable, as the oldest Salem or prophetic city’. Many accounts, alongside these exalted descriptions, acknowledge the dichotomy – for example this from the Chambers Edinburgh Journal of 1858:
Manchester streets may be irregular, and its trading inscriptions pretentious, its smoke may be dense and its mud ultra-muddy, but not any or all of these things can prevent the image of a great city rising before us as the very symbol of civilisation, foremost in the march of improvement, a grand incarnation of progress.
Alexis de Tocqueville too was able to recognise both extremes. In Manchester ‘the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development, and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.’
Overall though the majority came down on the ‘awful’ side of the divide. Even Mrs Gaskell, who was a local, described the impression of the men working in the factories as ‘demons’. For others it was ‘a Babel in brick’, a ‘revolting labyrinth’, and its river was ‘the Styx of this new Hades’.
There were particular aspects of Manchester that inspired these reactions. De Tocqueville said that:
Everything in the external appearance of the city attests the individual powers of man; nothing the directing power of society. At every turn, human liberty shows its capricious force.
Whereas some cities’ growth can be illustrated by an expanding grid, or like Paris by the addition of layer upon layer of suburbs, Manchester grew organically, cramming factories and workers’ housing into whatever space was available, without much consideration of the living conditions that would result, minor things such as sanitation, for example, and the outcomes were grim.
Manchester was thus characterised as ‘a vast unknowable chaos’, illustrated by the invocation of Erebus, in Greek mythology the personification of darkness, born of Chaos, who inhabits a place of darkness between Earth and Hades. So we have descriptions of chimneys ‘belching forth clouds of Erebean darkness and dirt, as if they had a dispensation from the devil’.
Hippolyte Taine records that ‘in the city’s main hotel, the gas had to be lit for five days: at midday one could not see clearly enough to write.’ The darkness was noted well into the 1950s when Butor was there. There were two factors here, not only the constant smoke from the chimneys but the moist air and relatively flat terrain, which meant that ‘the acid and other impurities become dissolved in the moisture, and the black parts of the smoke become wet and heavy’. This combination created the ‘terrifying Manchester fogs … when the phenomenon of temperature-inversion produced near darkness and zero visibility around the clock for days on end’.
The pollution had other effects. Sir James Crichton Browne (1902) rather marvellously described how ‘A sable incubus embarrasses your breathing, a hideous scum settles on your skin and clothes, a swart awning offends your vision, [and] a sullen cloud oppresses your spirits’.
There is a kind of trope of ‘first view of Manchester’ which strengthens the sense of an archetype, a mythical place. For example:
Alexis de Tocqueville – Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algerie (1835): A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight, 300000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb this damp, dark, labyrinth.
Hugh Miller – First Impressions of England and its People (1847): One receives one’s first intimation of its existence from the lurid gloom that overhangs it. There is a murky blot in one section of the sky which broadens and heightens as we approach, until at length it seems spread over half the firmament. And now the innumerable chimneys come in view, tall and dim in the dun haze, each bearing atop its own troubled pennon of darkness.
Mrs Gaskell – North & South (1855): For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep, lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay.
Hippolyte Taine – Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874): We approach Manchester. In the copper sky of the sunset, a strangely shaped cloud hangs over the plain; beneath this immobile cover, the high chimneys, like obelisks, bristle in their hundreds; one can distinguish an enormous dark mass, the vague rows of buildings, and we enter the Babel of brick.
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
Max Ferber’s arrival in 1945: From a last bluff he had had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him … Over the flatland to the west, a curiously shaped cloud extended to the horizon, and the last rays of sunlight were blazing past its edges, and for a while lit up the entire panorama as if by firelight or Bengal flares. Not until this illumination died … did his eye roam, taking in the crammed and interlinked rows of houses, the textile mills and dying works, the gasometers, chemical plants and factories of every kind, as far as what he took to be the centre of the city, where all seemed one solid mass of utter blackness, bereft of any further distinguishing features.
The narrator’s arrival in 1966: By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city that spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.
What strikes the observer in each case is that where they should be able to see the city, instead they see a pall of black smoke, a ‘murky blot’ in one part of the sky, a strangely shaped cloud that hangs over it. Coming closer they see the chimneys, each with its ‘troubled pennon of darkness’ and closer still the mass of buildings, the black river, the sombre brickwork. It’s also worth noting the striking similarity between Sebald’s description of Max Ferber’s first view of the city, and Hippolyte Taine’s.
Another feature attributed to Manchester which led to associations with hell or at least a cursed place was the absence of native flora and fauna. Birdlife was largely absent at the height of industrial activity, and much restricted later, until the Clean Air act created a more hospitable environment. And attempts to create parks, to give the inhabitants a taste of the countryside were doomed as trees and shrubs and blooms were poisoned by the fumes.
These conditions were not unique to Manchester. The industrial cities of the North East inspired John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings, and those of the Black Country Tolkien’s vision of Mordor.
And there’s an intriguing apocalyptic story published in the Idler magazine in 1893 about the doom of London, resulting from a seven day fog, with no wind to clear it, suffocating all of the inhabitants. But Manchester seemed to exert a particular fascination – the scale and the extremity of the conditions in the city drew visitors from across the country and from Europe. As Tristram Hunt says, in his study of the Victorian city, ‘in Manchester it was always worse’.
By the 1950s some of the most notorious slums had disappeared, and proper sanitation had long since removed the threat of cholera and typhus. But the fogs were still extreme, the air still heavy with smoke and metallic tasting vapours, the rain still a near-constant. In addition to the effects of pollution, there were areas of wasteland, bomb sites from the war, not yet redeveloped.
Michel Butor’s novel L’Emploi du temps, published 60 years ago, transformed Manchester into Bleston, and used its mythology to imbue its rain-drenched streets with a sense of dread and danger. Taking elements of the real city he subverts its mundane reality so that Manchester becomes Babel, Babylon, Daedalus’ labyrinth, a Circe or a Hydra. It also becomes Paris under Nazi occupation.
Michel Butor arrived in Manchester in 1951, straight from a spell teaching in Egypt. He was, as he described it, inundated with sun, and then plunged into Mancunian darkness. It was a climatic shock, and the very features of the city which had inspired earlier writers to flights of heightened prose and invocations of hell were to influence his response.
Darkness, fog, mud and soot, rain. These elements feature on almost every page of his novel, L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time), in which the city is renamed Bleston. So far, so realistic. But from very early on they begin to be associated with something beyond the combination of natural and manmade phenomena which Butor was observing.
The fog makes it difficult to find one’s way in the city – masking its shape so that the unwary find themselves going in circles, losing all sense of direction. It stifles, engulfs and sedates, oppressing the spirits. Bleston/Manchester, is a labyrinth, eluding navigation, confounding any attempt to grasp its totality, the narrator, Jacques Revel, says that ‘it grows and alters even while I explore it’. As in Andre Gide’s version of the Cretan labyrinth in his novel Thésée, the ‘narcotic fumes’ sap the will so that those within the labyrinth lose the desire to escape, forget that escape is even possible. On the walls near Bleston’s station, posters illustrate holiday destinations, but the narrator comments sardonically ‘as if it was really possible to get away’. His one attempt to get to countryside is doomed – the best the city can offer, it seems, is some nice parks. Thus the city is a prison, as it was effectively for so many of its past inhabitants.
Butor commented that ‘it is easy to see how the French capital hides beneath the mask of Bleston’. On the face of it, it’s far from easy. Paris is the city of light, a cosmopolitan centre of culture – Bleston/Manchester is characterised by darkness, dirt and narrowness of vision (literally and metaphorically). But something in the constant smell of smoke in the air, the darkness of evening when everything was closed, the way the inhabitants hunched their shoulders against the rain and scurried home ‘as if there were only a few minutes left before some rigid curfew’ triggered memories for Butor of a very different Paris.
Those who fled Paris in 1940 and then returned after the armistice found it uncanny, familiar yet profoundly different. There was a curfew, the clocks had been changed so that it got dark an hour earlier, and a pall of smoke hung over the city from the burning of tanks of oil as the German army advanced, which poisoned the air and drove its birdlife away.
This was the Paris of Butor’s adolescence. He lived near the Hotel Lutetia, HQ of the Abwehr (and after Liberation, the meeting point for returning deportees), near the prison du Cherche Midi where many resistance members were imprisoned, and he walked to school through streets where now plaques commemorate those who were killed during the Occupation and the liberation of the city. At his school both pupils and staff disappeared, some deported or imprisoned, some choosing a clandestine life in the Resistance. Butor described the sense that nothing was happening but that this nothing was bloody. The carceral menace of everyday life, as Debarati Sanyal put it.
Thus in Bleston the fog and the darkness are metaphorical as well as literal, creating not only confusion but fear. There is a constant sense of menace, and the city itself is the source. Personified as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as both labyrinth and Minotaur, Bleston is at war with Revel, and he with it. But it’s also at war with itself, consuming itself in fire (prosaically a series of arson attacks on various premises encircling the city). The recurring motif of Cain and Abel is a reminder of the divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted, as well as between occupier and occupied.
The novel is no allegory of the Occupation. This is one reading of a book that defies categorisation, a many-layered text. But my argument is that something in the extremity of Manchester, where it’s always worse, prompted memories of those dark years in Butor, and those memories created the tension in the novel, between the mundane events and the dark, violent interpretations of those events, between the humorous realism of the grim up north descriptions of rain and atrocious food and the sense of dread and danger on every page.
Around ten years after L’Emploi du temps was published, another young European, W G Sebald, arrived in the city, read Butor’s book, and began to write about his own Manchester, in The Emigrants and After Nature, transforming the landscape of industrial decay into a melancholic landscape of loss and trauma.
Like Butor, W G Sebald encountered a significant culture shock on arriving in Manchester, after teaching in Switzerland. Sebald was profoundly alienated from his home country of Germany. His sense of isolation ‘could not have been helped by his wanderings through scenes of slum clearance and urban decay.’
Objectively those areas were disappearing so one might surmise that Sebald sought them out, was drawn to their melancholy which reflected and intensified his own. It’s true that the Manchester Development Plan approved in 1961 (although not fully implemented, as I’ll mention later), and the implementation of smokeless zones were making significant improvements in the atmosphere and cleanliness of the city, even if children growing up in the city in the 60s still had plenty of bombsites to play on. However, Sebald’s ‘melancholy at alienation, and exile in a strange land’ found its correlative in the ‘desolate leftovers of nineteenth century Manchester’. It is also suggested that Sebald’s reading of L’Emploi du temps enhanced his melancholy but again it is likely that he was drawn to the novel because it resonated with his own mood and response to Manchester.
Thus the picture painted in The Emigrants of Manchester as ‘a city of ruins, dust, deserted streets, blocked canals, a city in terminal decline’ is probably a distortion. However, the narrative is only in part about the Manchester that Sebald encountered in 1966-7. ‘Manchester … fades into insignificance in relation to another important geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence, which is Germany’.
Sebald gives us more than one Manchester. We see the city first of all through the eyes of the narrator (who both is and isn’t Sebald) arriving in the 1960s, and then through the eyes of the titular Emigrant, Max Ferber, who arrives in 1945, having been sent on the Kindertransport in 1938 from Munich, and finally the narrator’s return in the 1990s, finding that a further cycle of improvement and decay has taken place in the interim.
For Ferber, Manchester triggers memories of Germany. This is partly due to its immigrant communities, the Jewish quarters with their names evoking a European past. But as Thomas Mann, exiled in the US, said, ‘Where I am, is Germany’. There’s another connotation. Manchester’s ‘night and fog’, its fire buried in ash, its chimneys, evoke a past that he escaped, thanks to his parents’ foresight, but which they did not.
Ernestine Schlant describes this aspect of Sebald’s writing as ‘“dense” time – a time in which past and present intersect, commingle, and overlap. This commingling destroys sequence and evokes the sense of a labyrinth with no exit‘. She was speaking specifically of Sebald’s writing, but it would equally be a powerful description of Butor’s novel, where Bleston’s past as Roman temple of war, divided Reformation city and industrial machine are threaded with Butor’s memories of Paris at war.
A brief postscript – I mentioned the Manchester Development Plan, published in 1961. This as it turns out is another imaginary Manchester – not drawing upon the myths of the past but upon a vision of the future.
Plans were drawn up in 1945, but budgetary constraints and building regulations meant that they were largely put on hold. By the time they were revisited, technological advances had opened up hitherto unimaginable possibilities for the city, with moving pavements, heliports and monorails. Once again, the economic climate changed before the plans could be realised and they stand now as a memorial to that other unrealised Manchester.
So in this very real city we can glimpse Engels’ hell on earth, Butor’s city at war, Sebald’s post-Holocaust landscape, the idealistic vision of the 1960s planners. The features that made Manchester the shock city of the 19th century are no longer readily visible. Manchester now is arguably just one of our major cities, unlikely to inspire comparisons with Athens or with Hades. But the past in all its various forms, as well as the unrealised visions of the future are there to be stumbled over, bubbling up between the paving stones. Unmemorialised, their presence is still felt.
Michel Butor, L’Emploi du temps (Minuit, 1956); English translation (by Jean Stewart), Passing Time (Faber, 1965)
W G Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Fischer, 1992); English translation (by Michael Hulse), The Emigrants (Vintage, 2002)
__, Nach der Natur (Fischer, 1995); English translation (by Michael Hamburger), After Nature (Hamish Hamilton, 2002)
Robert Barr, The Doom of London, The Idler (1893)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby (1844)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1840)
Leon Faucher, Manchester in 1844
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1855)
Andre Gide, Thésée (1946)
James Phillips Kay, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832)
Hugh Miller, First Impressions of England and its People (1869)
Hippolyte Taine, Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (1835)
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Penguin, 1990)
Mireille Calle-Gruber, La Ville dans L’Emploi du temps de Michel Butor (Nizet, 1995)
Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt (eds), Saturn’s Moons: W G Sebald – a Handbook (Legenda, 2011)
Mark Crinson, Urban Memory (Routledge, 2005)
J B Howitt, Michel Butor and Manchester, Nottingham French Studies, 12, 2 (1973)
Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Phoenix, 2005)
Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Manchester (Hale, 1970)
Alan J Kidd, Manchester (Keele UP, 1996)
Gary S Messinger, Manchester in the Victorian Age (MUP, 1985)
Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World (Routledge, 2008)
Terry Pitts, La Catastrophe muette: Sebald à Manchester, Ligeia, 105-8 (2011)
Peter Preston and Paul Simpson-Housley (eds), Writing the City: Eden, Babylon and the New Jerusalem (Routledge, 1994)
Natalie Rudd, Fabrications : New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (UMiM, 2002)
Debarati Sanyal, The French War, in Cambridge Companion to the Literature of WWII (CUP, 2009)
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence (Routledge, 1999)
Janet Wolff, Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile, Melilah, 2 (2012)
A fine piece to commemorate the slaughter on the Somme, from Gerry Cordon’s That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
At 7.30 on a sunny morning one hundred years ago today more than sixty thousand British soldiers, each with a bayonet rifle in his hand, began climbing out of their trenches along a 13-mile front and walked towards the German line. By nightfall 20,000 British soldiers were dead. In just a few minutes whole communities in Britain had been devastated. This was the start of the Battle of the Somme. It went on, with little gain, for nearly half a year. By then, more than a million men were dead or wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
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I’m glad I waited a bit before blogging about the outcome of the Referendum. Anything I wrote on Friday would have been an incoherent outburst of grief and anger. Not that I’m in a position to write a more informed and balanced piece now – we still, on day 7 of our ‘independence’, know nothing, and it appears that those who purport to lead us are no clearer than we are. We have neither government nor opposition, we have voted to leave the EU but have taken none of the necessary steps to set that process in motion.
In this vacuum Nigel Farage presents himself as the voice of Britain, jeering at the MEPs, taking his revenge for having been laughed at for so long. In this vacuum those who voted Remain earnestly debate whether to sign the petition for a re-run of the referendum, or to lobby for a General Election, or whether we’re worrying about nothing because nobody will actually press the red button, since nobody (other than Farage) actually wants to. In this vacuum those who voted Leave are frustrated that nothing is happening, that the Remainers are still whingeing on about the result, and that the leaders of the Leave campaigns are rowing back vigorously on the promises made during the campaign. Some of them are saying that they didn’t really mean it, that they’d vote to Remain if there was a re-run. Some of them are saying that what they meant by it was that all foreigners should get out, now.
Meanwhile our European erstwhile partners are shaking their heads, and reminding us that freedom of movement is inextricably linked to trade deals and that we can’t have one without the other. They’re reminding us that our membership of the EU is as the United Kingdom and therefore that if Scotland and Northern Ireland want to honour their population’s vote to Remain, they would have to break away from the UK which, overall, has voted to Leave. Marine le Pen, of course, is rejoicing.
I’m not going to speculate about what happens now – there are people far better informed than me who are doing that and I’ll leave them to it. And I’m not going to rant about or criticise those who voted Leave – they did so for many and various reasons, some at least of which I might respect and understand, however profoundly I disagree. My response is a personal one – now that my emotions are less raw, I can begin to explore why I felt such grief, as well as such anger, and why I felt, and feel, afraid.
In the early hours of Friday, having felt increasingly pessimistic as the results came in with such dismaying consistency, I saw that Sheffield had voted Leave. That was when I felt that we’d lost, not just the referendum but so much more. That was when I wept, and despaired.
I have always felt at home in this city – I’ve lived here for over forty years, and since I got here I haven’t wanted to live anywhere else. I’ve always loved it – its hills, its greenery, its culture, its friendliness. But in the light of that decision I felt as though I didn’t know it after all, wasn’t as much a part of it as I had believed.
Of course, the vote was close – Leave and Remain were separated by just 6,000 of my fellow Sheffielders. But what it confirmed is that the city is polarised, more so perhaps than some of the other big northern cities. We have one of the wealthiest political constituencies in the country – but nearly one-quarter of the local areas used to assess deprivation are in the most deprived 10%. This polarisation has increased since 2010. My Sheffield voted Remain. But my Sheffield is dark blue.
I don’t have a detailed breakdown of how different areas of the city voted. But a new article by Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography at the University of Sheffield, has looked at data on the proportion of graduates, amongst other indicators, in different areas of the city.
All of this paints a picture of a city deeply divided; a city where class, education and opportunity have shaped the political understandings of its people. And although we’re still waiting on a demographic breakdown of the results, it’s highly likely that such divisions will have cut through the rest of the UK, too. The case of Sheffield shows that the fracture lines in British society do not just run between north and south, Scotland and England, or rural and urban areas. They run through every community in the country.
It’s still my city, my home. Burt I forgot those fracture lines. Those fracture lines are dangerous. People like me tend to live next door to, work and socialise with people like me. People like me hear from our social media contacts and our colleagues the echo of our own views. We can be oblivious to how the world looks when employment is hard to find or insecure and when your wages aren’t enough to support your family, when debts are unmanageable and creditors importunate, when housing is inadequate and schools are failing, and benefits are sanctioned – and when the party in power tells you that you are a skiver not a striver, a scrounger rather than a hard-working tax payer. We can be oblivious to how tempting it is to find scapegoats, the scapegoats offered up daily on the front pages of the Mail, the Express, the Sun (people like me don’t read those papers, of course). We can be oblivious to how easy it is to believe that this daily struggle is the result not of austerity but of immigration, that others are not struggling but are being given an easy path to housing and jobs and prosperity. If we’re to heal we need to stop being oblivious, stop listening just to people like us.
What that does not mean, however, is to continue with the mealy mouthed refusal to challenge racism. Gary Younge makes this point powerfully:
Labour tends to condemn outright bigotry before clothing it in the cosy blanket of understanding and concern for the bigot. It protests and then it panders. It routinely points out that racism is bad, but is rarely brave enough to make the case for why anti-racism is good. This leads to the worst of all worlds. Racism and xenophobia are condemned but never challenged, which leaves those who hold such views feeling silenced and ignored, but never engaged.
Some of those who have been silenced, ignored but not engaged now feel legitimised and emboldened by the referendum result. Everyone but Farage may have been insistent that the referendum was not about immigration, but the sub-text was often clear, and in the Mail, the Express, the Sun, it was not sub-text, not even text, but screaming headline.
Of course the recent spike in racist abuse may be in part down to more of these incidents being reported post-Brexit. But the accounts have something specific in common – the assertion that ‘we’ won, that ‘we’ have our country back now and that therefore ‘they’ should be packing their bags because ‘they’ will have to go. No distinction is made between those who have lived here all their lives, whose families have lived here for generations, and recent arrivals. No distinction is made between those who have come here thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement and those who have Tier 2 sponsored posts here. Because of the hostility to white European immigrants, no distinction is made on the basis of colour (although of all groups facing this viciousness, hijab-wearing Muslim women are probably the most at risk). Either they have not yet realised that Brexit could never mean that EU nationals already here would be expelled, let alone that British citizens of non-British ancestry would be deported, or they do not care, their narrative is suddenly dominant, they have got their moment and are seizing it.
Why this sudden explosion? Paul Bagguley, a sociologist based at the University of Leeds, points to the gleeful tone of the racism: “There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism.” With immigration cited in polls as the second most common reason in voting for Brexit, “people are expressing a sense of power and success, that they have won,” he says. “People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.”
It is this ‘celebratory’ aspect to the racism that is particularly horrifying. It didn’t start with Brexit, of course, but those who might always have felt this way now feel they can express it.
It may die down. Or, if one wished to take a less sanguine view, as people realise that Brexit is likely to mean no reduction in net migration, that it will not result in anyone being ‘sent back’, they will be bitter and angry and rather than blaming the politicians who allowed them to believe such things in order to win their votes, they will continue to blame the migrants and the refugees in their communities.
And so we find ourselves talking about how we can counter racism on our streets, in our schools, on the tram and the bus, in the pub. We wear safety pins in our lapels to indicate our support for those who are under attack and our willingness to stand with them, to stand up for them.
Will this do any good? Who knows. But when someone launches a tirade of racist abuse on the bus, if I’m wearing my pin the first thing I will do is to look around to see if I have any allies. If two of us stand up, I believe others will follow. As to what we might actually do, that depends upon the situation. The aim must be to defuse rather than to inflame, focusing on the victim rather than the aggressor, making them feel safer, letting them know the hatred is not shared by all of us. But we do also need to speak, to let not only the victim but the aggressor and those who are fiercely staring at their newspapers or their phones and pretending they can’t hear or see what’s happening know that this is not right.
The thing is, I want my country back too.
I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.
The country that Laurie Penny wants back is, she acknowledges, fictional. But so is Farage’s – and which would we rather live in? The country I want back was conjured up memorably and brilliantly in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics. Funny, celebratory and bonkers, it gave us a vision of ourselves now, not as we used to be, and it set the scene for our collective joy and pride as a succession of medals were draped around the necks of our athletes, who themselves represented Britain now, in all its rich diversity.
That seems a long time ago and very far away. But we have to try to find it again. In Europe or out of it – we may not be able to reverse that decision, but we can work to make things better now, here, for all of us. Meantime, remember: