November 9th, 2009


An imaginary Manchester

Let's say -- just hypothetically -- that I'd been pondering for several months what a new novel should be about, because I want to keep writing these things, now I've started. And let's say -- entirely speculatively -- that I'd actually refined and defined a slew of "signature specifications" to the extent that I was able to start writing the new book, suddenly, last week. Let's call it The Book of Pim, but let's say absolutely nothing about it at this stage, because it's not my business to tell or yours to know, at this point, what this notional book will say or do. Let's just say one thing, though: that although the book is set in a far-off People's Republic whose real world cognate I've never been to, Manchester (a city I've only been to once) figures in it. Not the real Manchester, but the city I built in my imagination while listening to the records of Joy Division, Magazine, The Fall and The Passage. Let's watch an information film:

The man delivering this lecture about Manchester, The Fall and Mark E. Smith at an academic conference at the University of Salford is Dick Witts, an academic at the University of Edinburgh. He begins his lecture with a brilliant deconstruction of a BBC4 documentary about Manchester -- a film good in its way, but also typical of the reductive, revisionist and tediously "iconic" way such history gets reduced to successes, soundbites and the same old talking heads. Witts lists the 35 individual shots the documentary uses to establish its vision of Manchester in 1977, sourcing them in documentaries from 1946, 1955, 1967 and 1978, often as much about Salford and Ordsall as Manchester itself, and as much about urban regeneration as the urban decay it's intended to convey. Only 10% of the visual material intended to evoke the seventies, Witts shows, actually comes from the decade.

Witts then goes on to set the scene much better than the Factory documentary, showing a transition in 70s Manchester from Modernist glass-concrete-and-steel redevelopment to Postmodernist restoration, pedestrianisation and heritage-orientation. He also displaces the cliché about the Sex Pistols gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall sparking Manchester post-punk, pointing out that the experimentation of Van der Graaf Generator, the "basic" rock of The Worst, and the radical localism of the folk scene also played their part.

The lecture continues without a single mention of Witts' own group The Passage. And it's at this point that I can reveal that The Passage is the only Manchester group I still listen to, and that the vision of the city conjured in Passage songs, especially the early ones, is what's informing the book I'm now -- hypothetically -- writing. Sure, sure, The Fall is an endlessly fascinating group, and Mark E. Smith is perhaps Britain's greatest living poet. But for me, personally, Dick Witts -- the modest, acute music lecturer at the podium -- is much more important and much more fascinating. I could write a book about why my book will contain echoes (transmuted to a far eastern People's Republic) of the dark, schematic Mancunian landscapes Witts' lyrics evoked across four Passage albums and several EPs and radio sessions. But for now I'll just write a couple of paragraphs.

The Manchester landscape of Passage songs is one of personal scenarios of love, hope and lust played out against a backdrop of politics noir, an environment poised between Blade Runner and The Threepenny Opera. This Manchester is presided over by "Mr Terror, Chief of Police", a Methodist police chief called Anderton whose motivations are religio-fascistic. Anderton is real, a policeman-puritan who claimed to take counsel directly from God and believed AIDS to be a punishment for the immorality of homosexuals. Anything that didn't contribute to Anderton's definition of "a good and useful life" was within his remit to quash. He may sound like the sacrificial Christian copper in The Wicker Man, but woe betide artists trying to pillory him in fiction: when David Britton portrayed Anderton as "Lord Horror" in a 1989 satirical graphic novel, the book was banned and Britton sent to prison for several months.

Anderton in Passage songs is described in Old Testament terms as a layer of "snares" and "traps". He plays a similar role -- authoritarian hate figure -- as The Dictator Hall plays in my own first album, The Happy Family's The Man on Your Street. Over music sinister, twinkling, thunderous, complex, modular and modern -- music which, like an operetta, keeps sweeping the same motifs into new combinations and contexts -- a series of schematic terms define life: FEAR POWER LOVE, the transition from midnight to a new dawn, fire and ice, bodies and minds, drugs illegal-forbidden and legal-compulsory, seconds, hours and days, the provinces and, beyond them, the chilly, distant capital LON DON, almost Chinese in its distant, imperial brutality.

The Passage website and above all the LTM re-releases might give you a glimpse of why this band, this man, wunderbar, ich glaube, n'est-ce pas? continue to mean so much to me. They took subversion and avant garde experimentation further than anyone else in the early 80s, and Dick Witts was simply more intelligent than any other British songwriter at the time, his wordplay more serious and more witty, his politics more radical and advanced. It's not particularly surprising that BBC documentaries (even BBC4 documentaries) gloss over The Passage, and not particularly surprising that Witts himself tends to as well. But important parts of my imagination got lit up by Witts' vision the way other people (including Witts himself) were illuminated by Morrissey or Mark E Smith, and I have a feeling that those parts are now flexing and stretching and, one day soon, will see the dawn.