Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Poetry in motion

Poems Of The City, Thursday 11th October, 12 noon

Words and photograph by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

There’s a typical Manchester spritz in the air as 30 or so of us gather in the shelter of the Manchester Town Hall main entrance and Great Abel strikes 12 above our heads. Green Badge guide Anne Beswick senses our concern over the inclement weather for an hour-and-a-half walking tour, and leads us inside the building to start things off in a civilised manner. Upstairs on the Bees Corridor, we hear about how the hardworking bee “bringing in the honey” is the symbol of the hive of industry that once was Manchester, and I expected The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy, but she comes later, so here we are treated to some Rudyard Kipling.

Leaving behind the Gothic splendour, we brave the elements again and find ourselves in St Peter’s Square, looking over at the Cenotaph. Anne tells us that the war poet Wilfred Owen fought for the Manchester Regiment, and reads us the very moving Dulce Decorum Es, which is a phrase emblazoned on a wall at Sandhurst, where the officers were trained and which, in full, translates as “being proud to fight for your country”.

Next we cross over the road to the steps of the Midland Hotel, a stone’s throw from the old Central Station, where Anne tells us all about Rolls Royce and Elizabeth Gaskell, then reads WH Auden’s The Night Mail, which is intended to have a rhythm like a train, and which Anne delivers very well.

From here, we stroll down the street to the Free Trade Hall, named, says Anne, for a principle, not a famous person, and built on the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre when ordinary people met to discuss general suffrage but were killed when the city’s magistrates panicked and sent in the troops. Percy Shelley heard about the tragedy and wrote The Mass Of Anarchy in 1832, complete with such lines as: “Hypocrisy on a crocodile rode by… Anarchy on a white horse splashed with blood.

We hear more about history and horror at our fifth stop, along Branzenose Street. Here stands a statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose cotton blockade during the American Civil War caused big problems in Manchester. However, the city’s leaders wrote to him to support his fight against slavery, and we listen carefully to William Cooper’s 1788 poem about slavery The Negro’s Complaint.

Crossing Deansgate, we gaze up at the sandstone Behemoth that is John Rylands’ Library, built in memory of the industrialist (and philanthropist) by his wife, Henrietta, to try and regenerate the area, which was suffering from terrible conditions. Carol Ann Duffy was inaugurated as the first woman poet laureate in the cathedral-like building, and Anne reads us Valentine, appropriately while holding up an onion: “Not a red rose / Or a satin heart / I give you an onion … Not a cute card / Or a kiss-o-gram / I give you an onion.

Behind the library, we stand before Wood Street Mission, set up by Alfred Alsopp in the 1860s to offer assistance to the local slum dwellers. John Cooper Clarke’s famous poem, On Beesley Street, might be much more modern, but the Salford terraces he describes was the contemporary equivalent of Spinningfields in the 19th century.

We remain with recent poetry for the next three stops: opposite the Knock Shrine Office on Deansgate to hear Mike Harding’s touching Paddy Noone, about an Irish immigrant to Longsight; in front of St Ann’s Church to take in what used to be the open space of Acresfield, where there was an annual fair, to listen to Benjamin Zephaniah’s Christmas Is Coming; by the WAGs’ shops in New Cathedral Street for Alan Holburn’s football story, Talk Us Through It, Charlotte.

Our final stop is over at Manchester Cathedral, which started out as a collegiate church in 1421. John Ormond’s Cathedral Builders seems a pretty appropriate reading (“They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God”), then Anne rounds off the tour with some Walt Whitman, who apparently has quite a following in Bolton. The things you learn! 

Sarah-Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her award-winning blog, Words & Fixtures, is about language, literature, arts and culture.

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