Book Review: Manchester – Something Rich and Strange
Attempting to sum up the city of Manchester in one book is no small task. Writers who have sought to do that in the past have tended to offer up words that don’t do the city justice.
The co-editors of Manchester: Something Rich and Strange acknowledge the scale of such a feat and, rather than take on the challenge, offer a range of opinions from a wide selection of wordsmiths. Carefully and sensitively edited together into a single volume, the different attitudes, tones and textures make for a compelling read. The combined effect is that of a delightful multiplicity of voices, not unlike the sound of Manchester itself.
We’ve all got a great story about Manchester in our back pocket. Here, the individual writers clearly can’t resist letting us know their own snippets, anecdotes and stories. There are some splendid I-never-knew-that in these pages, which delight as much as they intrigue. There’s the history of the cobble, the making of sacred stained glass, the colony of nuns all living in seclusion, and the legacy of urban public bathing.
But there is more to this book than a compilation of pleasant essays and jolly factoids. And neither is it simply a swathe of uncompromised joy. Manchester is a city beset by challenges and glitches, some historical, some circumstantial and some of its own making, from ‘Devo Manc’ to Northern Rail via the race to build reams of unaffordable housing. Indeed, some of the stories in this volume are raw and unsettling. Readers should brace themselves for startling statistics and uncomfortable perspectives. At the time of writing, the number of people homeless in Manchester had risen by 40 per cent in just 12 months and the city had the highest number of deaths of homeless people in the country.
Plenty of the essays finish with a call to action, sometimes asking us to rethink aspects of our city including admonishments to solve the housing crisis, to care for our trees and green spaces, to be strong in the face of terror or oppression, to understand our heritage while remembering how those chimneys changed our world, to bring kindness where there is unkindness.
Yet there is definitely joy here, too. One can find a sense of Mancunian pride in the writing, and not a bombastic, vain or arrogant pride but a dignity and a sense of self-awareness that inspires us all to take notice of what we see as we move around this city.
The book’s title seeks to move us on from the idea of Manchester as a city dominated by football, music, industrial history or radical thought. And, thankfully, it doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to sum up a whole city in one book.
In the introduction to a chapter on the theme of ‘secrets’, the authors write: “There’s always so much we’re not seeing, so many points of reference that escape us at any given time. That may make us feel uncomfortable, but it’s also what keeps the city perpetually interesting – the knowledge that we can never know it fully.”
They hint that there might more words on this theme to come. Read this collection and you’ll be reaching for the second volume.
Manchester: Something Rich and Strange, edited by Paul Dobraszczyk and Sarah Butler, is published by Manchester University Press and available to buy now.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.