It’s Thursday night and I’m taking myself out on the town. Although I usually prefer a plus-one, I also revel in the opportunity to spend time just me, myself and I. Typically, I’ll take a book and sit in a cosy café with a hot chocolate, but tonight I’m heading into Manchester city centre to check out Manchester After Hours, ‘an evening of unique collaborations and extraordinary happenings in unusual spaces’.
Before leaving the house, I glance at the programme but there’s so much on offer, with free events happening in different venues across the city, that I decide to wing it. The thought of wandering the city streets, nipping into my favourite venues after their scheduled closing time, is far more appealing than sticking to a timetable.
As I walk from Piccadilly train station, through the gardens and onto Mosley Street, I expect to see signs advertising the event, but there’s nothing, and this absence of promotion makes me feel like I’m invited to something secret, something special.
My first stop is Manchester Central Library which is one of my favourite spaces in the city. I’ve spent hours studying or writing in the stunning Reading Room, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store. The high-domed ceiling offers the perfect canopy for the performance of Juliet the Moon. Written by Royal Northern College of Music composers Philippos Rousiamanis and Deane Smith, the live installation features extracts from letters sent between Frank Merrick, pianist and tutor at RNCM and an opponent to the war effort, and his wife Hope Squires during the First World War. Comprised of singers and cellists, with singing glasses dotted around the desks, it’s a haunting and strange recital. The Reading Room is usually so quiet, save for the odd cough or text message ping, and as the singers’ voices reverberate through the room, I feel quite emotional. I leave the library feeling dazed and, as I step out into the evening, with its commuters, trams and cars, it’s a peculiar sensation.
Next I head to Manchester Art Gallery, yet another much-loved space. Opening late for the launch of two exhibitions, I’m here to see Shirley Baker: Women, Children and Loitering Men, a showcase of the British street photographer’s work around the urban clearance programmes in Manchester and Salford from the 1960s onwards. The show is packed and it’s tough to navigate the throngs of people stood talking about the images, but it adds to the experience. Like Central Library, art galleries are usually silent. I much prefer the hum of people’s voices, and enjoy overhearing snippets of conversations as visitors reminisce about places, streets and people.
I don’t know much about photography but I am a firm believer in the old cliché, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Baker’s images are so emotive, you could easily pen a story about each one. My favourite part of the exhibition is the large map posted on a wall, where visitors can stick a pin to mark the street or part of the city where they live, and the selection of comment cards people have left recalling memories of the areas, or how much they love the photographs. One mentions a lady in her 70s who was delighted to see the places she knew so well. Some snapshots are in colour, but it’s the black and white photographs that are the most stirring.
As a fan of multi-award winning literature organisers Bad Language, I originally wanted to head over to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House (can you believe I’ve lived in Manchester for the best part of a decade, and never set foot inside?) to check out their immersive evening of storytelling, but I spend too much time meandering through the art gallery’s exhibition and gift-shop (I love a postcard), and lose track of time.
Instead, I resolve to hop on a bus and check out Soup Kitchen’s programme at Chetham’s Library, coupling Manchester’s oldest building, the medieval Baronial Hall, with an experimental electronics installation from musician Wouter van Veldhoven (with a name like that, this fella was born to do something interesting) and supporting acts.
Now, I wouldn’t usually get public transport across the city centre, preferring to walk from the train station (I like to listen to music and get a bit of cardio) but TfGM’s Metroshuttle has got into the spirit of the event and extended its route 2 bus timetable, joining up all the events and treating us to live performances by music promoter Hey! Manchester. I catch the bus on Peter Street, chatting to one of the other attendees about the events we’ve seen so far (He’s been to the Art Walk which sounds interesting), and as the bus pulls up, we spy a musician with a microphone and a guitar. So far, so weird. As we head down Deansgate, towards Chetham School of Music, we’re treated to a rendition of Harry Nilson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ by Matthew Whitaker. Everyone’s got their phones out, recording the event for Facebook Live or Instagram, and there’s an amusing incident where the bus goes over a bumpy bit in the road and Whitaker’s vocals do a little yodel thing. I reckon TfGM should extend this to Monday mornings as live music might equal fewer grumpy commuters.
By the time I arrive, Chetham’s Library is hot with bodies. The juxtaposition of modern electronica and atmospheric purple light with old brick walls and windows makes this the most interesting event of the evening. Usually it’s the sort of thing I love, but I only stick around for a half hour because there’s something about being at a gig alone (I lost my bus buddy in the sea of people) which makes me feel a bit anxious. But it’s a great venue and the acts are fantastic, so if Soup Kitchen (one of my favourite bars in Manchester) plans to do something similar in the future, I’ll make sure to go along (with Housemate in tow – she loves the mad sounds in electronica).
As I head home, I feel a bit like I’m sleep-walking. There’s something about tonight and the contrast between venue and event that leaves me disorientated, but not in a bad way. On the contrary, it’s a brilliant programme and I think it would be fantastic if more city-wide events like Manchester After Hours were staged. They make the most of the city, bringing its venues, people, history and talent together in a way that I’ve not previously experienced, and that can only be a positive thing.
Manchester After Hours was coordinated by Creative Tourist and funded by Arts Council England