Picture a book launch: chances are you’re imagining a staid and stifled event in a windowless inner-city Waterstones on a wet Wednesday afternoon, with copies of books and glasses of steadily souring white wine laid out in evenly-spaced rows on folding trestle tables. Perhaps there might be time for questions with the author, who is hustled in for signings by staff through a side door, and then, just as quickly, leaves again. Perhaps not.
Staged and managed to within an inch of its life, the book launch you’re imagining doesn’t bear one iota of resemblance to the creative and often downright anarchic processes behind the art of novel writing. Hemingway’s comment that ‘there’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,’ springs to mind here – with, spilt wine, let alone spilt blood, being very much frowned upon at said imagined book launch.
Guy Mankowski’s post-punk novel, How I Left The National Grid, was always going to require a very different sort of book launch, and the event at Ouseburn’s The Cluny didn’t fall short of the mark. With a busy bill of bands, comedy, and DJ sets all handpicked by Mankowski in order to evoke the dark landscape of the story and its characters, the launch brought the ‘angry, literate and direct’ music of the post-punk scene from the pages of Mankowski’s novel onto a 21st century stage.
In the cool dimness of the venue it was easy to believe that the cramped and claustrophobic city streets of 1980s Manchester might be outside, a city bleached by rain and driven to its knees by the economic policies of Thatcher. As the black leather and eyeliner of many of those in The Cluny crowd suggested, it is a time, a sound, and a culture which never really seems to have left many of us, and it speaks directly to, and for, subsequent generations in yet another time of Conservative rule, high unemployment and increasing alienation from a digital world. Born of angst and frustration, the malady lingers on.
In How I Left the National Grid, Sam Forbes, a journalist whose career has been largely without consequence, tries to land the biggest pop music story in recent history by tracking down enigmatic 80s frontman, Robert Wardner. Wardner disappears without explanation after delivering one album – widely considered to be a masterpiece – amid rumours of the murder of a young fan and a failed suicide attempt.
Filled with a palpably uncomfortable sense of rising tension as the narrative unfolds, it is a story not without its touches of comic relief. Given the evening’s opening act was Greg Fox’s Puppet Show (the punchline being that there was only Greg Fox – his puppets confiscated by Stockport County Council after an erroneous performance at a primary school), this strand of dark comedy found a receptive audience who lapped up his dry humour and Northern inflections.
Next up on the bill was solo act Hausfrau who turned in a hypnotic performance of dark, swirling synths, shuddering drumbeats and fragile, echoing vocals that was, quite simply, captivating to watch and even more spellbinding to listen to. Hausfrau was followed by Newcastle band Retriever, who ramped things up a step with a barrage of infectious hooks, power-chords, driving drumbeats and strong, regional vocals from the heavily-fringed Jackie Miller. Nail was without doubt the set’s standout piece, with the catchy melody lodged firmly in our brains long after the doors of The Cluny had closed.
When Kingsley Chapman and The Murder finally strode on stage towards the end of the night – glittering black shirts and overblown rose pins galore – I was captivated by the ghosts of Robert Wardner and The National Grid. This was an image which, after a set of intense, soaring numbers bringing to mind both a melancholic crooning Nick Cave and a frenetic and brooding Ian Curtis, was only heightened when Chapman wrapped the lead of the microphone around his neck during the beautiful Olympians, in tribute to the act of Mankowski’s Wardner – itself originally inspired by a performance of Chapman’s that the novelist had once seen.
During an evening of live music and comedy, it may seem surprising that the highlight of the evening was a book reading. Mankowski managed to hold a venue full of loud, alcohol-fuelled music lovers in quiet suspense as he delivered material from the opening pages of the novel, in which Wardner commits his ‘one act of defiance’ live on Top of the Pops. Few readings have possessed such a powerful, quietly passionate quality. After the noise and raucousness of the rest of the evening, as Mankowski preceded to read his work – the product of three years of research – the hush that fell over the crowd was the sort you rarely get in such large gatherings of people. So effective was his performance that afterwards it was remarked that the author should consider recording an audiobook – an idea which, in characteristically deprecating fashion, he quickly rebuffed.
In How I Left the National Grid, Mankowski writes for every disaffected young person who turns to post-punk for solace, and for every person who is passionate about the possibilities that this kind of music opens up. For every mass-produced Joy Division t-shirt taken off a coat hanger in a high street store, perhaps there is a person for whom this music is an antidote – perhaps the only antidote – to such a homogenized, commercial culture?
Post-punk represents something which remains vital and alive when so much seems sanitised, stale and – in the words of one of Manchester’s finest, Howard Devoto – so very humdrum. Mankowski’s novel speaks to this market. Fittingly, one of the last songs played at the launch by Newcastle-based DJs The Hand that Rocks the Turntable was What Difference Does it Make? by The Smiths. The answer is this: it makes the world of difference for those who care.
By Lyndsey Skinner
Main image by Chris Payne
To read Guy Mankowski’s article for Northern Soul about writing How I Left The National Grid, click here
How I Left The National Grid can be purchased from Amazon here