There’s no denying that there’s an air of anticipation around this, on more than one level.
Paul Morley has been gradually working towards writing a biography of Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson since Wilson passed away in 2007, and this is introduced as being the first in-person Manchester Literature Festival event in 20 months. At last, though, Morley’s 600+ page doorstopper From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson is about to hit the bookshelves, and he’s here to discuss it in Theatre 1 at HOME, on Tony Wilson Place, no less, a mere stone’s throw away from what’s now the Haçienda Apartments.
For the occasion, Morley is being interviewed by Julie Campbell, aka Mancunian electronica artist LoneLady, fresh from a few gigs supporting New Order, appropriately enough. She’s an intriguing choice of interviewer and does offer up some thoughtful questions, but she makes for a tentative, uncertain sort of host, short on the necessary gumption to drive the conversation along and keep Morley’s rambly excesses in check. She tends to enable rather than challenge him. It’s a choppy, disjointed conversation and hardly a dogged grilling. The result is a disappointingly limp, shapeless event, with no questions from the audience, that feels less like a pre-publication celebration of Morley’s book and more like a pretty persuasive argument not to bother reading it.
Not that much is learnt over the course of an hour, and too often the discussion just weighs up Wilson and his legacy, i.e. modern Manchester, from a variety of different angles in overarching, ponderous, rather nebulous terms that will be all too familiar to seasoned Morley watchers. There’s a lot of conceptual talk of ‘energies’, ‘provocations’, ‘fibres’ and ‘disruptors’. There are fleeting insights along the way, either into Wilson the man or the process of writing the book, but too few of them, and there’s a whole teetering stack of waffle too.
Perhaps most strikingly, the discussion is fairly dry and low on laughs. In fact, the comic highpoints here are often at the participants’ own expense. Morley admits that in a private interview, Factory graphic designer Peter Saville went to great lengths to explain his theory of Wilson as the ‘sun’ around which everything revolved, only for Morley to forget to include it in the finished book. Then, towards the finishing time, Morley complains that he’s consciously ending every answer so it could make for a satisfying full stop, only for Campbell to keep asking yet more questions.
In a rare revealing moment, Morley admits that one of the factors that contributed to the book taking so long was the process of pinning down elusive Factory co-founder Alan Erasmus and getting him to talk. Indeed, he says that when they eventually met up, Erasmus observed that they are now both ‘coming in to land’, that is, on the final gradual approach towards death. It’s a gallows humour observation that becomes something like a running joke across the conversation.
Only time will tell whether Morley’s book, published on October 19, is worth the wait. He freely admits that he’s decided that Wilson himself would ‘absolutely loathe’ it. Maybe it will prove to be Morley’s masterwork after all, but unfortunately this conversation fails to whet the appetite. Wilson could be many things, but he was generally good value, an engaging, entertaining, charismatic figure who could energise a room with his presence, and in that respect this underwhelming event could usefully have channelled his lively spirit more directly.
Paul Morley and Julie Campbell (LoneLady) in conversation at Manchester Literature Festival 2021. Photo courtesy of Manchester Literature Festival: Gareth Lowe.
From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson is published by Faber and is available to buy now.