Saturday, 11 May 2013

Demeter by Carol Ann Duffy

Another poem to add to my own personal anthology is Demeter by Carol Ann Duffy.  I love the dramatic shift in this poem, which in so few words, and fourteen lines conveys the movement from grief to joy.  When I read it in the way I have taken to reading poetry, (line by line, then sentence by sentence etc.) I found that I had to persist to get the exact order of words in my mind.  Ten of the lines are interrupted by the punctuation and an unexpected ordering of words, which caused in my ear slight irregularities of rhythm.  The overall effect is to slow it down so that you do get the full impact of the emotional shift.  And there is a beautiful contrast between the hard words at the beginning and the gentle, softer words at the end:
       I swear/the air softened and warmed as she moved/the blue sky smiling, none too soon/ with the small mouth of the new moon.
   The mysterious line for me is 'but i saw her at last, walking/my daughter, my girl, across the fields,//in my bare feet'
what I immediately thought of was the genetic resemblance between mother and daughter, but then also considered that this story is very old, probably rooted in the time of goddess worship & the goddess traditionally had three aspects, virgin, queen and crone.  So possibly in this poem the mother and daughter are both aspects of the same goddess.
It seems to me that poetry is close to myth in that they both strip the narrative to its essence, so that what they convey is a truth that can be universally applied; in this case the shift from winter to spring, loss to restoration in spare, tangible language.

I recently bought a new book of poems - Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape).
It is a seriously good collection, formally exquisite - 150 poems each 15 lines long, containing such a rich diversity of themes that I can't do justice to all of them - I'm going to pick out one or two that particularly interest me.
   After years of writing I'm coming to the conclusion that the real power lies in the thing unsaid, and that poetry is closest to the thing unsaid.  In one of the poems for example, Immortal, Invisible,Wise the first line draws attention to the inadequacy of the words in the title:
   'In such mighty stature he stands'
and later lines contain the suggestion of what he is not:
   'He has become no more or less than sky./ Pylon skip-ropes swing between his feet/airliner wing-tips brush his lips,/
   the sun's print in his eye becomes/ a day-lit pole-star...

In a poem which seems to me to be about the transcendent rather than the immanent, or intimate, God found in To Listen what is unsaid is the need for attention.:
   he holds so still,/ has held for so long this, his repose,/that no one sees him any more.....

   and although the world/is never silent, there are split-second/gaps when you can hear his long-drawn/ breath begin to shape a word.

This is the need for attention in the Simone Veil sense of the word: 'the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable cannot be replaced by the heart's warmth.'  And in fact the  god in this poem is not apparently warm and loving.  But if the act of attention 'consists in suspending thought, in leaving it empty and available, subject to penetration by the a man on a mountain, who looking in front of him sees without looking at them many forests and plains below him,' then the God of this poem is not so much divorced from the world as engaged in a universal attention; which effort is beyond or rejected by man (in the poem Refuseniks), who, like the psalmist in another poem sings 'for fear I'll hear the still/ small voice and not like what it says.....
   Listen.  The unsung is unuttering,/sucking back into itself/the inverse of words...'
(Portrait of the Psalmist as Ultra-Singer).
   Throughout this collection there are images of dislocated, alienated man, who, despite being locked into the quotidian, might suddenly experience a shift in perspective, as in Rare Sighting, or, as in Discoverers, suddenly respond to a call that goes beyond maps and astrolabes, so that he can sing his way home.
Frequently the immanence of god seems to be suggested by the symbolism of song.  In Elegy for John Milton
paradise has become 'an old zoo/abandoned by its keepers, broken cages/ravaged by years of unchecked flora/buddleia, cotoneaster, ragwort,/bindweed, russian vine, dead nettle, ivy?on the edge of evolving into song.'
   By contrast the birds in Abyss of Birds are already sung; both immanence and transcendence are captured in a single, astonishing sentence.
   Hopefully I have suggested that in this collection the frame of reference is large; anagogic.  I should also mention that there are moments of intimacy and tenderness too, as in Des Canyons Aux Etoiles, when the two come together.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Dark Film by Paul Farley: Picador

The Dark Film by Paul Farley: Picador
The poem I was attracted to in an immediate way was Moles. At first I didn't know why this was, but then I realised that it is because it seems to me to be at the emotional core of the collection. It is also the saddest poem in a collection of poems that are not sad but full of a vivid, dynamic energy. This leads me to wonder whether I read poetry in this way to be moved by it - which may be a limited way of reading.  But certainly what I want from it is intensity & reading this full collection was an intense experience, though at first reading the poems did not seem to be directed at or about the emotions, but at waking up the eye - the capacity to see which is depicted as a kind of power:
Forget all that end-of-the-pier/palm-reading stuff.  Picture a seaside town in your head. The Power
The energy of these poems seems to come from their rapidly shifting perspectives:  what the eyeball might clock/if shot from a cannon, Digital
or: How many other kids would turn/themselves into a camera/replete with scrims and gels and tints/to see the world in new colours? Quality Street.
 This is what I suddenly realised I was being asked to do - not at first reading, but after I'd put the book down.  These shifting perspectives that see 'a thousand shades/ cast by the washing on the lines' 'every night the moon would find/more chinks in the leaves as it moved across the sky' 'a downpour on warm flagstones raising the ghosts of our childhoods' or 'the golf course pond where all ages collided' alter time as well as space, with a technical dexterity that generates a great momentum.  These poems carry a powerful awareness of a lost past while rejecting nostalgia in favour of the wider context; the 'something else' that is 'happening/altogether vast and slow, Creep, 'The millions of mixed shades/are still running beneath our surfaces/and visible to those who just step sideways/anywhere:
This is from the terrific long poem Cloaca Maxima, which encapsulates many of the themes running through this collection.
Moles is, however the poem I will give my particular reading to - not simply because it is short, but because it is about a literal and metaphorical blindness: he looked back to find/more emptiness than he thought this earth/could hold. In this version of the myth we leave him there/helpless and blind
It seems to me to highlight all the other themes by contrast, being about the tragedy of the trapped or limited eye.  When I put the book down a second time I felt the full emotional impact of things that are lost, or caught up in a process of transformation, and for the unused capacity of the eye.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A Great Event

This week a fantastic event was hosted at the Manchester Metropolitan University - where I work.  Four of our best writers for young adults shared the stage for a reading and discussion chaired by Jacqueline Roy - herself a writer of fiction for both children and adults.  The featured writers were:
Geraldine McCaughrean, Tim Bowler, Gillian Cross and Sally Prue and all of them have new books coming out this spring with Oxford University Press.  I had been asked to step in if Jacqueline couldn't make it for any reason & so I had the very pleasurable job of reading the books:
The Positively Last Performance, by Geraldine McCaughrean - the story of a once-glorious theatre now in danger of demolition and peopled by ghosts; Song Hunter by Sally Prue - the tale of a Neanderthal community, 40,000 years ago, in which one young girl feels the first stirrings of the creative imagination that might save her race; After Tomorrow, a dystopian tale set in the near-future, in which there are food shortages, and terrorists, and English families become asylum-seekers in France, and Sea of Whispers by Tim Bowler, set on an 'archetypal island' as he put it, in which a small community, struggling to survive turns against an elderly woman who is washed-up on its shores, and a young girl Hetty, who sees visions in the mysterious sea-glass, has to save her.
What I loved about all these books was that they each take large themes & deal with them so skilfully that they are made entirely accessible for the younger reader.  None of these writers draws attention to their own literary skills - the reader is simply caught up in the plot and characters.  In Song Hunter, for example, the use of voice is so clever - at once primitive and intelligent - using only very slight variations from a standard narration Prue creates a believable inner world for her stone-age character.  As with much young adult fiction, dark themes are explored, in a way that is not always true of adult fiction.  Gillian Cross' book features early on one of the darkest scenes I have come across, skilfully presented for the younger reader, and the very young reader could read it without even fully understanding what is going on - but in this way she remains true to the seriousness of her subject-matter.
Tim Bowler is that rare thing - a modern myth-maker.  His settings are so atmospheric that the reader is effortlessly drawn in to this alternative reality.  And Geraldine McCaughrean has always been one of my favourite writers.  Her books frequently start off in the 'real world', but then take off into a purely magical dimension where anything is possible - and this book is no exception.
All the writers seemed very much at ease, which put the audience at ease, and everyone seemed to feel able to enter into a dialogue with them, and felt encouraged by what they were able to share.
It was a terrific event - and hopefully we can host more like them in the future.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A Swarming Of Bees

What I’m Reading
A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson
It is an interesting reflection on the contemporary publishing scene that so many established authors are seeking out smaller presses to work with – and not always for the obvious reason that their former publishers may be too fixated on sales figures to take on more work by respected writers whose work doesn’t ‘sell’ in the same way that E L James or Stephanie Meyer sells.  The smaller publisher offers more freedom and authorial control over (e.g.) artwork, layout and design, publicity etc., a more equal partnership and a more personal relationship – of the kind once offered by the larger houses.  And of course several of these ventures have done very well.  Jane Rogers’ novel The Testament of Jesse Lamb published by Sandstone, went on to be long-listed for the Booker, and to win the Arthur C Clarke award.  It has since been picked up by Canongate in the UK and Harper Perennial in the USA.  Meanwhile The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt, was shortlisted for the Booker 2012.
            Theresa Tomlinson’s first novel for adults has been published by Acorn Press.  Tomlinson is a well-known writer for children and young adults, whose books have twice been shortlisted for the Carnegie, and for several other awards.  She is particularly known for her historical fiction, and A Swarming of Bees is a murder-mystery set at the time of the Synod of Whitby.
            Now it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Synod of Whitby.  It was an event of immeasurable significance, marking a turning point in the history of the church and of the nation; introducing a new epoch in English and European history.  It was the point at which the divided church chose Roman over Celtic Christianity.  Yet Tomlinson was told, by more than one editor, that the reading public ‘was not interested in this particular era’. 
Who are these people who ring-fence our literature in this way?
Any intelligent marketing person could find several different kinds of readership for this novel: readers of historical fiction, readers of murder-mysteries, readers with a particular interest in the history of Christianity, readers who like strong female characters in their fiction, readers with a particular interest in the north-east of England, or Whitby, and so on.
Tomlinson was also told that the names were difficult.  The story features actual historical characters – the Abbess Hild, who famously presided over both monks and nuns at the Abbey, Caedmon the cowherd, Cuthbert the holy man and King Oswy.  There is a strong sense of the community at the Abbey and the diverse roles of the members.  However, since Tomlinson’s style is accessible and easy throughout, the narrative is always easy to follow, and to me the names add to the atmosphere of the setting, along with the Anglo-Saxon poems, riddles and charms which are interspersed throughout the story.
The sense of the community was the outstanding feature for me; the way that the Abbey itself was linked to the rest of the fishing community, and the way that they all pulled together in times of crisis.  Tomlinson knows her material, and the area, well, and uses it to create a sense of a different world.  And it is a world full of drama.  As well as the religious conflict, (two different kinds of Christianity and older ‘pagan’ beliefs) there is a dynastic struggle between rival kings, and an outbreak of plague.  It soon becomes clear that someone is using the plague as a cover for their own deadly intentions and it is up to Fridgyth, the herb-wife, to solve this mystery.
However, against this dramatic setting, the details of everyday life stand out clearly – the ‘planting of tiny leeks into holes’ and tending the sick.  The focus is on the female world, the friendships between women and their contribution, often hidden, to the great, complex battles of history.  But Tomlinson never loses track of the fact that her main purpose is to tell a good story, and to keep the reader involved in this different world.

Some thoughts about reading poetry
Don Paterson’s Luing
A few weeks ago, in a fit of exhaustion with prose fiction, I picked, at random, a book of poems from my shelves.  The book was Landing Light by Don Paterson, and I opened it at the first poem, Luing.
            After a few moments I realised that I wasn’t taking it in; that in fact I was reading it in the same way I was reading the novel I had just abandoned.
            I decided then that I would read it in a different way.  I would read this one poem every day for a week, without trying to progress through the collection.
            One day I would read it stanza by stanza.  The next day I would read it sentence by sentence, and the next, line by line.  On occasion I would read it aloud.
            I would not try to analyse its meaning.
            As a result of this new (to me) way of reading poetry I found two things:
1.      That I learned the poem by heart.  This was not my intention, but a by-product of the process.
2.      That the poem yielded a little of its mystery each time.  This is because I seem to have created a kind of bond with it, through familiarity and repetition, not analysis.
There is something soothing in this process, though it is not a comforting poem. The comforting quality seems to me to be because my brain is forced to slow down, and work differently.
I’m massively pleased with this discovery.  For one thing, despite my profession, my memory for words is not good.  But now I feel I have the whole poem as a kind of gift or resource.  I can sit on an inexplicably delayed train, for instance, and think to myself: leaving the motherland by a two-car raft, the littlest of the fleet, you cross the minch, to find yourself, if anything, now deeper in her arms than ever; sharing her breath.  Or, in a moment of depletion, when I don’t want to think about anything else, I can think, reborn into a secret candidacy, the fontanelles re-open one by one, in the palms, then the breastbone, and the brow.
            When I described what I was doing to a friend she was keen to try it for herself.  We both read Luing in this way, and then she proposed a prayer written by Robert Louis Stevenson that begins:  Grant me, O Lord, the royalty of inward happiness.
            I read this poem several times, but failed to absorb it, apart from the metaphors: the royalty of inward happiness; diffusers of light.  This is presumably because the metaphors and images are what make the brain work differently, to make different connections.
            Of course rhythm and rhyme might perform the same function.  Until recently I had a very elderly neighbour who had Alzheimer’s.  She used to like me to sit with her, and would ask me, for instance, if I knew where her mother was, (she was 96).  If I could get her onto the subject of poetry, however, she would instantly begin to recite reams of it that she had learned in school.  This was usually rhyming poetry with a story attached.  It had the same effect though; it moved her brain onto a different track and calmed her down.
            I have often been struck, over the years, by the fact that people will turn to poetry in times of grief, despite the fact that the readership of contemporary poetry is not large – it is not a popular market.  There was an outpouring of poetry following the death of Princess Di, for instance and the section of the local paper in which deaths are mentioned regularly features commemorative verse.  Such poems are relatively simple, and straightforwardly expressed, but presumably comforting to those who write them, and to some of the people who read them.  They might recognise something in the emotion expressed, or feel that something important to them has been acknowledged.  It is possible to read something like:
            How we miss our beloved John
            Who was once with us but now is gone
for the content, the rhythm or the rhyme, but a poem such as Luing has other dimensions.  It does not give up its meaning immediately.  The effect it has is, to some extent, distinct from its meaning, because of the quality of the language, which prompts the brain to make different connections, and which turns the reader’s attention towards the mystery of the language itself and the mystery of the experience that is being expressed.
            The poem has retained its mystery, for which I am grateful.  It appears differently to me each time I recollect it, or a part of it, and is, in that sense, inexhaustible.  But the real benefit of this way of reading for me is that I now feel that the poem is mine, in a way that it wasn’t when I merely owned the collection.  It will continue to alter as long as I make connections to it through my own experience.  It is a part of me, like breathing.
            And it is much cheaper than therapy!


Septuagesima by John Burnside
I was attracted to this poem because of the imagery of light, but I stayed with it because of the sense of space.
I dream of the silence/ the day before Adam came/ to name the animals. 
The music in it is different from that of Luing, but like Luing it takes place inside the poet's head - because a world without language would still surely be filled with noise, but in the poet's consciousness the sensory experience is not separate from language, so without it there is silence.
A winter whiteness haunting the creation, /as we are sometimes haunted /by the space we fill
These lines are mysterious to me, but they are the point at which the poem takes on an extra dimension.  The pronoun has shifted from I to we but seems to be referring to a collective loneliness and sense of loss.
I decided to live with it for one week, as I did with Luing - not analysing, just allowing it to stay with me - to see if this process illuminates anything...
...and it did!  I was on a bus from Lancaster train station to the university when what it meant suddenly came to me - or at least what it means to me.  So this system of reading definitely works.  It involves switching off the critical brain but giving attention to the poem - almost like prayer.
Also I love the last line of this poem - the word 'gloss' is exceptionally fine.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Ten Things I DIdn't Know About Manchester

Ten Things I Didn?t Know About Manchester (first posted 21st August 2007)
The subject of this article arose from the research for two of my novels:- The Angel Stone, set in 1604, and The Whispering Road, set in 1836.
The plot of The Angel Stone is centred around Manchester cathedral. The Angel Stone is the oldest carved stone in Manchester. It was discovered by Joseph Crowther in the mid 19th century when he undertook the reconstruction of part of the cathedral. On it is the carving of an angel, peculiarly angled, and Anglo-Saxon writing, which translates as ?Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.? Estimates vary, but the stone may be 1,300 years old. It was actually retrieved from infill rubble between two porch walls, but since the cathedral building dates from 1421, it must have belonged to the earlier church which stood on the same site.
Little is known about the earlier church, but the history of the present cathedral is well-documented and fascinating.
After the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor of Manchester and Rector of the old Parish Church, applied to Henry V for a charter to build a bigger church on the same site. The Battle of Agincourt was the decisive battle of the Hundred Years War. Henry V defeated Charles VI of France, married his daughter, Katherine de Valois, and returned to England with immense revenues. Unfortunately, he didn?t live long enough to inherit the French throne. In 1422, he died of dysentery, aged 34. Had he lived, the course of English history would have been very different. His son, Henry VI, was defeated by Charles VII, who, at the instigation of Joan of Arc, drove the English out of all French territory apart from Calais. The vast wealth gained at Agincourt was lost, so it was fortunate that one year before the death of Henry V, Thomas de la Warre petitioned the king for money to build a Collegiate Church.
Henry V was of the House of Lancaster, at that time the major city of Lancashire. Manchester itself was a small and insignificant town. The building of a large Collegiate Church did not necessarily signify that the king had great plans for Manchester, yet around it the town grew. The changes that occurred during the Reformation accelerated that growth.
Before the Reformation, church attendance was expected but not enforced. After Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church, however, refusal to attend was potentially treasonable, and by 1593, any person of sixteen years and over who had not attended church for the space of one month could be imprisoned and dragged to the church in chains, or whipped through the streets. By this time there were approximately two thousand people in the township of Manchester. Church services were held all day to accommodate the population, some of whom would have travelled considerable distances. In bad weather they needed overnight accommodation, and a number of inns were built along Long Millgate. Markets were established on Saturdays and Mondays, probably in response to this fluctuating population. Thus, the presence of the church precipitated the expansion of the town.
But the building that is now the cathedral has an even more significant link to another battle in English history. Seventy years after the Battle of Agincourt, the Battle of Bosworth field brought the Wars of the Roses to an end, and established the Tudor dynasty. This was the battle in which Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, who was allegedly responsible for the murder of the princes in the Tower. The repercussions of this event were so far reaching that it is astonishing to remember that the battle itself took only two hours.
Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven with a small force of French mercenaries. He gathered support as he travelled towards Leicester, but still when the two armies met on a field outside Market Bosworth, Richard?s force outnumbered Henry?s by approximately three to one. What happened next was determined by the actions of the Stanley brothers, Sir William, and Thomas Lord Stanley.
These two brothers were allies of the king, but as Richard?s army charged, they waited on the hillside, finally entering the battle on Henry?s side. Thomas Stanley?s soldiers hacked Richard to death, then Henry Tudor knelt as Thomas, Lord Stanley, placed the crown on his head.
The apparent reason for this defection was that Thomas Stanley was married to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, so that he was now stepfather to the new king.
And one of the homes belonging to Thomas Stanley and Margaret Beaufort was Alport Lodge, which was just off Deasngate.
Margaret Beaufort, 1443 ? 1509, was one of the most remarkable women of her time. Known in her lifetime as ?a gentlewoman, a scholar and a saint?, she was patron of the first printers, William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, translator of religious texts by important theologians such as Thomas a Kempis, and an important beneficiary of the arts. She granted endowments for the foundation of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was indirectly responsible for the foundation of the Manchester Grammar School.
Thomas Stanley was her fourth and final husband. She was married for the first time at the age of seven, to the six year old John de la Pole, but the marriage was later dissolved. At the age of nine, she picked Edmund Tudor as her favoured choice for her second marriage. He died of the plague on the first of November 1456, just a few weeks before Henry Tudor was born in late January 1457. At the time of her son?s birth, Margaret Beaufort was only thirteen years and eight months old.
It was not uncommon to give birth so young in this late mediaeval period. Anne Boleyn?s grandmother, Margaret Butler, was twelve when she gave birth to her first son, but in Margaret Beaufort?s case, the process seems to have caused physical damage, leaving her infertile. Despite two further marriages, she never conceived again.
She married Thomas Stanley in 1472. Apparently she ?obtayned of him license to live chaste?, though only in 1499, when she would have been 56. The marriage seems to have been one of policy rather than love, but there is little doubt that she was fiercely devoted to, and ambitious for, her only son. Sometime before the Battle of Bosworth, she entered negotiations with Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the murdered princes. It is possible that a secret meeting took place, in which it was agreed that Henry Tudor would marry Elizabeth Woodville?s daughter. This was an alliance which would have a significant impact upon his claim to the throne.
The importance of this marriage becomes apparent when we consider the lineage of both Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor. The Beauforts were descended from the bastard line of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. They were legitimised by a statute of Richard II in 1397, but in 1407, Henry IV added a rider which prevented the Beauforts and their heirs from ever inheriting the crown.
Edmund Tudor similarly came from an illegitimate line. He was one of the sons of Henry V?s widow, Katherine de Valois, by the groom of her wardrobe, Owen Tudor. When Henry Tudor took the crown, every single surviving Plantagenet had a better claim to it than he did, so it was singularly important for him to make the alliance with Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. It united the warring houses of Lancaster and York and helped to legitimise his claim to the throne.
It was potentially treason, however, for Margaret Beaufort to discuss this alliance, depending as it did on the death of Richard III, and this in itself demonstrates the scope of her ambition. Later scholars have associated her with the murder of the two princes in the Tower, though this is unlikely and cannot be verified.
Margaret Beaufort, then, matriarch of both the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, had a huge impact on the fate of the nation, but she also had a direct impact on Manchester itself. She made generous contributions to the church and is said to have donated the 14 stone angels in the roof of what is now the cathedral. It is also said that when Edward VI?s soldiers came to ransack the church and destroy the remaining evidence of Catholicism, they left quietly when told that the Rector was saying prayers for the soul of Margaret Beaufort.
A scholar herself, Margaret Beaufort began independently to teach boys in her own home near Deansgate. One of the boys in whom she took a particular interest was Hugh Oldham, later Bishop of Exeter. In 1515, Hugh Oldham founded the Manchester Grammar School, which is one of the oldest in the country. Situated until 1930 in the Manorial House close to the cathedral, it was administered by a Warden in conjunction with twelve Fellows who were also responsible for the affairs of the church.
The school was unusual in that it provided free education for the boys who attended. They learned Latin, Greek, Grammar, Mathematics, sword fighting and archery. Later, music and astronomy were added to the curriculum by one of the most exotic characters ever to become Warden of a school, Dr John Dee.
John Dee, (1527-1608), was sometimes known as Queen Elizabeth?s Merlin. Scientist, astrologer, alchemist, he is said to be the original of both Shakespeare?s Prospero and Christopher Marlowe?s Faust. This in itself suggests the reputation he had acquired. He became popularly known as an occultist and necromancer. Unfortunately, this tended to obscure his real achievements. He translated Euclid, for instance, and wrote the famous preface to Euclid?s Elements. He was the first to apply Euclidean geometry to the art of navigation, and built the instruments which allowed the navy to apply this knowledge. He trained the great navigators and developed the maps charting the North East and North West passages. He was said to have had the greatest library in England, which had taken him over forty years to acquire. This was estimated at between four and ten thousand books.
In 1579, however, he met a rogue lawyer named Edward Kelly. Although even at the time they met, Kelly had already had both ears cut off for forgery, fraud and coining, he managed to convince John Dee that he could relate messages from angels by a technique known as scrying, which involved gazing into a blank surface such as an obsidian stone. In 1583 they produced together the Book of Enoch which contained an ?angelic alphabet? consisting of 2,401 letters set out in 98 tables. They claimed that this was the original language of man before the Fall, and that it directly encoded angelic wisdom.
In 1584, convinced that Elizabeth I?s spymaster, Walsingham, was pursuing them, they fled to Poland, then to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague. They were kept there on the promise that they would reveal the secret of the Philosopher?s Stone ? the ultimate goal of alchemy. In 1589 they parted company. John Dee returned to England, but Kelly was imprisoned in Prague, apparently for failing to deliver either gold or immortality to the Emperor. He later died attempting to escape from prison. The date of his death is given variously as 1593/5/7.
Dee was by now impoverished. He obtained a licence from Elizabeth I to practice alchemy, and in 1595 was appointed Warden of Manchester Grammar School.
This was an extremely controversial appointment, especially since the Warden had duties in the church, and was expected to take church services. John Dee?s reputation had preceded him and people were scandalised that a known occultist had been given clerical responsibilities. They believed that the town had actually been cursed by his appointment. So unpopular was he that when plague broke out in 1605, a mob broke into his rooms in what is now the Chethams Library and destroyed his magnificent collection of books and manuscripts. John Dee himself had mysteriously disappeared. He never returned to Manchester, but died in his home in Mortlake in 1608. His disappearance might be explained by the rumour that there are secret passageways and tunnels linking the cathedral and the college. It is also said that because the two rivers which meet behind the library flooded persistently, the present town is built above the earlier town. If archaeologists were to dig beneath the surface of Manchester, they would uncover whole streets, houses and shops extending all the way to King Street, preserved from this earlier time.
Manchester?s plague was in its own way as devastating as the Great Plague of London. It was responsible for the deaths of over a thousand people at a time when the population is estimated at between two and three thousand. In line with common practice the town was sealed off ? no one was permitted to enter or leave. The rich, however, had already left, escaping to their alternative homes in the country, so it was mainly the poor who remained trapped in the town, and there was much looting of the shops and larger houses.
So many people died that there was no room to bury them. Bodies were dug into the field now known as Angel Meadow. Heavy rain fell all summer, churning the field, and grotesquely, the bodies of the plague victims began gradually to surface, and to drift towards the river.
Manchester is not good at commemorating its pre-industrial history. Extensive records exist in the cathedral and the library (which is the first public lending library in the world) but there is no easy public access or display. Many more records exist from the time of the Industrial Revolution, when Manchester was said to be responsible for producing the wealth not only of the nation, but of the world.
The Whispering Road is set in 1836. At this time Manchester had not yet been incorporated into a municipal town, and the cathedral was still the Collegiate Church. It was rapidly burgeoning into an industrial city, containing over 100 factories and a population of circa 300,000, yet it was still being run along the lines of a feudal village.
Manchester was owned by the Mosley family, who bought it in 1596 for £3,000.00. All rents were paid to this family, who were in theory responsible for street and bridge repairs, water supplies, policing, street lighting etc. It was an antiquated system, and wholly inadequate to meet the demands of the growing population.
Several written accounts testify to the appalling conditions of the time. One of the most comprehensive and graphic was written by Dr James Kay (1804-77). In his Moral and Physical Conditions of the English Working Classes, (1832) he wrote that entire families of sixteen or eighteen people were crammed into a single, flooded cellar room with their pigs and chickens; that in any tenement block there would be up to a thousand children who had no name, and that in Ancoats, the world?s first industrial suburb, average life expectancy was only fourteen. Other writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, compare Manchester directly to hell, a place of ?darkness, smoke and flame?, where even on the brightest day it was not possible to see the sun. Factories poured out their fumes and their chemical waste directly into the rivers, which were so polluted that small animals could walk across them. The people, of course, took their water directly from the rivers, and this caused the major cholera outbreaks of the 1830?s.
In these unimaginable conditions there are several inspiring stories of individual heroism. There is only space here to mention one of these stories; that of Abel Heywood (1810-93) the son of a weaver, who became a political activist and later, mayor of the city.
Abel Heywood?s father died when he was nine years old, and he came to the town centre to work in one of the factories. He was educated at a Sunday School in Bennett Street, and in 1828 he established his radical paper, The Poor Man?s Guardian, in the cellar of a shop on Oldham Street. This was a prodigious undertaking. He wrote and edited the paper himself, printing articles by such writers as William Cobbett and Richard Cobden, and distributed it secretly all over the city, in boxes bearing the labels of tea and coffee or biscuits. He was imprisoned twice, and twice fined for this activity, because of the Stamp Act. This declared that a tax of 4d a copy was payable on each issue of any newspaper or magazine. Abel Heywood wanted his paper to be read by the working men of the city, the poorest of whom only earned five shillings a week, so he kept his costs down by operating secretly and illegally. Only when the Stamp Act was fully repealed in 1836 was he able to run his paper openly. He then went on to have a long and illustrious career, becoming alderman of the city in 1853, and mayor in 1862, but he refused all other titles, and remained firmly on the side of the urban poor.
Abel Heywood is commemorated in Manchester?s Town Hall, unlike many of the invisible people who dedicated their lives to the city and contributed to its rich and varied history. It is a remarkable history, and deserves more commemoration. Manchester has reinvented itself many times, most recently since the IRA bomb in 1996. Its cultural identity has changed so rapidly that its true stature and importance in English history is in danger of being lost. Only certain aspects of it are outlined here, but even in this rough sketch I hope that it is possible to see the city?s history as a dynamic process, a continuously unfolding drama linking Manchester to the rest of the nation, and to the world.

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