Illustration: Jackson Rees
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It took me years to get to know Manchester – now I miss the feeling of being lost there

In the early part of the last decade Manchester became the hot spot for Ageing Labour’s take on urban regeneration.

Until very recently I’d never really got the measure of Manchester, even after 25 years of regular visits and short sojourns. When I walked the cavernous streets of the central district, I might have been surrounded by the dead weight of commercial and municipal Victoriana, yet still the city seemed, for me, to lack substance. I apprehended it as a built environment pushed up into evanescent being: masonry and porphyry surf on a capitalistic wave. In this it reminded me of a Californian mining town dating from the 1850s and at the risk of bringing the chamber of commerce down on my head I’d say that for Manchester, too, it’s after the gold rush. All these stony-faced warehouses and offices were spun into being by the nimble fingers of King Cotton but the industry is long gone, leaving behind a twisted ganglion of canals and a collective stomach knotted with pride.

My usual tactic with an unfamiliar city is to walk or cycle across it. Being forced to orientate yourself and interposing your own physicality invariably renders the strange comprehensible. The Lockean theory of primitive acquisition is that land ownership is achieved by mixing your labour with the soil and human-powered transit effects at least a tenancy of that which is traversed.

But for some reason I had never quite got across Manchester. I walked once from Edale over Kinder Scout and down to New Mills, then entrained to the Manchester outskirts, from where I walked into Deansgate. On another occasion, I cycled from Runcorn and, despite the balls-up of having anticipated that the Ship Canal would have a towpath (duh!), managed to make it all the way to Eccles before giving up and taking the tram.

In the 1990s, when I used to go up regularly to do a spot on Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 show, I’d often leave the studios on Oxford Road and, in the company of one ne’er-do-well or another, wander the Stygian inner suburbs in search of unknown pleasures. I remember going to a tower block in Hulme that was completely without power but heavily tenanted by squatters; walking up from floor to floor I was treated to Dantean visions of abandonment and perdition, all lit up by candles and even fires lit directly on the concrete floors. Perhaps it’s this sense of dislocation – not just in space but time as well – that has stayed with me and become ingrained in my sense of Manchester. On one of those mad nights I ended up, at dawn, having a version of sexual congress in the pit that had been dug for the foundations of the new Malmaison hotel; now, whenever I debouch from Piccadilly Station it’s this Kafkaesque burrowing that returns to me, rather than any more orthodox civic awareness.

In the early part of the last decade Manchester became the hot spot for Ageing Labour’s take on urban regeneration: defunct tower blocks were dynamited, streets full of derelict houses were bulldozed and series of new buildings were erected – offices and “luxury” apartment developments characterised by their barcode façades and whimsical cladding. The valve at the epicentre of this attempt to pump up a property bubble is the 47-storey Beetham Tower at the top of Deansgate and wherever you may find yourself in this mostly flat metropolis, you can be sure of regaining the centre simply by aiming for this shiny slab. The tower does Manchester no favours, though; the architects describe the four-metre cantilever at the 23rd floor as giving the skyscraper “definition” – as if it were some buff young thing loitering on the outskirts of the gay village – but to my way of thinking the thinness of the block symbolises the thinness of the finance-capital veneer that’s been applied to this former industrial powerhouse.

Throughout last winter, I spent quite a bit of time in Manchester – almost all of it in a serviced apartment by the Shudehill Interchange in the Northern Quarter. Towards the end of working on a novel I like to go away somewhere and effect a total immersion in the material, grafting almost non-stop for a period of four or five days.

I favour cities I don’t really know too well for these sessions and Manchester fitted the bill perfectly. Over the years I’ve evolved a fixed regimen: the same compositional methods, the same food, the same disordered sleep. I’ve also come to prize the anonymity of serviced apartments: simulacra of what a domestic space might be like were there to be any love. Instead there’s only a middle-aged man typing, unreal visions swirling in his head, while outside the windows is a city wreathed in partial obscurity. Short walks to the Co-op opposite the Arndale shopping centre to buy provisions, slightly longer ones to Chinatown for a meal and one long excursion to the Bridgewater Hall to hear Monteverdi’s 1610 vespers: these were my only outings. I relished my disorientation, even as I struggled to impose a structure on my polymorphous material.

Then, the book finished, I travelled up north again last weekend and this time I did walk across the city – all the way from Salford Quays to Piccadilly. I feel I know Manchester a bit better now but paradoxically it’s a feeling of loss: I want the unknown and illegible city back but that can never be.

Will Self’s new novel, “Shark”, much of which was written as he gazed out at the Shudehill Interchange, will be published by Viking in September (£18.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.