L S Lowry and the dark heart of Manchester

As a teenager, I was wrong about Lowry and the subjects he painted. He was not a nostalgic Sunday painter, but an uncompromising, uninvolved and self-centred witness of suffering and turbulence: the indirect colleague of Orwell, Grierson and Hoggart, keep

When I was growing up in Stockport during the 1960s, turning 13 in 1970, I paid little attention to the vast brick viaduct that soared above the sunken town centre carrying trains to and out of Manchester, six miles away. It was just there, doing its humdrum job, high above Mersey Square, the busy bus terminal abutting the Merseyway shopping centre that had been built in 1965. Merseyway was the first of its type in the country, a bold attempt to mend and modernise a depressed, broken town, drag it out of the shadow of the viaduct and the rundown hat warehouses topped with the forlorn chimneys that would never smoke again.

Of the two great structures, I gravitated to the post-industrial, 20th-century Merseyway and the sudden new glamour of wellstocked shops; becoming an early primitive version of the mall rat, hanging around a carless, smokeless futurepark, a world of exciting time-wasting possibility safely shielded from the surrounding irrelevance – all that stubborn, morose past. The grand, 19th-century viaduct was as invisible to me as the high and mighty Victorian buildings in Manchester that had survived the wartime bombing that contributed to the depletion of the great world-changing shock city. As pop culture picked up speed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, pleasure-seekers hunted underground thrills in battered old buildings – side-tracked, sinister remnants of industrial glory revamped as clubs and music venues, planning escape routes into a future that was surely the other side of landing on the moon.

At the time, the extremely non-pop, nonspace- age paintings of L S Lowry were as invisible to me as the viaduct, as distant as the ghostly, forbidding gothic Manchester buildings of Alfred Waterhouse and others: once visionary emblems of cresting 19th-century civic pride that sternly loomed above the city-centre streets, a long way from becoming home to boutique hotels, loft apartments, arts festivals and coffee shops. Back then, many of them were boarded up and banished, because the action had moved elsewhere, perhaps forever. Lowry in his own crooked, needled way had recorded exactly that dark history that seemed to be impeding any sort of progress. It was not where you looked if you craved recovery and a restoration of volatile, demanding Manchester energy.

The effects of the Second World War, post-industrial concussion and necessary social and political optimism, had combined to encourage deeper engagement with the idea of the future, of what on earth was next, after all that building up and falling down, and deprived, dispossessed masses crowded under toiling clouds that could yet become nuclear. The new buildings that appeared in Manchester in the 1960s broke away from the claustrophobic, intimidating Victorian and Edwardian, exploiting curves, glass and steely, sky-scraping pretension to reconstruct devastated civic confidence. Granada Television confidently beamed its flashy red logo from its recently built city-centre studios on Quay Street. Even though it gave the world Coronation Street, an apparently rosetinted yet grouchy relative of dated, domestic Lowry concerns, it was determined to generate the future and coat an expectant north – glowing with suddenly flowing Beatle juice – in new media pride.

Lowry’s paintings stopped well short of imagining the future; they were a flat, unevolved reminder of a disgraced world, studies in unglamorous endurance, apparently painted with a coarse understanding of form and content that verged on the cartoonish. He seemed on the outside of the fast-flowing currents of British art that were interested in the smashing new subjects and glittering found objects of the 1960s. Lowry’s own interests were out of place and out of time, somehow quaintly grotesque. He was labelled a Sunday painter, a sentimentalist best reproduced on tea towels; his typically dry, terse response was that if this was the case, then he was a Sunday painter every day of the week.

My new book The North: and Almost Everything In It is a history of Stockport, its viaduct and the Mersey as much as a history of the wider, wilder north, of its inventive vigour and complicated deterioration, of the region’s caricatured position as the deprived other half in the classic north-south divide. While writing it, the story seemed to fan out from the Stockport Viaduct, once dead to me, now coming to life in my imagination not least as an impassive, cryptic symbol of the solitary Lowry himself. It consists of 22 million bricks and is now more modern-looking than the still-serving but shrivelled-up 1960s shopping centre. It is now so visible to me when I visit Stockport I marvel at my childish ignorance and teenage blindness, that such a monolithic structure seemed less apparent than the gaudy C&A in the shopping centre.

I discovered it was a favourite structure of Lowry, the unlikely centre of his universe as well as mine, each brick a miracle, each arch a cathedral, and he would contemplate it at length – its productive inertness, its unruffled certainty, as though it was as natural even supernatural as the nearby eerie moors – and regularly slip it into one of his composite, panoramic industrial paintings.

The epic viaduct became for me a route to the unknown power of Lowry. Not, as he once seemed, an irrelevant artist, nostalgically even morbidly clinging on to a warped world swarming with freakish stick figures lacking character and emotional depth, but as a complex, experimental artist who transferred ideas first explored by the dazzling, new city-thinking of Poe and Baudelaire and the touch-sensitive French Impressionist painters into a setting that just happened to be northern, because that was where he was.

The journey across the viaduct into the complicated urges of Lowry took me beyond the silly, comical man in the silly novelty song who had been turned by critics into a crude, limited painter of a lost fantasy world. It took me further and further into a northern heart of darkness, into a vital, often unsettling dreamscape, disorientating and chocka-block with stimuli. To an artist tracing the broken contours of an antiquated labyrinth, examining the once very strange and modern on the dirty road to extinction. To an exploratory painter of mood, memory and menace, attuned to the political value of history and the uncanny beauty of ruins.

The journey across the Stockport Viaduct into the territory inhabited by Lowry now takes me to Tate Britain, where there is another attempt to revise his reputation, to lift him beyond the condescension of those who have branded him as a part-time artist, indiscriminately prolific, deeply incurious, miserably obsessed with relics, rituals and railings, ordinary people, uninspiring bleakness and congealed monuments.

At Tate, the former Berkeley art historians T J Clark and Anne M Wagner come to Lowry and Lancashire intrigued but unswayed by the haughtiness of an incestuous London art world that generally classifies him as narrow- minded. They are not put off by his quirks, or his repetitive content, seeing it as being in its own way exotic and also thoroughly investigative. They’re enthralled by how the exiled Lowry gazes across fields of rubble into an industrial working-class history that has been marginalised by those following allegedly cooler, smarter trends. Lowry was never fashionable, because he was following his very own, often very square interests: Victorian bricks, factory gates and monotonous terraced streets more than flags, fame and fortune.

Lowry has been dismissed as provincial, regional, and therefore inferior, as if his matter-of-fact subject matter means a backward, whimsical view of life and living. Lowry, it seems, cannot be great because what he painted was, apparently, only the mundane, unsophisticated images of industrial life stuffed with the common, ugly riff-raff, the stunted, sordid remains of social ambition. No flowers, no stormy seas, no stunning breakthroughs, no sudden shifts of perspective, no innovative application of paint, no mystical conceptual ingenuity, no artistic progress: therefore, surely, quite futile.

This exhibition collects many paintings that are now better known at home in Salford and Manchester, where Lowry has become slowly more celebrated, loved and named after, but still unfamiliar in London. The show unapologetically presents Lowry with big-time London pizzazz as a serious artist experiencing an entire industrial era with melancholy, mischievous, sometimes tortured intensity; one who painstakingly developed a distinctive if eccentric compositional technique.

We can observe the origins of his swarming, battling, often reviled skeletal figures, distant cousins of those more generously honoured peasants in a Van Gogh field, and discover that they looked that way not because he lacked ability but because he was painting a manmade landscape that looked entirely wrong without hordes of preoccupied and harassed people. His landscapes were often crowded with the hard-up masses serving, or avoiding, their masters. But he didn’t want to finish these people off as compositions, giving them richer, sharper, more generous detail, which he was capable of doing as draughtsman. That would have obstructed his view, the view, of harsh ignoble reality turning into a dream, where ungraspable history can be better stored and interpreted. His people haunted the pictures, not as crude, jerky-jokey stick creatures, but as wasted, savaged presences, smeared across canvas, etched into time, curtailed by circumstances, incomplete fragments of his own restless mental state.

Elsewhere, in those emptier, sparer paintings less associated with him – the more abstract ones, less formulaically strewn with emaciated forms, from outside dead-set, dead-end 1930s Lancashire – there is a less cluttered sense of Lowry. We see what is hinted at in all of his paintings: a deeply personal artist, the inheritor of Impressionist impulses, working his lonely, mournful way through the 20th century, getting the job done, creating hiding places, avoiding eye contact, observing his own journey across and under the viaduct, towards the vacant lot of oblivion.

His paintings detail a storm that had just passed through – the 19th century falling apart, the ruins of past promises, the capitalist technological dream of progress leading to catastrophe – causing one hell of an impact. But he also anticipated in a less specific way that there would be another storm along soon, completing the wiping out of these sorts of communities and the places where people settled because they had no choice.

All is not completely right at the well-intentioned Tate Britain show, nicely set up to be the kind of publicised national cultural event once deemed beyond the range of an artistic commoner such as Lowry. But inside the gallery, you will still hear dumb, nutty George Formby, turning out nice again amidst all the nastiness. Lowry was funny and Lancastrian and working at the same time as Formby, but the music creates the kind of tackiness that sticks Lowry to the humble and farcical, where on the whole this exhibition wants to take him away from that.

You wish you were hearing William Walton or the Durutti Column, the Unthanks or Roy Harper (also born in Rusholme and much closer to Lowry in peeved, vagrant spirit than Formby). At the end, when you inevitably emerge into the shop – stocked with peculiarly perky Lowry souvenirs, including ties and mugs, and a less perky copy of my book, which relishes how Lowry turned the down-to-earth into something other-worldly – you will be able to buy a flat cap, as if such a thing will always be on top of the north, holding it in, keeping it down, even after Laurence Sterne, Lewis Carroll, the Brontës, the Pankhursts, Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Burgess, Ted Hughes and Joy Division.

Still, mustn’t grumble, and here for sure is a new Lowry, better served through six mind-opening rooms as the surreal, discerning documentarian of traumatic modern times. The uncompromising, perhaps uninvolved and self-centred, lurking at the tatty edges of life but extremely present and alert witness of suffering and social turbulence, the indirect colleague of Orwell, Grierson and Hoggart, keeping history alive.

He was remembering the end of the world, as he saw it, picturing it as best he could just in case anyone paying attention in the future gave a damn about the world he lived in and the crying-out-loud sadness he felt at how it all just disappeared. The drifting artist who always seemed to be behind the times, incapable of escaping an embarrassing past and accepting a changing world dedicated to wiping out the negative, loaded past, turns out to have been ahead of his time.

Paul Morley’s book “The North (And Almost Everything In It)” is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

The end of the world as we know it: Industrial Landscape (1955) by L S Lowry.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.