A SLIGHTLY BIASED BOOK REVIEW (09/10/2014)
You know how, wandering around town, you’ll sometimes say ‘I always like the look of that, but never made the time to have a proper look’? It could be a little back street, a doorway, a rooftop or a carving on a wall. Well Phil Griffin’s the man who’s always made time to have a nosey. If it’s Manchester, he knows it.
The book he’s just released (at £25, from mancunianbooks.com) with photographer Jan Chlebik sprouts from an exhibition put on by the pair a few years ago, November 2011 if I remember rightly. It featured 100 of Jan’s photos of Manchester, taken over the last thirty years or so, each on sale at £100. The night was a roaring success and I recall Phil taking me round, posing questions, ‘recognise this? And that one?’ Without captions, and being a few Peronis down the road, I was nonplussed on more than a couple, and this shows the beauty of Jan’s pictures.
They’re not the usual streetscape shots taken by developers, architects and city tourism boards, showcasing the shiny and new alongside some carefully chosen heritage shots, Here you’ll find unusual angles and startling vistas, things you wouldn’t think of. Photos that place the city centre in context with Ordsall, Ancoats and Hulme. It’s a story of a changing city, in several shots you’ll see cranes and new buildings reaching to the sky (in Spinningfields in particular). Jan finds it harder to gain access to rooftops now, so following this could be tricky for others.
As the headline hints, this isn’t an unbiased review. I’ve known Phil for ten years or so. I’ve commissioned him to write things, I’ve read his work elsewhere, I’ve visited his exhibitions. He’s opened my eyes to different styles of architecture, how cities work, and let me in on odd bits of Manchester history (I now know who had the very first sandwich sold by M&S in Manchester, for one thing).
When I worked at Insider, we always got Phil involved in judging the Property Awards, knowing he’d be a counterpoint to the necessarily corporate voices around the table. He’d speak up for proper place-making, architectural bravery and question conventional wisdoms and the commercially powerful. Or as our session chairman Andrew Shaw used to put it: “Come on, Phil, let’s hear the luvvie bollocks.”
There’s a lovely piece on Whitworth Street and how the Cornerhouse, a trailblazing Manchester institution, came about. There are pieces on the CIS Tower and the Co-op Estate, Chinatown, the Hidden Gem. But it’s as much about social history: buildings and people don’t exist in isolation. The beautiful tributes Phil wrote for Manchester Confidential to Tony Wilson and, in particular, Carol Ainscow, the most under-rated and understated of Manchester’s modern pioneers, are present, and remain deeply affecting.
A lot of people rant about buildings and uncaring developers and councils, but it holds a lot more weight when you know what you’re talking about and can make your point elegantly. How about this on the demolition of Granada’s transmitting tower in 2008: “with what crude nonchalance does a new broom sweep, that it dumps so rudely on the emotional landscape of generations?”
Faults? The short stories might not be for everyone, while some of Jan’s smaller photos don’t work as well on page as they did on the walls. And don’t open it expecting a comprehensive atlas of the city’s buildings – that’s not the aim.
If you love Manchester and the stories of the people, the places, the events and the evolution of a city, then this is £25 you’ll not regret spending. Could make someone a lovely Christmas present too.