Our book, The Night Visitors, is a horror novella told through an exchange of emails between two women who are investigating an unsolved murder. Gradually, the effects of their mutual obsession evolve into hallucinatory madness and the supernatural begins to intrude on their correspondence. There were two of us writing, and we each composed one side of the exchange, sending the emails to each other “in character”, then swapping sides after the first draft to edit. We like to think it was the joint folly of the writing process – a kind of spontaneous mutual insanity – that spawned a tale of possession, telepathy and bloodshed.
It's been a strange day here in Manchester. Bright and summery with most of it passed at my desk in the top floor of an office block in the city centre. Outside was eerily quiet save for the occasional intrusion of helicopters circling overhead and sirens wailing in the distance. And so I sat there and got on with my work as though today was just another day and the biggest mass murder in the city's history hadn’t happened just down the road a few hours earlier.
I say I was working but of course in truth I spent almost the entire day online, reading again and again about this local tragedy whose magnitude was propelling it around the globe. Occasionally there would be a detail - of the first two named victims, one went to the same college as me and the other, an eight year old girl, was from Preston, my hometown - which would cause me to look away from my screen and out of the window at my view of the city, high-rise buildings folding away into leafy terraced suburbs in the distance, and try not to cry. It all felt so keenly personal and yet I had no right take it personally: so far as I know, I have no connection to any of the victims. What I have is a connection to the city, which isn't the same thing at all.
I've struggled with the heartening stories, the tales of people helping, offering up their homes, giving blood. Have they been heartening, these acts? Yes and no. Yes in themselves, undoubtedly, but no in the way they response I've found they elicit. I understand the impetus to find the glimmers of something positive and reassuring, but honestly I find it hard to feel anything other than just flat-out depressed right now. Anything more just feels like a pretence, like ornamentation. I get the whole ‘we carry on’ rhetoric, but at the same time it smacks of dismissiveness, of depreciating something which is objectively and comprehensively unconscionable and demands we stop carrying on. A massacre which targeted local daughters, children murdered on the streets in their dozens while they held onto pink balloons. You have to go back to the Christmas Blitz of 1940 or perhaps the Moors Murders in the early 1960s to find anything comparable in the vicinity. From now on this will undoubtedly be Manchester's darkest day and it's going to be a very tough and traumatic experience for everyone to go through, particularly those directly involved. Why pretend otherwise? Perhaps tomorrow can be a day of hope and plodding bravely on. Today, for me, is for simple grief.
Throughout the day the attention of the world’s political leaders, media and commentators seeped into town where it will presumably remain for the next week or so. It’s slightly surreal to hear presidents, prime ministers and members of the royal family make their condemnatory speeches in relation the crappy music venue on the other side of town from where I work, and I find I’m curiously defensive of the place, both that crappy venue and my invaded city. But it's a surrealism which takes on a faintly nightmarish palette when attached to the tedious freeloaders who pop up whenever there’s a terror attack, people like Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage and their pointless ilk, clamouring to promote their boring opinions on a city about which they know nothing beyond the usual handful of clichéd signifiers and whatever lurks within the parameters of their own dimly-lit imaginations. Respectively: historical industry, Oasis, football; large migrant population, racial tension, terrorist hotbed.
That’s bollocks though, all of it. Immigrants, Muslims, whoever - they aren't to blame. I know saying that is considered the kneejerk response of the hopeless, blinkered liberal but it's also the painfully obvious truth. Whatever you end up hearing about Manchester, know that, while it’s a city with all kinds of complex problems, it is foremost a place which goes in heavy on solidarity, bigheartedness and resilience, all of which make for as vibrant, welcoming and successful an example of multiculturalism as you could hope to encounter. I moved here about seven years ago and found a city so replete with neighbourliness it was frankly intimidating and is still now a source of fascination and at time even irritation to me. Simply put, it's a great city and those who insipidly denigrate its residents aren't worth listening to.
After work I took a packed train home, the sweltering heat ramped up by the crush of fellow commuters, all anxiously checking our phones and intermittently breaking out in conversation in an attempt to dispel the tension only to land on the only terrible topic to hand.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but as I looked around at them quietly chatting I thought: the people here are frightened, but I honestly can’t see this attack, or anything else, making them frightened of one another.
Motion picture. I have been thinking about that phrase. So evocative and old fashioned, don’t you think? And so self-contradictory. Motion picture. Do you ever find it curious that photography – still imagery – continues to thrive in our flyaway age of ubiquitous motion pictures? A news story can now be accompanied by a piece of insightful footage rather than a single, context-dependent image and yet it is the image that remains, a stark constant. Do you know why this is, Alice? It’s because photographs replicate our memories like nothing else in our world.
I have a new novel out. It’s called The Night Visitors and is co-written with Jenn Ashworth and published by Dead Ink.
You can buy a copy here.
When my daughter was tiny, for about six months, I used to give her a bath every single night (parenthood makes you superstitious about routines) and as I did so I'd always sing 'One of Us Cannot Be Wrong', the final track from Leonard Cohen's first record. It's a song I'd first come across when I was 15. Like all suburban teenagers I was a big Nirvana fan and had investigated Cohen after hearing him being name-checked in 'Pennyroyal Tea' (this was the days before algorithms when learning about music required this kind of serendipity).
From then on I periodically loved him, got bored of him, rediscovered him, drifted away, came back, buying and listening to to each one of his records, seeking out and reading his books and, once, spending a truly appalling amount of money on a gig in a castle.
In this way Leonard Cohen became, for me, more of a long-term fixture in my life than any other artist I can think of. There's musicians and albums and songs I've loved more fiercely but never with the same longevity and dependability: love, death, sex, war, religion, faith - he's always been there in the background, ready to come forward during those times when music needs to be serious.
Lately, it's felt very much like one of those times. I've had his latest record, You Want It Darker, on nigh constant circulation for the past three weeks and that Cohen style – weighty yet ironical, unapologetically literary yet unashamedly pop, thematically dependable yet restlessly inquisitive, sophisticated yet unflinchingly existential – which served him so well for fifty years is so richly abundant that it's almost impossible to countenance it being the work of an artist who would deteriorate and die so suddenly after its release. It shows how, although the flesh was failing, the mind and its fearsome artistry were as sharp as ever.
Although I'm obviously sad he's passed away I'm not sentimental about it, or at least not unduly so. He was, after all, Leonard Cohen. He'd reached a ripe age, lived good life in every possible sense and departed knowing that he would leave behind something substantial and lasting: serious songs which will continue to be sung to children.
On my lunch break today I stopped by Manchester Central Library to look at the design plans for the St Michael’s development, essentially a pair of enormous skyscrapers whose proposed construction is being led by Manchester City Council in partnership with ex-footballer Gary Neville. Although the designs and copious amounts of accompanying blurb present the project as a pinnacle of a daring dreamland vision of Manchester's future, looking at the little plastic model I couldn’t help but think of the whole thing as yet another example – perhaps the perfect example – of the mode of thinking which seems to be prevalent within Manchester’s upper echelons these days, thinking which runs simply thus: let’s build something enormous.
St Michael’s is controversial because, as well as its unparalleled size, its construction requires the demolition of a number of buildings, including the Sir Ralph Abercromby, a decent if not entirely salubrious backstreet pub which also happens to be the sole surviving structure from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
In August 1819 around 70,000 people congregated in St Peter's Field, now the site of St Peter’s Square, to demand economic and parliamentary reform. The army was called in and charged on those gathered, killing 15 people and injuring over 500 as they dispersed in panic, pouring around the Abercromby, some seeking refuge inside (some dubious accounts claim that one victim died in the pub). The subsequent public outcry led to further demonstrations and riots across the north, the protestors becoming increasingly organised in the face of government opposition. This in turn led directly to the creation of the Chartist movement, the establishment of trade unions, the founding of The Guardian and eventually to the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832, commonly seen as the cornerstone of our modern democracy. Although its interior has been periodically refurbished, the fact remains that the walls of the Abercromby (or two of them, the other two were destroyed in WWII) are the last surviving fragments of the backdrop to this most defining of moments in both the city’s and the country’s history.
But sadly – the local government here in Manchester is never one to shy away from an opportunity for crushingly heavy symbolism – in a couple of years’ time Manchester will most likely be celebrating the bicentennial this key moment of its past by demolishing its one remaining structure to make way for another block of flats. And, like I say, this all feels very emblematic. As I left the library, itself built on the site of the massacre, it was difficult to avoid the invisible presence of Peterloo and all it represents. I passed a beggar outside and was reminded that a large homeless camp had sprung up outside the building after its renovation a couple of years ago, before the ‘protestors’, as they were branded, had been evicted to make way the surrounding area to be ‘futureproofed’ (the council’s word for endless roadworks), something which involved dismantling and moving the city’s war memorial and building a tram stop in the centre of the square. The hundred or so homeless moved on to St Anne’s Square, their new camp in the shadow of St Anne’s Church, which forms something of the city’s heart being as it is the absolute central point of Manchester. Again they were moved on, by which point the council had seen to it that any kind of rough-sleeping within the perimeters of the city had been officially criminalised. Near Victoria railway station, originally the site of St. Michael's Flags, one of Manchester’s most notorious slum, some of this ‘futureproofing’ resulted in the unearthing a mass paupers’ grave. The bodies were disinterred and shipped out, their original resting place taken up with another tram stop. While all this played out the council, in an ugly act of symmetry, simultaneously pledged £32m towards the construction of The Factory, a residential development which promises ‘public and semi-public pocket parks for impromptu community happenings, relaxing, ping pong, chess and horticulture’ but zero provision for social housing.
Crossing St. Peter's Square towards Piccadilly I thought about the massacre. Had the victims been trampled and attacked here, where the maintenance work is still ongoing? Or had they died here, outside where the the town hall now stands? Or here? Was a life ended abruptly here? Or here? How about here?
But such thoughts become difficult to entertain when faced with such a changed, benign landscape. Carnage seems so improbable in such proximity to a San Carlo outlet, a branch of Sainsbury's and groups of international students congregating around benches, chattering away happily to one another. I wondered what other individuals had made this walk in the past, from point A to point B, this particular trajectory. Had they looked around, thinking or trying to think similar thoughts?
The German writer W.G. Sebald relocated to Manchester in the mid 1960’s to work at the University and live, as he put it, ‘among the previous century’s ruins’. In The Emigrants, the first of his books to be translated into English, he provided a description of his early impressions of the smog-marked city, the one time core of global industry: ‘I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see… Even the grandest of the buildings, which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades or theatrical backdrops.’ Well indeed. Perhaps this is overstating things, but for the young, gloomy Sebald, as for most of those who inhabited the city prior to the extensive regeneration it went through in the 90’s, Manchester was a kind of living museum of its own past, one whose theme was collapse – collapse of progress, of prosperity, of the grand promise they once held – something which held an added symbolism for someone like Sebald, born as he was into a country in the thrall of ideals which promised much but brought only destruction.
Now, walking around central Manchester, in its permanent state of upgrade and its jostling newbuild skyscrapers, it once again often feels as though one is wandering a museum. The collection – opulent flats, lavish hotels, immaculate offices, imposing and implacably crafted stelae of glinting steel and glass all – once again stands proudly for prosperity, progress and promise. But, for those with little and those with nothing, the theme, as ever, is one of absence, erasure and amnesia.
Terry Jones has dementia. More specifically, he has primary progressive aphasia, a condition which intrudes onto the brain’s semantics, fraying the connecting thread between language and its meaning. Words remain banked in the brain yet what they signify grows adrift. The world retains its familiarity, customs their habit, objects their function – those with aphasia are quite capable of, say, dressing themselves – but the correct names for their items of clothing are lost. In primary progressive aphasia all of this is gradual, the lexicon becoming steadily depleted, the words dwindling, the alphabet crumbling. It’s a little like becoming foreign: the world is recognisable yet its language, and all that language hinges on, grows inaccessible. Eventually, that connecting linguistic thread is severed, leading to memory loss, identity loss and a marked incomprehension.
All in all, a sad thing to know that this is something a personal hero, and his young family, is going through.
Like most people in their 30’s I don't really have any specific memory of first experiencing Monty Python. It just seemed to be there, in the form of clips on television, a late night movie or a feature in the Radio Times. And when I grew up my dad, like countless other dads, would punctuate our conversations with talk of ex-parrots, the People’s Front of Judea and how no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition. I had no idea what he was on about but, then again, when you’re a child that’s true of a good deal of adult talk. Monty Python was simply present, lurking in the cultural background in much the same way as the Beatles, the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing, totemic components of the ruling boomer generation’s own personal lore.
But I do remember when, as a teenager who hitherto took himself incredibly seriously, I bought the complete Monty Python TV series boxset on VHS and spent a lonely summer in my bedroom enthralled by its mixture of showy intelligence, stream-of-consciousness structure and baroque silliness. Terry Jones was the most sensible and scholarly of the group, rarely anyone’s favourite, especially when his softness and vulnerability is seen alongside John Cleese and Graham Chapman whose berserk pyrotechnics are much more appealing to an adolescent’s anarchic streak. But Jones was always my favourite. Later I would learn that in many ways he was the mother of the group, its chief architect – ‘the bowels of Python’ is how Eric Idle described him. And of all the Pythons Jones was also the one who arguably had the most productive post-Python life, directing feature films, presenting documentaries and writing a copious amount of books.
It's this last specialism in particular which makes it so sad that Jones is suffering from a form of dementia defined by its power to obliterate language. I have a fondness for his children’s books, particularly one titled Nicobobinus, a note-perfect fantasy yarn of pirates, dragons and magic which I have memories of being read to me at bedtime by my dad, memories so vivid in part because he had trouble pronouncing the title character’s name and eventually rechristened him as simply 'Nick', but also because I can still recall the feelings of adventure and peril Nicobobinus provoked.
Aphasia is a condition which I've recently come to know about also because of my dad. Recently he had a stroke which left him with a severe case of aphasia. Initially, he had trouble communicating at all. After a few days he could understand a good deal of what was being said to him, a few days after that could read pages of text at a time fluently (without necessarily being able to interpret what it is he was reading) and within a fortnight could set out to begin saying basic sentences without too many problems. But, for the most part, there was and still is a murkily unsettling divide between words and what they mean. Early on, when shown a picture and asked to name it – I bought a pack of children's flash cards and spent long afternoons in hospital testing him on them – he was usually unable to do so. In most instances, when the correct word was then revealed it suddenly seemed obvious to him: 'Banana! It's a banana! Of course!' In other cases he would find the correct word baffling: 'Shed? Is that right? You sure? Shed, shed...' He would trail off, shaking his head. 'No, I don't think so... shed... that's so silly.'
Silly is the word. There’s something distinctively cruel about an illness which causes you to speak gibberish. To begin with my dad's sentences would very quickly veer off into nonsense - dropping words or picking a string of incorrect ones before he gave up. He has since made good progress and this behaviour has slowly become less extreme, but it is still there. ‘I’m sorry the house is so chunky,’ he said when I last visited him at home. He meant untidy of course but chunky had come out. Similarly, during a flashcard test shortly before he left hospital he developed a temporary inability to say the word 'cow' due to some some mental insistence that the word was 'bicep'.
‘It’s a cow,’ I said holding up the picture of a cow. ‘Say it after me: cow.’
‘Cow. Cow. Cow.’
Nodding his head, concentrating, trying to get into the rhythm of the word: ‘Bicep… d'oh... Bicep… Right, I’ve got it… this time… Bicep.’
Fortunately, my dad is a man who has always valued and enjoyed silliness – I can’t honestly think of anything sillier than thinking a cow is called a bicep – and would have struggled to take the steps he's managed towards recovery without a dark appreciation for the sheer ridiculousness of his situation.
I imagine Terry Jones is having similar interactions to these, but sadly with less optimism about his future prospects. Still, I hope he’s able to maintain that sense of the absurd. After all, he was the one who taught me how important this can be.