Posts Tagged ‘Saint Peter’s Square’

At the end of January I went to see a colleague of mine at the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. I’d been meaning to for a while, but it’s too far away from where I work to be doable in a lunch hour so I waited until I had a week off instead.

I got the bus into Piccadilly and felt rather depressed as the bus turned off down Whitworth Street and went past Legends, now boarded up and poised for either demolition or partial restructure. Then I walked through Piccadilly Gardens to Mosley Street (honoured by John Cooper Clarke in one of his more lugubrious works) towards Saint Peter’s Square. I feel quite bleak about the redevelopment going on there too – the Library, Library Theatre, Peace Gardens, Metrolink…

Library Walk by cantwont used via a flickr creative commons licence.

Library Walk by cantwont used via a flickr creative commons licence.

When it’s redone the council are glassing over Library Walk, one of the most architecturally beautiful walkways in Manchester. Not only do the architect’s and the council appear to be deliberately blighting a really nice bit of Victorian architecture, but the council also intend to put a new Peterloo memorial plaque on the gate. It will be the 200 year anniversary of Peterloo in August 2019, and to mark this event with a plaque honouring the death of 17 people and the severe injury of 700 more for demanding the right to vote, on a gate obstructing a public right of way adds insult to injury. Not only have Manchester City Council for years had an extremely euphemistic blue plaque marking the massacre, they’re also now revealing a massive irony deficit.

Despite its reputation and Victorian gothic splendour, the only time I’ve previously visited the Rylands was for a staff meeting about three years ago. Though, as I discovered when I was making my way there, I’ve a pretty good idea of how to find it because it’s been on at least one of the protest march routes I went on in 2011.

The Rylands Library has the misfortune to be situated next to Emporio Armani, which is itself next to RBS. Old meets new… They have  a combination of old and new within the Rylands itself, but they’ve preserved as much of it as possible so there’s lots of old glass and a lot of the old gothic building. I really enjoyed my visit, and I take my hat off to Enriqueta Rylands for founding such a long lasting legacy both to her husband, John, and for the people of Manchester.


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In the hot and humid early evening of yesterday, I trundled down Oxford Road in pursuit of food after work. 8th Day doesn’t seem to be doing evenings now that a substantional chunk of the students have gone home for the summer, so it was the Cornerhouse for me.

From the Cornerhouse I meandered towards Saint Peter’s Square, which is currently under seige because of the metrolink extensions (not started yet, so far as I could tell) and the radical overhaul of the entire area by Manchester City Council. The library and the library theatre have already fled the carnage, the war memorial and Peace Gardens are to be moved. In a few years time the place will be as unrecognisable to the average manc as it would be to a survivor of Peterloo today.

Matt Smith (no, not that one) local historian, political upstart, and – apparently – deputy manager at a branch of Asda, chose this day to mark the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre, a tragedy which occurred on the 16th August 1819, a hot day much like the 5th July apparently.

As with many of the various re-tellings and analysis of Peterloo (a dark satirical reference to the much celebrated victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, which occurred close enough to Peterloo to be in the minds of many at the time), Matt’s piece was an overview coupled with an exploration of the parallels between life for the average person in 1819 and now. There are parallels: a struggling economy, high food prices, and a overwhelming sense that things are going in the wrong direction and the wrong people are being made to suffer… But I always think it risks devaluing the importance of what happened in Saint Peter’s Fields (as they were then) on that day in August 1819 if we overconcentrate on the parallels with today, interesting though they are.

Having said that, Smith did an admirable job when it came to explaining the flaws of capitalism as a model (he likened it to a bus being driven over a cliff, with the surviving passengers having to pay the driver to buy a new bus, which  then gets driven over the cliff again, and the process is repeated ad neauseum) and the Rotton Boroughs style political arrangements of 1819 (Manchester had a population of approximately 1 million, only 145 people could vote, and only 1 person could stand as an MP).

You certainly couldn’t fault Smith on enthusiasm and energy, particularly during his agit prop moment as a smug Tory M.P complete with Lib Dem sock puppet, and I did enjoy his description of being filled with hope for the future of political protest upon coming across two men, who had previously been scrapping on the pavement, united by a common hatred, pissing up against a giant billboard of David Cameron just prior to the 2010 elections.

Matt Smith is not The Doctor, but you don’t need a sonic screwdriver to talk about history and politics. If it was 1981 I can’t help but think he would have joined The Gang Of Four instead…

The event is part of the Not Part Of Festival, a fringe festival in Manchester which runs parallel to Manchester International Festival. The name is an abbreviated way of saying ‘Not part of Manchester International Festival’, sort of ‘Off, off Broadway’ or perhaps ‘Off, off Saint Anne’s Square’ in this case.

I picked up a leaflet about the campaign for a proper memorial to the massacre, in which 18 people were killed and over 600 people were injured by sabre cuts and trampling. The previous memorial has always been deemed euphemistic and inadequate, and many, many people, including Mark Thomas, have  joined the campaign many years ago to have it removed and a proper memorial put up instead. With the re-development of the square, the council have promised a new memorial, but doubt is being expressed as to whether it will be any better than the previous one.  If you would like to read more about the history of Peterloo, and about the campaign for a decent memorial to the events, please click here.

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