A stern selfie near the Town Hall
It’s daily entries at the moment! It won’t last long, but for now a lot of things seem to be happening that I want to write about here on this public blog.
Today, I’ve been in Manchester. I’m writing this on the rather nice Virgin train back to London Euston where you can plug in laptops at the tables and there’s a rather brilliant driver who came on the intercom pronouncing ‘vestibule’ very much like ‘vegetable’, so we now know what we can and cannot put in the vegetable areas.
Anyway, I was urged in my PhD viva to go to see the Dennis and Joan Welland Papers, an archive kept in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Coming all the way up here doesn’t come cheap – short of four-hour coach trips that I didn’t fancy at all – but it has been a pleasant visit so I don’t mind. I still need lots of distractions to keep my mind off certain personal issues so this sort of change of pace is welcome, even if it’s expensive!
The cover of an original 1920 edition of Owen's poems
I’ve been in Manchester before – quite a while ago, as a sixth-former. Manchester was on my UCAS form, you see, so I came up to do the entrance interview. I had friends living in Manchester at the time – or friends of friends, I’d have to look it up – which meant after my interview I could go and party. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I remember the trams, I remember that the bars on Canal Street were rather sterile and not at all as interesting as they seemed on Queer as Folk
, and that I got very very drunk and did some mildly embarrassing things we won’t go into now.
But yes, this was the first time since then. And my impressions were good. From what I’ve seen of it today, Manchester is really not very different from London, only with trams in the centre, more wide open streets and a much more concentrated centre, which is good for someone like me who likes to walk. It also seems to have a lot more men content to stand about in the streets with a can of cheap beer in their hand in the early afternoon, looking dazed and unwashed. Seriously, it seemed to be a thing
. Maybe it’s a new trend and I’m just not cool enough to know about it.
There were also a lot of very loud football fans today too, but ironically the ones kicking up a big fuss and singing their obnoxious songs were ones who, like me, had come up from London. Arsenal are playing Manchester United away, you see, so I was quite glad kickoff was as late as 19:45 so that I wouldn’t have to deal with angry hooligans.
When I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, first of all I decided to be a bit touristy, so went to look at Manchester’s Chinatown. It appears to largely be a car park, and rather too many all-you-can-eat buffet places, but there are big ornate gates, which is nice. I decided today was a day of selfies.
Nice big gate
Put ‘John Rylands’ into Google Maps and was a bit confused that it was pointing me south, as when I had looked last night, the library seemed to be north of the station. Trusting in the power of the search engine, I followed it, thinking that if I was going south I could pop to the Curry Mile for dinner, and see if it deserved its reputation. Soon after, I found myself briefly at the end of Canal Street again – which at 1:30pm was a ghost town.
I possibly could have looked slightly more impressed
Around the corner I could see the impressive tower of the Palace Hotel, so took another selfie. I don’t look so great today, but oh well! I’m being a tourist oop north! Tomorrow I think I’ll bleach my hair again, as it looks dull.
I look positively irate
Down Oxford Road I went until once again I was on the university campus. I began to suspect something was wrong, however, when I approached the modern, bland-looking library and didn’t see ‘John Rylands’ anywhere. The kindly lady at the reception informed me that while that building had at one point been called the John Rylands University Library, it wasn’t any more, and the John Rylands Library I was looking for was back in the centre!
Not only windswept, but in the wrong place
So back I went, now feeling I probably shouldn’t have been such a tourist. On the other hand, around the town hall and Albert Square, the buildings got rather more grandiose again. Not far away, I finally found the rather pleasant gothic edifice with awkwardly-appended glass giftshop and entranceway that is the John Rylands library. The reading rooms were up on the fourth floor, and though time was tight by then – in the end I had to stay until the last minute and didn’t even finish getting through everything I’d reserved. There were still three slim folders (containing no more than 3-10 letters or notes) that I never got to see. Oh well!
Finally a different facial expression! I've found the place!
It was quite an odd, yet fairly moving, experience to go through a dead man’s personal effects – especially one who I’ve been reading for the past few years. Moving in a different way from going through Owen’s library, but more haunting in a way because Welland – a key Owen scholar – is not a well-known figure and his output is academic rather than artistic. Somehow it feels like one is another step removed from a noble purpose, reading an academic’s letters as opposed to those of the artist they have made their subject.
Welland's original doctoral thesis, with photograph
The most important part of the collection is the preliminary work done for The Posthumous Life of Wilfred Owen
, which Welland never completed before his death. Though related to Owen, as the book would have covered the course of Owen scholarship from 1919 to the late nineties, and as Welland was a key figure in that scholarship, it would have been in many ways his memoirs. He never got too far with it, but what remains is a fascinating collection of anecdotes – and as when he began his thesis, Welland was one of only a handful of scholars working on Owen and many people who had known him well were still alive, he was able to do a wealth of research by meeting and/or corresponding with the likes of Sassoon, Harold Owen and Leslie Gunston.
The late Dominic Hibberd really inspired me to pursue Owen as a subject
There was a certain thrill to holding letters written by Cecil Day Lewis, Philip Larkin and Siegfried Sassoon. Harold Owen’s writing is almost comically awful, as one would expect of the pantomime villain he often becomes in the mythical narratives of discourse about his brother. Yet he has his moments of affecting sweetness, just as in Journey from Obscurity
. Blunden perhaps comes over as an unsung hero: he was editor of the TLS at the time Harold Owen wrote a letter to it effectively stating he was going to block Welland’s work and lying about him never having approached the family before publicly announcing his research intentions. It turns out that he had effectively stopped Harold from going into full-blown crazy mode and edited his letter to tone it down considerably before publication (with Harold’s consent). So much drama about this subject in the 1940s!
Harold Owen's writing (top) is terrible
Having more detail about Sassoon’s interactions with Welland was also poignant. Sassoon as he grows old often comes over as petty and spiteful, but there is so much more sadness in how he spoke to Welland about Owen than is better-remembered for his viciousness towards Spender on the same subject (‘He was an embarrassment – he spoke with a grammar school accent’). It was slightly surprising to me – though telling – that in his letter to Sassoon’s son he implied that he intended to stress how much the eventual stature of Wilfred Owen owed to Sassoon. At the same time, it’s very amusing to read Sassoon’s bitchy letters to Welland about how he has agreed to let Harold Owen show him Journey of Obscurity
when it is complete, and how he is ‘dreading having his 250,000 words dumped on me.’
A large part of my third chapter was original research about the posthumous reputation of Wilfred Owen, so this is absolutely stuff I should have read before submitting. There’s really no arguing that. I’m glad I have, now – but I’m definitely going to leave it to rest for quite a while before I resume work. Tomorrow, research into historians I omitted. And then a nice long break to write fiction.
After the library closed, I went back to Manchester Piccadilly to make sure I knew where it was, but the restaurants there were all chains I could go to in London or pubs full of rowdy Arsenal fans, so I set off in search of something more local. Wandered past the Manchester branches of Forbidden Planet and Cyberdog and then found a nice pub with hipster clientele that specialised in pies. Feeling that was a pretty British thing to eat, and seeing several people with laptops feeling it wasn’t a bad place to sit in alone, I ordered steak pie with mash and some Guinness. It wasn’t bad – the pastry was a bit dry and what seemed to be a dog bowl full of mash was about double how much I needed or could finish – and it was better than just going into a the TGI Friday’s for the same old same old.
Owt wrong with a bit of pie an' mash
So endeth my Manchester adventure. And I quite enjoyed it, really. Though next time, it would of course be better to have someone to show me around!