(This is an edited version of a talk given at the ‘Everywhere & Nowhere’ postgraduate symposium of the Landscape, Space & Place group at the University of Nottingham, on 20 June 2016)
It might seem odd to posit the city of Manchester as an imagined place. However, from the beginnings of its rapid growth in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the real city was mythologised by the many from around these islands and beyond them who came to see the miracle or shock city of the age. Manchester in the Industrial Revolution became an archetype of both shock and wonder, awesome and awful at the same time. As it grew, with remarkable speed and with no discernible plan, it attracted comparisons both with the greatest of human and divine achievements, and with the works of the devil.
For Disraeli it was ‘as great a human exploit as Athens’, for Carlyle, ‘every whit as wonderful, as fearful, as unimaginable, as the oldest Salem or prophetic city’. Many accounts, alongside these exalted descriptions, acknowledge the dichotomy – for example this from the Chambers Edinburgh Journal of 1858:
Manchester streets may be irregular, and its trading inscriptions pretentious, its smoke may be dense and its mud ultra-muddy, but not any or all of these things can prevent the image of a great city rising before us as the very symbol of civilisation, foremost in the march of improvement, a grand incarnation of progress.
Alexis de Tocqueville too was able to recognise both extremes. In Manchester ‘the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development, and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.’
Overall though the majority came down on the ‘awful’ side of the divide. Even Mrs Gaskell, who was a local, described the impression of the men working in the factories as ‘demons’. For others it was ‘a Babel in brick’, a ‘revolting labyrinth’, and its river was ‘the Styx of this new Hades’.
There were particular aspects of Manchester that inspired these reactions. De Tocqueville said that:
Everything in the external appearance of the city attests the individual powers of man; nothing the directing power of society. At every turn, human liberty shows its capricious force.
Whereas some cities’ growth can be illustrated by an expanding grid, or like Paris by the addition of layer upon layer of suburbs, Manchester grew organically, cramming factories and workers’ housing into whatever space was available, without much consideration of the living conditions that would result, minor things such as sanitation, for example, and the outcomes were grim.
Manchester was thus characterised as ‘a vast unknowable chaos’, illustrated by the invocation of Erebus, in Greek mythology the personification of darkness, born of Chaos, who inhabits a place of darkness between Earth and Hades. So we have descriptions of chimneys ‘belching forth clouds of Erebean darkness and dirt, as if they had a dispensation from the devil’.
Hippolyte Taine records that ‘in the city’s main hotel, the gas had to be lit for five days: at midday one could not see clearly enough to write.’ The darkness was noted well into the 1950s. There were two factors here, not only the constant smoke from the chimneys but the moist air and relatively flat terrain, which meant that ‘the acid and other impurities become dissolved in the moisture, and the black parts of the smoke become wet and heavy’. This combination created the ‘terrifying Manchester fogs … when the phenomenon of temperature-inversion produced near darkness and zero visibility around the clock for days on end’.
The pollution had other effects. Sir James Crichton Browne (1902) rather marvellously described how ‘A sable incubus embarrasses your breathing, a hideous scum settles on your skin and clothes, a swart awning offends your vision, [and] a sullen cloud oppresses your spirits’.
There is a kind of trope of ‘first view of Manchester’ which strengthens the sense of an archetype, a mythical place. For example:
Alexis de Tocqueville – Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algerie (1835): A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight, 300000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb this damp, dark, labyrinth.
Hugh Miller – First Impressions of England and its People (1847): One receives one’s first intimation of its existence from the lurid gloom that overhangs it. There is a murky blot in one section of the sky which broadens and heightens as we approach, until at length it seems spread over half the firmament. And now the innumerable chimneys come in view, tall and dim in the dun haze, each bearing atop its own troubled pennon of darkness.
Mrs Gaskell – North & South (1855): For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep, lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay.
Hippolyte Taine – Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874): We approach Manchester. In the copper sky of the sunset, a strangely shaped cloud hangs over the plain; beneath this immobile cover, the high chimneys, like obelisks, bristle in their hundreds; one can distinguish an enormous dark mass, the vague rows of buildings, and we enter the Babel of brick.
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
Max Ferber’s arrival in 1945: From a last bluff he had had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him … Over the flatland to the west, a curiously shaped cloud extended to the horizon, and the last rays of sunlight were blazing past its edges, and for a while lit up the entire panorama as if by firelight or Bengal flares. Not until this illumination died … did his eye roam, taking in the crammed and interlinked rows of houses, the textile mills and dying works, the gasometers, chemical plants and factories of every kind, as far as what he took to be the centre of the city, where all seemed one solid mass of utter blackness, bereft of any further distinguishing features.
The narrator’s arrival in 1966: By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city that spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.
What strikes the observer in each case is that where they should be able to see the city, instead they see a pall of black smoke, a ‘murky blot’ in one part of the sky, a strangely shaped cloud that hangs over it. Coming closer they see the chimneys, each with its ‘troubled pennon of darkness’ and closer still the mass of buildings, the black river, the sombre brickwork. It’s also worth noting the striking similarity between Sebald’s description of Max Ferber’s first view of the city, and Hippolyte Taine’s.
Another feature attributed to Manchester which led to associations with hell or at least a cursed place was the absence of native flora and fauna. Birdlife was largely absent at the height of industrial activity, and much restricted later, until the Clean Air act created a more hospitable environment. And attempts to create parks, to give the inhabitants a taste of the countryside were doomed as trees and shrubs and blooms were poisoned by the fumes.
These conditions were not unique to Manchester. The industrial cities of the North East inspired John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings, and those of the Black Country Tolkien’s vision of Mordor.
And there’s an intriguing apocalyptic story published in the Idler magazine in 1893 about the doom of London, resulting from a seven day fog, with no wind to clear it, suffocating all of the inhabitants. But Manchester seemed to exert a particular fascination – the scale and the extremity of the conditions in the city drew visitors from across the country and from Europe. As Tristram Hunt says, in his study of the Victorian city, ‘in Manchester it was always worse’.
By the 1950s some of the most notorious slums had disappeared, and proper sanitation had long since removed the threat of cholera and typhus. But the fogs were still extreme, the air still heavy with smoke and metallic tasting vapours, the rain still a near-constant. In addition to the effects of pollution, there were areas of wasteland, bomb sites from the war, not yet redeveloped.
Michel Butor’s novel L’Emploi du temps, published 60 years ago, transformed Manchester into Bleston, and used its mythology to imbue its rain-drenched streets with a sense of dread and danger. Taking elements of the real city he subverts its mundane reality so that Manchester becomes Babel, Babylon, Daedalus’ labyrinth, a Circe or a Hydra. It also becomes Paris under Nazi occupation.
Michel Butor arrived in Manchester in 1951, straight from a spell teaching in Egypt. He was, as he described it, inundated with sun, and then plunged into Mancunian darkness. It was a climatic shock, and the very features of the city which had inspired earlier writers to flights of heightened prose and invocations of hell were to influence his response.
Darkness, fog, mud and soot, rain. These elements feature on almost every page of his novel, L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time), in which the city is renamed Bleston. So far, so realistic. But from very early on they begin to be associated with something beyond the combination of natural and manmade phenomena which Butor was observing.
The fog makes it difficult to find one’s way in the city – masking its shape so that the unwary find themselves going in circles, losing all sense of direction. It stifles, engulfs and sedates, oppressing the spirits. Bleston/Manchester, is a labyrinth, eluding navigation, confounding any attempt to grasp its totality, the narrator, Jacques Revel, says that ‘it grows and alters even while I explore it’. As in Andre Gide’s version of the Cretan labyrinth in his novel Thésée, the ‘narcotic fumes’ sap the will so that those within the labyrinth lose the desire to escape, forget that escape is even possible. On the walls near Bleston’s station, posters illustrate holiday destinations, but the narrator comments sardonically ‘as if it was really possible to get away’. His one attempt to get to countryside is doomed – the best the city can offer, it seems, is some nice parks. Thus the city is a prison, as it was effectively for so many of its past inhabitants.
Butor commented that ‘it is easy to see how the French capital hides beneath the mask of Bleston’. On the face of it, it’s far from easy. Paris is the city of light, a cosmopolitan centre of culture – Bleston/Manchester is characterised by darkness, dirt and narrowness of vision (literally and metaphorically). But something in the constant smell of smoke in the air, the darkness of evening when everything was closed, the way the inhabitants hunched their shoulders against the rain and scurried home ‘as if there were only a few minutes left before some rigid curfew’ triggered memories for Butor of a very different Paris.
Those who fled Paris in 1940 and then returned after the armistice found it uncanny, familiar yet profoundly different. There was a curfew, the clocks had been changed so that it got dark an hour earlier, and a pall of smoke hung over the city from the burning of tanks of oil as the German army advanced, which poisoned the air and drove its birdlife away.
This was the Paris of Butor’s adolescence. He lived near the Hotel Lutetia, HQ of the Abwehr (and after Liberation, the meeting point for returning deportees), near the prison du Cherche Midi where many resistance members were imprisoned, and he walked to school through streets where now plaques commemorate those who were killed during the Occupation and the liberation of the city. At his school both pupils and staff disappeared, some deported or imprisoned, some choosing a clandestine life in the Resistance. Butor described the sense that nothing was happening but that this nothing was bloody. The carceral menace of everyday life, as Debarati Sanyal put it.
Thus in Bleston the fog and the darkness are metaphorical as well as literal, creating not only confusion but fear. There is a constant sense of menace, and the city itself is the source. Personified as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as both labyrinth and Minotaur, Bleston is at war with Revel, and he with it. But it’s also at war with itself, consuming itself in fire (prosaically a series of arson attacks on various premises encircling the city). The recurring motif of Cain and Abel is a reminder of the divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted, as well as between occupier and occupied.
The novel is no allegory of the Occupation. This is one reading of a book that defies categorisation, a many-layered text. But my argument is that something in the extremity of Manchester, where it’s always worse, prompted memories of those dark years in Butor, and those memories created the tension in the novel, between the mundane events and the dark, violent interpretations of those events, between the humorous realism of the grim up north descriptions of rain and atrocious food and the sense of dread and danger on every page.
Around ten years after L’Emploi du temps was published, another young European, W G Sebald, arrived in the city, read Butor’s book, and began to write about his own Manchester, in The Emigrants and After Nature, transforming the landscape of industrial decay into a melancholic landscape of loss and trauma.
Like Butor, W G Sebald encountered a significant culture shock on arriving in Manchester, after teaching in Switzerland. Sebald was profoundly alienated from his home country of Germany. His sense of isolation ‘could not have been helped by his wanderings through scenes of slum clearance and urban decay.’
Objectively those areas were disappearing so one might surmise that Sebald sought them out, was drawn to their melancholy which reflected and intensified his own. It’s true that the Manchester Development Plan approved in 1961 (although not fully implemented, as I’ll mention later), and the implementation of smokeless zones were making significant improvements in the atmosphere and cleanliness of the city, even if children growing up in the city in the 60s still had plenty of bombsites to play on. However, Sebald’s ‘melancholy at alienation, and exile in a strange land’ found its correlative in the ‘desolate leftovers of nineteenth century Manchester’. It is also suggested that Sebald’s reading of L’Emploi du temps enhanced his melancholy but again it is likely that he was drawn to the novel because it resonated with his own mood and response to Manchester.
Thus the picture painted in The Emigrants of Manchester as ‘a city of ruins, dust, deserted streets, blocked canals, a city in terminal decline’ is probably a distortion. However, the narrative is only in part about the Manchester that Sebald encountered in 1966-7. ‘Manchester … fades into insignificance in relation to another important geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence, which is Germany’.
Sebald gives us more than one Manchester. We see the city first of all through the eyes of the narrator (who both is and isn’t Sebald) arriving in the 1960s, and then through the eyes of the titular Emigrant, Max Ferber, who arrives in 1945, having been sent on the Kindertransport in 1938 from Munich, and finally the narrator’s return in the 1990s, finding that a further cycle of improvement and decay has taken place in the interim.
For Ferber, Manchester triggers memories of Germany. This is partly due to its immigrant communities, the Jewish quarters with their names evoking a European past. But as Thomas Mann, exiled in the US, said, ‘Where I am, is Germany’. There’s another connotation. Manchester’s ‘night and fog’, its fire buried in ash, its chimneys, evoke a past that he escaped, thanks to his parents’ foresight, but which they did not.
Ernestine Schlant describes this aspect of Sebald’s writing as ‘“dense” time – a time in which past and present intersect, commingle, and overlap. This commingling destroys sequence and evokes the sense of a labyrinth with no exit‘. She was speaking specifically of Sebald’s writing, but it would equally be a powerful description of Butor’s novel, where Bleston’s past as Roman temple of war, divided Reformation city and industrial machine are threaded with Butor’s memories of Paris at war.
A brief postscript – I mentioned the Manchester Development Plan, published in 1961. This as it turns out is another imaginary Manchester – not drawing upon the myths of the past but upon a vision of the future.
Plans were drawn up in 1945, but budgetary constraints and building regulations meant that they were largely put on hold. By the time they were revisited, technological advances had opened up hitherto unimaginable possibilities for the city, with moving pavements, heliports and monorails. Once again, the economic climate changed before the plans could be realised and they stand now as a memorial to that other unrealised Manchester.
So in this very real city we can glimpse Engels’ hell on earth, Butor’s city at war, Sebald’s post-Holocaust landscape, the idealistic vision of the 1960s planners. The features that made Manchester the shock city of the 19th century are no longer readily visible. Manchester now is arguably just one of our major cities, unlikely to inspire comparisons with Athens or with Hades. But the past in all its various forms, as well as the unrealised visions of the future are there to be stumbled over, bubbling up between the paving stones. Unmemorialised, their presence is still felt.
Michel Butor, L’Emploi du temps (Minuit, 1956); English translation (by Jean Stewart), Passing Time (Faber, 1965)
W G Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Fischer, 1992); English translation (by Michael Hulse), The Emigrants (Vintage, 2002)
__, Nach der Natur (Fischer, 1995); English translation (by Michael Hamburger), After Nature (Hamish Hamilton, 2002)
Robert Barr, The Doom of London, The Idler (1893)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby (1844)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1840)
Leon Faucher, Manchester in 1844
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1855)
Andre Gide, Thésée (1946)
James Phillips Kay, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832)
Hugh Miller, First Impressions of England and its People (1869)
Hippolyte Taine, Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (1835)
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Penguin, 1990)
Mireille Calle-Gruber, La Ville dans L’Emploi du temps de Michel Butor (Nizet, 1995)
Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt (eds), Saturn’s Moons: W G Sebald – a Handbook (Legenda, 2011)
Mark Crinson, Urban Memory (Routledge, 2005)
J B Howitt, Michel Butor and Manchester, Nottingham French Studies, 12, 2 (1973)
Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Phoenix, 2005)
Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Manchester (Hale, 1970)
Alan J Kidd, Manchester (Keele UP, 1996)
Gary S Messinger, Manchester in the Victorian Age (MUP, 1985)
Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World (Routledge, 2008)
Terry Pitts, La Catastrophe muette: Sebald à Manchester, Ligeia, 105-8 (2011)
Peter Preston and Paul Simpson-Housley (eds), Writing the City: Eden, Babylon and the New Jerusalem (Routledge, 1994)
Natalie Rudd, Fabrications : New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (UMiM, 2002)
Debarati Sanyal, The French War, in Cambridge Companion to the Literature of WWII (CUP, 2009)
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence (Routledge, 1999)
Janet Wolff, Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile, Melilah, 2 (2012)