Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mum's visit: Manchester

For the last major adventure of my mum's visit, we headed up to Manchester to visit the family of the woman we're staying with in London. Absolutely wonderful people, amazing house, and a lovely city. Manchester is rather different than London or Oxford. It's full of universities, but it's not quite so much a university town as Oxford, and it's a lot more industrial than London. Our hostess knows all about Manchester's history, and she not only shared stories and took us on a driving tour of the downtown area, but knew just where to take us for some fascinating and fun touristing.

My favorite bit of the trip was a visit to The Lowry, an event center and gallery that showcases the work of English artist L.S. Lowry. Shocked that I'd never heard of him, our hostess was very excited to introduce us to this hugely important figure in English art. I adored him.
In the last few years, I've come to really love art galleries in general, but something about Lowry's work, in many different mediums and in several distinctly different styles, really spoke to me. I could have spent hours there, but unfortunately, there were things to do and places to see, so I had to leave well before I was ready. Lowry is famous for his industrial cityscapes like this one:

but he also did more conventional landscapes as well, like this one:

I brought home a few postcards of various paintings to add to my art collection displayed on my piano - I now have enough favorite pieces of art from museums all across the US (and now England!) that I'll have to rotate them through my five frames.

Most evocative for me, however, were Lowry's"grotesques," odd little distortions like these one below. They remind me strangely of Tove Janssons's Moomintrolls, perhaps Moomins meets Tim Burton.

The Funeral Party, 1953
Girl Seen from the Front, 1964
I spent a long time looking at these strange little people, thinking they could inspire some fiction-writing. Lately, I've been lamenting my lack of creative writing. I read so many novels, but all of my writing is academic, and I feel like I've lost a lot of the imagination I had as a child. I wish I could just start writing, but I feel intimidated and at a loss for ideas. But Lowry's grotesques cry out for backstories, don't they?

From the Lowry museum we headed to the Imperial War Museum, and went up to a little viewing deck where we had a fantastic view, including the river and two gorgeous bridges, the BBC buildings, and even the Manchester United stadium (where we stopped next, so my mum could look for souvenirs at the gift shop). It turns out that leaving the Lowry museum sooner than I'd wanted was a good thing, because the Imperial War Museum was closing soon, and we had far too little time in the exhibits, which focused largely on the experience of individuals and families in this part of the country.

After delicious fish and chips from the local chippy - I'm totally addicted to malt vinegar by now - we all settled in to watch the opening game of the World Cup, with hot cocoa for me, beer for most others, and fudge for all!

The next morning, we walked from the house into the local neighborhood of Didsbury, with shops and restaurants and things. The walk was completely picturesque, the ideal English countryside (complete with really narrow and often muddy lanes). I loved every second of that walk, and husband and I dreamed of a summer spent in just such a place, where we could walk in to a library or coffee shop to do our academic writing, and spend the rest of our time watching baby ducks and playing Pooh-sticks (both of which we did that day).

This excursion into Didsbury was all to humor me: I'd heard of a tea shop with a sizeable secondhand bookshop in the back. Heaven, right? And The Art of Tea was even better than I'd imagined, with a huge tea menu and a bookshop full of classics organized by edition (a book collector's dream). The adults were content to chat over drinks while I browsed, and I confess that they were very patient!

I had a charming conversation with the bookseller: "Name an author, any author," he said, "I promise we have a book by them." "Tove Jansson?" I asked, since I'm just dying to collect the rest of her Moomin books, and her other adult fiction besides my beloved Summer Book is supposed to be equally amazing. The poor man looked quite taken aback, and after I explained that she's a Finnish author, informed me that what he was certain to have was any book by a first-tier author. Hmph. But he was very nice and we went on to have a fun chat about Washington DC. And then he pointed me in the direction of this treasure-trove:

For those who don't know, these distinctive green-spined books are published by Virago. They are almost exclusively high-quality novels by women, and largely the early twentieth-century domestic fiction that I love. I collect Viragos (not indiscriminately, to my husband's relief) and am always on the lookout. They're not impossible to find in the US, but they're not common, and because Virago is an English press I was hoping for exactly this kind of opportunity while I'm here. I've never seen so many green beauties in one bookshop before! I delightedly picked out just five, several of which are war-stories, which felt appropriate considering the previous day's trip to the war museum. Since it's easier to carry around my Kindle on the tube, I plan to save these for the fall (and have a continuing taste of England even when back in North Carolina).


  1. I would hardly call Tove Jansson an obscure writer. One thing to not have one in house, but to not even recognize the name.

    1. That's what I thought! Publication of her adult works in English isn't that new,, is it? And her Moomintroll books have been available even longer.