LEN GRANT’S LATEST BOOK
WRITTEN BY Hayley Flynn
IMAGES BY David Oates
ILLUSTRATIONS BY Len Grant
READING TIME: 6 minutes
An urban sketching book looking at day-to-day life in Rusholme.
Although brimming with sketching potential the Curry Mile wasn’t originally obvious to me as a subject for this project. Rusholme is so close to home that the familiar had become invisible.
Yes, I’d sketched here before but only from one of its three benches with a view across towards Eastern Gold and the Kurdish Barbers.
The Rusholme Sketcher started one Friday morning when I cycled down the road towards town. Stopping at traffic lights, the idea suddenly dawned and I immediately pedalled back to the familiar barbers and asked if I could sit on the sofa and draw their salon. Harry, the barber closest to the door, said I was welcome and my project began.
- Len Grant, from the introduction to The Rusholme Sketcher
I first met Len Grant in a nuclear bunker in Old Trafford, it was flooded at the time and we negotiated the eerie space in the dark with head torches to light the way. Whilst I was there to document the space itself Len has always focused more on the stories of the people connected to places, and over the years he's worked on some fascinating human story projects. Now and then Len's work crops up when I'm researching, recently I was asked about the naming of the Serafino Stone - one of the Ancoats Peeps; a public art trail of peepholes around the district, and in his exhaustive study of East Manchester, Len had the answer (for those interested it's named after Serafino de Felice - an active and important figure in the Italian community of Ancoats).
A few years passed before I saw Len again, the next time was at the opening of an exhibition I curated at 2022 called Streetview. The show was mixed media but was largely rooted in urban sketching, after the show Len decided to try his hand at sketching and is now one of the most prominent artists in the urban sketching scene in Manchester. His new book Rusholme Sketcher is out now and combines storytelling with illustration.
You've been curating people's stories for nearly three decades now - what started your storytelling journey?
I think it was an evolution really. I started as a photographer in 1990 and at that point I couldn’t write at all, I was only taking photographs and the books I did write or did produce were contributed to by an independent writer, or as in my first book about the building of the Manchester Arena, it was full of quotes by people. I wasn’t confident about having my own opinion.
I always felt I was a documentor of someone else’s opinion. The writing came much later, I did a short course at Manchester University in the evenings, it was a journalism course, and I began to write reviews of photographic shows for The Big Issue in the North. At that point I felt brave enough to put photographer and writer on my business card. But it was many years later that I added sketcher.
It seems you're inspired by ordinary moments - what draws you to these moments or places?
It’s all about storytelling whichever is the medium, whether it’s photography, writing or sketching and I've always been interested in people. I don’t think it’s any accident that Coronation Street is the longest running programme ever and its all about people’s stories.
I wouldn’t say that anything I do is remotely like Coronation Street but people are inherently interested in other people and I think that’s the essence to what I’ve been doing all these years. I often use the word conduit, a link to a subject, and the audience who wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet those people. Be they people on a housing estate or vulnerable people in some situation or another. I’m the link in between so I show people other people I guess and I’m very lucky with that.
I’m very lucky that I spend my time, or rather than I get commissioned to tell stories of people because there’s nothing more fascinating siting in someone’s living room with a cup of tea listening to their life story or in this case hanging around in shish bars drawing people and chatting to them at the same time.
Are you influenced or inspired by any other storytellers?
I find Instagram a great source of visual inspiration and influence. Being a member of the Urban Sketchers community I’ve met like-minded people around the world and I’m constantly inspired by them. More specifically there are 3 artists I’d like to mention the first is Swasky who is a Barcelona sketcher who I've been on some workshops with. His work is often about the day-to-day and like all the people who inspire me, I’m interested in how artists or sketchers put words and images together on a page and I don’t necessarily mean in graphic design term, I mean how people use images and text to tell stories to best effect either on the printed page or online.
Another one Olivier Kruler, his work is familiar to Guardian readers. He’s just finished a book about migration and he’s an expert at telling the story through pictures and text.
The third influence is an illustrator in San Francisco called Wendy McNaughton. She used to be a social worker which I think is significant because she’s not uneasy about sitting on street corners in low income neighborhoods in San Francisco chatting to people and drawing them, she does some amazing work.
Which project or person are you most likely to revisit?
I did a blog project about undocumented migrants, what some newspapers call illegal immigrants but it’s not quite the same thing, and I got to know a young man who lived in Manchester who was from Turkey. He was stateless and I remember going to London with him, to the Turkish Embassy pleading with them to try and sort out his documentation. They couldn’t and he couldn’t be sent back and he couldn’t stay in this country, he was kind of in a real limbo. I lost touch with him and I’ve love to know what happened to him.