A favourite read of mine whenever I visit Glasgow, The Skinny launches in the North West tonight at 2022NQ.
I was interviewed for piece titled What’s Your Northwest, along with a collection of other people involved in the region’s art scene.
You can read the full, unedited interview below (which might give you some insight into what the future of Skyliner will be) or read the full magazine here, or pick up a copy around town.
TS. What first made you curious about exploring Manchester and the region in the way that you do? How did you get into doing what you do?
S. Looking for the back story of a street, building or artwork started in an old job when I would take the office dog for a walk at lunchtime, the same route everyday soon became boring so I’d look for interesting architectural features around me then investigate them that evening. Soon I became so engrossed in what I was doing that I quit my job and decided to give myself a year to see what exactly I could achieve from what was to become ‘Skyliner’. I’m working on a project at the moment that follows in the footsteps of a Glaswegian journalist James Cowan who, 100 years ago, did exactly the same thing - he spent his lunch hours looking for unusual parts of his city then researching their origins - and in much the same ilk he too started to take this hobby more and more seriously until he was offered a regular column on a newspaper publishing under the guise ‘Peter Prowler’.
TS. And what’s your favourite thing about what you do - what motivates you to keep doing it?
S. Knowing the story of a building makes it infinitely more beautiful and you see the city in a new way with each thing you learn; it’s like colouring in a painting. Manchester was my blank canvas when I first came here and it remained that way for several years, just a corner of the canvas was filled in and it was rudimentary and pencil drawn. Then I realised that I hadn’t approached the city like I do all other cities; as a tourist – always asking questions about its history, its art, exploring the streets and getting lost in its dead-ends. I did this and my canvas became florid in its detail. I still explore like this everyday because there’s no reason, in any city, for that curiosity to ever wane. Not only that but I have explored lots of new avenues in the metaphorical sense too; I’ve taken on roles that I would never have dreamed of doing and have become an alternative tour guide, a location scout, a curator as well as writing for international publications.
TS. What’s the most unexpected or surprising thing you’ve discovered while exploring Manchester and the region? (Both positive and negative discoveries/surprises?)
S. I’ve seen some remarkable things, and some things that we assume to be unremarkable. From walking into what looks like a bog standard community centre only to discover a baroque music theatre to noticing historical artefacts hidden in plain sight such as fading air raid shelter signs on doorways I’ve walked by a thousand times. I’ve sadly discovered how our heritage can mean so little to those who matter with new developments being put before restoration even when locations are protected, or poor decisions leading to important buildings being left to rot. Intertragal artworks of buildings are ripped out when the buildings are demolished as if they were simply old wallpaper (especially true of post-war buildings). I’ve come to see that empty buildings should be valued in any form - to be open for safe exploration or put to use as art spaces if only to keep them occupied and maintained, but these ideals that cities such as Berlin or Barcelona would be all over are made almost impossible here. When you love a city and make it your business to know what’s going on then you can’t avoid seeing its flaws.
TS. And what’s your most treasured revelation - what are you really glad you found out?
S. In Liverpool I was exploring underground below St Luke’s bombed out church and the crypt that they’d uncovered had buried in it all manner of relics like very old slivers of stained glass and pottery, and the physical space itself was quite beautiful but the man who showed me around was the real treasure. He’d dug out the crypt alone, this was a job that the army said they would help with but he managed it himself and as he took us back to the surface a homeless and very drunk man shouted his name, at which he turned to me and said “that was me 18 months ago”. He had replaced his drink addictions with an addiction for a building, and it had saved him.
TS. What kind of community have you encountered while doing what you do? Are there lots of others engaged in similar pursuits, and are people encouraging of and interested in what you do?
S. There’s a community of people and groups in the city who explore our surroundings through the urban environment in some way; I think both architecture and local history are starting to be seen as something more socially engaging and not just academic subjects. There’s Manchester Modernist Society, Natalie Bradbury of The Shrieking Violet, The Loiterer’s Resistance Movement, The OK Cafe, Creative Corner, Wythenshawe Walker, Phil Griffin, MSA’s Urban Sketchers Group, Andrew Brooks and Andy Crydon of Curated Place, and the RIBA hub on Portland Street.
TS. If you had to choose just five places for people new to the city to visit on a sort of ‘alternative’ tour, what would they be and why?
1. Our city centre island - Pomona, and its dystopian landscape. Sooner or later the plans to turn Pomana into a forest of apartment blocks will become a reality so go and enjoy this strange forgotten part of the city and enjoy the isolation of this rather captivating wasteland.
2. The giant map made of ceramic bricks on the wall of Victoria Station, glistening cream, black and red. This is reminiscent of another time, when railways were the backbone of the country.
3. London Road Fire Station “the finest fire station in this round world”. It’s an amazing building that’s sadly neglected under the ownership of Britannia Group. It’s a lifetime wrapped up in a building; a fire station, housing for the firmen, their families and even the horses, a bar, a bank, a gym, a police station, a courtroom, police cells, and a morgue.
4. The former UMIST campus. In the 60s 1% of building costs were allocated to art so these buildings have some fine pieces of public art inset within them. Hans Tisdall and Victor Pasmore have murals here, and the buildings and landscape itself, on a sunny day, comes as close to walking around in an architect’s sketchpad as you’ll ever get.
5. I’d love to say the curve of Library Walk as it snakes from St Peter’s Square to Mount Street, but sadly this one requires a bit of time travel as it is currently closed to the public whilst it’s glazed over and gated.
TS. If you had to evoke the character of the city you live in in just a few words, how would you describe it?
S. Manchester is a home.
It’s a bit corny but it’s true. The people who seem to hold the city dearest, who spend so much time writing about it, exploring it and being fascinated by it, are those who have moved here from elsewhere. It’s not the cocksure city like the Madchester scene led people to believe; it’s a city championed by the people who have chosen to live here rather than anywhere else and when they’re asked where they’re from they don’t say “well I live in Manchester but I’m from x,y or z” they simply say “Manchester”.
TS. One of the things I love about Manchester is that it seems like people’s love for the city really develops and deepens over time. For a visitor, maybe it’s not the most immediately beautiful or hospitable place - but when people develop that love for it they *really* love it. What are your most-loved aspects of/most-loved places in Manchester and the region?
S. My family are predominantly from Liverpool, and so it’s safe to assume I’m the black sheep of the family in my adoration of Manchester. I love it because I feel like I’ve made it my own. It’s a city where it’s very easy to do that and to carve yourself a place where you slot in and feel at home regardless of your roots. It’s also a challenging city to love because you have to work at it. There’s nothing immediate about it, it’s small yet spread out, it’s unremarkable in many ways, and you certainly don’t get that breath-taking moment of flinging open your window and gazing down on an urban paradise – its not an easy city for a visitor to love.
TS. What’s left to discover? What projects are you moving on to?
S. Although all that I’ve done so far is based in Manchester I’m not bound to the city exclusively; I’m planning to expand my work to cover Liverpool, Sheffield and Glasgow in the coming year. Back in Manchester though - my alternative tours start up again in spring, some of which will be adapted for music festivals including Sounds from the Other City and Portmeirion’s Festival Number 6. I’ll be working with RIBA and Manchester Art Gallery on some architectural festivals, and I have a handful of art projects that I’m hoping to secure funding on - I can’t say too much right now but they involve a very unique bus, a miniature building site, and an art gallery tucked away where you’d least expect it.