Call and response

Manchester Literature Festival has asked writers to view and react to three local exhibitions, adding a visual dimension to book talk

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What did the vote mean to the women of Quarry Bank Mill in 1918? What are the voices represented in styles of wallpapers throughout the centuries saying? And what were those shoppers, captured on the streets of Salford in 1986, thinking about?

These are the questions answered in a trio of literary responses to exhibitions, forming a visual art dimension to this year’s Manchester Literature Festival programme.

Beth Underdown, Manchester academic and author of The Witchfinder’s Sister, is writer in residence for the National Trust at Quarry Bank Mill, in partnership with MLF.

“I’ve felt a connection to the place since I was a kid, and remember several primary school trips there, when the highlight was seeing the leeches in the apprentice house,” says Underwood, who grew up in Rochdale. “The commission was to mark the centenary of partial women’s suffrage, so I also had a proper wade through the history of 1918, at Quarry Bank and elsewhere, thinking in particular about women’s lives at this strange and turbulent historical moment.”

Above: Ben Myers will be presenting his response to Martin Parr’s Return to Manchester (main image)

Underwood has created a sequence of ghost stories, Love Makes As Many, in response to these women’s lives. They’ll be presented in a walk around the mill on 6 October, and read and discussed by the author on 16 October at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

“The stories were sparked off by a piece of graffiti which can still be seen in the Quarry Bank clock tower, which commemorates the death of one of the mill mechanics in 1918,” she says. “They ask what one death means in a year of so much death, and what role love can play in life at a historical moment at which so much is changing for women.”

At the Whitworth, on 18 October, Leeds-based poet and playwright Rommi Smith will be presenting her response to exhibition Bodies Of Colour.

“It’s a rich, complex and thought-provoking exhibition, encapsulating centuries of wallpapers that explore the themes of race, class, gender, sexuality and status,” explains Smith. “Fundamental to the exhibition is the social construction of self and the social construction of what is deemed ‘otherness’. These aforementioned themes emerge as narratives told through the prism of the domestic: wallpaper as a backdrop and commentary upon human life and social expectations.”

Smith has worked with long-term collaborator, pianist Dave Evans, and the pair will perform together in the gallery.

“Fusing music and poetry, we will be responding to the exhibition to produce something site-specific which focuses on the absences and presences in the exhibition, the stories and their voices that declare themselves, and the ones beneath the surface of what we see,” she says.

After the main events of October, MLF, which is broadening its horizons into year-round events, will be hosting Calderdale literary couple Benjamin Myers and Adelle Stripe on 5 December at Manchester Art Gallery. They’ll be presenting their response to Martin Parr’s Return To Manchester exhibition.

“It feels like a huge privilege. It’s not an understatement to say that he is one of Britain’s most renowned and successful photographers, and an influence on our work, so it’s also a daunting one too,” says The Gallows Pole author Myers. “Faced with the challenge of a brief that allows us a lot of freedom, we have adopted two quite different tactics.

“Adelle has selected a single photo – one that features no people, in fact – and written a self-contained short story that imagines an entire scenario around it and takes places beyond the parameters of the physical picture.”

Myers himself has chosen a series of colour photos of Salford in 1986, most of them concerned with shopping, and written first person monologues that give voices to these portraits of people frozen in time. “Both are leaps of the imagination, fictional prose responses to Parr’s real people and places.”

Big Issue North is media partner to Manchester Literature Festival. Look out for more news about the event and interviews with writers in coming editions, as well as on For tickets and more information see

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