The Falling Thread
The Falling Thread
In 1890 Manchester is humming with industry and gleaming with affluence. Charles, home from Cambridge to his parent’s suburban villa, occupies himself with an affair with his sisters’ governess and his charmed life is irrevocably changed. His sisters, however, come of age in a new century – a world of activism and art preoccupies them. All of them live in the growing shadow of impending war. Through an intimate portrait of one family, O’Riordan transports readers to a period in his hometown’s history that shaped what it is today.
You told us in 2017 that the short story allowed you to break free from “the lyric I” of poetry. What does the novel allow you to do that the short story doesn’t and does poetry influence your prose writing?
I guess the novel allows you to follow a group of characters over time and close up in a way the short story might not. With the “I” of lyric poetry you wear one mask, in a novel you can wear many. They’re all you though, in a way, or drawn from aspects of you alloyed to aspects of other people, along with literary and cinematic antecedents. As for poetry, I think finding pleasure in the rhythm and cadence of words can be beneficial across all forms of writing. Reading reviews of The Falling Thread it’s been interesting to come up against the idea that there is perhaps something slightly improper about paying too much attention to language. For me it’s one of the great democratic pleasures of life!
The Falling Thread centres on the Wright family between the 1890s and the start of the First World War. Can you explain the historical context of their story and whether they were inspired by any real-life characters?
The Wrights are a moyenne bourgeois Mancunian family whose fortune, such as it is, has been made during the Industrial Revolution. Charles runs the family’s calico manufacturing business, his sister Tabitha is involved in suffragism and charitable works, his sister Eloise is a painter. I think they were perhaps created as a way of exploring the city (and the age) through some of its archetypes. But it was a personal journey too. My mother’s family moved to Manchester from Aberdeen, where they had been fishermen, to take up jobs in the newly built Trafford Park. My father came from a family of linen and linoleum manufacturers in Fife.
My parents met working at the GMB National College in Manchester. I was born here in the early 1980s and grew up in that post-industrial moment with both parents heavily involved in Labour Party politics. These days we’d call them activists but both had interests beyond: for my mother it was the aesthetic principles and prescriptions for living found in the work of John Ruskin and William Morris but also in contemporary figures such as Terence Conran. For my father, a former public school boy, it was a residual interest in the particulars of the class from which he came. His father won the Kings Dirk at Dartmouth the year before Prince Phillip whereas one of my earliest memories is collecting for the miners during the 1984 strike. I suppose in a sense the novel was a way of working through the mixed signals culturally and intellectually.
The three siblings represent the thriving industry, culture and activism of the time in the city. What are the legacies of these aspects in Manchester today?
I think Manchester is still a crucible of all three. Culture and activism are globally recognised and often combine powerfully at places like Manchester International Festival or Islington Mill but I suppose the things we make now are perhaps more ephemeral – fast fashion, sports entertainment, the knowledge economy, things housed on servers and not in warehouses. I think we’re often caught between two legacies (and two mythologies) from the industrial and post-industrial eras – between Cottonopolis and Madchester – and this means we sometimes fail to see Manchester as it is – a medium sized, northern European city, vibrant, multicultural, largely well governed by its mayor and city council, albeit it with significant areas of intergenerational deprivation. Perhaps it’s a product of having spent so long thinking about its past, or of fatherhood and incipient middle age, but I find something quite comforting about a de-mythologised version of Manchester which prioritises functionality over exceptionalism.
The book focuses on the privileged lives of the Wrights and, while Tabitha does concern herself with charitable work, the lives of the working classes in the city at the time are peripheral to their concerns, as is the looming threat of war. Was there a sense of complacency among the ruling classes about a society that wasn’t as stable and prosperous as they thought?
I think that’s true, although I wanted to make those aspects unmissable to the reader if overlooked by the protagonists. I suppose someone writing in a hundred years might just as easily discern the same complacencies now and among a much larger class of people. For example, how much attention do we pay to the precariousness of the lives of the people who make our clothes or deliver food to our door? To what degree, now as then, do politics, commerce or culture offer answers to these predicaments or are they merely salves to our own conscience? The Falling Thread, I suppose, seeks to dramatise and explore this through a twin impulse: a horror at the conditions caused by the Industrial Revolution and a fascination with how the beneficiaries of that moment lived and the texture of those lives.
How important was sense of place to the novel, which is firmly rooted in Manchester but moves between Cambridge, the Lake District, Europe and the US?
I think as soon as you begin writing about Manchester in that period you can’t escape its interconnectedness with the wider world be it culturally or via trade and manufacturing.
Tabitha and Eloise enjoy the increasing freedom of women in this period while Charles’s ambitions are stymied early on. What were you exploring here?
Just that really, the end of one order and the emergence of another. I guess we feel as though we’re perhaps living through a similar moment now which can be beguiling or bewildering depending on where you stand and, of course, what you stand to lose.
Was the North-South divide we experience today formed at this time?
I think it goes right back to the Danelaw. Whenever I look east on a map I’m always surprised how close Skegness is to Kings Lynn – just a short hop across the Wash, you could row it at high tide. Yet the former seems the classic hard-bitten northern seaside town, the latter a bastion of what we might think of as Southerness. Obviously “North” and “South” are only really useful for designating points on a compass, but I think “the divide” accurately captures that systematic under-investment in services and infrastructure across the North for decades. However, I think the best qualities of Manchester – a city which has always resisted overt gentility, and culturally has always benefited from its distance from the capital – are resolutely non-bourgeois: the warmth, the openness, the tolerance, and the humour of its citizens – qualities that make difficult lives livable.