Sunday, 12 August 2007

tony wilson - manchester situationist and flaneur

i am posting the following missive from a young member of my circle, the brunswick bluestockings, about a manchester character whose life, career and philosophy was the epitome it seems to us of the post modern flaneur and situationist...

tony wilson died yesterday; mr manchester himself, as paul morley - looking as shocked as we all feel, regardless or not of whether we knew him personally - explained on bbc breakfast news this morning. though he’d been ill for some months i didn’t really take it too seriously or give it much thought; because, i now realize, he was such an implicit ingredient of the city that i couldn’t envisage him not being here. not simply a famous face, he was a visible, physical man about town. unlike many mancunians who ‘make it’, this was a man who stayed put, who loved the place, who created, nurtured and built a manchester not just to stay for, but attract others to. plus this was a man always on the go and with such a lot still to say! a boundlessly enthusiastic and energetic man who was a constant and vociferous supporter of all things mancunian. in fact, no one can possibly write a blog from manchester or come from manchester without wanting to mark the passing of this remarkable and always controversial ‘mr manchester’.

tony wilson was not only the creator of the hacienda, the maverick behind factory records, and more recently ‘in the city’, the annual muso convention that’s become something of an institution, he was a manchester situationist, perhaps the first. heavily influenced by debord and his coterie, the hacienda, named after a celebrated line in a 1953 tract by ivan chtcheglov, a friend of the future situationists, was more than a night club, though it became undoubtedly and notoriously the night club to end all night clubs, ushering in the superclub and dance scene that defined the 90’s - it was the breathing manifesto of the situationist internationale, and a look at the original application form is an intriguing glimpse into a generation that owe a debt to the spirit of those gallic agitators.

in the first 4 or 5 years, the hacienda was in reality a social club, a meeting point, a refuge, a place to call home, often half empty (and bloody freezing) but always welcoming, after a teenage spent taking one’s life in one’s hands at an array of (in era order) roxy/bowie, punk, new wave/alternative nights at unwelcoming venues across the city, where it was often wiser to reveal your homemade outfit in the toilets, once safely past the meatheads, casuals and townies…

catholic grammar school boy, and cambridge educated, he was on the face of it an unlikely advocate for everyday culture - bookish and counter culturish, someone with ideas at once above and below his station! whilst he was on tv being loved and loathed in equal measure, this little bluestocking was ducking and diving her daily path to catholic grammer school, the local snob in ridiculous costume and too many books under her arm...luckily he clearly revelled in this reputation, half snob, half scally. it feels now as if there was never a time that tony wilson wasn’t sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. probably it was just that there were less tv channels then, but as far back as the early 70’s you couldn’t turn the box on and not bump into the young tony, a 'groovy' long haired presenter on granada reports, an institution that was still rather stuffy and ‘world servicey’, with bespectacled side parting’d school teachers types for presenters. his natural insouciance, at once languid and spirited, was the first hint that things were on the move, that the old guard was on the wane, that the establishment was in for a challenge. plus there was a clutch of girls at my school with a crush on him, the kind normally reserved for the likes of the bay city rollers, who would rush to granada studios after final lessons to catch a glimpse or get his autograph…a modern celebrity in the making, surely the first and last news presenter with a fan club?! and surely still the only journalist by day presenting local news and current affairs, whilst by night inventing radical and seditious music / cultural programmes such as ‘so it goes’ and ‘revolver’, shows that were the antidote and antipathy to whisperin’ bob harris and the old grey whistle test. to this fish out of water from a dour backwater in north manchester’s badlands, a lifeline had been thrown.

an intellectual, a radical, a social historian, a broadcaster, an entrepreneur, a passionate mancunian, one could easily argue that he was the original architect behind the current renaissance of the city as much as the architect of the modern music scene. a look at the many online obituaries is testimony to his influence and the following guardian online article by john harris neatly sums up and acknowledges the contradictions surrounding his ambitions and achievements, a heady cocktail of philosophising, anarchism, swagger, idealism, foolhardiness and confidence.

easy to be blasé now, but in the early 70’s there was no ‘museum of the city’, no marketing manchester, no urban splash, no regeneration blueprint. somewhat post war in atmosphere, a living lowry cliche in many respects, for years before the hacienda, his irregular (friends we are delving into prehistory here!) so called ‘factory nights’ were the only option for a night out that didn’t involve chicken in a basket. that probably sounds postmodern, quirky and fun to you nowadays, all bloated and culture fatigued on your city life pull out guide to manchester lifestyle, but that’s the point; then, unlike today, there was nothing, nowt, zero, ziltch…not so funny now, is it?

wilson enabled me and my generation to create our lives, our scene, if you will; he opened the doors to a different manchester, parallel to the existing one around us. in an era that has become more than ever about the marketing opportunities of culture, art, music, talent in general, when it seems anything and everything is a ‘brand’, it's perhaps easy to misunderstand or underestimate the intentions, idealism, radicalism and sheer naiveté of wilson and factory's out and out rejection of any appropriation or commercialism of their endeavours. eventually of course it imploded all around him and the label, but for a while manchester’s pop culture was at the van guard of an obscure but highly significant french philosophy. this raincoat brigade were anglo situationists walking the city totally anew, on the peripheries and margins of the city centre, pre-empting urban regeneration by 20 odd years, ushering in this 24 hour city of today, a legacy that is something of a double edged sword and not without problematics, but that’s another diary date…

Tony Wilson, passionate mancunian, least likely to want a blue plaque - nostalgia and monument making never being his thing, no ‘legendary cavern’ tourist trail for him – and perhaps sufficiently woven into the fabric of our city and its future to not warrant such a leaden stamp of approval - the city and its streets are already the poorer without you.

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