Sebald in Manchester

In between grant applications and entertaining evenings with German writers, my work teaching and reading Sebald continues. I’ve been lucky enough to host two fellow- Sebald scholars, Lynn Wolff and Dora Osborne, on my ‘W. G. Sebald: The Politics of Literature’ module, and their input into classroom debates has been really appreciated by the students. (Some of the students were kind enough to say that the seminars felt like a community of learning, rather than a traditional lecture – exactly what I hoped to achieve, and I’m so lucky that it worked. Thanks so much to my guest speakers!)

As well as the teaching, we went on a Sebald pilgrimage around my adopted home town of Manchester. The narrator of ‘Max Ferber’ in The Emigrants, you will remember, circles around Manchester when he first arrives, and then walks back in to Manchester when he says farewell to Ferber for the last time at the end of the book. We started at the very end, at the Midland hotel, of which the narrator says ‘Today the Midland is on the brink of ruin […] it is presumably only a matter of time before the midland closes its doors and is sold off and transformed into a Holiday Inn’ (E 233). The narrator spends a haunted night behind its ruinous facade. Anyone who’s been to Manchester recently will know that the Midland, far from being a Holiday Inn, has been restored to its former vulgar glory, with a terrifyingly over-priced tea room and plenty of exotic plants. I wouldn’t say that it was still ‘famous throughout the land for its luxurious plumbing’ (E 232), but I can report that it does have very fancy bathrooms. Indeed, the Free Trade Hall, from which the narrator imagines he can hear ‘(though it was utterly impossible) […] the orchestra tuning their instruments’ (E 234) is now a posh hotel as well. Double the bourgeois comforts for the spiritual descendants of mill owners! Manchester itself is so changed that there are barely any ruins at all to be found out at the Quays, by Trafford Park, where Sebald’s narrator finds his enticing sign ‘To the Studios’ (E160). In the semi-privatised Salford Quays spaces built by Peel and leased to the BBC, the only studios around are pretty expensive and decidedly high-tech.

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Cambridge Mills with Sebald scholars

So there’s not a trace of Sebaldian melancholy left in Manchester? Oh, of course there is. We walked back out from the Midland back along the route of Higher Cambridge Street, where Sebald’s narrator reports ‘warehouses where the ventilators were still revolving in the broken windows’ (E 232). In post-boom Manchester, these industrial relics have been transformed, Holiday Inn-style, into expensive flats, which provides a nice further turn in the ironies of history, particularly after the credit crunch. Further out along the narrator’s route, he encounters ‘the deserted Hulme estates, which had been rebuilt in the early Seventies and had now been left to fall down again’ (E 232). Infamously, the Hulme crescents – with their crime and their musical subculture – have now been completely razed, and there would have been no hope of recreating the photograph on p. 231.

So Sebald’s ruins are now bourgeois capitalist palaces again, and his relics of modernism are erased. At the end of the walk, we went to Angel Flags and I pointed out Strangeways, still the grim star-shaped panopticon that Sebald describes, with a little more infamous history attached now. And ‘the one-time Jewish quarter around the star-shaped complex of Strangeways prison’ that he reports in the north of the city is still there, mouldering away. ‘We could go wandering there too,’ I suggested, in the darkening March evening, ‘…but we are also next to the Marble Arch, and could have a legendary Manchester pint, also’. And so we did, which was a lovely end to our travels too, even if entirely un-Sebaldian.

(All references are from Sebald, The Emigrants, tr. Michael Hulse (London: Harvill, 1996).

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