In previous Manchester International Festivals – look, just go back to part one of this piece and follow the links in there, I can’t be bothered typing them again – anyway, back then the hub of the event was Festival Square. For the other 102 weeks of the bi-year it was Albert Square, the big public space in front of the town hall. But at MIF time, it became a riot of food stalls, bars and tented stages offering mostly free entertainment.
This year was always going to be different, and not just for the obvious reason. Manchester Town Hall is in the middle of a massive refurbishment programme, meaning that Albert Square is closed off. So for 2021 (and probably 2023), Festival Square has relocated to the space outside Manchester Cathedral. It’s still offering booze, food and entertainment, but this time round entry has to be carefully controlled, with all visitors carefully spaced out into meticulously organised bubbles.
They would have managed it, too, if it hadn’t been for the inhabitants of Twat Island.
We’re at Festival Square for what looks to us like the highlight of its programme – a six hour session curated by local legend Mr Scruff, featuring a late night DJ set by the man himself plus a very interesting support act. It’s a free event in the centre of the city on a Friday night, so inevitably getting in isn’t easy. We get to Festival Square at 7pm in good time for the 8pm start, only to find ourselves at the back of a queue with a couple of hundred people in front. It’s moving forward incredibly slowly, because it’s not just a simple one-in-one-out policy on the door: they’re waiting for entire tables to leave so they can replace them with a similar sized bubble from the queue. 8pm comes and goes, and we’re nowhere near the front. But around 8.30, we have a stroke of luck – a table for two has become available, and all the other groups in front of us are packs of four or more.
We get in halfway through the support set by the Rebecca Vasmant Ensemble. She’s been on our radar since last year’s online Edinburgh Jazz And Blues Festival, where she span a cracking DJ set from her living room. But that set started with a brief glimpse into her side project: assembling funky grooves on her laptop, and then inviting Glasgow’s finest jazz musicians to jam over the top of them. She recently released an album constructed in this fashion, and sadly it’s a little too low-key and noodling for my liking. But when her ensemble’s playing live in an open-air space with the sun going down – and you’ve just lucked out by being allocated a pair of big wicker armchairs with a perfect view of the stage – it all suddenly makes perfect sense. As her set progresses, she cranks up the tempo bit by bit: you can tell she’s loving the chance to do this in front of an audience. For our part, we’re cackling with glee at how well it’s all come together, given how impossible things looked at 8pm.
But there’s a problem. The whole system is built around everyone staying at their allocated tables, to keep in line with the social distancing restrictions that will still be in place until the following Monday. About halfway between us and the stage, there’s a concreted water feature that has four or five bean bag chairs arranged on it, all carefully spaced out. And in the time between the end of Vasmant’s set and the start of Scruff’s, about sixty or seventy people are trying to occupy those chairs simultaneously. The water feature – which in my head has been retitled Twat Island for the night – appears to be crammed with fans of the middle act on the bill. They’re an okayish funk band called Secret Night Gang who I end up taking a dislike to because of their fans, who’ve taken a perfectly workable system for both keeping people safe and allocating seating fairly, and just shat all over it.
They’re still causing trouble by the time Mr Scruff comes on stage, joined by regular collaborators DJ Mikey D.O.N and MC Kwasi. In the hour of their set we catch before heading back to the hotel, the show has to be stopped twice because of health and safety concerns. Kwasi – one of the most charmingly reasonable men on the planet – repeatedly reminds people that in three days time, everyone will be able to mingle as much as they want: but if people keep mingling like that now, the officials will have to shut the show down. And the inhabitants of Twat Island just ignore him. It’s a shame, because as usual with these people there’s a lovely selection of music on offer, with a particular focus this time on Manchester artists. When we get back to the hotel we tune into the livestream that’s being run of the show, and Kwasi is still telling people to go back to their seats. When people like Scruff and his crew go to so much trouble to create a relaxed vibe, it’s infuriating to see people effectively ruining it.
Still, if the aim of the Festival Square events is to open up the festival to the whole of Manchester, there’s no denying that they succeeded on that score. The same could be said of another event, Cephas Williams’ Portrait of Black Britain, a photography exhibition held in the unlikely surroundings of the Arndale Centre. I haven’t spent this long inside the Arndale since my teenage years, and certainly not since the IRA’s fast-track urban redevelopment programme of 1996, so it looks a lot different from how I remember it. Williams has had a simple, direct idea, and executed it perfectly: in a year where questions are being asked about what being black and British means, he’s presenting 116 portraits of black Britons, with no details other than their names, their heritage and what they do for a living. His thesis is that this sort of presentation would typically only be afforded to black people in sports or showbiz, and he’s tried to avoid people in those areas. (It may well be a sneaky joke that one of the photos is of a freelance broadcaster called Moe Farah.) Many of the subjects are still achievers in one field or another – there are very few people here you’d class as ordinary. Set up as a series of huge posters hanging from the ceiling as well as a collection of smaller portraits by one of the entrances, the exhibition quietly sits there in a huge public space just doing its job. And now the festival’s over, you can see it online without having to go to the Arndale.
Saturday morning is spent in the University district, again revisiting old haunts from my teenage years. It’s nice to see that the student union has been renamed the Steve Biko Building, which I think was a change they were campaigning for back when I was a student there. It’s slightly more unnerving to realise that so much time has elapsed since the events that inspired the name change, nobody has an issue with the refectory being retitled Biko’s Café. Meanwhile, down the road at the Whitworth Gallery, they’re having their own debate with history. The opening rooms of the permanent exhibit are currently a great big self-critique, celebrating their founder Sir Joseph Whitworth for his work in preserving the arts, while making it clear it was his money from weapons development that funded it.
It’s an approach that meshes nicely with the MIF exhibit that’s in the Whitworth until October 17th. Cloud Studies assembles several years of work by a group called Forensic Architecture, whose stated aim is to investigate ‘state and corporate violence’, doing it in a way that turns data analytics into art. It opens with a 25 minute film (it's the first video on the exhibition page), which in the gallery is preceded by a face-to-face content warning. The film is a terrific overview of the sort of thing Forensic Architecture does, pulling in data from a variety of sources and crunching it to reach unnerving conclusions. It gives you a quick summary of half a dozen or so of their recent investigations: then in the room next door, there’s a series of displays that drill down into more detail for each one.
As the title implies, clouds are the main things being analysed here – not the pretty ones you’ll find in some of the Whitworth’s more traditional artworks, but things like tear gas, cement from bombed buildings, or the weaponised use of insecticide. In one example, they take a single piece of CCTV footage from a public square in Chile where a protest is taking place, and train AI to spot all the times over a period of three hours that tear gas grenades were launched. They then plot the dispersal of all those individual clouds of gas, and use it to establish that the concentration of tear gas in a single cubic metre of air is higher than that permitted by international law. Their research is impressive, their analysis even more so, and the visualisation of their results completely justifies this being shown in a gallery. But what makes this my favourite event of this year’s MIF is the film they made that was partly funded by the Whitney Museum in New York, which ended up accusing one of the museum’s board of being complicit in war crimes. And they say this festival doesn’t do comedy.
For our final night it’s back to the music, and back to Manchester Central for Homecoming Live, part of an exchange programme with the Lagos festival of the same name celebrating new African music. According to the festival listings, there’s a DJ at 7pm then the show starts at 8, which makes it a little surprising that the first two acts after the DJ are... more DJs. Native Sound System just play their records and leave, but Vivendii Sound put in the effort with crowd banter, dub effects and some outrageous changes in tempo, and it makes all the difference. They set the stage for what for me is the highlight of the evening, a high-energy 15 minute set by Midas The Jagaban. Coming on in a mask like a black female Blindboy Boatclub, she proceeds to tear the room apart with the aid of two dancers and one laptop operator – though it should be noted that both Midas and a later act will suffer from the MIF techs having real problems getting laptops connected correctly.
Most of the second half of the night involves DJ Obi introducing a showcase of acts all doing very short sets, which is when you start to realise it’s all getting a bit samey. The dominant sound in Lagos right now appears to be that lopsided dancehall beat that almost all international pop is built around nowadays, and it’s down to the personality of the individual performers to help differentiate them. The much-hyped Lojay is possibly the most disappointing - I’ll make some noise when you do something worth making noise about, sir – while Teezee makes the biggest impression by having a huge stage presence, not to mention a sound that takes all the African influences American hip hop stole, and steals them back. Curiously, nobody gets to introduce the man in a knitted Cthulu mask who runs on for one number and disappears again, and I only find out long after the fact that this was Pa Salieu, whose current single Glidin’ is all over 6 Music right now.
A good twenty minutes of laptop-induced delay leads us into headliners NSG. They’re self-parodically describing themselves as an African One Direction, which seems like such a quaintly dated reference: if you wanted to be a boy band, wouldn’t you be BTS now? And given the current globalisation of the pop marketplace, BTS would be a more accurate comparison, because this band I heard about for the first time when they were introduced here have released a single that’s just passed one hundred million streams on Spotify. (Apparently that single made it to number 7 in the UK charts, so maybe that's just on me.) They’re a perfectly acceptable pop-rap ensemble, and although nothing specifically grabs me about their music (unlike Midas The Jagaban), I don’t have a problem with them. At least until close to the end of the set, which becomes Twat Island Redux as a bunch of NSG fans rush into the empty spaces left in the front for social distancing purposes, forcing us to go to the back for safety. It’s the second time in 24 hours that I’ve been put off a band by the quality of their fans: maybe in both cases I should give them another try some time.
This writeup has been more or less chronological, so by now we’re at Sunday and our final day of MIF. Strictly speaking we don’t go to any MIF events today, although in a sense we do. While I work out how best to explain that, I’ll hand you over to The Belated Birthday Girl, who has a few things to say about what we ate and drank in Manchester.
As we had a bit longer up in Manchester for this year’s MIF than previous years, that gave us more opportunity for eating and drinking. We started on the first night with a dinner at Albert’s Schloss, largely because of a recommendation by Jay Rayner online in the Observer, noting that the food was notches above what you might expect. Although as a non-meat eater you might imagine the menu would be limited, in fact there were enough options that between the two of us we didn’t have a single meat dish, and everything we had was good quality and freshly prepared. For starters, we shared 2 types of croquettes: cauliflower cheese and smoked haddock. Both were good, but the haddock probably had the edge. For our mains, I went for the fish frites, with some Berliner curry sauce, while Spank went for the wild mushroom spatzle. The fish was nicely cooked, the batter crispy, and the frites had a good crunch, and went nicely with the curry sauce, but Spank’s spatzle were the star of the night, very tasty mushrooms and all a good combination. All washed down with a couple of pints of Pilsner Urquell fresh from the tank.
Manchester has lots of excellent cafes with options for breakfasts and brunches these day, and we’ll come to more of those later in the week. But Moose Coffee is an old favourite which we try to get back to most extended trips we make to the city. The main attraction is the hashes, and however good other menu items look, I always come back to choosing one of them. This time I had the Green Line, a potato hash with halloumi cheese, all sorts of veg, and jalapenos, topped with a couple of runny poached eggs. Spank decided to go for one of the egg benedicts, which come served on a toasted bagel – he went for the New York, which is served with Serrano ham – but even so the lure of the hash is too strong, so he had a side order of hash with his benedict. A couple of big mugs of Americano coffee complete a big, satisfying breakfast. One of these days I will try something there that isn’t a hash. Maybe.
Ancoats is an area of Manchester that has developed a lot in recent years, and there are many excellent places to eat and drink in that part of the city, so it was somewhere I was keen to explore. After a bit of research, the place we chose was Elnecot. We chose a couple of items from the snacks section of the menu, and 3 from the small plates section. Manchester Egg – like a Scotch Egg, but from Manchester – has become a bit of a thing, and Elnecot have their own version made with quails’ eggs and Bury black pudding, so that seemed like something Spank had to have, and he informs me it was very good. The rest of the dishes were all non-meat, and we shared. The Connage gougeres were tasty little cheesy puffs, the baked prawns with gnocchi succulent and oozing with cheesy sauce, the fava bean butter curry rich and well spiced, and the loaded Lincolnshire roasties finished the meal out wonderfully: these were very popular, especially the cheesy ones which were almost constantly being prepared and sent out from the kitchen. The range of Elnecot’s menu was fabulous, and there were many other dishes I would have loved to have tried, but that was plenty for us, with no room at all for afters. One other benefit of Elnecot was the local craft beers on the drinks menu, so we ended up having a couple from Shindigger to accompany our meal: the West Coast on draught, and the Mango Unchained in a can. Both were good, and set us up ready for a small Ancoats beer crawl to follow.
We decided to try to fit in a couple of taphouses for local breweries – not actual brewery taps, but bars belonging to local breweries and showcasing their beers. We started at Seven Brothers, just down the road from Elnecot, but the real find of the night was the Smithfield Market Tavern, a really lovely proper pub, though with tasteful modern decor, selling beers from Blackjack brewery. Although we were aware of the brewery, we don’t think we were familiar with their beers. Spank chose the IPA for India – a heritage brewed as part of a project to raise money for sourcing oxygen and PPE for India – and I had the Amarillo Porter. Both beers were terrific, and the pub was simply delightful. Both the pub and Blackjack as a brewery are now firm favourites. We finished the night off with a couple of nightcap beers on the way back to the hotel in Café Beermoth, somewhere we’ve not got around to before, but were happy we finally did, and no doubt will visit again.
As mentioned before, Manchester has many excellent breakfast and brunch options, and we managed to get to one of the Northern Quarter top spots, Ezra & Gil. A place with quite a wide-ranging brunch menu, we were looking for something slightly smaller that day, and although pastries were an option, we ended up with Spank having a sausage sandwich, while I went for scrambled eggs on toast. The food was good, the coffee excellent, and the atmosphere buzzy.
Dinner that night was at Indian street-food specialist Mowgli, who we first encountered in Liverpool. Much as my heart belongs to Bundobust, with its excellent veggie food and terrific range of craft beers, the convenience of the location for Festival Square that night made Mowgli the obvious choice. We shared a selection of street food – Bhel Puri, Mowgli Paneer, Picnic Potato Curry, and a Gunpowder Chicken for Spank alone, accompanied by a roti – all of which were very good, and which complemented each other well. The best option they had for beer was Curious IPA, which is fine, but it would be better if they could team up with local breweries, particularly in somewhere like Manchester, where there are so many. But the food was good, and we were quite stuffed at the end of our meal.
All our evening meals ended up being small plate-y, one way of another, and the last of these was Tast, where we booked a table in the main restaurant. We had originally thought we would pick a selection of tapas, but our server seemed quite keen that we have something from the Catalan rice and the charcoal dishes sections, so in the end we ordered just the Bravas potatoes and the Calamari & Squid Ink mayo from the tapas, and added a small portion of the Seasonal Vegetables Rice and the Turbot dish from the charcoal menu. While the bravas, squid and rice were all good, the turbot – with potato, garlic, chilli and mushrooms - was stunning, and fully justified the change in our order. The flavours from the charcoal subtly infused the rich yet delicate turbot flesh, and the whole dish came together beautifully. A couple of glasses of Pinzellada Blanc to wash it all down made for a lovely final evening meal of the trip.
One last meal to mention is one more breakfast, at Federal Café, who have a couple of branches in Manchester: we went to the Deansgate branch. Any plan of having a small breakfast of pastries went out the window on reading the menu, which enticed us with Halloumi & ‘Shrooms for Spank and Turkish Eggs for me. Both dishes were substantial and tasty, and the coffee was also very good: one more excellent example of the café scene in Manchester.
So, here's how our final day in Manchester goes. We have breakfast in Federal (see above): we stroll down to the Science and Industry Museum for the exhibition Use Hearing Protection (not part of the festival, but I've already reviewed it here): we have a quick peek round the back at the construction site for The Factory, which should be playing a major part in future MIFs: and then we pop over to open-air venue Escape To Freight Island to meet up with family for the first time in eighteen months, which is nice if a little dangerous on the liver. (Favourite beer of the afternoon: Double-Barrelled's pale ale I Need Your Clothes, Your Boots And Your Motorcycle.)
We have an hour and a bit before our train leaves, and we have two events still to wrap up. Firstly, we go back to Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books, which amazingly is still intact after standing in Piccadilly Gardens for over two weeks. Well, I say intact - part of the fun of the exhibit is that they've promised to dismantle it during the final three days of the festival and hand out the books free to anyone who wanted one. I pick up what I think might be the oldest book of the set, while The BBG goes for some chick lit thing.
We go back to Piccadilly Station for one final bit of festival fun - because having ticked off the Captioning The City entry on the side of the Science and Industry Museum that morning, we have just one more left to complete the set. Apparently it's by platforms 13 and 14 of the station, which are the platforms for local services. We assume that our tickets to London will give us access to those platforms, but they don't, and we haven't left enough time to investigate alternative solutions. So, slightly frustratingly, we head back to London missing just one of the caption set, assuming you don't count the one on the plane.
Is that the end of MIF 2021? Not quite, because they've been running online events alongside the meatspace ones we've been attending for the past five days. And once we're back home, we wrap up our final day by watching one of them in the comfort of our living room. You can see why someone thought that The Patience Of Trees would be a good thing to both livestream and subsequently make available on demand (it's staying online until October 16th): it's a contemporary classical music concert with some interesting quirks in its visual staging. But most of the programme's appeal – apart from the concerto by Dobrinka Tabakova which gives it its title, which is a pretty, tuneful and minimalist thing – comes down to those quirks, and they don't really come across on video. Manchester Central has been reconfigured as an in-the-round theatre for the night, with the audience surrounding an orchestra concealed in low levels of volume and lighting. It must have been great to be in that space on the night, but if you’re watching via an online link put together by people with a rudimentary sense of what works on a smaller screen, it’s frustrating. The two Tabakova pieces and the Steve Reich work best – the two other world premieres they're wrapped around are much of a muchness, though I might have enjoyed them more if I’d read the programme notes first and realised one of them had a middle section titled Fox Cub Curiously Examines Half-Eaten Pack of Quavers.
And is that the end of MIF 2021? Still not quite. Because two days after coming back from Manchester, we get pinged by the Covid app. Don't worry, it wasn't one of those You Must Self-Isolate For Ten Days pings: it was the much vaguer You Were In Some Place On The Same Day As Someone Else Who Tested Positive So Maybe You Should Get Yourself Tested ping. The app is bloody useless in these situations when it comes to giving you detail: if you dig through the Settings section you can find the date of when the contact took place, but there's no clue as to the location, even though you obviously checked in there with the QR code. From the little evidence we have and a bit of prejudiced guesswork, we're assuming that someone on Twat Island had The Vid, resulting in the pinging of the few thousand people who occupied the open-air space of Festival Square over a period of twelve hours. Still, we took a test, it was fine, and we still seem to be okay a few weeks later.
Right. That's the end of MIF 2021. Like they said, it was a festival like no other, and it'd be really nice if there wasn't another one like that ever again. But there was plenty of enjoyment to be had, and as a reintroduction to festival life generally after eighteen months away it was one hell of a ride. The only real disappointment has been not getting to see what the caption was on the back of the plane. Eventually, we find a promo video for Captioning The City and discover what it was. I guess I can't argue with that. Being a monkey, and all.