In 2012 I embarked on a three year journey to research my third novel, which I’d entitled ‘How I Left The National Grid’. I didn’t know it would be a three year journey! They say that a piece of art is never finished, only abandoned. My journey took three years not to end, but to abandon. The book is mainly set in the Factory Records music scene that gave birth to Joy Division, Magazine and other such bands. The first lesson I quickly realised was that to write a novel set in the past you must immerse yourself in the materials from that era. For at least six months I listened to little else but music from that scene (however challenging that sometimes was) documentaries about it, and endeavoured to chat to musicians who had worked in it. I quickly learnt that mere information about such a place is not enough. A different time comes with a different mentality, and by piecing together research you are merely piecing together a mentality, and only once you have that mentality yourself can you write about it!
People seem to think that Manchester bands (including The Smiths) make bleak, depressing music. But I regard the Manchester music scene of the late 80s as a thrilling time. Yes, Thatcher’s policies had starved the region of funding, and the effects of those cuts were visible in the many abandoned factories. Housing complexes such as the Hulme Estate were intended to resemble sparkling visions of the future, full of walkways and spacious plazas. Instead, they became places in which violent muggings were frequent, and quickly fell into disrepair. But despite all this, various musicians responded to this negativity by creating music that processed pain to create spectral, luminescent soundscapes. The brittle synths of New Order evoked a futuristic city yet to be built. To me, the Manchester music scene of the 80s was an oasis of creativity in a bleak era of austerity. This makes it more relevant now than ever.
I therefore decided to write a novel about 80s Manchester, a setting in which music responded urgently to a bleak state of affairs. During periods of recession, music becomes incredibly important to people. I decided to write a story about a band from the 80s, a fictional synth-pop outfit called The National Grid. In the novel their singer, Robert Wardner, after a controversial appearance on Top of the Pops vanishes into the urban landscape, never to be seen again. I pick up the story in the present day. Sam, a former journalist for Melody Maker, tries to track Wardner down for a new book. The story flits between the dry ice and Moog synthesizers of the 80s and the world of entertainment today, to which Wardner is rumoured to be returning.
My research into the Manchester scene required me to become familiar with the music, the places, and the people from that era. I would advise people wanting to learn about a past era to watch as many clips as you can online. Thanks to Youtube I was able to pick up on the vernacular, the fashion, the fact that there were copious amounts of hairspray used in the eighties and the sense of nervous ambition that to me suffused these clips. What is made explicit about an era is rarely what defines it- and the devil is in the details. I had to get to the point where I was so familiar with such clips that I could guess the style of clothing worn during that time. In order to create a band that historically fit with that era I had to carefully research the bands that were making suitable music at that time. I used books, almanacs and even back issues of Melody Maker and NME. I even researched who else had played Top Of The Pops when my fictional band did- so that I could have them rubbing shoulders with the right people. Julio Iglesias in my case! I was struck by in fact what narrow room true research gives you. Your ideas have to fit into a specific niche and it takes a lot of research to credibly work out when that would be!
Happily, my research also included drinking with pop stars, dancing in tattered indie clubs, and undertaking long walks throughout the fringes of Manchester. I journeyed to places that the artist Laura Oldfield Ford described as “liminal spaces”, hinterlands on the edge of the city. I wanted to get a true sense of Manchester. I believe it is in the margins that the city exposes its true character, a character which consumerist society smothers in the city centres.
I visited famous Manchester nightclubs like The Star and Garter in which the creative spirit of the 80s was still evident in the abundance of eyeliner and black leather. In the novel, Robert Wardner believes that such sites are portals through which the meaning of the city can be tapped. I started to believe that by writing about this city I was operating on the same mysterious ley-lines that he drew from. I shared pizza with post-punk musicians in takeaways under knocking-shops in the Northern Quarter. Slowly, my novel began to take shape.
During the three years I fought to bring this book to life, I was fortunate to interview artists whose work bears a trace of the 80s post-punk scene. The Manchester musician LoneLady told me how her music is inspired by the Brutalist architecture of 80s Manchester. I sent excerpts of the novel to her and was enthused when she wrote back saying “there is a place yet for a sprawling fictional compendium about Manchester, full of city hobgoblins (to quote Mark E Smith)”. I also interviewed musicians such as Jehnny Beth from the Mercury Music-nominated band Savages whose work is inspired by the industrial music of bands like Throbbing Gristle. She told me of the manifesto that underpins her music, a manifesto which draws from the Surrealists and Alan Moore.
In the work of these artists, as well as in my novel, the ghosts of Manchester are evident. But creating a fictional work that captured these phantoms was all very well. I then had to run them by artists who had actually been active in this era. I still have a copy of the first edit sent back to me by a music fan from that time, and from a Mancunian writer. I had got so many details wrong, from the local vernacular to sites in that city to references to models of car that weren’t yet in existence. I was particular surprised to read that Ford Mondeo’s were not in use in 1981, as I had thought! Only by running the piece past people who had been there did I learn what not to take for granted.
My novel celebrates that scene, and looks to the future. It considers how people today can also draw inspiration from their surroundings, however bleak they seem; how they can use this inspiration to make art that is meaningful and useful to others.