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Debate and laughter for Tony

Chris Osuh
22/ 6/2008

AN irreverent 24 hours of chain-chatting and binge-thinking proved to be a fitting tribute to late broadcaster and Factory Music boss Tony Wilson.

The Tony Wilson Experience drew top names from creative fields together for a day and night of `intelligent conversation' in a pavilion outside Urbis.

Dubbed 'shambolic enough to be useful', the event produced magic moments as the panel swapped views - sometimes in anger - with a hand-picked audience of aspiring talent. The opening hour on Saturday was similar to the launch of a talk show, with speakers Steve Coogan and Peter Saville, the city's creative director, hesitantly warming up.

Their hour-long chat produced insights on the Mancunian sense of humour, the birth of Alan Partridge, and Tony Wilson's role as `the perennial older brother of a generation'.

By around 5pm, the audience were no longer sitting politely, and Manchester council leader, Sir Richard Leese was confronted about the closure of the Hacienda and the transformation of the Free Trade Hall, which commemorated victims of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, into the five-star Radisson Edwardian Hotel.

Psychologist Dr David Devalle said the hotel was a betrayal of the people who died at Peterloo, and swore angrily at Sir Richard.

Sir Richard shouted back, saying the hall was a `very poor, 1950s rip-off of a building with lousy acoustics' and `no intrinsic value'.

The row came at the end of a conversation where journalist Pete Hooton and entrepreneur Jayne Casey talked about how Liverpool is managing its cultural heritage.

Later, Tony Wilson's music promoter son, Oli Wilson, spoke frankly about his father's unique approach to business, while a panel including former Granada boss Sue Woodward and Madchester icon Clint Boon, lamented the dearth of quality British children's programming, TV parties, and authenticity.

In a debate with Joy Division documentary-maker Grant Gee, Salford scriptwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote the script for band biopic Control, and music pundit John Robb, Peter Hook spoke movingly on the death of Ian Curtis. `Even now, I live with Ian every day', the New Order bassist said.

As debate raged in the pavilion, bands including Kid British played at Urbis. At 9pm, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and music writer Paul Morley had a profound, at times tetchy talk with the crowd on dumbing down, literary trends, and the commercialisation of youth culture.

'Ideas are being lived like battery chickens, let the idea have a free range pen', said Morley. By midnight, punk poet John Cooper Clarke, playwright Stella Grundy, and promoter Alan Wise, were wrangling over happiness, debt, and gay pop svengalis.

Opening the event, Sir Richard Leese said it `couldn't fail'. Audience members, a good number of whom stayed for 24 hours, agreed. Club night promoter James Jepson, 29, of Hulme, said: "I hope they keep it going. It's exactly what's needed, though I would have liked the chance to hand CVs to people."

Sam Kapral, 22, an aspiring writer from Crumpsall, said: "It's been cool with some crazy debates."

images courtesy of Manchester Evening News


Event Commentary

Paul Robinson writing on Manchester Evening News' "The Mancunian Way" blog... 

images courtesy of Manchester Evening News

Tony Wilson Experience - The Start

And so the beat goes on.

I've just attended the press call for the Tony Wilson Experience over at Hard Rock Cafe and heard the welcoming words from Elliot Rashman (Happy Mondays manager), Richard Leese (leader of the City council), and Peter Saville (ex-Factory creative, now creative director of the council). The tone was "we don't know what was about to happen" across the board. Quite frankly, sat here in the press room I have no idea what is about to happen either. It's five minutes to twelve, and the running order tells me I'm about to see Steve Coogan, Peter ("It's a bit early for me") Saville and Alex Poots.

The most interesting conversation for me so far was a private one with Richard Leese. I asked him if this was part of a creative strategy, why Manchester should be special and in a World where creatives can work anywhere why they should choose a city with a congestion charge to base themselves in (all the press I saw had a little poke about the congestion charge), and his answer was pretty clear.

"We are a city of creatives, and whilst we're keen to share - we have people coming over from Liverpool today for this - we want to be leaders not followers."

I'll let you know where they lead us for the next 24 hours.
Posted by Paul Robinson on June 21, 2008 11:58 AM

TWE - We're off

"If you spend too much time asking where something is going, you end up not doing it", Peter Saville opined during the first session of the Tony Wilson Experience <> ("TWE" onwards).

Keen to impress upon people that this was not a 24-hour seminar or lecture, the theme from everybody involved from the organisers through to the speakers is consistent. Quoting one artist who applied to attend, there was hope that "the event sounds suitably shambolic to be of some use".

He was sat with Steve Coogan who played Wilson in the film 24 Hour Party People <> and Alex Poots, discussing creativity, being from Manchester, and Tony's attitude to life.

Interestingly, the film of the life of Wilson, Factory records and the Hacienda was itself was made in the way that Michael Winterbottom would have thought Factory records and Wilson would have made the film - when Coogan took the part, nobody knew how the film would end, or even what the middle would be.

"Tony was about noble failures", Coogan suggested.

The next session with Stuart Marconie and Mark Radcliffe continued with the reminiscing and the memory of those mad years when Tony was a rising star and trying to get a handle on why Manchester was special.

"For every person who likes your work, there are ten who are indifferent and ten who think you're a pillock", said Radcliffe. Something that Marconie suggested Wilson was an expert at handling with complete indifference. It's true that whilst there is some minor deification of Wilson going on, during his life he was ridiculed.

This was partly, Coogan had suggested earlier, because Wilson himself was a man of contrast. "There was a plurality in him, a mixture of humour, being pompous and at the same having complete integrity when it came to his beliefs".

The conversation continues, and if you want a much more detailed minute-by-minute update of the rest of the afternoon, blogger Paul Carruthers is doing an admirable job over at The Institute for Social Media <> in doing almost constant updates. Here, I hope to give you something a little more abstract and wider on the landscape over the course of the event. Also, don't forget to join in at the main site with chat forum <> or mucking in over in Second Life .

Posted by Paul Robinson on June 21, 2008 02:11 PM

TWE - Moving Forward! Angrily!

Tony Wilson's son Oliver spoke for 30 minutes in an unscheduled slot about his life as a music promoter and the impact Manchester and his father's career had on him.

Considering Shaun Ryder was once his babysitter, and one of his first holidays was with New Order in Ibiza, he seemed a pretty grounded and pragmatic young man.

After him, he got our first bit of audience participation with Richard Leese having to defend the council's attitude to culture and its heritage.

Oliver Wilson did not follow his Father's example of turning around on the M1 and making his name here in the city. He moved to London to persue his career, partly because of ambition but surely his surname would have caused issues for him as an independent promoter making his way in the industry here in Manchester.

He claims though that he saw something that weighed people down here, and he thought London would free him to do more and achieve a greater level of success. "Things have started to change in the last five or six years though, even the Northern Quarter has really blossomed".

He went on to discuss an online debate he had recently where he was asked which is the better city in the North for the music scene? "It has to be Manchester... Manchester takes the lead, and in recent months bands like the Ting Tings, The Courteeners, anyway I've seen more great bands coming out of Manchester compared to Liverpool or other Northern cities".

What about the future? "If I could tell you what the next thing to look out for is, I could retire. You never know", he said. "There is massive opportunity. If you want to do it, get out there and do it. If you're producing great songs, success is inevitable", he concluded.

Following on from Oliver, Elliot Rashman took scousers Peter Hooton and Jayne Casey onto the sofas for a chat about the development of Liverpool and what Manchester could learn from their recent developments.

A central theme of that discussion was the corporate take-overs of city centres, something Manchester can certainly empathise with. "I knew when I saw the high-street names moving into Liverpool that they were going to move the artists out. You don't have studios and rehearsal rooms next to a Debenhams or a John Lewis store" Jayne siad. As Richard Leese was in the corner of the room Jayne suggested "Whatever [buildings] you don't want, just give them to the artists".

When it came to Liverpool's attitude to culture, controversially during the year of culture, she said "This is a city that built a car park over the Cavern, this is a city that would allow Cream [the club she was a founder of] to close... Liverpool City Council are only any good at handling culture when it becomes a heritage issue".

The debate obviously then moved onto Manchester City Council's attitude to some of the buildings that have been developed. It got rather interesting as members of the audience pointed out that some building - The Hacienda, The Free Trade Hall, and others - have been largely "disrespected".

"We should be talking about the future and not about how to turn this city into a museum", Richard Leese felt compelled to respond. As audience members attempted to shout him down he continued "The Free Trade Hall was a poor 1950s reconstruction of a building with lousy acoustics. Let's talk about how to move things forward".

Posted by Paul Robinson on June 21, 2008 06:19 PM

TWE - twilight

As darkness fell and the rain could be heard lightly hitting the wigwam this evening, Irvine Welsh and Paul Morley settled in for what started out as an intelligent chat about what it meant to be a writer. Towards the end it became one of the most lively and interactive discussions of the event so far.

It quickly became very clear that Paul Morley and Irvine Welsh are a great deal more intelligent than any of their previous media appearances had led us to believe. Over the course of an hour the very point that the media warps and reduces down intelligence to something more "manageable" became a core part of the conversation, and ultimately became an audience debate.

The media it was argued, assumes the audience is stupid. The systems in place, the way quality is determined by publishers, bookshops, critics, even some of the audience, all progresses an ethos of dumbness on the part of the consumer.

Publishers need to select material that will be popular as their metric of success is sales. They assume that intelligent or experimental work will be harder to promote and find prominent shelf space in bookshops, because the audience is not clever enough to digest that kind of work on its merit.

Booksellers - at least the large chains - need to select material that they think will be popular, as their metric of success is sales. They don't want to take intelligent/experimental work from publishers because the sales cycle assumes that their customers are stupid and that a buying decision needs to be instinctive rather than a considered and intelligent choice.

Critics need to position themselves from a perspective of popularity, as their measure of success is how many people agree with them. They aren't as bothered about whether the audience agrees with them as they are whether the publishers, booksellers and ultimately their editors believe they are able to accurately predict that a book will sell well. Therefore, they need to take the position that publishers and booksellers have adopted: the audience is stupid.

The word best used to describe this situation is "commodification". By reducing art - specifically literature in this context, but the argument applies to all culture - to a commodity that can be packaged, branded and sold through simple marketing messages, ultimately the market heads towards mediocrity.

The audience raised several good points about ways to address this. For starters self-publishing through Print-on-Demand and online services no longer has the cost or issues related to self publishing/rip-off merchants of the past. Welsh pointed to Chuck Palahniuk <> who has fostered an online community that means he could very easily eliminate his publisher with future releases and sell directly himself. Part of the reason he would remain successful however, would be he fact that as author of /Fight Club/ and other cult classics he is an established name with a core fan base that will assure him of sales.

What about new-comers? How do the young talent get to that point?

Morley developed a point that ultimately the media were to blame. "If you were going to lay landmines right now to change this situation, I'd start with the media", he said. "The conservative media we have today frightens me", was a point he had made earlier. Phrases like "cultural revolution" started to crop up. Other felt there was a conspiracy that the media needed the audience to be kept dumb in order to be able to get away with lies that they tell.

The debate spilled out of the tent and into the bar. What does "good" mean in the context of literature? Will it always transcend above the mediocre? Does the metric of "sales" define it, or can a piece of work be considered "good" and only be loved by a handful of people?

All deep and philosophical points as the conversation moves into the night, and the talent make the most of the networking opportunities a night in Urbis affords.

Faced with choices right now I feel that I can best serve my intentions of being here by getting some sleep for a few hours. I will return in the morning bright and refreshed and willing to take on the tail end. By the looks of things, the enthusiasm and interest is not waning within the talent and so all hail to them.

I have to go and dream about /Zen And The Art of Motorcylce Maintenance/ before dawn.

Posted by Paul Robinson on June 21, 2008 11:26 PM

TWE - Overnight - Fights and Fire Alarms

Walking into the press room this morning after a few hours sleep, the team looking after the web cast looked tired but had stories to tell.

Quite frankly, editorial guidelines prevent me from telling all. It would seem some people in the Green Room were... well, I'll just leave it there before the MEN lawyers get twitchy about libel action.

At 3am a fire alarm in Urbis required a complete evacuation during a heavy rain storm whilst waiting Greater Manchester Fire Brigade to turn out and make sure the building was clear of smoke and fire. It was full of a lot of things, but thankfully not a fire.

As it happens, that alarm saved the main tent from a major brawl. Stella Grundy had chosen a few moments before to take issue with the Happy Mondays about a song of hers that she felt they were "inspired" by. Actually the precise words were that they were "[deleted] thieves".

It's a little unclear as exactly what happened next, however somebody (Shaun Ryder? Bez?), dispatched a jug of water in her direction. One of their wives was, quote, "kicking off with this audience member for no reason", and suddenly it became apparent why the entire event was staffed with bouncers and security guards.

At around 5am Steve Coogan decided to wonder out of the Green Room, a little tired and emotional and seemingly "in character" as Alan Partridge. The audience were slightly taken aback by his mood but it was all taken in good humour.

I really wish I could tell you some of the other stories. Part of me wishes I'd been here, but I'm also glad of the sleep I managed to cram in.

As I type, Richard Leese is on stage trying to convince the audience that the wall in Piccadilly Gardens is "the most exciting piece of architecture in Manchester" because "it provokes a reaction". Isn't that just another way of saying he accepts it's a bit rubbish? The audience certainly seem to think so.

Updates coming up throughout the morning.

Posted by Paul Robinson on June 22, 2008 08:47 AM

TWE - That's a Wrap

It took 24 hours and more coffee than is probably healthy, but we have reached the end. This morning conversation moved to the nature of the Universe, and I spent some time reflecting on what just happened.

Brian Cox, the photogenic physicist from Manchester University explained the point of some of his work at the Large Hydrogen Collider (which Microsoft spell checkers everywhere want to suggest should be called something much more naughty), which will help us understand what the Universe looked like just 0.0000000001 seconds into its lifetime.

The conclusion? Nobody really knows much about any of this stuff. I'm certainly not going to try to explain it to you right now, and I suspect that after 24 hours of talks, nobody in the audience is going to be able to either. Sleep deprivation aplenty here.

You might have noticed that in the last 24 hours I've produced quite a lot of output here.

Yesterday lunchtime I started coverage of the Tony Wilson Experience with the first conversation <> focused on observations about life, Manchester and creative failure from Peter Saville and Steve Coogan.

I met Frank Sidebottom <> who gave us a World premiere of his new composition.

By the evening things had livened up <> and Richard Leese was found defending his position on development of certain key buildings important to Manchester's heritage.

Eight hours in and the audience were revolting <> about the lack of interactivity. This was an issue that they took on themselves over the following 16 hours to some extent, but the rowdy ones were always shut up, despite the organisers' wishes for it be more chaotic.

As dusk descended meaty and important subjects <> were considered and debated. For me at least, that one discussion will stick in my mind as being the highlight of the entire 24 hours.

By this morning the gossip about the night before <> was in full swing, and stories of fights, fire alarms and interesting encounters with Mancunian celebrities were circulating in the press room.

And finally, people started asking about what this really means <> at a social level. There are some very big questions floating around this morning, including what will happen next year and what should happen in the mean time.

I feel inspired, but not enough to continue blogging at this pace. Many of you will be relieved to hear that.

For those of you overwhelmed by the output of this blog over the last few days - I make this the 16th post in 4 days - you will be pleased to know I'm now taking a break. The last few days have seen some amazing people discuss some great issues here in Manchester, from censorship in China through to the future of research at Manchester University, from the commercialisation of art to how we can all find inspiration to be creative in everything we see and hear around us. The last 24 hours has been a memorial and also a pause for thought about the future.

Thank you for reading, I'll follow up with posts when videos of talks come online, and if you feel inspired by anything you see or hear as a result of these events, good luck and please get in touch so we can follow your progress.

Posted by Paul Robinson on June 22, 2008 12:35 PM

Congratulation Paul. I think this body of work could be the start of a hypertext writing project. It certainly provides some of the pebbles in the 'concrete' being formed by the 'abstract.' I understand that the factory project was inspired by 'situationism' - it said so in the publicity - but I wonder if the word 'factory' in the 'Factory Records' could be a reference to Andy Warhol? He, like Peter Saville was a graphic designer, and even designed a record sleeve for a band. I wonder if Tony Wilson or Saville had heard of Wahol or been inspired by Wahol's 'Factory'? I wanted to ask but felt too shy. Are the any students who have written the Wilson story as a Warhol inspired life?

The great pop culture intellectuals of the city - Terry Eagleton, MIRIAD's punk rock professor John Hyatt and art historian Amilia Jones could be interesting voices to add to the discourse. Perhaps the evening news could fund you to seek out people like this and construct a hypertext discourse starting form your blog in order to integrate the intellectual life of the city into the MEN blog, and perhaps see the blog and hypertext journalism emerge as the powerful media it promises to be.

Keep up the good work, Alex

Posted by: R Alexander Hough | June 23, 2008 09:26 AM