Artifice And Industry: The View From Manchester

Artifice And Industry: The View From Manchester


A hall in the John Rylands Library

Strange week ending with a strange weekend.

So much so that I’m tempted to replace my existing astrological forecasting regime with nothing but a loud klaxon that sounds the next time Caput Algol gets this kind of prominence.

Below is Friday 24th from Austin’s almanac. (Even halfway through the year, it’s worth the price of entry.)

Friday’s first hours see the Moon in Scorpio oppose Mars in Taurus all-too-near the malefic fixed star Caput Algol. There is a deep unpleasantness about this opposition and it will no doubt be accompanied by one horrid news story or another. Sleeping through this unpleasant transit and its accompanying broadcasts is highly recommended.

The Moon enters Sagittarius during the afternoon, pulling the ambiance up from the melancholy musings of Scorpio. A Full Moon rises Friday night, bright and potent within the Archer’s sign. Here, the Moon in Sagittarius opposes the Sun in Gemini, challenging us to unify scattered energies and diverse thoughts, to find a direction which limits and gives purpose to the many possibilities currently emerging. This process is complicated by Neptune in Pisces, which dissolves distinctions and mixes dreams into the resulting slurry. Although this Full Moon calls for unification and direction, it may take several days to sort through this potent, but confusing, cocktail.

It began at an industry event on Thursday evening where I botched my presentation (or at least delivered it to an unsympathetic audience). The after-drinks in an old hospital saw me getting deep and meaningful with a guy who grew up around the corner from Alan Moore. He was talking about his father who had died of cancer. His father who kept showing up during the conversation. Wasn’t the best time or place to slip into wizard mode but when is it ever? (I was also offered a job earlier in the evening but taking one under such auspices is how both Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining start.)


Slightly more dramatic than my local library. Smells less like urine, also.

Friday, we leave for Manchester mid-morning. I idly wondered at the coincidence of us heading to the home town of the soldier who was hacked to death in the terroristish incident earlier in the week… figuring that’s as good a candidate as any for the ‘horrid news story’ mentioned in the almanac.

We don’t get Bank Holiday traffic… indeed leaving London is a breeze. But we do get weird traffic. Thousands of cars repeatedly coming to a standstill for no discernable reason. (The radio presenter said the police were unable to tell her the reason for the repeated delays coming into Manchester.) Patches of very low visibility from heavy rain and fog followed by extreme brightness and glare. BBC radio tells us a plane has caught fire leaving Heathrow and had to make an emergency landing.

Half way there and there is a mid-air terroristish incident on a Pakistani plane ten minutes out of Manchester (again) means it has to make an emergency landing at Stanstead. (Stanstead is where we land the planes we might have to blow up. They have the room for it where Heathrow doesn’t.)

After arriving hours late and grumpy, we hit Canal Street because we’re gays and that’s what you do. At around midnight, I step outside for some air and am subjected to the most vicious verbal assault I’ve probably ever experienced in my life from a complete stranger. Really harsh, weird shit. He was drunk and we’re in the North so he’s clearly just looking to start a fight but still… this isn’t Mercury Retro… this is Cthulhu Retro.


Canal Street. No idea why they call it that.

Having only been here previously for work, I really enjoy Manchester. The Northern Quarter looks exactly like the Lower East Side. Swap out the taxis and you could seriously use it as a shooting location. But it’s not that shocking. It’s hipster microbreweries, little bars and independent shops in crumbling fin de siècle warehouses from a time when both places were cornerstones of global trade. Also, they both stink of garbage in the heat.

Plus I was seeing bees everywhere because it’s one of the city’s symbols which had a pleasing Hekataen sync with some other stuff I’ve got going on. (Got back to the hotel room to see this post from Jack. Hooray!)

The main excuse reason for our visit was to catch Burning Bright: William Blake And The Art Of The Book.

Fun fact. Blake did some of the early, subsequently abandoned concepts for the Ninja Turtles.

Fun fact. Blake did some of the early, subsequently abandoned concepts for the Ninja Turtles.

As a small boy in London, Blake used to see angels in the trees of Peckham Rye. Given that his parents recognised his artistic ability by the age of eight, one wonders if he ever depicted his angels for them. They certainly disapproved of his visionary spirituality, but in that dismissive, late-eighteenth-century way whereby it was unimportant rather than dangerous.


It’s interesting to see his graphical work set apart from his writing. For his entire life, he was a jobbing artisan. This greatly appeals to me in the same way I am suspicious of, say, Lovecraft’s complete aversion to anything resembling work. (It was beneath him. Like blacks and immigrants.)

Of course, some unacknowledged Protestant work ethic may be behind my judgement… but it could also be something else. I think it’s difficult to divorce Blake’s philosophical output from his working life. The making of things informs both of them. And it clearly inspired similar thinkers, such as those in the Arts and Crafts Movement. (At the end of my road is probably the best surviving Arts and Crafts church in London.) From the exhibition booklet:

Preoccupied with the impact of mass production on traditional skills and crafts, it was a radical movement that advocated social and economic reform and worked to make improvements in the quality of decorative art and design. Its leaders came from a wide range of like-minded societies, workshops and manufacturers. 

Many of the craftsmen and women involved in the movement saw Blake as a kindred spirit. They shared his radical politics and adopted his vision of a new society where, in Blake’s words, it was their ‘business to create’. The poetic voice from his poem Jerusalem emphatically rejects the tyranny of the system: ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s’, and could almost have been their clarion call.

They also cherished Blake as a model of the archetypal art-worker/artisan and maker of handcrafted things.


The exhibit’s location -the John Rylands Library- is particularly appropriate given Blake’s celebration of the gothic. We move to the famous reading room and encounter a synchronicitously appropriate installation about the Al-Mutanabbi Street bombing.

This wasn’t just the site of Baghdad’s ancient booktrade, but for centuries it was also the hub of its intellectual, philosophical and literary community.


The John Rylands Library was conceived and paid for by his widow, a Cuban émigrée. It was originally intended as a theological library but was subsequently expanded by the university. Husband and wife look toward each other from either end of the reading room. The whole thing is rather touching.

John Rylands himself.

John Rylands himself.

Maybe it’s the astrological weather, but it’s also rather alarming. I like the idea of this woman marrying into extreme industrial wealth, being widowed and then launching a grand civic project. It is, frankly, the only appropriate response to extreme wealth. (Camel. Eye of the needle. You know how it goes.)

And yet… where are today’s Rylands? Apart from Bill Gates -who, as Cat says, is probably our dimension’s Batman- where are they?

For that matter, where are the people getting extremely wealthy while creating tens of thousands of local jobs? Look at this story from The Guardian -which began in Manchester around the same time- about the digital elite’s impact on San Francisco:

It did not come as news to San Francisco. The city knows better than anyone that technology companies like having things their way, whether it be taxes, transport or lifestyle. This dominance, critics say, has produced a cossetted caste which lords it over everyone else, a pattern established during the dotcom explosion a decade ago and now repeated amid a roaring boom.

“They’re really trying to make it a different structure. It’s segmentation. You see it everywhere,” said Michael Veremans, 27, a co-ordinator with the Occupy-linked group San Francisco Food Not Bombs.

Commuters who struggle with the crowded municipal bus service openly envy the spacious tech shuttles filled with their iPad-tapping passengers.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently swelled the chorus with an op-ed denouncing the private shuttles as symbols of alienation and division: “San Franciscans feel resentful about the technology industry’s lack of civic and community engagement, and the Google bus is our daily reminder.”


Sean Parker, played brilliantly by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, is spending $10 million on a Game Of Thrones-themed wedding. (Sidebar: yuck. New money, much?) Why do the digital elite feel they deserve such cosseting? From further down the article:

A software engineer for a major internet company said the criticism was unfair. “We feel what we’re doing helps make the world a better place. Helping people share information is a force of empowerment for individuals.”

I work in digital media. I have always worked in digital media. And I still like what I do. But I know what digital media does and doesn’t do. So let me just say bullshit to all that. Bullshit bullshit bullshit! Enriqueta Rylands made the world a better place. A nurse makes the world a better place. This ‘better world’ they’re building? Here’s what it looks like to Jack Dorsey, founder of twitter and investor in Square (which I actually like, by the way). Hat tip Chris Knowles for the link.

“It’s a big part of our future,” says Dorsey. “I want to be able to walk into a restaurant, have a great conversation, a great meal and get up and walk away when I’m ready. For a number of people that have house accounts that world already exists, and it allows the restaurant or me to focus on what’s most relevant – more tables or having a better time.

“We can make all the inconvenient stuff around that disappear. People get to choose where they spend their time.”

Inconvenient stuff. That would be you and me. That would be waitstaff. Give us all your data, which we will freely share with intelligence agencies who have flying killer robots, and we will get to wander in and out of restaurants and airports like we own the place… which we kinda do.

The earliest known piece of the New Testament.

The earliest known piece of the New Testament.

Please gods, nobody interpret this as an invitation to talk about piracy again because piracy is too far downstream to be even remotely relevant. It is instead a pincer-attack on the artisanal, on Blake’s making of things.

On one side, you have the new ‘industrialists’ of today, becoming obscenely wealthy -just as the last lot did. However they are doing it without the creation of thousands of local mid-range paying jobs. So there is a hollowing-out of the middle class whose incomes historically supported such things as magazine subscriptions or local pottery.

On the other, these new ‘industrialists’ are also shirking their role in patronage which has existed since… when? Egypt? Babylon? Jack Dorsey earnestly believes he is helping the world by making it so that he can wander in and out of restaurants and shoe stores without being bothered. (When we finally get Skynet, it will come with a ‘like’ button.)


If I’m being kind, I would say there is good news and bad news with this Caput Algolian vision.

The good news, such as it is, is that the artist or ‘pure’ creative has never really had a place in the economics of their time. He or she would either have a patron or support their personal endeavours in other -hopefully artisanal- fields. The bad news is there is a huge difference between supporting your poetry as a celebrated engraver and supporting it in a call centre by the airport.

Whilst the economics of creating art remain largely unchanged, the economics of the artisanal are really quite fucked. (But then, Jack Dorsey must have his uninterrupted restaurant experience, you peasant!)

So for the artists out there… keep making art. Creators have certainly lived through -and died in- worse times. But keep making art over here in the corner with the rest of us… earnestly trying to have that one revolution.


Add yours
  1. 1

    I am with you.

    Screw the revolution. Make mead with your loved ones. Cinnamon, honey, oranges, yeast.

    Fermentation is the best meditation..

  2. 2

    Well, I’m learning programming on the side, and I can definitely say it’s an art in the artisan sort of sense. These guys ARE artisans, it’s just that they found their niche. I don’t support a lot of their views and actions (except for game of thrones wedding, that sounds awesome), but I’m a bit mixed about this whole thing. Certainly they have huge corporations now, but they started out as mere artisans; just like a pottery making hipster next door.

    Also, nowadays it’s easier for artists to do their own thing without patronage. You can sell ebooks, digital art, paintings, pottery or whatever through the net. It can still be hard, and it does require business skills, but you have more chance of succeeding independently than ever before. And there is no patron to whom you have to tailor your work, and live in fear of offending them.
    Anyway, sorry to hear you were attacked there in Manchester. If you managed to take his picture we could have done a joint curse thingy, I sure wouldn’t mind some free target practice on such assholes.
    Johnny´s last blog post ..Freedom of speech- more than just one law

  3. 3
    Andrew B. Watt

    I’m sorry you were attacked too. It’s not something I’ve ever had to worry about much, being a big guy who smiles a lot (and somehow that reads as dangerous? Alas). But it turns out that there is a local group of teens who’ve beaten up a couple of older guys walking alone at night in my neighborhood. Things to look forward to as I get older.

    As you’ve maybe seen, I’ve been doing quite a bit of art lately — carpentry for this wooden box, and these tetrahedrons for sigil-work, and the related Dodecahedron and quite a few new paintings, including Black Pillar and White Pillar, which are now finished.

    But I’m conscious that I work for the locally-wealthy, as a teacher of history and Latin (is it possible to get more [or less?] elitist than Latin). There aren’t any hedge-fund manager kids at my school or multinational CEO ‘brats’ — it’s mostly doctors and lawyers and entrepreneur kids. And THOSE folks, the locally or regionally wealthy, seem to be running damn-skippy scared, and they’re taking it out on their own servant-support class. Never seen so many anxious, angry parents, trying to wrangle and manage us to make sure their kids are happy, healthy, well-educated, above-average, and ready-to-lead.

    Meanwhile, I think about my old school, the one where I used to work. International children, disinterested parents in the 1%, able to buy the best education for their children regardless of the kids’ ability (or ethics), and fundamentally powerful in the way that they just expect things to be worked out for them. At my current school, I have to reference in my mind “what will parents think?” all the time, while at my old school my primary reference point was/is “what do I have to do to get this kid understand this material?” It’s a fundamental shift in teaching and in day-to-day operations.

    I prefer the making of things, really, to the politics of teaching, and figuring out who is going to be offended or pleased by the lesson of the day. I prefer having folks come up to me in the coffee house to ask about the astrological hours for their current magical efforts, and making little icons of the Mansions of the Moon for friends-of-friends in the cancer ward, and finding way to bring art into the lives of people who don’t normally have any. It seems like lots of people have magic in their lives, but they don’t know how to make magic into an art.

    And maybe that was Blake’s glory: he was able to make magic with art, and art from magic, and find ways to bring both to ordinary people. At the moment, I don’t know how to do that, or how to do that well-enough to make a living at it. Doesn’t mean I don’t plan to try.
    Andrew B. Watt´s last blog post ..Tai Chi Y2D76

  4. 4

    Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’ve always taken enormous (unwarranted?) pride in the fact that William Blake and I share a birthday. I like to think we’re coming from a similar place, astrologically speaking. You know that question about what people, dead or alive, you’d invite to a dinner party? Blake is at the top of my list.

  5. 5
    Darren B

    Another great armchair journey has been had form Oz for me.
    Many thanks for these little tour-guides through places I’ll probably not get to see in person.
    For some reason I can imagine Johnny Depp as William Blake
    (not ‘the’ William Blake,for those who aren’t familiar with the movie “Deadman”)
    floating through the canal on his canoe journey to the other-side through gate 42.-)

  6. 6

    Discovered this site in January and am still processing it (grammar?), but simply must dip in with a comment by saying, ‘will do, guv.’ viz the creativity thing. Currently funded by working in a library.

    Not sure I agree about Depp as Blake, but then I think Depp is overrated.

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