Thursday, 2 June 2016

Meandering Mersey // Natalie Bradbury

We’re both slightly late when we meet on the approach to East Didsbury station and Natalie looks slightly puzzled as she tries to work out how to reach the footpath to the Mersey that is the thread we will follow. We both of us thought about bringing maps but neither of us actually have. While Natalie tries to work out the most practical way across the A34 in what I think must be one of the ugliest areas of south Manchester, I worry about whether the rain will hold off, and how I’ll make notes while on the hoof and carrying a coffee cup. We haven’t agreed a route, or a destination, or anything really. I suspect Natalie isn’t even sure what expectations I have, whether she’ll meet them.
 
I can’t remember for certain how I first met Natalie, but it’s quite likely to have been an outing to have a guided tour of Preston bus station, Ingham and Wilson’s stunning late 60s building, the sad neglect of which created a space redolent of history and mystery, intensely visual and tangible and which Natalie reminds me would have been one of the first ever Manchester Modernist Society field trips back in 2011. It seems likely this would have been an early encounter; this is the sort of space Natalie likes to inhabit, not in a deliberate intention to take the road less travelled, but as she says later, “when I see a river or canal I just have to follow it; when I’m on a road I want to know where it goes.” This isn’t about deliberately seeking out the urban underside, but being more indiscriminate about where your route takes you, and more thoughtful in response to wherever you end up.

My approach to Natalie to request an interview coincided with a
Manchester Left Writers’ show at Castlefield Gallery inspired by and creatively exploring the notion of the Northern Powerhouse. MLW is a group with a particular political and aesthetic approach, and this show seems to have given them opportunity to flex new creative muscles. A previous event had been a showing of reworked films from the North West Film Archive as part of the Manchester Literature Festival in October 2015. Natalie calls refers to the Archive as “amazing” with a special quality of enthusiasm. Manchester Left Writers read some of their own Precarious Passages writings over minor, esoteric and amateur films, from Stockport carnival in the 1930s to CND demonstrations, enabling them to find serendipitous combinations of city images and imagery, past and present. For Castlefield Gallery, by contrast, they made their own films and created the soundtracks as collages from sounds found when making the work using iPhones and a basic digital camera, along with some violin played by Natalie. This was accompanied by two nights of newly created spoken word and musical performances by MLW and Vocal Harum. It didn’t feel like a progression between the works, but simply two different types of project, a development through being able to make their own films. “The archive is a great starting point, a great resource, but the Castlefield show was riskier, challenging. The North West show was about historical and contemporary juxtapositions, the Castlefield Gallery about the now, about being in the now.” In the light of that, I wondered that happened to that material now that the show is over, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan. “The Cacophany performance, the piece with all four of us reading at the same time, those texts are in the Thin Vale publication that we produced for the exhibition. That’s a theme of the Manchester Left Writers, Precarious Passages, how you experience the city, how we interact with places. Mobility is a key theme, Oh, look at the ducklings, can you see,” pointing at the opposite riverbank; “ so well disguised.”

The four that Natalie refers to are the current makeup of the Manchester Left Writers. Some of the work in the show came out of a particular dynamic between David, who grew up in Stockport, and Natalie who lives there now. “It was nice to show each other around,” and this is a really theme of Natalie’s practice to which we constantly return. “Travelling though is a big part of it, connected to the Northern Powerhouse, which is all to do with connecting places, both literally with infrastructure, and metaphorically. Stockport is about home and belonging/not belonging, identity, how you feel about it.” Natalie likes Stockport a lot. “It’s suffered from its proximity to Manchester, the town centre particularly. People don’t go.” Exploring the town “you find yourself high up unexpectedly, it surprises me, topographically it changes very quickly, and in terms of town planning Edwardian/Victorian villas and rows of terrace housing, then lots of suburban infill, and the open spaces, common, recreation parks, fields, horses, it’s easy to go from city to country, and I wanted to explore it.”

Natalie has already told me by this point that she believes it’s important to explore the place you live. This belies the project, however, and I’ve spotted a heron. This isn’t a duty requiring a steely determination and a call on reserves of motivation. “It’s a compulsion to explore, I feel it like a responsibility, I need to know what’s around the bend, to know the lay of the land, I want to know where it goes, where I’ll get to. I’m interested in finding out how places are connected up.”

There’s a sense of a gentle evangelical urge to Natalie’s feelings about her relationship with her environment. She tells me that “I see Manchester as being my countryside; instead of getting a train out I look for the green places around me.” It’s a vision, or a way of experiencing, that she wants others to have for themselves. “I don’t know when I started getting interested in sharing,” a sentiment I suspect every creative person in history can identify with and ‘sharing’ is the operative word Natalie returns to again and again as she thinks through what it is she does with the material she gathers through wandering. It’s not simply about a simple sharing of places or routes, however. With her zine, the
Shrieking Violet, “I want to challenge people’s perceptions. You might be saying it’s not a green city, but I’ve had these experiences,” as we walk a vibrant green corridor cutting the suburban sprawl of south Manchester. “I’ve tried to bring people’s attention to things. I like to be a guide- not so much;” as there’s a retraction from the notion of a person to take you round, point at things and tell you facts; instead “to give people the idea, and they go off and do it. Like the Manchester Left Writers’ films, they’re not setting out to create a particular aesthetic or result. We hoped people would think they could go away and do it too.” You want to inspire rather than instruct, I ask. “Sharing, this is a starting point.” There we are again.

For someone whose most recent practice has been primarily writing and publication, the Castlefield Gallery offered “an opportunity to try something new. It was terrifying and exciting.” When younger, Natalie really wanted to be an artist “but I decided against it after A-levels, I had a crisis of confidence.” She picks at the branches as we pass. “I concentrated on writing which I felt I was better at and could develop more. Recently, I’ve thought, actually, I shouldn’t make that distinction. I can just be creative. It all comes from the creative drive and practice. I’ve gone back into singing recently and leant to embrace it, to not worry about it not being my main practice. Embrace the fear of failure, enjoy the process.”

We are making our way closer to the A6. Natalie sees writing about this road as a turning point. Initially joining MLW she was “really terrified of their analytical, academic, politicised writing, against my journalistic work about place.” But she enjoyed having people to talk to, and taking some of their writing home, dipping in and out of it, “I didn’t know what to do with it, but I enjoyed it.” One particular piece was about the 192 bus route Stockport to Manchester, a journey that Natalie cycles regularly. “Cycling is a defining part of my life, disproportionate perhaps.” She later describes it in a torrent as a “full-on experience, the sound of it, the constant fear of death, the heightened awareness.” The piece took a long time to write but in the end she was much more comfortable and confident with her abilities.

We’re talking about some of Natalie’s more recent inspirations, from the
Diary of a Bluestocking blog and her encounters with the Manchester Modernist Society through which she met a lot of people who inspired her. As I’m just starting my interview project I ask about her experiences; interviews have been something Natalie has done since school, interviewing bands, through work experience on the Sale and Altrincham Messenger, to her blog and zine where the advantages of having no word count result in greater depth. So she can choose people she admires like the post-war industrial artist and designer William Mitchell, or a series interviewing buskers in Manchester, motivated by her time in Manchester School of Samba, a Manchester busking institution until banned, despite the exuberance they brought to the city streets. “I think that series is one of the best things I’ve done for the Shrieking Violet.”

The zine is ‘kind-of’ ongoing, with the imminent publication of the Shrieking Violet Guide to the Public Art of Central Salford: Chapel Street and Salford Crescent, which emerged from a tour Natalie put together for UCLAN undergrads on public art and how Salford is changing. Projects emerge for Natalie from the ways she engages with her landscape. When she moved from the Salford side of Manchester, where she regularly walked along the Manchester Ship Canal and River Irwell, to the northern suburbs of Stockport, it was natural, she says, to ask “which river am I going to walk along” and it feels like a metaphor for her creative projects. There’s even a sense that her exploratory life is one of her creative projects. It could remain a private act of creation if it wasn’t bolstered, as she says; “I have a compulsion to create, and I love to meet people, that’s what I thrive on. I do find, as you know, group situations difficult, I don’t relate well to group dynamics, but one-to-one, that’s a luxury, there’s space for me and them. It’s an in-depth conversation about who you are, what you do. It’s important to have that dialogue.” Then suddenly we’re under the Co-op pyramid, which has caught me utterly by surprise and feels completely alien in this context.

“The idea of repeating myself worried me, doing things just because I could and not challenging myself. Then I thought to make it about process.” It’s the word ‘about’ that is given the weight here, as if a change in emphasis here symbolises a movement in the way she thinks about her life as much as about the work she creates. Natalie’s life as a work of practice which threads itself round the streets and bridleways in a web from her home, rewalking and relearning and reorientating, and “I don’t actually know where the Mersey goes from here,” as we try and find our way under the Stockport viaduct which she says must be listed while I wonder how it hasn’t been replaced by something larger and blander. “I recognise what I’m good at, not spread myself too thin. People ask, can I knit or garden, and I’m happy to admit they aren’t where my skills are.” That said, “I’d like to be much better at Spanish, that’s something I tell myself I’d like to pursue one day when I’m retired, or go to the Cervantes Institute. I’ve tried but it doesn’t come naturally, it seems like a disproportionate amount of work.”

We’ve taken the A6 north towards Heaton Chapel, and as we talk about the smells of a walk, or in Natalie’s case her cycling into town, and how they’re not seriously considered, we pass a field. With horses. “There you go. I told you. I love how you suddenly come across fields of horses. There, we’re just walking through the city, and there’s a field.” It’s not a triumphant vindication, it’s a joyful confirmation. Natalie knows the city and it continues to unfold surprises to her. In Heaton Chapel, it’s the McVities factory, then through the grease and grime disguised with incense to the traffic lights where it’s the smell of fried chicken, the tarmacy smells, and before us the towers of the city rise up and we fold our way between them.

conversation with Natalie Bradbury took place along the Mersey between the A34 and A6 on Friday 20 May 2016 from 5pm // @Natalieviolet


Natalie recommended Clara Casian.

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