“The very definition of a labour of love” – From Manchester with Love by Paul Morley

IMG_2022-12-6-181109It has taken a little while to get to Paul Morley’s biography of Manchester TV presenter, record club owner and impresario Tony Wilson. It was first published in hardback a year or so ago and – despite a fondness for Tony and – let’s call it what it is – a love for many of the bands he managed – the size of the book (From Manchester with Love clocks in at almost 600 pages) put us off. We were reading Paul Auster’s almost 800 page biography of Stephen Crane at the time and we were exhausted. And yet, even in our exhausted state, we were aware of just how many end of year best of lists featured From Manchester with Love. Let’s circle back when it’s in paperback, we thought to ourselves. And here we are.

As all of those end of year best of lists attest – From Manchester with Love is pretty damn magnificent. It’s the very definition of a labour of love. It is as much a biography of Tony Wilson as it is the biography of a city. It is a wayward, contradictory, opinionated reflection of the man himself who was the kind of man who would say he was whatever you said he was not (wearing a mask of the Arctic Monkeys). Morley was always primed by Wilson as his would-be, one-day biographer and, despite a great many ups and downs, and fall-outs, and all the rest of it, here it is. A monument to a monument. If you’ve read any of Morley’s other books (we’d heartily recommend The North), you’ll know his style is both fluid and fluent, knowledgeable and humble, funny and sad.

Of course, you get the highlights and the lowlights you probably already know about (the death of Ian Curtis, the bankruptcy of Factory records at the hands of the Happy Mondays) together with a great deal of detail that may be new to you (from the fact that one of Wilson’s wives was held hostage by a stalker to the post-truth twist that reveals Wilson wrote the novelisation of the 24 Hour Party People film).

Like John Robb’s excellent oral history of Punk, Morley isn’t afraid to get out of the way and let people speak for themselves (and so we hear from lots and lots of people who were in Wilson’s orbit, from Richard & Judy to Peter Saville to Vini Reilly and Wilson’s own kids who provide several moments of genuine emotion in the book, thanks both to Wilson’s occasional negligence as a father but also to his last days, which Morley treats with admirable sympathy). Yes, it may be that some of the stories here (the death of Curtis, for example) don’t take centre stage but that is because Morley has written about them elsewhere and anyway – this is a book about Wilson (and again, it’s worth saying, there are details here I’d not read anywhere before – such as when Wilson heard the news about the lead singer of Joy Division, he quietly took himself off and was found, in an empty room in Granada, in a foetal position on the floor, crying).

In lots of ways, From Manchester with Love is lofty and inspiring. It’s full of love (obviously) for a city that probably doesn’t exist any more, and it’s full of love for learning and history and ways of being different. Here, for example, is a quote from railway worker and trade unionist Buenaventura Durruti (whose spirit inspired Wilson):

“We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We who ploughed the prairies and built the cities can build again, only better next time. We carry a new world, here in our hearts…”

The writing – when inspired by the music that got Morley writing in the first place – achieves a baroque grandeur all of its own:

“[Martin Hannett, producer of Unknown Pleasures]’s sound emerged out of the spaces and non-spaces, and spaced-out minds, and inexplicable presences, damp and decay, form and character, textures and patterns, apparition and essence, temper and love, streaks of night rain and shards of sunlight, rooms and machines, of a smoking city, with, under noiseless clouds at the very edge of things, wonderful wilderness, surrounded by the dark of night, the sky cracking, the age-less Moors, the isolated Peaks and the unearthly Pennines existing as an uncanny, spacious background cut through the serpentine Snake Pass.”

Any Cop?: It’s a worthy testament to Wilson’s towering buffoonish-ness and exalting genius for being in the right place at the right time with nothing but a fan’s enthusiasm and a stirrer’s delight in kicking up a beef. What’s more, the only biography I’ve read in many a long year that I could imagine wanting to read a second time.

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