Off I go on another train – this time to Manchester. I’m tired but excited as I am meeting with Jill Liddington, and she is going to show me ‘Suffrage City.’
Walking, talking and looking at architecture is my favourite way to learn about a space and subject.
I meet Jill at Central Library and she encourages me to eat chocolate cake as soon as I arrive. Perfect! We begin to talk and I ‘fess up straight away that my knowledge of the suffrage movement is pretty limited. Jill looks a bit doubtful, but I suggest that perhaps this is a good thing, as I am more of a blank canvas, and open to others’ thoughts. I’m not quite sure how convinced she was, but as I begin to describe what I hoped to create; where and why, she looks very interested.
It was interesting meeting in this incredible space. It has been completely renovated. I hadn’t been into a public library for a while and was shocked at the lack of books – everything is online! Jill took me to the suffrage history section; it was pretty sparse. Millions had been spent on interactive touch screen archives, which just didn’t hold my attention. I wonder if this is my generation or if this is what is happening to humans as whole, unable to focus and concentrate.
Jill questions me thoroughly on what I might be thinking of making and I felt that she liked my ideas; especially on not making the work about a personality, but looking at the movement as a whole. We walked towards the People’s History Museum and took in some significant sites. I’d forgotten how powerful Manchester was in the 19th century and every time you come here you are reminded with the elaborate red brick buildings. We stop at the John Rylands Library.
Jill and I sit and talk about how we came to be where we are now. I explained to her that I had another life before I had come to art, when my son’s father left me as a 25-year-old with a three-month-old baby. I’d lost my home too, and had to start over again. I added quickly; ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to me, losing everything, cocking up so massively. It allowed me to make art without fear of getting it wrong’. Jill and I stand in the foyer of the library together as women whose life journeys has shaped our work.
As Jill and I continued to walk and talk, she makes me aware of how organized and political the women’s movement was in the North, and that being a southerner, I imagined (as usual) that the momentum was fuelled from London and the Home Counties. In reality it was the textile workers from the northern cotton towns.
We come to the People’s History Museum and here Jill left me to look around the exhibits. I discover a world of richly embroidered banners and political symbolism. The space for the suffrage movement was small but significant. What struck me was the strength and vibrancy of the colourful banners filling the space, how powerful these must have appeared on the marches. I realise how privileged and generally unpolitical my life has been, due to the lottery of my time and place of birth.
I leave Jill, cherishing a copy of her newly signed book – ‘One Hand Tied Behind Us’.
With a few hours left before my train returning to London, I head for the Manchester Museum of Art and lose myself in late-19th-century paintings.
George Watts featured heavily, making himself ever present to me, no matter where I travel. I briefly think of my women’s prison group and the weightiness of my weekly visits to them for Watts Galley, I try to block it from my mind and find joyful relief when I enter a space dedicated to Frank Auerbach and his emotional charcoal drawings. I think of Charlie, one of the prisoners. She’d like him.
I want to go home, I’m tired of thinking.