Lit & Phil library at 36 George Street
The article below was written by one of our longest-standing members, Marjorie Ainsworth, and was featured in last year's Memoirs. From people to places, it is a wonderful insight into the Society's recent history and its links to other Manchester cultural and educational institutions.
The Olden Days at the Lit & Phil
by Marjorie Ainsworth
My late husband, Tom, and I became members of the Lit. and Phil., in 1955. We had been recruited by a Miss Blackledge who joined in 1953. We had made her acquaintance through our involvement with the Manchester Area Youth Film Council and her Presidential role with the Girls and Lads Club Association. The Registered Address at that time was the Portico Library because the Society’s original Georgian house at 36 George Street, Manchester had been blown up and completely demolished by the Fire Brigade to provide a much-needed fire-break during one of the air raids in the Manchester Blitz. Council Meetings were held there and the occasional lecture. The first Lit & Phil event we attended was in the Reading Room at the Portico. Although the audience was necessarily small, some of us had to sit on piles of dusty tomes as the Portico itself had not fully recovered from the effects of the Blitz. The talk on “Abstract Impressionism” was given by two members – Marcus and Mitzi Cunliffe. Marcus taught American Studies at the University and Mitzi was a sculptor whose best-known work is the golden BAFTA mask still in use at their Award Ceremonies. It was the first Tom and I had heard about Jackson Pollock et al. We were fascinated and decided there and then that joining the Society was a good move and promised an interesting and intriguing future.
There were about 350 members when we joined. Lectures were mostly arranged by Council but Special Lectures were organised by the Chemical Section which, after a brief period as the Natural Philosophy Section became the Science and Technology Section, and the already functioning Social Philosophy Section. The Arts Section was not formed until 1970 and the first mention of it is in the Memoirs for that year. Margaret Pilkington was its first Chairman. Lectures were mostly held in the Reynolds Hall at the Manchester College of Technology, later to become UMIST, the Whitworth Gallery and various venues at the University. During this time, plans were being made for the construction of a new home on the site of the demolished building in George Street. This was officially opened in September 1960. Tom and I were present at the inaugural address given by the President of the Royal Society, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, its title being “The Arts and the Sciences” a topic much discussed in intellectual circles at that time. I have a faded photograph of much younger versions of the two of us seated on the second row on either side of our guest, Jim Whittaker.
During the planning stage discussions were also held about the best location for the Society’s visual aid equipment – an epidiascope and a slide projector. It just so happened that the Manchester & Salford Film Society, of which Tom was the Chairman, was desperately seeking a new home to continue in its attempts to bring Art House and World Cinema to the people of Manchester. Council’s agreement was obtained for the construction of a proper projection box at the rear of the lecture theatre which would accommodate the Film Society’s two 16mm projectors.
This would kill two birds with one stone; the Film Society would have somewhere to hold its performances and the Lit & Phil, would be able to offer film projection facilities to any organisation which was hiring the theatre for its meetings.
Film Society committee members would act as projectionists when needed. This collaboration worked very well for all the eighteen years of the new building’s existence. Many Manchester Societies held their meetings In the lecture theatre and were very appreciative of the facilities provided. One such was the Scientific Film Society, of which Tom was the Chairman, mainly attended by 6th formers from local schools who were interested in the sciences. I recall sitting through a mind-numbing series of films entitled “Corrosion, Parts 1, 2 and 3”.
Every new Season in September began with something called a “Conversatzione”. I think we dressed up a bit, were formally greeted by the current President and then given a glass of sherry. I don’t remember what happened after that. There was no Young People’s Section at the time, but there was always a Christmas Lecture for the children and grandchildren of members. This was one occasion when the Society’s splendid laboratory bench was called into action. There were many exciting demonstrations, usually involving explosions.
The years at George Street were interesting and exciting. Tom and I practically lived on the premises. When we were not arranging the Film Society events, we were often to be found in the projection box operating the slide projector or film projector for an organisation which had hired the premises, as well as attending the Lit & Phil’s own meetings. Of the hundreds of lectures I must have attended at George Street only a few are still vivid in my mind: Henry Lipson’s lecture about microwaves where he made a cake in a crude prototype oven of his own devising. He passed bits of cake to the members present; it was not very nice. Then there was Sir William Empson sporting a beard that looked like Spanish Moss telling us about “Seven Kinds of Ambiguity”. I am afraid it was as incomprehensible to many of us as the most erudite and obscure offerings of the Science and Technology Section. I remember being asked to look after Prof. Eysenck before his talk on “Personality Testing” which was interesting, and one occasion, when I happened to be on the premises, Mrs Garlick asked me if I would mind nipping over to Lewis’s Food Hall to get a jar of horseradish sauce to accompany the roast dinner which Council Members enjoyed before their deliberations. Those were the days!
Mr and Mrs Garlick were the caretakers and occupied the flat on the top floor. Members could always pop into the House for a cup of coffee or a snack or just nice sit down. The Garlicks usually provided a finger buffet for consumption before lectures. I have no happy memories of these buffets; I can still taste the margarine. The Arts Section buffets were always appreciated as we did our own thing. Molly Booth sourced the quiches, Tom and I raided Makro for the pate and cheese. We provided nice crusty bread and real butter. Wine boxes with red and white plonk enabled us to go on serving until they were well and truly empty, and this proved to be a popular Arts Section feature. The fact that I cannot remember more of the superb lectures at George Street is a pity, but at least I know a little something must have rubbed off as I now know of more unknowns.
It was inspiring to walk past John Dalton’s headstone, set in the wall of the porch, which had been rescued from Ardwick Cemetery.
Just inside the front door on the left was a minute office, from which Mary Urell miraculously dealt with all the Society’s administrative tasks.
Exterior of 36 George Street
The opening of the new house had a surprising and totally unexpected galvanising effect on a group of the more forward-looking members. I particularly remember Leonard Cohen who owned Henry’s department store on Market Street. His aim in life was to bring art to the masses. He exhibited Epstein’s “Adam” in the basement of his store and donated a fountain to Piccadilly Gardens. The new house so inspired him, he conceived the notion that George Street could become the epicentre of artistic activity in Manchester. He actually envisaged a new Opera House could be built between 36 George Street and the Art Gallery. His idea to have an extra storey built on the flat roof of No.36 to house an Arts Workshop accessible from the car park was, as it turned out, a structural impossibility. As a preliminary step toward achieving some of these ambitions, a group of members including Leonard, in their own time and on their own initiative, set up the Manchester Institute of Contemporary Art, MICA. They were not to be outdone by London where the Institute of Contemporary Art had just been opened. Most of MICA’s events took place at the Lit & Phil house. Tom was the film officer and I was a committee member. We played to packed houses when films of an experimental and avant-garde nature were screened. Some of the Lit & Phil members involved in all this activity were, as I hazily recall, Maurice Pariser – who unfortunately died before these dreams could be fulfilled, and Robert Sheldon and Edmund Dell who departed to become Labour Members of Parliament. We had the young Seamus Heaney reading his poetry on two occasions, a whole host of North West poets and many up-and-coming artists of the day.
These were heady days expressing the general air of post-war optimism that seemed to promise a life more exciting and interesting than heretofore. It was undoubtedly the presence of the new, modern and accommodating building in the centre of Manchester that triggered these ambitious but finally impossible dreams.
There was only one unfortunate and unforeseen event which cause a temporary blip in relations between Lit & Phil and the Film Society. The North West Group of the British Federation of Film Societies hired the Lit & Phil premises for one of their Annual Viewing Sessions on a Saturday afternoon. These sessions were held for committee members of film societies to preview newly available films which they might want to include in their future programmes. The films came as a package direct from the British Film Institute in London and their content was unknown to the viewing panel assembled in the Lecture Theatre. As luck would have it Canon Saxon had arranged to meet his wife in the car park when she had finished her shopping, and seeing that something was happening in the house, decided to have a look. The film on the screen at that moment happened to be a short subject reel by Kenneth Anger (a famous and well-regarded director) called “Fireworks”. None of the people present had seen the film before and were oblivious as to its content.
They were just as startled as Canon Saxon to find they were looking at a pixilated and impressionistic depiction of a meeting between several gay sailors. The matter was raised at a subsequent Council Meeting by Canon Saxon. After a full explanation had been accepted – cordial relations were resumed and lasted for all the eighteen years of the building’s existence. Unfortunately, it eventually became apparent that something was radically wrong with the fabric of the building. Cracks began to appear in the walls and the flat roof leaked. The fault lay in the use of high alumina cement in its construction. This was a wonder innovation of the 50’s lauded for its quick-drying properties. The firms involved in the building of the house had gone into liquidation and there was no alternative but to sell the site and become peripatetic until new permanent premises could be found. Our exodus after only eighteen years was inevitable, and inflation and rising property prices soon made a permanent home highly unlikely. I remember the admin offices in Brown Street and the Law Library, before MMU came to the rescue. Section meetings were held in Platt Chapel, St.Thomas’s on Ardwick Green, the Withington Girls High School, the Edgar Wood Centre in Victoria Park, the Muriel Stott Centre at the University, and the Portico Library. The Film Society was also again desperately seeking somewhere to live and was saved by the Manchester Amateur Photographic Society which had just purchase Platt Chapel in Fallowfield.
Tom was an early Chairman of the Arts Section of which I was later Secretary and then Chairman. We were both co-opted to the Arts Section committee for many years, no doubt because of our joint long-term memory stores. My short-term memory is now less than reliable. Tom died in 2007 at the age of 86 but if he could see us now he would be greatly gratified to see the Literary & Philosophical Society, of which he was very fond, flourishing and growing in spite of its past vicissitudes. I cannot believe that I have achieved doyenneship of the Society in my 92nd year and can still remember listening to Marcus and Mitzi in 1955.