My late husband, Tom and I became members of the Lit & 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 had been blown up. It was then completely demolished by the Fire Brigade to provide a much-needed fire-break during one of the air raids in the Manchester Blitz.
Lit & Phil 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.
Celebrated sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe was a Lit & Phil member
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, which is still in use at 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 held in the Reynolds Hall at the Manchester College of Technology (later to become UMIST), at the Whitworth Gallery, and at various venues at Manchester University.
A new home for the Lit & Phil at 36 George Street…
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.
…and a new home for the Manchester & Salford Film Society
The Lit & Phil Council’s agreement was obtained for the construction of a proper projection box at the rear of the new building’s 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 hiring the theatre for its meetings. Film Society committee members would act as projectionists when needed…
Experiments with microwaves alongside Empson’s literary criticism
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.
Dreams of bringing contemporary art to the masses
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.
But the heady days of post-war optimism didn’t last…
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…
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…
…Tom died in 2007 at the age of 85 but if he could see us now, he would be greatly gratified to see the (Manchester) 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 94th year and can still remember listening to Marcus and Mitzi in 1955.
This is an extract of an article originally published in 2014 in vol. 152 of the Manchester Memoirs. Huge thanks to Marjorie Ainsworth for her incredible support of the Manchester Lit & Phil since 1955.
Main image: courtesy of the Manchester School of Art Slide Library at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections Museum