Danny Moran: Back of the net for the Portico this year

    The Portico Prize walks among us to level up the profile of Northern writing. By means of a chilling counter-factual we could imagine a world in which it had never been invented, where all published novels are set in the same cul-de-sac in Barnet. It’s only right, then, that we should every two years take heed of which work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry is being fêted. Step forward Sally J Morgan whose novel Toto Among The Murderers last week scooped this year’s gong before what may inadvertently have been a record audience in recent times.
    In recent times, at least…for yes, the CPU-melting near-nine-hundred views racked up by the webcast outstripped the reach of any of the award’s live ceremonies in recent years.
     “We booked the Stoller Hall originally but Plan B put paid to a live event,” the Portico’s Thom Keep told me over a brew this week. “A sold-out evening would have meant an audience of three hundred max so nine hundred views represents fantastic interest.”
    The winning novel concerns a Leeds art school graduate whose increasingly reckless life takes her ever closer to the orbit of some A-list 70s ghouls. Inspired by the author’s real-life encounter as a young woman with killer Fred West it held off challenges from the likes of Andrew O’Hagan and Sairish Hussein from a fiction–heavy shortlist evoking the breadth of northern life…from the Toxteth riots to a North Sea oil platform to a Bradford family saga.
    “It’s been a good year for media coverage,” said Thom. “We’ve had The Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC website, Radio Four, Front Row, the Today programme…”
    As Sarah Miller’s webcast flaunted the library’s curves to ravishing effect…fireside glimmers, cameras lingering along shelves of come-hither books, blogger Simon Savidge sotto voce-ing his way through the anchorman duties, everything fastidiously diverse and inclusive as required and expected…chair of the judges Gary Younge underscored how the shortlist delivered the prize’s aims in finding the spirit of the North. “What we emerged with illustrated the degree to which there was not one North but many, rooted not just in place but time, gender, race, religion and narrative voice.”
     “You could see some kind of package for television in this,” I said to Thom.
    Just for a moment there was a ghost across the eyes as he saw the 1980s…black tie dinners at the Midland Hotel, Anthony Burgess rambling brilliantly through a sozzled acceptance speech, Granada Television on hand to capture the whole raffish affair as indeed they did on a couple of occasions.
    “I don’t know…who would screen it?” he said doubtfully, but I’m sure I saw a cog click a step somewhere.
    Five years ago in the aftermath of the Arena bombing Tony Walsh read his poem This Is The Place at a public vigil, flanked as he was by a phalanx of dignitaries of every race, creed and colour you could mention. For all the genuineness of the moment there was no Mr Hussein or Mrs Patel in the poem’s conception of the city. It does matter. As a reflection of the publishing world this year’s shortlist was still very white; the many Norths the prize aspires to – black, white, brown, yellow, gay, straight, trans, rich, poor, past and present – suggest a richer idea of ourselves to be found in the region’s letters.
    After Marcia
    Voter turnout for a midwinter by-election in Ancoats & Beswick might reasonably be expected to resemble the queue for Chuck Berry’s restroom. But since it was called after the Labour group allegedly bullied one of their own out of office amid mutual recriminations   about racism the contest doesn’t come without a teeny bit of spice. Put it this way…if after all that Marcia Hutchinson hoo-hah Pat Karney and co. were to get their arses handed to them at the ballot box on Feb 3 in their own flagship regenerated back yard it would be taken by Labour as a Code Red loss of face.
    Aiming to upset the Ancoats Applecart Festival is Lib Demmer Alan Good, who as a twenty-six-year-old software developer and physics graduate would be definitively fresh-faced were it not for the Open University style thicket of hedge about his chops. The Lib Dems tend be handled with tongs by the Mancunian electorate these days on account of old coalition war crimes and the party’s Marmite-flavoured leader, John Leech. Quizzed about going head-to-head with Labour’s candidate – CityCo fixer Gareth Worthington is a man whom detractors might like to paint as a Messianic bar manager who seeks only to ensure his lovely ward is cleaned-up after – Alan gave a more nuanced account of himself…by his own description a gay science geek who was always comfortable in his own skin, missed out on a Cambridge education by a whisker then came to Manchester to study Particle Whizzbits under Brian Cox. Having cooled on a career in academia he resolved that his grey cells might be better wired for fettling real world stuff.
    “They take the people of Ancoats & Beswick for mugs,” he told me. “Is Gareth going to give a shit about people with nothing in Beswick?”  It’s a tale of two wards, really, and Alan senses his opponent might be seen as onto a cushy number on the streets of the latter. Sit and talk to him for a length of time and you clock the differences between him and the Labour man…less polished, less evasive, more expansive in his thinking and grasp of detail, more politically-minded and preoccupied with change. Down now to their sole remaining councillor the Lib Dems enjoy so little traction these days you wonder if they unmasked a Labour group serial killer would they be able to get the message out at sufficient volume? It’s a scary thought.
    “This ward is a good example of Labour cakeism,” Alan argued, per simultaneously eating and having, with the campaign against the retail car park as a good example. “They object at the last minute but they never stand up to their own executive…they object just a little bit so people think their voices are being heard. And they play that game because they know that Labour will keep on winning.”


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