Stockport sits six miles south of Manchester (and only a ten minute train ride from Piccadilly). It is a town that has until recently stubbornly refused attempts at regeneration and gentrification- and in some ways that has been part of its charm. Over the last few of years the market hall and Underbank area have undergone a change, with shops and bars opening, a food hall, an upturn in fortunes attracting a different, newer crowd. Opposite the railway station a new plaza area has been created with a bar, Bask, opening a year ago. Bask runs all sorts of events as well as serving food and drink among them acoustic nights, late nights at the weekend with DJs and a regular Wednesday night slot called Express Yourself. On Wednesday this week, 31st May, it had Manchester poet Mike Garry performing. There was a full line up of support, starting with Matt Jacques, a singer songwriter with acoustic guitar telling tales of bandit country (North Reddish, a short bus ride away), his intention to haunt his wife if he dies first and a cover of Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. There were three poets (and sadly I don't know their names but all were were excellent): a young woman with personal poetry about her body and autism; a young man with laugh out loud funny poems about getting the number 50 bus from East Didsbury to Salford and middle aged men who say nothing's happened in Manchester since Factory, that the old days were better and that Beetham Tower is too tall; and a male poet with poetry filled with righteous anger, about politics, givng up watching the news for reasons of self- preservation, life, near death and the NHS. There was a stand up comic whose main theme was being a worrier and the things to worry about and lastly the excellent Test Card Girl, a one woman act, keys and vocals playing synth/ folk. The event was hosted by David Scott, a Manchester radio and Twitter who has recently published an alternative history of Manchester since the 90s titled Mancunians (which I'm half way through and enjoying a lot- he is ten years or so younger than me so sees the city and its culture in a different way which is always a good thing to expose yourself to. The range of contributors to the book is varied and interesting too).
Mike Garry is Manchester's foremost wordsmith, a performance poet and librarian who always puts on a good show, who can veer skillfully from funny to hard hitting to emotive and back again. His best known works are Gorton Girls Know All The Words To Songs By Chaka Khan and (mainly) his tribute to Tony Wilson, St Anthony- An Ode To Anthony H. Wilson. Mike gives us ninety minutes tonight and in a small venue like this shows he's capable of bringing the house down. There's no need to ask people to be quiet while he's on- everyone is silent while he speaks and sings. At times, between poems, to keep the flow and the mood going Mike finishes a poem and asks/ instructs us not to clap, as he moves straight into his next work, giving a sense that it's all part of a bigger piece, a life's work. He opens by approaching the mic and singing, lines about it being a very cold sea and a very deep sea. He then segues into a poem about immigration, migrants and their children crossing the Channel and the lack of humanity that's seen in the tone of the debate about these people, undertaking huge risks. He talks about football, and his love/ hate relationship with the BBC (and the money they offered him to write something for the Beeb's coverage of today's all Manchester cup final- at first he wanted to refuse it, as a United fan unable to write about City. The money he tells us soon changed his mind- he reads a poem about the sky being blood red but then switches it so it's sky blue). He reads and performs a mixture of old poems and new ones, some so new the only place they exist is on his phone. He can fire off words at a million miles an hour and stop suddenly, delivering heavy truths and slices of life. Mike jokes with us that he's become obsessed with death and that his poems are mainly now about death- and they may be so, but really they are about life, and loss (which becomes part of life as you age), and they are celebrations of life and lives.
When Mike kicks into St. Anthony I find myself, seated near the back, mouthing the words to myself as he says them. It's a poem that often moves me when I listen to the recorded version and it doesn't fail to do so tonight. His next poem floors me and Lou, a poem called Son, written for his son who now lives in New Zealand, with lines about him being so far away, wanting to see him and wanting to hug him. Given our situation with Isaac's death eighteen months ago almost to the day, it has a predictable effect on us both, both in tears as Mike speaks. He stretches the evening out, pushing the time limit and giving us more, the audience of a hundred or so lapping up every word. At the finale, he gathers his things from the stage- books, phone, coat- packs into his bag and puts his jacket on, all the while still reciting his lines and then with no little drama delivers the last line and walking off the stage and exiting into the toilet laving the room briefly silent and then in applause.
I've seen Mike four times in recent years, once at the old Granada Studio building for the launch of the St. Anthony single in 2015, once at a free, open air event in Altrincham a few years ago, attended by a few dozen people and most recently supporting John Cooper Clarke at the Bridgewater Hall in 2022. The performance at Bask this week outdid them all- spellbinding stuff from a master of his craft.