The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound
The fascist madman is said to have written these lines to convey the intense emotion he felt while waiting with commuters at the Concorde station of the Paris Métro. Through precise imagery and the abandonment of verbs, he hoped to document a moment of revelation: ‘In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.’
I recently found myself in the vicinity of Manchester Piccadilly train station, when something similar happened to me. Descending the escalator to the lower ground floor with a friend, I found myself suddenly confronted by a large black and white photograph of a man with a stubbly beard, slick-backed hair and expressionless eyes.
‘Who does he think he is?’ asked my friend, the writer Austin Collings, wearing his trademark fedora hat and round spectacles like a cross between James Joyce and Dr Who. He frowned at the photograph, wavering between complete contempt and reluctant admiration; Austin doesn’t really do the middle ground. ‘David Beckham or something?’
Being drunk and low in spirits — something about a girl, it always is — this thing outward and objective was speaking to me; and the inward, subjective thing I felt was anger. A swarming anger that directed itself straight back at this preening poseur who no doubt, given the inherent injustice of the universe, gets all the girls. I recognised the narcissist as one of the SWAYS Records fraternity: you know, the ones who shamelessly peddle themselves as Salford’s cultural regenerators while being bankrolled by the likes of Manchester City Council and Bella Union Records (a.k.a. ‘London’). Instead of writing a poem, I threw an empty bottle of Polish lager at his face. Nobody seemed to care and I think, on balance, Ezra would’ve been proud.
With little else on offer by way of entertainment, Austin persuaded me to take in some of the other images which form part of an exhibition called ‘SWAYS Stills’ by Natalie Curtis. According to an information panel on the platform, the exhibition documents a night in the life of the label, which mainly seems to involve them drinking to excess and taking baths.
Although Beckham was still omnipresent, like some seedy God of a SWAYS-shaped underworld, things started to improve. Seeing the world through Natalie’s eye is always a transformative experience and I found myself undertaking a strange Metrolink journey of the mind: I cheered up, slightly. One of the most pleasing aspects of the exhibition was that she’s elected to remove Beckham’s face from most of the shots. Instead, you mainly get to see pictures of his feet while he’s lying in the bath. I’m not sure what this is meant to signify, exactly, but I found it funny. Perhaps she was subjecting him to some kind of artistic ridicule? In some of the images he’s still in the fuxking bath holding a bottle of wine and there’s a vaguely funereal, suicidal feel to the whole thing. The exhibition offers no further clues as to how the night in question actually ended but you live in hope.
As I turned to leave, I saw Austin climb onto the cracked Beckham lightbox, installing himself at the top in a sit-in protest, like a modern-day Swampy. Last of the great contrarians, he’d got it in his head to save the exhibition from its imminent dismantling because he found its subject so sublimely idiotic.
‘Is nothing sacred?’ he cried, cracking out a bottle of whisky from his jacket pocket. ‘I’m not leaving unless someone assures me these photos are going to be replaced by a shrine to Robin Thicke.’
Rumour has it that he’s grown dreadlocks under his fedora and is still there to this day. Why not go see for yourself? Time is running out, for us all …
The SWAYS Stills exhibition by Natalie Curtis will be on display at Manchester Piccadilly Metrolink station until 24 January 2014.
Image © Natalie Curtis, 2014