Manchester’s Lit: From the U.K.’s Oldest Library to Punk PoetryBy Karen Dalton-Beninato
Bibliophiles, take note: Manchester is a literary draw, with its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, a poetry scene that birthed renowned punk poet John Cooper Clarke, and the oldest public library in the U.K.
Here’s where to go to get your book fix.
That Really, Really Old-Book Smell
Chetham’s Library (called “Chet’s Library” by locals) offers everything you want in a historic library: old-book smell, massive burnished wood bookshelves, 13th-century tomes and priceless first editions from the likes of Homer and an upstart named Isaac Newton. Visitors can browse the shelves at select weekday times, but the rarest volumes are behind gated aisles that you must make a research appointment to view.
The building was first commissioned in 1421 to educate clergy, and has lasted as one of the oldest medieval complexes in northwest England. It was second in size only to the village’s cathedral at the time. Over the centuries the library mirrored England’s history, becoming a Catholic foundation under Queen Mary, a protestant one under Queen Elizabeth and at one point, a prison.
In 1653 civic-minded merchant Humphrey Chetham willed the structure to the village as a library, making it the oldest continually operating public library in the U.K. and possibly the English-speaking world, to the pride of Manchester’s bibliophiles.
It earned a revolutionary spot in 19th-century history when Karl Marx and Manchester’s Friedrich Engels met in the library’s reading room to research what would become “The Communist Manifesto.” The table they worked over is still in use, if you need to draft some thoughts. Make your library visit game plan 21st-century-style using its online catalog.
On the Trail of the People’s Punk Poet
A modern Manchester literary highlight is its performance poetry scene, which influential punk poet Dr. John Cooper Clarke honed in Manchester bars and coffee houses in the seventies.
Clarke shared bills with bands like Manchester-based Joy Division until he became a star in his own right and then fell off the grid. He’s now in the midst of a career comeback, headlining festivals and recording his series “Dr. John Cooper Clarke at the BBC.”
His performance poetry ranges from “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” to “Evidently Chickentown,” which was featured on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” Keep an eye on his scheduled gigs; his hometown shows sell out, so book early.
You can discover a new punk poet or debut your own work at Bad Language poetry readings the third Wednesday of every month on a cozy upstairs stage at Gulliver’s Bar. Email for a slot. Time slots are four minutes on the honor system, so don’t bring an epic poem.
Rub Literary Elbows in the Baronial Hall
Enter your work in one of the U.K.’s most lucrative literary prizes for unpublished work, the Manchester Poetry Prize and Manchester Fiction Prize. Whether or not you make the shortlist, you can rub elbows at the awards gala in Chetham Library’s Baronial Hall as £10,000 prizes for poetry and short stories go to entrants from 16 years old to any upper age, as long as you’re still alive and the judges (including Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a Manchester resident who founded the prizes) love what they read.
Join the writing community in holiday surroundings Jane Austen would have loved, from the Baronial Hall’s stone walls to its arched Tudor ceiling, when the gala kicks off. The event is cosponsored by Manchester Literature Festival and the Manchester Writing School.
Get Yourself Lit, from Books to Gin on the Lawn
The City of Manchester has earned its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature with sites like Cooper Clarke’s favorite haunts, the literary holdings of “A Clockwork Orange” author Anthony Burgess, the childhood home of “Cranford” author Elizabeth Gaskell, and the city’s historic libraries, including Chet’s.
Filled to the gills with literary inspiration, you can work on your own epic under the V&A Lounge Bar‘s beamed ceilings in an overstuffed leather chair. The pub in the Manchester Marriott Victoria & Albert Hotel has a terrace that looks out over the Irwell River to help keep your poetic thoughts flowing. Over a plate of beer-battered haddock, try the Gin on the Lawn (Hendricks Gin, Limencello, lime, cucumber and elderflower) to oil the writing engines of your mind.