Manchester: Literary Locations, Libraries and (Some) Libations

Chetham's LibraryDespite a not-fun health wobble, we managed a quick weekend trip to Manchester recently, for music and literary purposes. As ever when traveling, I have to take a Professional Interest in not just all the unique local bookshops, but in any unusual or historic libraries. And although I spent a lot of time in and around Manchester in the 1990s, nearly everything looks so vastly different now that it felt like visiting a new place. Indeed, apart from the big Waterstones and Affleck’s Palace, so much seemed either completely unfamiliar or strangely uncanny…there was a hint of a memory, but the general appearance in many places around town was (mostly) so different that it felt like a false one.

I won’t dwell too much on the fact that Manchester has a Uniqlo (attached to the Arndale Centre, no less! Only some of the tiling that made it look like a toilet from the 1960s remains!) while we here in Dublin, a European capital, still lack one; while most of what I look for anywhere is a wealth of independent shops, pubs and restaurants, I do go through a lot of Uniqlo basics and rain gear, so I feel the need to stop in whenever I spot one elsewhere. New rain jacket acquired, we enjoyed browsing and tea-drinking at the delightful House of Books and Friends and at Social Refuge, the café inside Queer Lit. But while book-buying was a key part of the agenda (I finally picked up Ghosts of the British Museum), looking at libraries was the main focus.

Inside Chetham's Library: information card about a previous Librarian removed for theftAnd again, despite the considerable time I’ve spent around the area, I’d never made it to Chetham’s Library. It’s all too easy to think of Manchester as springing into existence largely fully-formed during the Industrial Revolution, Roman foundations notwithstanding, as there simply isn’t much (at first glance) to see of medieval Manchester, and finally getting around to taking the tour of the c.1420s building went a long way to rectifying that. The library is gorgeous – not dissimilar in some ways to Marsh’s Library here – and it’s a fascinating tour. I especially enjoyed the notes showing what previous Librarians had got up to – some were bad ‘uns!

Statue of Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in John Rylands LibraryWe also took in the John Rylands Library, and it was heartening to see that there was a queue to get in; more people wanting to do library tourism can only be a good thing, if managed properly. In addition to the beautiful building and core collections, there was an excellent exhibit called ‘We Have Always Been Here,’ exploring marginalised communities and how library and archival collections are never neutral…not news to those of us who have worked in them, but probably something that the broader public needs a lot more education to really understand. There’s to be considerable renovation in the near future, so it’s well worth checking out now to compare and contrast down the line.

While we didn’t get to try as much local beer as planned, thanks to the whole surprise illness thing, I did enjoy a couple of cask bitter and pale ale halves here and there, and a mix of good and less-good non-alcoholic options – the AF version of Track’s Sonoma was very good indeed, and the taproom was lovely. Also lovely was the much-recommended Marble Arch Inn; a beautiful, calm pub ideal for a chill afternoon of cheese boards and those lower-key (and much appreciated) cask bitters.

A half pint at the Marble Arch Inn, with the gently-sloping floor clearly on displayThere was also a musical element to this trip, so there is at least one variable that has proven as constant in most of my past trips to Manchester. In this instance, however, it was to see Wesley Stace, the Philadelphia-based Englishman many of you may have known as John Wesley Harding. This was his first UK tour in many years, and without an Irish date or two, Manchester was our closest option. He put on a great gig in a tiny pub – I hope a good time was had by all, we certainly enjoyed seeing him after such a long gap since our semi-regular shows during our Philly days. We did feel that we were not cool enough to be out and about in the Northern Quarter after the show, though…the whole area seemed to be in good hands with the crowds of hip Young People, so we left them to it.

We also had not realized when we booked that it was the same weekend as the Great Manchester Run, and while I was in no shape to be running a 10K (well, I did do one a week later, and only mildly crashed again after), much less a half marathon, it seemed like such a great time to be in town – oddly, hotel prices didn’t seem to have been pushed up for the occasion – that I’ve penciled it in to my race calendar for next year.

Now that I’m mostly recovered, it’s back to training for the Great North Run in Newcastle later this year…finally, an entirely new-to-me city to explore!

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