Literary types gather soon for the annual Manchester Literature Festival.
They’re in for a surprise. Manchester has a host of hidden-gem treasures and a slew of new openings for bookish types keen to explore the city’s rich literacy legacy – from Karl Marx observing working life in the mid 19th century to the UK’s current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
“Manchester always had an edgy, radical feel as a city,” says Blue Badge Guide Kate Dibble of Manchester Tours, who leads literary tours of the city.
“Great authors through the ages have always tried to capture it.”
I joined a walking tour to trace a route around the modern-industrial city, following in the footsteps of the writers who have documented its evolution.
We started by Oxford Road train station where the Cornerhouse arts centre – moving to the new HOME development in May next year – remains one of the city’s best bookshops for art and cinema literature.
The short stroll along Whitworth Street West leads us past The Ritz, the gig venue where the performance poet John Cooper Clarke famously met Salome Maloney:
“In lurex and terylene, she hypnotised me.”
The nearby International Anthony Burgess Centre, dedicated to the Manchester-born author of the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, houses an eccentric collection of possessions, including letters to the film director Stanley Kubrick and his personal copy of A Clockwork Orange with doodles by the author.
The upstairs performance space hosts author Blake Morrison for the Burgess Lecture during the MLF on October 16, while the guided Unlocking the Archive tour is on October 22.
Heading towards St Peter’s Square, Manchester Central Library reopened in March this year after a £50m refurbishment to open up the library as a living-room space for the city.
It has welcomed some 300,000 visitors since, combining a high-tech media lounge, contemporary exhibition space and an interactive children’s library with the faithful restoration of the original architectural flourishes to their 1930s glory.
Neil MacInnes, Head of Libraries, Information and Archives, says:
“It’s the library as the street-corner university, a place to engage with knowledge and wisdom.”
By contrast, a visit to the Portico Library and Gallery, the Neo-Classical newsroom and library accessed from Charlotte Street, is like stepping back in time.
The 19th-century collection of dusty tomes, including travel literature, biographies and first-edition fiction, offers an insight into the mindset of Manchester in the industrial age. The genteel Reading Room is for members only but the café and gallery is open to all, as is the programme of literary events.
Cutting through the sidestreets towards Deansgate, the John Rylands Library, named after the 19th-century cotton magnate, is the third largest academic library in the UK.
Transformed by fusing a modern wing onto the existing neo-Gothic structure, new exhibition space and a study centre now complement the hushed reverence of the historic reading room. The John Rylands has a tour of the building and its collection on the third Thursday of each month.
Chetham’s Library, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, traces Manchester’s literary legacy back to the medieval period.
The 17th-century Manchester textile merchant Humphrey Chetham established the library in his 1651 will as a free library for the use of scholars and the rambling space of cloisters and courtyards has been a haven for study ever since.
Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx researched here and their desk is now a place of pilgrimage in the 16th-century, wood-paneled reading room.
Writing in The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels describes industrial Manchester:
”If anyone wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither.“
I finish my tour in the city’s Ardwick district where Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, the family home of the Cranford author, reopens on October 5 after three years, restoring the Grade II-listed Regency villa as if the family had just popped out and left the table set for dinner.
The opening is timed to host two MLF events, the Manchester Salon exploring Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South on October 8 and a walking tour of Gaskell’s Manchester, culminating at the house, on October 15.
Gaskell documented Manchester’s burgeoning industrial revolution from her writing desk at 84 Plymouth Grove after the family moved to the house in 1850 and her views contrasted starkly with the ideals of the Victorian era.
“As a female voice, few were as courageous as hers,” says Janet Allan, Chair of the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust [pictured above].
“Her greatest skill was to use storytelling to address the social issues of the era.”
A walking tour of Manchester proves the city may have evolved but its penchant for speaking out remains a constant source of literary inspiration.
What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.
Manchester and North Wales are two places where I always enjoy spending time.
So, when I was asked recently to do some copywriting work for a tourism project around the theme of ‘Two destinations. One British journey’ (catchy, if I do say so myself), then I was delighted to get involved.
This campaign was aimed at American visitors to the UK, so it was all ‘vacations’ not ‘holidays’.
The brief was to write copy to entice visitors this spring to explore both the essential and less-well-known sites, combining the two locations in a week-long itinerary.
The resulting microsite went live this week and you can read read my copy at Your British Journey. The work will also appear via American Airlines.
Emma Gordon, Marketing Manager at Marketing Manchester, who commissioned the work from me in collaboration with the Visit Wales office in New York, said of my contribution to the project:
“It was great to work with David. He listened to our needs, developed a perfect strapline and delivered inspiring copy for our marketing campaign.”
Do you have a copywriting project and need a professional writer with an eye for a story? Please get in touch.
Lan ‘Maggie’ Ye greets me with two teas, a fragrant jasmine and a more herbal guan yin, accompanied by a plate of crushed-almond teacakes from Macau.
Escorting us to seats amid flickering candles and Asian figurines in the residents-only Sutra Lounge, she explains the history of Chinese tea ceremony, known as Kong Fu, meaning ‘brewing the tea with great skill’.
“Chinese tea ceremony is a way to show respect to favoured guests,” explains Maggie, whose family hails from China’s Hubei province.
“I learnt the ceremony by watching my grandfather prepare tea for the family every Sunday afternoon.”
By the end of the 40-minute ceremony, I am feeling not only calmed but culturally immersed, having learned to tap the table with two fingers to show our appreciation as Maggie pours from a dainty blue-flower teapot into tiny, thimble-like cups, and pick up the saucers with both hands.
The tea ceremony is one just of the extra services available to guests checking in at the Yang Sing Oriental, the latest boutique hotel opening in Manchester.
There’s a charge for afternoon tea, but many of the extra touches, such as a free minibar, free in-room films and a consultation with a scent sommelier to choose a fragrance to be diffused in your room to suit your mood, are included in the room rate.
I check in on a sunny afternoon in Manchester’s vibrant Chinatown district, the hotel has been open just two weeks. The property is awaiting a few final touches to the decor and the last fittings to be imported from China, but it’s already running with an air of quiet efficiency.
To work up an appetite for dinner, I take advantage of one of the other complimentary services: a rickshaw ride.
This alternative taxi is available to guests for short hops across town, such as to the theatre or a meeting. I opt for a rickshaw tour of Chinatown and start free-wheeling through the streets past signs with Chinese characters and colourful shopfronts.
Our Malaysian-born driver, Freddy, peddles furiously through the rush-hour traffic and, as we pass under the elaborate Chinese Imperial Arch, a gift from the Chinese people in 1987, it feels more like Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district than England’s reborn second city.
Local supermarkets sell exotic produce, gift shops sell Hello Kitty merchandise and roasted ducks hang in the windows of restaurants, headless and resigned to the imminent dinner rush.
Room with a view
Back at the hotel, my suite is from the mid-price Grand Oriental category, roomier than the standard Mandarin and Oriental suites, but still modest by the standards of the Grand Emperor Suite with its £739 per night rack rate.
It is divided between a small lounge and a more spacious sleeping area behind a black screen, and features a mix of modern and oriental influences.
A low, leather-trim bed, offset by cherry blossom-design scatter cushions, dominates the rooms, while the desk is graced with three dipping bowls of fresh fruit and a display of white orchids.
The latter is a recurring feature found throughout the whole hotel from the distressed brown-and silver bathroom to the dark-wood and leather seats of the reception bar.
Most striking of all are two soft-focus artworks on the walls of the sleeping area. They have a 1950’s-Shanghai feel and could almost be stills from a film by the celebrated Chinese film director Kar Wai Wong, who directed the atmospheric In The Mood For Love.
Downstairs the primarily Asian staff busy themselves serving drinks in the hotel’s Oku Champagne Bar, a clean white space dominated by a sweeping curve of a bar.
The hotel has no restaurant per se, so for dinner we head next door to the buzzy Yang Sing restaurant, Manchester’s best-known Cantonese eatery, which is owned by the same family as the hotel and works closely with the new property.
Opened in 1977, the restaurant has become something of a Manchester institution with its easy mix of businesspeople and local families treating their children to some real Chinese food.
The basement restaurant feels businesslike but stylish with dark-wood fittings and the same 1950’s-Shangai artworks that feature in the hotel next door.
The menu is bewilderingly extensive but the most popular way to order is to simply tell the waitress what you like and let her design a bespoke banquet for you.
I take her advice and tuck into a mixed place of fried and steamed dim sum as an entree, small bowls of wanton soup, followed by spicy duck with fried rice and Chinese pak choi vegetables.
The food is excellent with the softness of the steamed dim sum complementing the tangy spice of the duck.
For breakfast the next morning, served in the low-lit Oku Bar, I go continental with fresh fruit, muesli served with Green yoghurt and pastries, accompanied by fresh juice and coffee. The menu may be less traditional but the service doesn’t disappoint – attentive, not overbearing, I feel looked after rather than pressurised to finish.
The Yang Sing may be the new kid on the block but it is already carving its niche.
It feels like a business hotel during the week and local businesspeople seeking to brush up on cultural tips before a working trip to China are a natural audience. At the weekend, however, it has a more relaxed feel and, despite the elaborate surroundings.
So is this the start of a new chain of hotels buoyed by the post-Olympic glow and burgeoning fascination with the motherland?
The Yang Sing Oriental’s owner, Hong Kong-raised and Manchester-based businessman, Gerry Yeung, certainly thinks so, and harbours plans to roll out a portfolio of hotels across the UK and Europe.
“I see myself as a cross-cultural person and the style of the hotel reflects this,” says Gerry, who cites The Peninsula in Hong Kong and Raffles Hotel Singapore as his favourite destination hotels.
“Yang Sing is east meets west, service meets style. It’s modern, classical and yet oriental.”
* This story was first published in the Daily Express in 2008 – the hotel has since closed. Liked this? Try this story published this week: A literary tour of Manchester.