06 December 2012

A Wondrous Place #4: Magic Buzzes

There seems to be no getting away from Anthony Burgess in Manchester and, en route to our next port of call, we’ll just drop down to Cross Street and stop for a quick jar or two in Mister Thomas’s Chop House, just shy of the splendid Royal Exchange Theatre. Mister Thomas’s was a favourite watering hole of Burgess, who, in his memoirs, talks of ‘hard-headed magnates and cotton brokers gorging red meat in chophouses’. Social commentator Friedrich Engels was also a regular, as he was at the library at Chetham’s School of Music. Here, legend has it, he met Karl Marx and the pair went on to write The Communist Manifesto together.
“If you want to blame any one place for the creation of communism, blame Manchester” – journalist Ed Glinert
Much of this information I picked up on the recent Boho Literary Tour, a regular fixture on the programme of the annual Manchester Literature Festival. The tour was led by Manchester Walks organiser Ed Glinert, who founded City Life, an “alternative” news, arts and listings magazine published between December 1983 and December 2005 which spawned such talents as yours truly. Ed isn’t the only tour guide in Manchester – there are loads, covering subjects as wide-ranging as music and sewers, and there are also lots of leftfield organisations encouraging the fine art of flaneurism (try the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, Manchester Modernist Society, Northern Quarter Stories, Ancoats Peeps and Skyliner – whose Hayley Flynn has already curated A Wondrous Place). But I digress…

Like John Rylands, Chets is a fine example of the juxtaposition of old and new architecture, with sandstone Medieval buildings linked to brand-new structures by almost futuristic glass walkways that reflect the weird and wonderful Urbis whose shadow the school lives in. It’s a working school, but members of the public can go to free lunchtime concerts (I’d also recommend the RNCM ones at the delightful St Ann’s Church) and visit the library, as well a kept secret as the Portico. I’d had the delight of sitting in the properly atmospheric Baronial Hall for last year’s Manchester Fiction Prize Gala, but I’d never been to the library until I came to research this piece – and it really is worth a trip. After ringing a bell, a heavily studded door creaks open and you’re directed up a flight of stairs to an L-shaped, vaulted-ceilinged, lead-glassed, book-lined gallery, with individual ‘gated’ booths and a separate room at one end dominated by an enormous fireplace. There’s a 17th-century printing press and a display about the Brothers Grimm, and the comments book says it all: references to Hogwarts crop up umpteen times. Well, it is pretty magical!

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