Local Literature: Manchester

13th Nov 2013

It may be famous for football and music, but Manchester's got an incredible literary legacy too. Here's some of our highlights...

“The centre of Manchester is noisy, shiny, brash, successful, flaunting its money as it always did from the moment it became the engine of England. Travel out further, and the changing fortunes of Manchester are evident. The decent rows of solid terraces have been slum-cleared and replaced with tower blocks and cul-de-sacs, shopping compounds and gaming arcades. Most of the small shops are boarded up, lost on fast, hostile roads.”

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Manchester-born literary legend Jeanette Winterson wasn’t lying in her 2011 memoir; the recession has hit Manchester hard. But with true Manc resilience, it’s holding its own. And it’s still got goods galore to offer anyone with a love of books or badass babes.

Manchester’s got a rich literary legacy that includes none other than iconic suffragette sista Emmeline Pankhurst (originally from the notorious neighbourhood of Moss Side; read all about her upbringing in her 1914 autobiography My Own Story, available for free for Kindle or online via Project Gutenburg), The Secret Garden author Frances Hodgson Burnett (although her family emigrated to the States when she was sixteen, she was born in Cheetham Hill), and Salford’s sweetheart Shelagh Delaney, author of classic kitchen sink drama A Taste of Honey.

Contemporary women writers currently based in the big bad city include the likes of Emma Jane Unsworth, author of Hungry, The Stars and Everything (as seen live at the last For Books’ Sake birthday bash) and Rosie Garland, author of five volumes of poetry, award-winning short stories and a much-acclaimed debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities. (For bonus points, catch her performing as her vampire queen alter ego Rosie Lugosi as part of Manchester’s booming burlesque scene.) And we’ve even got Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy as Professor of Contemporary Poetry at MMU.

The recession has hit Manchester hard. But with true Manc resilience, it’s holding its own. And it’s still got goods galore to offer anyone with a love of books or badass babes.Local independent publishing legends Comma Press are responsible for bringing attention to many more Mancunian voices, including Zoe Lambert (featured in our anthology Short Stack, and author of The War Tour), Gwendoline Riley (whose début Cold Water won a Betty Trask Award) and Jane Rodgers (author of recent short story collection Hitting Trees With Sticks).

Manchester literature organisation Commonword coordinate workshops, events and competitions for writers, including supporting queer writers’ collective Young Enigma and curating the Black and Asian Writers’ Conference, which this year featured incredible women writers including Desiree Reynolds, Malika Booker, Stephanie Dogfoot Chan and Shamshad Khan, who organises the monthly Levenshulme performance poetry night Hard Rain.

Still want more? Time your visit to coincide with the annual Manchester Literature Festival, which in the past has seen Jeanette Winterson lecture at Manchester Cathedral, Ali Smith read her poem on Pussy Riot, afternoon tea with Jackie Kay and much more besides. Or for live lit a-go-go all year round, check the listings at 3MT and The Castle.

Meanwhile there’s many more women’s stories to be explored at Salford Zine Library, The People’s History Museum and The Working Class Movement Library. Or if it’s book shopping you’re after, there’s Magma and Travelling Man for comics and graphic novels, or a rummage through the second-hand treasure troves of Paramount and Shudehill Book Centre. If you don’t mind trekking out of town, options beyond the city centre include E.J. Morten in Didsbury or the industrial warehouse that’s home to Sharston Books.

And as well as all this literary loveliness, Manchester’s got loads of other women-centred wonders. Take a workshop at LGF, get serenaded by She Choir, catch a bout by the Rainy City Rollergirls, laugh your socks off with the Laughing Cows (who this year curated the UK’s first ever Women in Comedy Festival) or get your riot grrrl on with Typical Girls. Let us know when you’re on your way and we might even come down for a dance.

(Image via marcusjb1973)


  • Sarah Jones says:

    It is not fair or accurate to say that Manchester has been hard hit by the recession or is a ‘big bad city’. Manchester is absolutely thriving, with a population growth of working people ahead of the national average, with Media City UK being based here and with the literary offerings of festivals like the biennial Manchester International Festival et al; and this isn’t just the city centre either, regeneration has been remarkable over the last few years in areas like Salford and East Manchester, with expanding public transport networks and huge investment in architecture. You should also mention the female writers’ events at places like the Anthony Burgess Foundation and John Rylands Library.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks Sarah, I love Manchester and have lived here for most of my life, so I’m aware of the recent regeneration and agree that much of it has been a welcome addition to the city.

      However I disagree when you say it isn’t fair or accurate to claim Manchester hasn’t been hit hard by the recession – while the city may be fighting back, lots of small businesses in and out of the city have closed as a result of the economic downturn over the past few years, and the recent arts funding cuts meant losses of over £800k for Manc arts orgs, with casualties including Greenroom (now closed completely), Royal Exchange Theatre (lost over £170k), local publishers like Commonword and Carcanet and many more.

      Thanks for mentioning Anthony Burgess Foundation and John Rylands though – I’ve been to several great events at both but none (so far!) that focused on women writers, so I’ll definitely be checking their listings for more on those.

  • Heloise says:

    Worth mentioning @UoM’s Centre for New Writing, with J Winterson, MJ Hyland and others http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/centrefornewwriting/events/

    Personally I deplore the demise of the bookshop. Morten’s is a sip in a desert; but only a sip

  • Lucy Rock says:

    Great article and you’re absolutely correct to mention Manchester’s suffering under the recession. As well as the deplorable job market (now happily on the up – slowly) the loss of places like the Greenroom has been a tragedy. Nice plug for Sharston Books as well, hurrah! Manchester city centre is seriously lacking in the bookshop department.