Reading Manchester

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By Rob Spence

After the recent Budget, the Treasury published a document outlining the government’s plans for regional spending.  In among the references to particular cities and regions was a peculiar entity: The “Northern Powerhouse.” This concept is not explained anywhere in the document: the assumption is that the reader will know that this means, well, all the major cities of the north of England: Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield – the great cities of the industrial revolution. People who live in the north are used to this kind of treatment: the national weather forecast will often predict, say, blustery winds “in the north.” This lumping together of a large, disparate and varied part of  the country, even now often accompanied by tired old stereotypes (fish and chips, whippets, flat caps…) should be vigorously resisted. The towns and cities of the north have their own distinct identities, and we need to celebrate their variety.  To that end, I present my own selection of fiction associated with Manchester, either through their authors or their narratives, and frequently both.

The Cotton Exchange 1835 by Baines.
Public Domain,

Manchester is known mostly as one of the great industrial cities of Empire, growing exponentially in the nineteenth century to become ‘Cottonopolis’, the leading producer of cotton in the world. At one point, a third of the world’s cotton was spun in the factories of Manchester and the mill towns around it.

Isabella Banks, now little known, chronicled the rise of the city in The Manchester Man, published in 1876. The novel depicts the life of Jabez Clegg, a foundling  rescued from the river Irk, who lives through some of the key events of the times, such as the Peterloo massacre of 1819. The story concerns the commercial and amatory rivalry of Clegg and his antagonist Laurence Aspinall as they grow to adulthood. The narrative is melodramatic, and owes a lot to Mrs Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman for its plot and to Dickens for its coverage of social and moral issues. But it is an attractive tale, replete with some quirky attempts to render the local accent, and it moves at a pace rare in the Victorian three-decker genre.

Mrs Banks’s near contemporary, Elizabeth Gaskell, lived in Manchester as the wife of the Unitarian minister of Cross Street Chapel. Her rather splendid house on Plymouth Grove has recently been reopened, and is well worth a visit. In her novel Mary Barton, Gaskell presents a sympathetic account of working class life in Victorian Manchester. The heroine faces a series of agonising moral choices, and shows courage and determination in the face of adversity. It is significant though, that escape from the confines of the Manchester slums to the wide open spaces of Canada constitutes the novel’s happy end.

Manchester has always had a diverse ethnic population. In the nineteenth century, the Jews fleeing from poverty and oppression in eastern Europe often sailed to Hull, and made their way to Liverpool where many embarked for America. On the way, they left substantial Jewish communities in Manchester and Leeds. Louis Golding, son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, published his novel Magnolia Street in 1932. The eponymous street, set in a Manchester rather archly renamed ‘Doomington’, has a Jewish and a gentile side, and the novel explores the relations between the two sides during the years 1910 to 1930. The narrative describes the highs and lows of community life in this period, as the war brings tensions, and the twenties changing social attitudes. It was a bestseller in its day, spawning several sequels, as well as a play and a film. As a portrait of Jewish working class life in the early part of the twentieth century, it is unrivalled.

Another Manchester author now all but forgotten is Howard Spring, whose first novel, Shabby Tiger, was also published in 1932. Spring was a Welshman, who became a reporter on the Manchester Guardian under the great C.P. Scott. This novel, set in and around the Ancoats district of Manchester, concerns the lives of a bohemian set led by Nick Faunt, an artist. It begins with the arresting line ‘The woman flamed along the road like a macaw,’ which Spring claimed was all he had when he started writing, and continues to present an array of vivid, engaging characters engaged in questionable activities. It evokes a seedy but vibrant Manchester, in which the rather chaotic lives of the protagonists are described in realistic fashion.  Readers of Patrick Hamilton’s London novels will recognise the tone.

Anthony Burgess, born in Harpurhey, raised in Moss Side and Miles Platting, a schoolboy at Xaverian College and an undergraduate at Manchester University, is probably the most successful literary offspring of the city. Manchester features frequently in Burgess’s prodigious output of thirty-odd novels, though he never set one entirely in the city. The Manchester of his youth is brilliantly described in his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God, and that experience feeds into his fiction. In Any Old Iron, his 1989 epic novel whose narrative spans two world wars, the King Arthur legend, and settings as diverse as Leningrad, Tel Aviv, Dublin and the Titanic, Manchester features largely. The narrator is revealed as a Mancunian, and then in the second half of the novel Manchester is frequently the setting. The grand scale of Any Old Iron transcends place, however. It is a work to rank with Burgess’s masterpiece, Earthly Powers in its scope and ambition.  The complex, intertwining narratives explore the terrible consequences of twentieth-century warfare on the ordinary people of the world, but also examine the enduring power of myth and belief. Described thus, it sounds pretentious. It isn’t: it sparkles with humour and earthy description, as well as managing a sprawling narrative with dexterity and élan.

Burgess is, of course, most famous for A Clockwork Orange, and it always seemed to me that the gritty cityscape in the novel was much more like Manchester than the futuristic world of Kubrick’s film. A novel that is sometimes compared to Burgess’s dystopian vision is Jeff Noon’s Vurt, published in 1993, and set in a virtual or alternate Manchester of the future, accessed through hallucinogenic drugs. It is a startling, phantasmagorical quest narrative, in which the hero Scribble attempts to find his missing sister Desdemona in a bizarre urban landscape populated by sentient machines, robots and other staples of science fiction.  The Manchester connection is emphasised by the numerous references to the “Madchester” music scene of the early nineties when the novel was published.

Perhaps the two most prominent contemporary literary Mancunians are Nicholas Royle and Howard Jacobson. Royle’s edgy, disturbing novels do not tend to feature Manchester as a location, though one of them, Regicide,  published in 2011 is partly set in the city. This tale is actually about a place that doesn’t exist, a shadowy urban palimpsest that becomes an obsession for the damaged hero, Carl. It is an unsettling, uncomfortable narrative, and like most of Royle’s fiction, leaves the reader guessing about what is real and what is imagined. Howard Jacobson, a Booker Prize winner, has drawn upon his Manchester background in several novels, but perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the semi-autobiographical The Mighty Walser. This 1999 publication concerns the eponymous nerdy hero’s discovery of his talent for table-tennis in the closely-knit north Manchester Jewish community of the fifties. The novel is a comic bildungsroman,  charting Walser’s adolescence and early adulthood in a series of hilarious set piece scenes. The warmth of the portrayal of the community shines through the often bawdy and irreverent humour.

This is just a brief selection of novels associated with this great city. I might have mentioned Harrison Ainsworth’s nineteenth century thrillers, such as The Lancashire Witches; or Alan Garner’s Elidorin which an abandoned church in Manchester forms the portal to another world; or Walter Greenwood’s novel of working-class life in Salford, Love on the Dole; or Zahid Hussain’s sparky novel about the restaurant business, The Curry Mile; or the Manchester-set crime novels of Cath Staincliffe.  There are many other contenders, and they show that Manchester continues to inspire great writing.

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is You can also find him on Twitter @spencro.