My favourite place in Manchester is the Central Library. To me, it is the very heart of the North West. The domed ceiling in the main reading room, with its high windows, gives it the air of a cathedral. A cathedral of learning, you could say. I’m also quite fond of the Wagon Wheels (equally as round) in the café.
As my publishers Flapjack Press (yes, it was the name that drew me to them) are based in Manchester, I’ve been lucky enough to launch most of my new poetry collections at Central Library. In fact, it is featured as the background on the cover of Travelling Second Class Through Hope, my first book for Flapjack Press.
The North has some brilliant libraries and I’m glad to say that I’ve been lucky enough to perform in quite a few of them without being shushed. I’m appearing at Darwen Library Theatre on October 10, and I can’t wait.
When I first arrived in Manchester in the 1980s, the only regular poetry event in the city was at Fallowfield Library. Held once a month, it was called South Manchester Poets and, although I lived in Crumpsall, they stamped my passport and let me perform there on one occasion. It had the authority of a long-running and serious-minded group, so, looking back, I wonder what they made of my mix of frivolous wordplay and raw passionate pieces? Nobody spat out their tea and biscuits, so I couldn’t have been too bad.
I did perform in the old Abraham Moss Centre in Crumpsall and I’m glad to see it being rebuilt, still with a library included. So many libraries around the country are closing. Incidentally, I performed upstairs in the nearby Cleverland at a Folk Club back when you were not allowed to swear. It seemed quite strange as downstairs at the Cleverland it was more or less compulsory.
Some of my favourite gigs have been in libraries. I did the Chorlton Festival at Chorlton Library a couple of years ago with the brilliant Manchester poet SuAndi and it was absolutely packed. Some people even took books out of the shelves so they could see us through the gaps. I hope they put them back.
Last time I performed in Manchester, it was in Didsbury, and I had a few hours to spare. I’d enjoyed a pasty and a cuppa across the road and I got myself settled down in the library. I resisted the urge to read my own books and explored the shelves instead. The perfect way to relax before a gig. Unlike a café, libraries don’t check to see if you’ve finished so they can free up the space for someone else. You can spend three hours reading a newspaper if you want. Although stretching most tabloids to 15 minutes can be difficult these days. I’d recommend Don Quixote. That’ll keep you going.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve done a series of hour-long weekly Zoom events for Manchester libraries, interviewing eight very different North West poets. Each of the interviews were recorded, so you should be able to watch them for free on the internet.
My love of libraries goes back some 50 years. I have a vivid memory of going into a public library in the early 60s. I was five. Even then it seemed like a cross between a church and a school (which in many ways it can be).
The library building on Nottingham’s Carlton Road was grand, substantial, sandstone and definitely made to last. The ceiling seemed a million miles high to my young eyes framed in National Health glasses. The smell was a mixture of polish, leather and paper. A different space to our crowded terraced house in what was less than affectionately termed the city’s slum district.
Inside, it seemed friendly but important, light, ordered and calm. You needed to be on your best behaviour, like when visiting a posh aunty or in the doctor’s waiting room.
We didn’t have many books in the house, so the clean hardbacks in their laminated dust jackets seemed expensive, almost exotic. The act of withdrawing a book with your own personalised ticket, bearing your individual name, made my small self feel very responsible and grown up like a detective or a secret agent.
That particular library building is still standing, almost 60 years later, although it’s now boarded up. It seems smaller to my adult eyes but no less important. Perhaps more so as all the houses I knew around it have been demolished.
By the time I was 14, we’d moved, and my new local library was on a newly built council estate. My mum had died and, with my dad trying to cope alone with five kids, books were very much a luxury. To be honest, underwear was a luxury back then.
That local library was an escape and a diversion from the often-grim reality of growing up poor in the 1970s. I couldn’t afford, and wasn’t really interested in, the latest teenage fashion that seemed to be so important in those days. I remember I was once headbutted by a skinhead girl just for looking a bit bookish. I think it’s safe to assume I wouldn’t be bumping into her at the library (metaphorically or literally).
Before I was old enough for pubs, the library was a place, outside of the house, to meet mates or a girlfriend, out of the rain. I remember trying to steal a kiss in the romance section. Or was it the crime section?
When I began writing comic pieces and poems in my teens, the library was perfect for researching material. I read all the comedy section no matter who the author. Everything from James Thurber to Monty Python, from Gerard Hoffnung to Spike Milligan. I also read all the books in the poetry section, starting with those published by Jonathan Cape. Cape covers looked modern and the poems were more accessible than those in most of the older publications.
In the poetry section, I read much I couldn’t understand. But it seemed to me that this was the case with all art forms. There were paintings I wasn’t that interested in (like, say, old dark portraits of people I didn’t know) and music I wasn’t drawn to (like Acker Bilk or Kenny Ball), so why should poetry be any different?
Even with comedy, the styles varied, as did the level of obviousness of the humour, so that it soon became apparent which you personally could enjoy more. That sense of choice was the key. The opportunity to experience a wide range of books, and to decide for myself which ones were for me, gave me the confidence to explore further.
It’s similar to when I discovered the music section of the library. For many teenagers in the 70s, music was an important tool to forming identity and I loved that I could loan LPs from the library. I owned a few albums, but it was liberating to be able to try something new without it costing too much. I listened to jazz, blues, classical as well as rock and pop from all parts of the world. A moving cover version of Eleanor Rigby by Ray Charles particularly comes to mind as I think back.
Up to the age of 19, I had never met a single other person who wanted to write until, one Saturday, I saw a small poster in Nottingham’s Central Library for a regular writing group. It was run by Wendy Whitfield, the woman to whom I now realise I owe my career in writing, TV and film.
Once a month, she held a workshop in the Angel Row Library with about a dozen local writers who would bring whatever they were working on, whether a poem, short story or a chapter of a novel, and read it to the group. There would be a short friendly discussion of each piece and a tea break halfway through where we could chat among ourselves. A simple format, but for me, a lifeline.
A working class lad in tank top and flares, sitting alone in his purple and black bedroom scrawling biro on a piece of foolscap paper, didn’t match my image of a ‘proper’ writer. It was meeting other writers in the flesh and getting to know them that changed my perception, built my confidence and allowed me to recognise my validity as a writer. Just understanding and feeling that I had an individual and authentic voice was a big step for me.
For our Christmas party, the group held a public reading at The Black Boy, a Berni Inn in the centre of Nottingham. It was a heady mix of prawn cocktail followed by sirloin steak, chips, button mushrooms and French mustard with Black Forest Gateaux and poetry for afters.
I read one poem. Not the best poem I’ve ever written, not the funniest, but that poem changed my life.
Libraries have also changed since I was a kid. Computers and the internet, digital music, Kindle and audio books mean their possibilities are far greater than they used to be. And yet, for me, the fundamental attraction of the library is unchanged. It’s a place where you can go to find new worlds and in the greater sense, perhaps, to find yourself.
Henry Normal will be performing his solo show, The Escape Plan, at Kings Place in London on October 27, 2021. The show is also touring around the country and includes venues such as Waterside, Sale, The Met in Bury, Liverpool Philharmonic and Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax. Full dates below:
Oct 8 – Sale Waterside
Oct 9 – Morecombe Playhouse
Oct 10 – Darwen Library
Oct 27 – London Kings Place
Nov 3 – Halifax Square Chapel
Nov 4 – Barnsley Old School House
Nov 13 – Retford St Saviour’s Community Centre
Nov 15 – Collingham Cat Asylum
Nov 16 – Nottingham Metronome
Nov 17 – Bury The Met
Nov 18 – Liverpool Philharmonic
Nov 20 – Chester Garret Theatre