6 - 20 October 2017

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: First Editions and Rarities Walking Tour

books at portico libraryJon Parker Lee

  • books at portico library

There are rare occasions when walking through Manchester in the pouring rain can be considered a treat. I recently found myself a happy rambler on just such an occasion for Ed Glinert’s First Editions and Rarities walking tour.

Visiting the impressive trinity of Manchester libraries –The Portico, The John Rylands and Chetham’s – I have never toured the city with greater awe, nor been more humbled by local relics.

Beginning at The Portico, Ed talked us through the delicate pages of extraordinary first editions – including Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, among other treasures – interjected with a brief but fascinating history of the Portico and its patrons. However, I must admit that the stoic grandeur of the library stole the show for me. As a first time visitor, I was intrigued by the clandestine rear entrance, which only added to the delicious feeling of being privy to beautiful secret. St Mary’s church, it seems, is not Manchester’s only hidden gem.

Speaking of the Hidden Gem, Ed’s tour then moved on to John Rylands library, via Dalton Entry which is among Manchester’s more interesting thoroughfares, stopping to point out places of historical significance. Having a soft spot for religious history, I was thrilled to find our tour guide injecting a perfectly balanced sprinkle of city trivia (including a few Morrissey facts, like him or loathe him), which taught me a thing or two about my favourite church.

For anyone familiar with the exterior of the John Rylands library, it will come as no shock to hear that the medieval banquet of architecture inside is as endlessly impressive and eerily beautiful as on the outside. Beauty, in this case, is far more than skin deep, though. The gothic style fortress houses a staggering collection of first editions and rarities, including a complete set of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House instalments and a copy of the first book ever to hold Jane Austen’s name in print. Ironically, considering the cotton mill owners in Manchester thought religion secondary to profit, John Rylands Library (built with mill money) is also the home for the oldest known piece of the New Testament – The St John Fragment.

Bloated on splendid material, we scurried to our final (and my most anticipated) stop – Chetham’s Library. Though small, this noble chamber radiates importance; the energy of the great men who read here hangs thick in the air. The curators at Chethams arranged a display of several astonishingly old and exciting rarities for us, including a deerskin-bound volume from Henry VIII’s library, and the handwritten draft for Isabella Banks’ The Manchester Man. Incredibly, it was revealed that the books here had been bought to attract scholars back to Manchester, so perhaps this is only local library not maintained for the love of literature – which by no means makes it less grand or valid.
We were also privileged to use chairs previously perched on by the likes of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx – and my bottom (unlike my tired feet) felt very refined indeed.

About the writer: Catherine McGee is a Manchester based lifestyle blogger, self-proclaimed comedienne and writer with a deep love of tourism and religious history. She can be found blogging at www.suggestivedigestive.com.