News | Friday, 12th April 2019

The power of words: At the heart of the city's literary and cultural scene

Spotlight on the University's creative writing prowess

Manchester Children's Book Festival has attracted more than 40,000 pupils, teachers, children and families since 2010

“For Manchester is the place where people do things.... Don’t talk about what you are going to do, do it. That is the Manchester habit,” wrote Judge Edward Abbott Parry in 1912.

Parry was reflecting on his time at Manchester County Court at the turn of the 20th century, but his description has now become a famous passage which neatly sums up the city. “And in the past through the manifestation of this quality the word Manchester became a synonym for energy and freedom and the right to do and to think without shackles,” he continued.

That swaggering DIY ethos has underpinned everything the city became renowned for, from being the engine-room of the Industrial Revolution to the capital of music and counterculture in the 1980s and 90s.

Manchester is also where Engels and Marx developed their ideas at Chetham’s Library, where Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her campaigning novels and the home of the writings of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Working class writers as diverse as playwright Shelagh Delaney and novelist Walter Greenwood have all walked its streets.

Now Manchester is once again becoming renowned for its thriving literature scene – with Manchester Metropolitan at its very forefront.

City of Literature

UNESCO announced Manchester as one of its global Cities of Literature last year, with Manchester Metropolitan part of the consortium that pitched to win the prestigious award.

Speaking to Met Magazine in Spring 2018, Ian Tabbron, Senior Relationship Manager at Arts Council England, said: “Arts Council England is delighted that Manchester has been awarded the prestigious designation of UNESCO City of Literature.

“Manchester is a place with a rich literary history and is home to extraordinary and diverse writers in many genres. It is not parochial and looks outward, confidently, in search of new partnerships with other places, countries and cultures. The publishing sector in the city is recognised as particularly strong and innovative and the universities are very actively involved in developing talent among the student body but also, increasingly across wider communities.

“The Arts Council acknowledges the healthy collaborative approach underpinning the development of the City of Literature programme and would hope to be actively involved in the coming months and years.”

20 years of the Manchester Writing School

The honour coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan and two decades of the city becoming renowned for the strength of its literature and poetry scene.

For Professor Carol Ann Duffy DBE, Poet Laureate and Creative Director of the Writing School who has been involved since its inception, the School is part of a rich creative lineage which has culminated in Manchester being celebrated as a cultural hub for the written word.

“We can go right back well over half a century to Coronation Street, which radically transformed television drama and opened the way for that kind of realism and authenticity in drama to be something that we respond to and demand. Then we have the use of the song lyric and all the Manchester bands which were very influential. We have novelists – we have the International Anthony Burgess Centre here, the great innovative fiction writer and more,” Professor Duffy explained.

Manchester Writing Competition awards ceremony

“Then the Manchester Writing School which has been going for 20 years is, I think, very much a family of practicing writers and students who come together to create new work.”

Over the last two decades, the University’s English Department has evolved into an internationally renowned centre for Creative Writing. With over 200 students enrolled on the MA/MFA programme, the English Department now comprises the largest community of creative writing postgraduate students in the UK.

Manchester is a place with a rich literary history and is home to extraordinary and diverse writers in many genres. It is not parochial and looks outward, confidently, in search of new partnerships with other places, countries and cultures.

Ian Tabbron, Arts Council England

Manchester’s creative sector has also bloomed, contributing over £130m a year to the local economy. As well as being home to the first female Poet Laureate, the Writing School boasts an ever-growing roster of renowned writers across all major literary forms, and over 85 alumni are also published authors.

Staff include the likes of Andrew Michael Hurley, who won the 2016 Costa First Novel Award for The Loney, the multiaward winning poets Michael Symmons Roberts, Helen Mort and Andrew McMillan, and playwright Simon Stephens, who adapted the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time for the stage to great acclaim.

“To commit to rigorous creative work in Manchester at a time when it has just gained UNESCO City of Literature status and has the potential to surpass London as the creative capital of the country is quite thrilling,” said Stephens upon his appointment in 2017.

Professor Michael Symmons Roberts, author of the poety collection 'Mancunia', partly inspired by the city, said: “Manchester Metropolitan was one of the first Writing Schools in the UK, and I was aware of its strength and reputation long before I started to teach there. The roll call of poets and novelists and dramatists who have studied and taught here is hugely impressive and growing year by year.

“Although it attracts students from across the world, the Writing School has always been rooted in, and connected to, the city, staging events and forging collaborative partnerships with cultural groups and organisations across the city.”

Strength in poetry

Dr Mort, Lecturer in Poetry, five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets award and judge of the 2017 International Man Booker Prize, was also one of the first winners of the University’s Manchester Writing Competition.

She said that inspired her to aspire to return to Manchester Writing School as a lecturer, a natural home for poets and writers.

She said: “Manchester has got poetry in the fabric of it. I’m always amazed when I walk around the city that I feel like I encounter poetry all the time. You encounter it physically on buildings sometimes, you walk past a cafe and there’s someone writing something secretly or you listen to people speak. There’s poetry in people’s inventiveness of expression.”

The Writing School has never sought to confine its rich talents to within the University walls. Its outreach work with the city’s diverse communities was a bedrock of the successful UNESCO bid, and continues to be the jewel in its crown.

“One of our great moves has been to take the Writing School out of the University and into the city so we have a real relationship between what we do in the world of academia and what we bring outwards to the city,” said Professor Duffy.

The Manchester Fiction and Poetry Prizes have handed out over £150,000 to budding writers since 2008, and the Rosamond Prize in conjunction with the Royal Northern College of Music is in its tenth year.

Manchester Metropolitan has played a central role in the thriving live literature scene in the city, from writers’ events to open mic evenings and talks.

The city’s Royal Exchange Theatre hosts the regular ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ evenings which bring the University’s best writers in front of entirely new audiences.

Community engagement

One of its most significant city-wide successes has been the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, launched by Professor Duffy to widen access to reading culture for children, families and carers, and to support new writing for and by children and young adults – the first festival of its kind to be run by a university.

The festival’s events and activities have benefited more than 40,000 pupils, teachers, children and families since 2010, and its enduring impact is appreciated by city leaders and cultural figures.

Although it attracts students from across the world, the Writing School has always been rooted in, and connected to, the city, staging events and forging collaborative partnerships with cultural groups and organisations across the city.

Sir Richard Leese, CBE, Leader of Manchester City Council, said: “The Manchester Children’s Book Festival is a hugely valued part of the cultural offer of the City of Manchester, enriching the lives of our young people, showing them what they can achieve and inspiring them to excel.”

Manchester Children's Book Festival

Those views were supported by Maria Balshaw, CBE, formerly Director of the Whitworth Gallery and now Director of Tate Galleries. She said: “Since its inception in 2010, the Manchester Children’s Book Festival has been a major contributor to the social and cultural offer in Manchester, drawing in partners from across the City and catalysing the ambition and aspiration of our young people through literature and culture. MCBF has done more than most not just to deliver arts and culture to communities but to support the creativity of children and young people themselves. It is this that makes it stand out, and that is at the heart of its enduring impact.”

Professor Duffy describes it as the thing she is most proud of from her tenure at the Writing School. “My own childhood was very ordinary. I didn’t come from a bookish household so all of my books came from a public library and I owe my library and the books that I found there to the fact that I am a writer. In those days though you didn’t have poets coming in. You thought all poets were dead.

“From childhood we love reading, and it’s through a love of reading that we learn to write. I’ve always hoped that some of the children who come to us for the MCBF will come on as students and will develop into writers. That connection with a university and childhood through literature is something really important that we can give to our city.”

But the 20th anniversary of the Manchester Writing School does not find it or the University’s other creative departments in a reflective mood. In fact, the potential opened up by the UNESCO award has those involved in the bid itching to put new projects into action.

UNESCO Cities of Literature are dedicated to pursuing excellence in literature on a local level, engaging as many citizens as possible in a dynamic culture of words and encouraging the creation and sharing of stories.

They work together to develop new local, national and international literary links, encouraging collaboration locally and across the world.

Mother Tongue Other Tongue poetry competition

The University’s first event to celebrate the UNESCO award was an evening of Urdu poetry on International Mother Language Day, featuring Manchester Metropolitan’s first ever Mushaira in collaboration with the group Manchester Muslim Writers.

Zahid Hussain, Founder of Manchester Muslim Writers, said: “When Manchester Metropolitan University proposed the Manchester Mushaira we were thrilled. It was the first time, as far as we know, that a Mushaira would take place at a local university.

“This, coupled with Manchester’s newly-won status as UNESCO City of Literature, gave the signal the University was serious about granting unheard voices a chance to find a new audience. The UK’s Urdu poetry scene is vibrant, yet few outside its intimate sphere are aware of it. The Manchester Mushaira therefore blazed a new path for Urdu poetry by offering a mainstream space. This can only build on Manchester’s reputation as a leading city of culture.”

The Writing School also recently hosted the city's first Manchester Polish Poetry Festival.

Future plans

There are wider plans to build on the success of MCBF, the Mother Tongue Other Tongue poetry competition and the University’s strength in youth work in planning creative activities with vulnerable communities in Manchester.

Those leading the University’s involvement in UNESCO are clear about what benefits this can bring to the institution and the city. It will raise Manchester’s international profile, potentially boosting tourism and the local economy. It also offers an opportunity for Manchester Metropolitan to build networks among UNESCO’s 28 other Cities of Literature around the world and with cultural and creative institutions in the city it has never had the opportunity to link up with before.

All this makes Manchester the go-to destination outside of London for literature lovers, but it is also just one facet of a burgeoning cultural and creative offer in the city.

Alongside the historic Manchester School of Art and School of Theatre, which now stages its productions at HOME, the Holden Gallery whose exhibitions are open to the public, and the rich archives at the University’s Special Collections will sit the School of Digital Arts, opening in 2021 – teaching the digital and creative skills of the future.

All these facilities combined will help cement Manchester Metropolitan as a cultural landmark in the city.

Dave Moutrey, Chief Executive of HOME, said: “Manchester Metropolitan University plays a critical role in developing the pipeline of talent that supports the continued growth of the creative industries in Greater Manchester and the UK more widely. Not only do they do this via great teaching and learning, they also maximise their impact through working with industrial partners and communities.”

Find out more about how the Universty is making an impact on the world around us, with the #MadeAtUni and #MadeAtMcrMet campaign

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