Before we came back to France at the weekend, I wanted a day in Manchester, where I was at University more than 40 years ago. It was a city people at that time seemed to love or hate. I loved it then, and I still do. It’s buzzy and busy, with galleries, music, shops, and a bravura display of civic Victorian architecture down every city centre street.
I had a particular memory I wanted to share with Malcolm. The John Rylands Library. I used to go there to write an essay or prepare for a seminar on those days when I wanted to pretend to some kind of scholarship that in truth was never part of my make-up. The building was a celebration of Victorian Gothic architecture at its finest, with wonderful plaster tracery on the walls, splendid fan-vaulted ceilings, and shelf after shelf of ancient leather-bound books. Seated in some darkened alcove, surrounded by the particular smell of the place – beeswax polish mixed with dusty books, I would work away for an hour or two, convincing myself, if nobody else, that I was getting down to the serious matter of studying in an industrious and creative manner. Few other people would be there: there were no distractions other than the quiet beauty of the building itself. The place was built for scholarship.
It was built in the 1890’s by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John. Although his origins were humble, he became Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, making his fortune in the textile industry as a cotton manufacturer. At first, the library collection was modest, but over the years, has come to hold works of world-class importance: everything from the earliest known New Testament text, on papyrus, to medieval illustrated manuscripts, a Gutenberg bible, and the personal papers of the likes of Elizabeth Gaskell.
I’m not qualified to comment on the early air conditioning systems, or the electricity originally generated on site. I simply enjoy the richly patterned stained glass, the sumptuous woodwork, the dragons encircling ceiling bosses, and the sandstones in which the building is constructed, which range from soft pink to a rich dull red.
Back in the ‘60’s, I’d work till I got hungry, thirsty, or both. Last week, we discovered that these days I’d have no excuse to leave, because there’s a modern extension sensitively joined to the side of the building. This houses Café Rylands, where we had our lunch, made from locally sourced produce; a bookshop which, though small, presented us with fascinating choices, from architecture and design books to children’s stories; and an almost irresistible gift-shop. It has an energetic and exciting programme of educational events, and I wished we could have signed up for some of them.
When I was a student in Manchester, the library was little known outside academic circles. Now it’s a different story. John Rylands Library has been made Manchester’s ‘Large Visitor Attraction of the Year’ at the city’s annual tourism awards. You could spend happy hours here, exploring the building itself, the exhibits, and making frequent sorties to the coffee shop for a relaxing break and browse through the papers. And apart from your spending money, it’s all free.