Thursday, 26 April 2012

Dickens in the Reading Room

Sherry Ashworth, established author, Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Portico's writer-in-residence, reviews the first of her three Dickens Workshops (attendance of the workshops is free!) which took place in the Library last week, kicking off our celebration of Dickens' bicentenary: 

There is possibly no more blissful experience than sitting in the reading room on a late spring afternoon, surrounded by like-minded Portico readers, talking about Dickens.

And that is precisely how a group of us entertained ourselves for the first of a series of Dickens workshops.  ‘Workshops’ is a bit of a misnomer – participants had read Hard Times, but were also supplied with extracts from other novels, and our conversations ranged widely, as we tried to ascertain what Dickens had to tell us about the subject of education – a mission beautifully punctuated by tea and coffee half-way through.

So what did we decide?  That Hard Times is a fascinating but flawed novel – there was a general consensus that Elizabeth Gaskell was better on Manchester and industrial poverty.  That Dickens valued imagination above facts, hated all teachers who used bullying as a technique, didn’t much enjoy mental arithmetic and rated one-to-one tutoring above the serried ranks of the classroom.  And the best, most modern teacher in Dickens was none other than Fagin – who uses encouragement, drama, peer support and gin and sausages to educate young Oliver.

If you want to join us next time, we are meeting at 5 on Thursday May 24th  having read (most of!) Our Mutual Friend in order to revisit the cliché that Dickens can’t do women.  Oh, can’t he?!  *rolls up sleeves*
Sherry's latest novel - a Jewish comedy of manners - is available exclusively as a Kindle title on Amazon  - Good Recipes and Bad Women

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book Group

Last night was the 3rd meeting of The Portico's newly established book group.  We have met once a month to discuss the books we have read - first was Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, of which 12 copies were generously donated to the book group by the Manchester Literature Festival with the condition that the books continue to be passed on to other book groups; second was Dracula by Bram Stoker; and, most recently, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. 

As the books are chosen from suggestions by the members of the book group, the selection has so far been diverse.  Last night decided that our next read will be Do White Whales Sing at the Edge of the World by Paul Wilson, a past Portico Prize winner!

The book group is open to Library members and the general public and has ranged from about 10 to 5 people, but we believe we can accommodate up to 12 so there is certainly space for more book groupers!   The book group members have a great deal of insight to offer on various topics which keeps the discussions lively and interesting and of course, meeting in the Library of an evening with biscuits, coffee and tea, cosy chairs and low lighting creates an ambiance all in itself. 

If you would like to attend the book group contact

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Lights, Camera, Action!

Late last week we were approached by a Niamh Kennedy, Assistant Producer at Popkorn TV making an enquiry to use the Library as a possible film location and only last night it was “Lights, Camera, Action”. Numerous crew members from the independent production company made their way up our staircase with cameras, tripods, mics, and lighting equipment.
Popkorn TV specializes in broadcast quality programme-making for the television and private sector, and last night’s filming ironically was an interview with the well-respected forensic psychologist, Dr Keith Ashcroft (pictured adjacent), a former member of The Portico Library. The interview will be used in a three part TV series for Channel 5 presented by Professor David Wilson. The series will examine the crimes committed by three convicted serial killers and will be broadcast in June of this year. Very interesting stuff- however, the subject matter made it all the more eerie when I was locking up that evening once filming was over!


Whenever a newcomer visits the Portico the first thing their eyes set upon is the glorious plaster and glass Georgian dome. Some years after the Library opened (in 1806) the glass panels were painted with the shields and arms of England, Scotland and Ireland as well as those for diocese, county and bishoprics. The dome does, of course, crown the Gallery beautifully. However, the other curiosity which catches the visitor’s eye is the subject heading over the shelves occupying two walls of the Library – POLITE LITERATURE. The inevitable question follows sight of this: “Where do you keep your IMpolite literature then?”  When asked about this unfamiliar term, we have always tended to tell people that it is simply the literature that was read in the Polite Society of the Georgian era, and even glibly added that it is the sort of literature deemed sufficiently suitable for a wife or servant – paraphrasing the remark made by the chief prosecutor in the Obscenity Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover!

This is not really the case, though, because amongst our Polite Literature shelves you can find some rather risqué novels, a few books on witchcraft, philosophical and theological arguments that are not particularly polite and so on. So what IS Polite Literature about then?

Dr David Allan could say much more about this than I can and, in fact, he does in his book A Nation of Readers and at a one-day conference in Leeds on 12th May. But essentially, during the 18th Century Enlightenment, it was increasingly felt that reading should be a pleasurable rather than just a dutiful, obligatory, doctrinal or educational occupation. The merging economic and cultural society was ever more aware of issues far beyond their own environments, thanks to the developments of the printing presses and the relative rise of the broadsheets – very much like our internet revolution, in fact. The rise of the novel during this period was an additional reaction to what people wanted to read and write and there were often serious or satirical commentaries on the contemporary society.  Think of Daniel Defoe (Gulliver’s Travels), Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy) and particularly the two men who set up The Spectator and were amongst the first to advocate reading for pleasure and a wider world outlook – Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Think also of the Salons and Coffee Houses of the 18th century.
Knowledge and enlightenment was burgeoning under the strain of market demand and the educated and culturally adventurous middle and upper classes, then, became known as the Polite Society (a ‘polite’ more akin to their cultural standing than necessarily to their manners) with a reading scope to match – hence, Polite Literature.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Food, Glorious Food!

The Portico is more than a library – it is a cultural institution, it is a gallery, it is a meeting space.  And it is also a place for nourishment, both cultural and culinary!  Though you may not automatically associate ‘library’ with ‘lunch’, our members and their guests regularly dine in the reading room and in the Cobden corner on meals and snacks prepared by our cook Kathy and served by our waitress Chantelle.  The menu is hearty, ranging from poached salmon to chili to soup and sandwiches with choices of beer, wine, juices and hot beverages.

Best of all, at least for those sweet-toothed, the desserts!  Kathy’s Portico Pavlova, Portico Sundae with strawberry sauce, and cakes and scones are a true pleasure.   Members of the public are also able to enjoy tea or coffee and cake in the gallery area.   Manchester based poet Jeffrey Wainwright said Kathy’s scones were the best he ever tasted!  Perhaps the recipe below from Kathy herself could get your mouth watering?

Portico Pavlova
For the Meringue:
4 egg whites (5 fl. oz.)
7 oz. golden caster sugar
1 oz. sifted golden icing sugar
1 tsp. corn flour
1 tsp. cider vinegar
Pre-heat oven to gas mark 170C.
Line large baking tray with bakewell. Wipe round large mixing bowl and whisk with lemon juice.
Whisk egg whites until hold stiff peaks.
Whisk in caster sugar 1 tbsp. at a time, whisking very well between additions until mix is very stiff.
Whisk in icing sugar and corn flour (both sifted) followed by the vinegar.
Using small cutter, arrange on baking tray - should get approximately 10.
Bake for approximately 48-60 minutes, checking and turning every 12 minutes.
Reduce heat halfway to gas mark 150C.
Cool for 10 minutes and then finish cooling on a wire rack.

For the Pavlova:
Place meringue on a plate. Cover with a dollop (or two!) of whipped cream, strawberry or chocolate sauce and toppings of your choice.  Serve with a spoon and enjoy! 

Tea or Coffee and Cake is available from 11.30 to 2.30 in the Gallery for members of the public!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

More Poetry for the Portico Prize for Young Writers

The events for 2011's Portico Prize for Young Writers were filled with poetry, from Kate Fox's Library Light at the Awards Evening to Manchester based performance poet Kieren King's specially commissioned poem The Portico which he performed at the closing event.  As Vice-Chair Lynne Allan put it, Kieren "brilliantly and cleverly wove together all the elements of the Library's past, present and future and memorably performed his poem on the evening".  Kieren is the 2012 champion of The Bilston Love Poetry Slam and a member of Working Verse with Dave Viney and Benny-Jo Zahl, with whom he's acted in Amateur Thematics at The Lowry (2012) and is currently working on Working Verse's first collection of verse. The closing event for the Portico Prize for Young Writers was a success with the young writers, their families, the mentors, judges and teachers. And generous sponsor of both the Library and the Portico Prize, Sir John Zochonis was in attendance.
Dai Owen, a great supporter of the Library,
 produced some fantastic sketches of the evening.

The Portico by Kieren King

You can keep your Kindle
It doesn't smell
Like a book smells
Doesn't feel
Like a book feels
I'd rather flick pages
Than touch screens
So under this dome
Flanked by these tomes
I feel home
As I spies
With my two eyes
Previous winners of the Portico Prize

I do wonder
Were these writers ever haunted
By the ghosts of aspiring writers
Past, present and yet to come
Not burdened by chains
But weighed down
By the books that went unwritten
The ideas they pushed aside
The stories they never told
Met too many unceasingly soused scribblers
Perpetual pub philosophers
Rhapsodising random rhetoric
About the opus that they're "working on"
Paper in the left hand
Pen in the right
And ne'er the twain shall meet

Through the best of times and the worst of times
Writers write
Though every flash of inspiration
Is punctuated by a thousand false starts
Writers write
Through blocks, wrong turns and dead ends
Writers write
Even if there's something good on telly

So we're here to celebrate our Northern identity
Its cultural legacy
And your literary quality
It's not so grim up North
It's not flat caps and whippets
It's splitting the atom
Who will join the winners that came before?
Who will have me begging
Please sir can I have some more?

Friday, 6 April 2012

Treasures of Travel - April Exhibition

The Portico Library presents an exhibition in celebration of the commencement of its Retrospective Cataloguing project.  The Voyages and Travels section is truly a demonstration of the travel habits, both for exploration and leisure, of the 19th century society which the Library represents and this exhibition highlights the treasures of this section.
Lyons McLeod (frontispiece portrait of the author) from
Travels in Eastern Africa; with the narrative of a residence in Mozambique
London: Hurst and Blackett, 1860 (Me 45-1)

Voyages and Travels is classified under the letter ‘M’ and contains 2088 titles within 2747 volumes.  The works range from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and cover travel and voyages to all parts of the world. The collection encompasses military, adventure, diplomacy, leisure and exploratory travel and works by women travellers are a highlight.
Constance Gordon-Cumming (frontispiece portrait of the author) from
Wanderings in China
London and Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1886 (My 231-2)

The exhibition opens today and will run until the 30th April. The Gallery is open to members and the public Monday to Friday, 9.30 - 4.30 and has late night openings to 7.30 pm on Thursdays.  Entry is free.

Sidy. Hafsan, Late Bey of Tripoli (frontispiece portrait) from
Narrative of a ten year's residence at Tripoli in Africa...
by Richard Tully, London: Henry Colburn, 1816 (Mz 35)

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Library Light by Kate Fox

Kate Fox, Newcastle-based writer, comedian and poet was commissioned by the Portico Library to write and perform the following poem on the occasion of the Awards evening for the Portico Prize for Young Writers 2011.
Library Light by Kate Fox                
You zoom in from the Information Highway
besieged by talkers, bloggers, stalkers,
cybercasting their facts, stomach contents,
minute by minute feelings,
saying Follow Me, Swallow Me,
Beg me and Borrow me.
You come to rest under the Portico’s domed ceilings,
plug into to the nineteenth century mind,
upload it to your synapses, absolutely free,
expand your soul, expand your brain,
before BBM, MSN, and Facebook friends,
drive you cybernetically insane.
No LOLs, no Texts, No Smilies,
just fine minds sharing everything they know,
and not all at once...

Begun in 1806
by blokes knowing a growing city
would be needing a reading and knowledge fix.
They were wise then,
apart from how they only let in men
and people who owned at least a house.
Things have changed,
we know that’s silly,
now you need neither a mortgage nor a willy,
just a mind that’s ready for more illumination
than Blackpool,
more expansion than Eammon Holmes’
and does not fear Beauty, Truth
and better interior decoration than IKEA.

Fine Art, Biographies, Voyages
and that underused category; Polite,
you’ll find them under the library’s light
Maybe in this very building someone said -
Roget - have you got any more words for us?
and he went off and wrote his famous Thesaurus
John Dalton researched weather,
colour blindness,
invented Atomic Theory
another multi talented 19th century fellow,
though his own optics only ran to
blue and purple and yellow.
Then there was Sir Robert Peel,
a Prime Minister of reforming zeal,
he’s the reason the Police are still called Bobbies
using the Portico for highbrow hobbies.
Mrs Gaskell borrowed 94 pages worth of books
but you couldn’t have come here to meet her -
though you could have bumped into Thomas de Quincey
the Opium Eater.
A writer, a wit, a bookish bloke,
some volumes still wreathed in his smoke.
It’s not all about celebs of course,
not saying you’d come here if you wanted to meet
George Clooney
or talk about Victorian voyages with Wayne Rooney-
though it has hosted one footballing star
in the form of erudite Eric Cantona.

Every modern library,
needs a modern philanthropist.
Thanks to a Knight in shining book binding,
Sir John Zochonis,
The Portico Prize -
once nearly Stuart Maconie’s -
has rewarded
luminaries such as Anthony Burgess
and Val McDermid.
It’s part of the necessary fighting
for the recognition of Northern writing.
Young Writers are encouraged
and mentored, and reflect the light
of knowledge in their eyes
with their very own literary prize.

They will take it back
to the Information Superhighway,
with a nourishing rest stop on the way,
unplug from the library’s lantern light,
the dome of their brain,
settling down into the hypnagogic states of night
where books and texts are dreamed,
words and journeys begin,
careers and ideas and new connections
sparked, as Then meets Now
and if you search then you shall find,
a thousand more hidden treasures
in the library of your mind.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Retrospective Cataloguing

The Library has intended, for many years, to initiate the cataloguing of the collection on an online database.  There have been a few non-starters and there has certainly been a great deal of work by a number of people to finally get to this point now, where we have catalogued 3,700 of our approximately 25,000 volumes. We are working clockwise around the Library and have completed Voyages and Travels, Fine Arts, and Local History and have begun work on the Poetry and Drama.
The Library currently works off of a card catalogue, which, though effective, harbours some inaccuracies. Using Heritage Library Management System to create an online catalogue has allowed us to realize where books have gone missing, discover volumes that we did not know we had, and better appreciate the breadth and variety of the collection.  You may have noticed a number of empty shelves on recent visits to the library; an added bonus of the catalogue project is that we have been able to re-shelve the collection more efficiently, creating extra space and allowing for maintenance and repair of the shelves kindly carried out by our Chairman, Edward Thorp. 

Our cataloguer is able to catalogue approximately 30 volumes a day – people have asked why it takes so long!  The catalogue record for each volume contains basic bibliographic information such as author, title, and publication data, but we are going further than this to include information that will be useful both to the library and its members, and to researchers and general users.  Additional information that we note includes condition and binding of the volumes for future conservation projects and Adopt-A-Book activities; instances of marginalia (readers’ handwritten notes and comments); any unique details about the specific volume; details on maps, illustrations, frontispieces, plates and photographs and those responsible for them; dates of admittance to the Library; donations; sponsorship for conservation; general layout and description of the book; classification details; series titles and editors and related works.

Once the catalogue is online users will have the option of browsing by subject area or searching by keyword, author, title, etc.  As such, it is also an important aspect of the catalogue that we assign appropriate keywords and subjects to each volume to ensure that anyone searching the catalogue on a particular topic will be presented with all relevant book results.  We are also customising the keywords so that users are provided with alternate synonyms by which to search, for example: when a search for ‘student’ turns up the system will recommend the user to also search for ‘pupil’.  The catalogue should be available for online search within the next 4 months and will look like this:

Keep an eye on the website as we will be including and updating a ‘Catalogue’ page where you can find more immediate information on our progress and, once we go live, a direct link to the catalogue itself! If you would like more information on the Catalogue please contact Taylor Bishop at the catalogue desk, by phone (0161-236 6785) or email at