Henry Normal, Poetry and the Birth of Manchester Literature Festival

Amid his ongoing UK tour, with dates in the city region, we talk to the man who put money where his mouth is to start Manchester Poetry (now Literature) Festival, about his early days in Finest's hometown.

By Martin Guttridge Hewitt | 14 October 2021

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Henry Normal Manchester Literature Festival

The writer and poet better known as Henry Normal

“Back then it was a bit like the Wild West,” says Peter James Carroll, his voice lively with nostalgic excitement. Memories clearly easy to recall, even if ‘then’ was a few decades back.

Better known as Henry Normal, Finest is speaking with one of Manchester’s prized literary children, albeit adopted. Normal grew up in Nottingham, moved to Hull to become an accountant, panicked about getting old before time (still very much a young man), and then wound up in Chesterfield. After trying to write for a living, he returned to a finance job, then met his wife, fell in love, and moved to the city we call home. It’s that point in time he’s now remembering, specifically the poetry, comedy and literature scene.

“The first day I arrived in Manchester, on Oxford Street I was looking at this great big red building, which you don’t get in Nottingham, Hull or Chesterfield, where I’d lived. I remember thinking: ‘This place is too big, I’m too small, I’m not going to survive’,” says Normal, who now lives in Brighton. “But of course, like everywhere in the world, it’s a village. Once you get to know the people in the village, you’re fine.”

Our conversation returns to the literary community of that time. “If you think of the Buzz Club, that was originally a folk club, so there would be a couple of acts and a singer-songwriter or poet in between,” he says of what grew into Manchester’s most prestigious comedy venue. “Then of course Angraman, or John Marshall, changed it into a comedy club and got acts up from London, and it became huge. But at the start very often the bills were mixed.

Henry Normal Are We Having Fun Yet

Henry Normal’s ‘The Department of Lost Wishes’ book cover

“Events like The Manchester Busker, they would have 20 acts on. A juggler, someone playing the accordion, such a variety of acts. You weren’t preaching to the converted as you had to win over new audiences,” Normal explains. “And you weren’t spiralling in ever-increasing circles of an echo chamber. It had an outward facing feel to it, which I think was very useful for everyone.”

“There were no poetry shows in the centre of Manchester. The only event was at one of the suburban libraries, that was called South Manchester Poets. And it was quite old fashioned. But it was a great place to go, at least there was somewhere to go,” Normal recounts. “The place that was actually key to the talent that was trying to break was Tameside theatre [Hippodrome]. There was a cabaret night in the bar.”

Within this community he met Steve Coogan (who he would go on to found Baby Cow Productions with), Caroline Aherne, and Dave Gorman. Suffice to say, all have gone on to very big things. For Normal that means ‘The Mrs Merton Show’, ‘The Royle Family’, ‘Paul & Pauline Calf Video Diaries’, ‘Coogan’s Run’, and ‘The Parole Officer’. Not to mention a BAFTA for Services to Television.

By the late-1980s there were regular trips to literature festivals, often in “quaint little villages”, one example being “Ludow with Lemn [Sissay]”. Then a commission came along for ‘Packet of Three’, a Channel 4 series aired from 1991 with Normal, Aherne, Frank Skinner, Jenny Eclair, and Jeff Gree. And the legacy of this is can still be seen and felt today.

“I earned some money, about £6,000. So I thought I’d use £3,000 to set up a poetry festival. That was about 26 years ago. I think Tony Harrison was the first poet we got, and we had ten days of events for that edition,” Normal says of how the inaugural Manchester Poetry Festival was born.

“Ric Michael, who was a great promoter, I asked him to help me. He really took it to heart. But it was quite strange, because when we first met he didn’t like poetry at all, so he’d introduce the act then go for a fag, come back and say ‘wasn’t that wonderful!’,” he continues. “But of course he got into it and we put on some great people. It was such a success it’s still going.” 

Between then and now the event has grown, and evolved into Manchester Literature Festival. During his tenure, Normal cites drafting Seamus Heaney for an appearance as a particularly proud moment. Which is understandable, considering the Irish wordsmith had just won his Nobel Prize at the time. He’s also keen to point out the excellent team that has helped the event blossom, including Festival Director Cathy Bolton.

Henry Normal Live

Henry Normal is currently touring the UK

Normal’s relationship with Manchester continues. The tour he began earlier this month has no less than three dates in the region. Then there’s Flapjack Press. The publishing house — which hosts Word Central open mic events and also produces theatre — has put out no less than ten of Normal’s books, starting with ‘Travelling Second Class Through Hope’, its wonderful title inspired by the train route from Chesterfield to Manchester via Hope Valley. A journey that clearly has a lot more to answer for than meets the eye.

Manchester Literature Festival 2021 runs until 17th October. It returns for an online-only programme from 1st – 14th November. 

Henry Normal is currently on UK tour, and will appear at The Met, Bury, on Wednesday 17th November. He returns to Greater Manchester next year with a date at OId Courts in Wigan, on 14th February 2022

Flapjack Press currently has an call for submissions to NeurodiVERSE, a forthcoming anthology of poetry, open to writers with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other forms of neurodiversity.