It’s a fact that Nottingham, known by its proud inhabitants as The Queen of the Midlands, has never been over-proud of its literary heritage. It’s about time to put an end to that sad neglect. Literature, in the widest possible sense, has been hewn and continues to be sculptured from our rough sandstone heart. For these are streets of stories. This is a city of writing.
Note how the stone mason originally misspelled gaol as goal! Outside Galleries of Justice
City of Crime and Riot.
These are but some of the tales which document the turbulent history not only of our city but of our nation:
The medieval ballads of our political role model, Robin Hood, who came to town to rescue Little John, his henchman, from the Sheriff’s dungeons and was betrayed by the big-headed monk of Saint Mary’s.
The partisan broadsheets from both sides of a civil war which started when a long-haired monarch who believed his rule divine raised his standard outside Nottingham Castle only to end when he cut off that hair and surrendered a few miles up the Trent at Newark to those common foes he considered so far beneath him.
The proclamations of General Ludd and his followers protesting against technological changes that turned this place from a Garden City into one of the most fetid slums in Europe in less than two generations.
The black-letter verses sold outside the County Gaol at public hangings bearing the confessions of murderers such as William Saville who cut the throats of his wife and bairns in Colwick Woods or declaiming the legal injustice against Hearson, Beck and Armstrong, young textile workers falsely arraigned for riot and criminal damage when Nottingham folk protested against those noble lords who blocked reform and the sky lit up with the burning of the castle.
The reminiscences of those whose lives had brought them into contact with notorious scoundrels such as Charles Peace, the portico thief, who hid out in Narrow Marsh under the alias of Jack Thomson in the 1870s or ‘Nurse’ Dorothea Waddingham, convicted of the murder of two of the elderly patients in her care.
Byron by Alexie Talimonov
City of Poetry.
These are but some of the little-read and under-appreciated works of thinkers who have expounded their philosophies through poetry:
The philosophical poems of the natural scientist Erasmus Darwin, who practised as a physician in Nottingham and who, in The Botanical Garden and The Temple of Nature postulated a theory of evolution which his grandson Charles would later develop scientifically in his paradigm-shifting works.
The revolutionary works of Lord Byron, heir to Newstead Abbey, whose sexual precocity was forged as a child on Saint James Street and whose radical maiden speech in the House of Lords was a plea on behalf of the Nottinghamshire framework knitters.
The lyricism of a poor butcher’s son and Cambridge scholar Henry Kirke White, who romanticised our river in Clifton Grove but who sadly died before his burgeoning talent could ever be fully realised.
The trancendentalist theology of Philip James Bailey, expounded in Festus, the longest poem in the English language, which was influenced by his meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson who came here to read at the Mechanics Institute – as did Charles Dickens, on no less than four occasions.
The delightful versifying of the Quaker poet Mary Howitt who lived with her husband William, himself an influential essayist, on Castle Gate and who wrote the perennial favourite Will you come into my parlour? said the Spider to the Fly and was the first to translate Hans Andersen’s magnificent tales into English.
Nottingham Express offices where Graham Greene worked as a sub editor.
City of Imaginative Influence.
These are but some of the great writers who passed through the city:
J. M. Barrie was a young Scottish writer who honed his imaginative skills as a feature writer for the Nottingham Journal. On a Sunday stroll in Clifton Grove he noticed a boy with a handkerchief secured to his short trousers with a safety pin and remarked to his companion: He must have lost his shadow and his mother had pinned it back on. So Peter Pan was a Nottingham lad! There are even those who reckon that it was our Arboretum, rather than Kensington Gardens, which provided the inspiration for Neverland.
Graham Greene walked his dog in that same delightful urban park when he worked as a sub-editor on another Nottingham rag, the Express, a couple of decades later. He went each day to a building designed by the post-Gothic architect, Watson Fothergill, whose eccentric works still dominate the city and whose unpublished journals provide yet another literary insight into late 19th century life. Though Greene was only here for three months in the late 1920s the city and its down-to-earth people made a lasting impression upon this Oxford graduate who converted to Catholicism in the cathedral and who returned to the city in his fiction, his drama and his memoirs throughout his life. He wrote that it was: ‘the focal point of failure, a place undisturbed by ambition, a place to be resigned to’ - rather a dystopic opinion, until we remember he added that it was: ‘a Home from Home’.
Alma Reville was born in Saint Ann’s but her parents left when she was only three months old. She went on to be one of the greatest scenario writers of the British cinema and continued to work on the scripts of all the films directed by her husband. Hard to know what influence the city of her birth might have had upon her craft but her birthplace provides one degree of separation between Nottingham and Alfred Hitchcock.
City of Mirth and Mayhem
Two of the most influential comedians of the early 20th century grew up within spitting distance of each other in the poverty-stricken courts off Coalpit Lane:
Fred Karno produced chaotic, surrealistic, dialogue-free stage comedies such as Jail Birds and Early Birds, allowing both Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin to develop their miraculous skills.
‘Nottingham’s Own Comedian’ Billy Merson, himself a pioneer of early cinema as he documents in his autobiography Fixing Me Stoof Oop, is best remembered, if at all, as a character comedian with such immortal routines as The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life.
As the home of Goose Fair it is hardly surprising that Nottingham folk have always appreciated bizarre and carnivalesque forms of entertainment, which are magnificently memorialised by a po-faced civil servant in The Journals Of Sydney Race.
City of Literature
The lights of the above luminaries have perhaps been unfortunately eclipsed by three of the finest and most significant English novelists of the 20th century:
David Herbert Lawrence maintained an ambiguous relationship with the mining area of the Erewash Valley of his birth and the nearby county town of his education at school and university from which he banished himself for a wandering life, though he immortalised ‘the country of my heart’ in Sons and Lovers and other central modernist novels.
Alan Sillitoe was also in self-imposed exile on the island of Majorca when he wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning about a Radford now gone forever, about a bicycle factory whose site is now a university campus providing the two most abiding slogans for this city: I’m out for a good time, all the rest is propaganda and Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Karel Reisz’s seminal 1960 film of this great novel was the first time Nottingham folk saw their own streets, their own lives, on the big screen, putting this city on the cinematic map and shaping the way we are seen throughout the world.
Stanley Middleton’s body of work depicts a more thoughtful, quieter image of ‘provincial’ life in his forty five novels – but is it any less accurate?
City of Writers
This is but a tantalising glimpse of the writerly legacy vouchsafed by The Queen of the Midlands. There are many other writers from Nottingham, many other writers who have written about Nottingham. These are writers who have written and continue to write in all forms, not just academically sanctified literary novels and high-minded poetry but genre fiction, dramas, screenplays, journalism, local history, memoirs.
Many of them today are members of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio. Let our feet memorialise our tradition. Let us go on a tour of this City of Words.
Streets of Stories is part of the Festival of Words and will start at Langtry's on Sunday 17 Feb, 3pm and Wed 20 Feb, 6pm. Donations after walk - or bag of nuts and a pint.