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Review: But I Know This City!

3 December 15 words: James Walker
How one book linked up an entire city for one day...
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But I Know This City! Photos by @KsChmutina

If you’re a book lover like me then you might be getting a confused message about the importance of literature in the NG. In one corner we have the news that the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre is about to go the way of the Dodo as Broxtowe Council balances the books. Offsetting this is a vibrant and eclectic literary scene that went absolutely nuts in November. And on December 11, of course, we find out whether the bods at UNESCO think we’re worthy of being titled a City of Literature. If we're not, we'll just keep trying. We’ve never been ones for taking no for an answer. That’s what Sillitoe, Lawrence and Byron taught us.     

From the 17 November to 1 December, Henry Normal invested some of his pocket money into a city wide poetry festival that featured the likes of Luke Wright and Lemn Sissay. His three main events paired up a local poet (Kev Fegan, Mouthy Poets and his good self) with a headline ‘outside’ poet. Normal consulted many people prior to the festival to ensure nobody got a mard and is opening up the conversation to the public in mid January for round two. So if you want to get involved, Five Leaves Bookshop has more info.

But easily the most exciting and innovative literary project to have graced these chip-littered streets in donks was Andy Barrett’s But I Know This City! The line is taken from B.S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a book in a box which consists of 27 chapters that require only the first and last chapters to be read in the correct order.

Barrett came up with the ingenuous idea of hosting readings in 26 locations across the city, with the first and last chapters performed in Broadway Cinema. The chapters vary in length from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages and so this was an accessible project that appealed to a broad audience. This was certainly the case on the day with families, couples, and old and young marching from location to location before the 10pm curfew.

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Locations were specifically selected due to their relevance to each chapter and included the ‘Portland solidity’ of the Council House and the balcony of Yates’s. The most random reading was in the back of a blue/silver Alpha Romero in Sneinton Market carpark. Peering into misted-up car windows was a weird experience and perhaps something you’d be more likely to associate with dogging. But this was all good clean fun. With a bigger budget it would be great to see the entire carpark filled with rented blue/silver Alpha Romero’s, just to make the experience even more surreal.

The snuggest location was in front of a gorgeously warm coal fire inside someone’s front room on the Promenade, NG3, the row of terraced houses painted in soft pastel colours off of Sneinton Market. I’ve been intrigued by these colourful homes ever since I got dragged around Sneinton Market as a kid. This literary walk cured me of this decades long curiosity.   

Accompanying me on my journey was Ksenia Chmutina, a friend from book group who is the best read person I have ever met. It was an opportunity for us to celebrate a unique book group experience by discussing each reading as we went along. Also with us was Rida Khan, a young Asian writer who recently moved to the city. What better way to introduce Rida to her new home than through this literary psychogeography. Rida was in particular need of cheering up as during the previous week she had been spat at and swore at for being Asian, as Nottingham’s finest vented their frustration at the Paris atrocities on a young girl because she wears a hajib.

It wasn’t long before we were bumping into familiar faces and chatting with random strangers about favourite passages from the book or the routes they had chosen to visit locations. In many ways it evoked the spirit of Light Night, the only other event I can think of that brings an entire city together.  

The Unfortunates is the story of a man sent to the city to report on a football match but it quickly becomes a more personal story about memory and loss as the narrator fondly remembers a good friend who has recently succumbed to cancer. This isn’t misery lit, though. It’s about the human condition, expertly articulated through precise phrases and great humour that are as relevant today as they were when the book was originally published in 1969.

A tactile book requires a tactile experience. By walking through the novel, living and breathing it, selecting our own individual paths, knowing that nobody else will experience it in exactly the same way as us, perfectly captured the ethos of B S Johnson’s work. As he writes: “The difficulty is to understand without generalization, to see each piece of received truth, or generalization, as true only if it is true for me”.

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Book reading in a blue Alpha Romero

Each location had props to reinforce the narrative. My favourite was the downstairs lounge in Broadway which resembled a front room. On the table was a bowl of mushy peas, fish fingers and a newspaper from the period. Elsewhere we encountered streaks of bacon, a man in a mac, match reports and other contextual props that came alive when the readings referred to them.

I felt sad getting the bus home. That this particular experience was over. But delighted to have had one day of random connections with random people and places. Same again next year please...

But I Know This City! was part of the Being Human Festival

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