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TRCH David Suchet

UNESCO City of Literature: David Belbin

5 June 15 words: James Walker
"I particularly want to see the bid used to boost literacy in the city"
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photo: Dave Parry

What exactly is the UNESCO City of Literature bid?
UNESCO has a network of Creative Cities celebrating seven areas, one of which is Literature. They work together and ensure that distinctive cultural identities aren’t lost in the rush for globalisation. Our bid idea came out of a talk by Stephen Lowe at the Festival of Words. Bromley House Library commissioned some research, then ran with it.

What benefits would it bring to the city?
UNESCO accreditation doesn’t bring any money, but does bring prestige and publicity, which makes it easier to attract money… and visitors. I particularly want to see the bid used to boost literacy in the city and, partly with that in mind, we have registered the company behind the bid as an educational charity.

There are currently eleven UNESCO cities of which three are in the UK and Ireland (Norwich, Edinburgh, Dublin) Surely this must work against Nottingham...
It’s not a competition. It might help if Nottingham were in Wales and didn’t have the same first two letters as Norwich. But we have a very different approach to Norwich or Edinburgh and will put our case as well as we can.

Who are the core organisations involved in the UNESCO bid and how was it decided that they should come to represent Nottingham?
Bromley House Library invited everyone they could think of to a launch event. From that, a project group was set up, with one representative from many organisations. The board emerged from that working group, with members from both universities, the Writers' Studio, the City Council, Bromley House, Creative Quarter, Writing East Midlands and Playhouse, with a City Council and an Arts Council officer in attendance.

There is a general fear that when organisations such as the Creative Quarter or City Council are involved they may try to utilise the bid to further their own, albeit admirable, aims...
I chair a board of strong-minded people who care about Creative Writing and are committed to making the city more joined up. Nobody gets to dominate what we do. Not even me!

What is the strategy underpinning the bid?
The bid is being written as we speak. Its four cornerstones are: our huge amount of grass roots activity in a diverse, well integrated community; a big international element which comes from the Playhouse, the universities, translations from places like Russell Press and strong links with world cities. You need a Unique Selling Point (Norwich, for instance, created a big Writing Centre) - ours is the digital aspect - NTU’s Trace was the world’s first online writing centre in the mid nineties, while just this year we have the National Videogame archive and Dawn of the Unread, both with innovatory storytelling. The final cornerstone is our literary heritage: Byron, Lawrence, Middleton, Sillitoe and so many fine writers today.  

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photo: Dave Parry

Part of the UNESCO status requires a strong and supportive infrastructure throughout the city. Do you think Nottingham really has this, given the University of Nottingham has just closed its Creative Writing MA, and that there are no real Literature Officers at the City Council?
There’s some misinformation. UoN hasn’t closed its MA, or its undergraduate Creative Writing course in English, just the Creative and Professional Writing BA degree within Education. That is a great shame and it was poorly handled but our board is working with both universities to try and ensure that the unique aspects of that degree are taken over by other courses within the city.

The city council would do more but has been starved of funds by the government. Nottingham does have an officer responsible for literature and she attends our board. It’s also backing the Dolly Parton Imagination Library initiative, which is terrific. Times are tight, but our strength is in the diversity of grassroots writing activity, via the Writers’ Studio, Writing East Midlands, Mouthy Poets, the Playhouse, plenty of publishers, big events like the Festival of Words and numerous small scale ones like the Jazz and Poetry night I run. A myriad number of other activities go on, showcasing a wide diversity of interests and cultures. Many I‘ve only found about through chairing this bid.

What happens once the bid is submitted and we wait to find out the result?
We have forty volunteers from numerous sectors reading a draft of the bid, giving comments to a professional bid writer who has to work within very tight word limits on a detailed form. A version of the bid will be sent to UNESCO UK on June 15 to get their endorsement. If we get the OK from them, the final bid goes off on July 7th. UNESCO then assesses all of the bids that they have received. They have said that they will announce the results on December 11.  In the meantime we’ll carry on encouraging and facilitating partnerships between organisations and individuals to use literature to enhance the lives of people across the region and forge links with other cities around the world.

Civic engagement is an important component of the bid, something you believe in…
Although I’ve not been active in politics for 25 years, I do believe in civic engagement, in giving something back. It felt important for our bid to be headed up by one of the city’s writers, so, when I was proposed, I couldn’t say no. I have strong connections with many bodies involved in the bid. I was a founder member of the Writers' Studio and have belonged to Bromley House Library for nineteen years. I’m a graduate of one university and teach at the other. Also, since 2012 I’ve been on the board of the Playhouse.

How close is your connection with the local literature scene?
It’s been close since the eighties, but the seven or eight years I spent running Nottingham Trent’s Creative Writing MA embedded me in the city’s literary culture. So many city writers came through that course, and more keep coming. Since I stepped down I’ve run a monthly jazz and poetry night at the Guitar Bar, featuring John Lucas with his jazz band, Four In The Bar, and a stellar cast of poets. We’re mixing for a night soon, making it Jazz and Prose. I’ll be reading alongside Nicola Monaghan, Jez Noond and Robert Edric. It’s a relaxed, sociable evening that combines my two passions, music and literature.

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What impact do you think a Conservative government will have on the arts sector?
Investment in The Arts creates jobs, boosts education and spreads well being, but I doubt that argument will wash with the austerity policy, which I think is based on bad economics. There’s also a huge fiscal bias in favour of London and Arts areas enjoyed by the elite, especially when it comes to lottery money. Arts spending tends to benefit the already well-off. This makes me angry, but life has never been fair and The Arts are remarkably resilient. Good thing, because I think, for the foreseeable we’re going to have to be even more resilient and innovative. But Nottingham’s good at that. The Arts, especially literature, have thrived in this city during the recession in ways that just haven’t happened in other UK cities. Nottingham is unique: full of contrarian characters who, despite their individuality, are good at collaborating with each other, at making things happen. This bid, whether it’s successful or not, will celebrate that character, and make more things happen. I’m proud to be part of it.

Is it true you also once stood in the local elections?
I was an activist for a decade, which gave me many useful contacts once I started work on my Bone and Cane series. I stood for Labour in Sherwood in 1983, a very close election. Sherwood was the only city seat that had a swing to Labour. 0.5%! I think serious writers have to be independent and haven’t belonged to a party since my first novel was published, in 1990.

Your third Bone and Cane novel is out soon. What’s it about?
Sarah Bone is the Labour MP for the fictional, marginal constituency of Nottingham West. Nick Cane was her university boyfriend. He spent five years in prison for running a cannabis factory in a cave below his flat in The Park, but is now trying to shake off his criminal past. Through these two, I tell the story of Nottingham in the New Labour years. They’re mysteries with a serious undertow. The Great Deception features characters from the first two books but is also, in a way, the sequence’s origin story. It has three timelines - the sixties, the eighties and the nineties. There’s Sarah’s grandfather, who was a cabinet minister in Wilson’s governments, and her dad, who died of AIDS. There’s espionage and prostitution. Three prime ministers appear in the novel, along with one famous spy.  The overall story’s about how lies can resonate through generations and the past is never really past.

Finally, I heard a rumour that your middle name is Lawrence…
True. I wrote some thrillers once and was going to use David Lawrence as a pseudonym, but some poet had beaten me to it…

The Great Deception, the third in the Bone and Cane series, is published later in the year.

Nottingham City of Literature website
David Belbin website


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