I don’t know about you but whenever Nottingham attempts to gain a bit of recognition, I always stumble across some dissenters saying, “Well, it’s not up to much is it?” A few good men, perhaps, and some good intentions. The recent City of Culture bid drew mocking comments on social media from people who clearly haven’t been here in awhile, and our status as a UNESCO City of Literature drew the predictable chat about the Big Three – Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe – and not much more.
The Collected Words exhibition is an attempt to, frankly, shut those people up. And not before time. The exhibition is on at the Weston Gallery, where the University of Nottingham showcase their manuscripts and special collections, to show us more of ourselves: who we are, what we’ve achieved and how Nottingham itself has helped shape our city and our culture.
Collected Words brings together manuscripts and personal effects of Nottinghamshire writers, and writers who have worked here. It has three main themes: displaying to us how difficult can the road to publication be; exploring the University’s role in shaping reputations and inspiring the careers of local writers; and looking at how Nottinghamshire itself has inspired literature.
There are some fascinating artefacts in the exhibition. The Big Three are here, how could they not be? But alongside them sit other writers, some forgotten, some just passing through, all of them adding depth and flavour to Nottingham’s literary reputation.
The trials and tribulations of being a writer take up the first part of the collection. The recent work of Jon McGregor in editing and collating The Letters Page journal displays the letters for submission with the editing post, and their comments for improvement or explanations as to why they were rejected. Author Madge Hales kept an archive of her rejections, providing a comprehensive collection of the different ways publishers can turn you down.
Perhaps few writers have had such a job getting published and recognised as DH Lawrence. One of the main items on display is a rare typescript of Pansies, a recent acquisition by the library and typed at least four times by Lawrence to ensure at least one copy escaped confiscation by the government.
The next case to this explores how reputations can be made or lost, and talks about the University’s own troubled past with Lawrence, though it does then highlight a special exhibition put on at the campus in 1960, thirty years after his death, as a “belated apology and an attempt to honour a prophet.” The professor and literary critic FR Leavis, it is reported, even wore a tie for the occasion.
The exhibition moves back further, to medieval poetry, to Byron and to Margaret Cavendish, with her work The Blazing World, possibly the first work of science fiction. Once again, drawing our attention away from what we know, helping us find more and want to know more is where this exhibition excels. So while we might know about Byron’s speech to the House of Lords in support of the frameworkers, we know less about the series of memorial lectures given in his honour in 1910 by University College Nottingham, a pamphlet for which is on display.
The final section, placed in the middle of the room, was my favourite part. Not just Nottingham writers, but those who visited and took something worthwhile away with them. So among the displays, proof copies of Alan Sillitoe’s books signed to his agent “with love,” a copy of George Eliot’s Adam Bede based on an inmate of Nottingham gaol, JM Barrie’s output while he worked here, and Hilda Lewis, now little known but a writer of the lace trade who brought it to life. BS Johnson’s original box script of The Unfortunates sits here alongside his impressions of the (at the time) newly built Portland Building at the university. Perhaps the only one missing was Graham Greene. And so I chatted to Sarah Colborne, Collections Archivist, about the collection.
“We didn’t have any Graham Greene in our archives,” she says, explaining the omission. “But what was exciting was to find out more about JM Barrie. There has been a persistent rumour about him basing Neverland on The Arboretum but how do you prove such a claim? The items we have on display draw on his experiences working on a provincial newspaper, and we’re able to show a lot more than rumours.
“What I found wonderful was the BS Johnson,” she continues. “We’re just having the Portland Building refurbished so it’s amazing to have his impressions of it when it was new. And there’s so much to recognise about Nottingham and the University in the book itself, it’s well worth a read.”
Collected Works runs until Sunday 3 December at Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ Weston Gallery.