I started working to help make Nottingham a UNESCO City of Literature back in 2014. It goes without saying how chuffed I was when we were bestowed the accolade a year later, and not just because the city I adore was being deservedly recognised. It also meant I could continue investigating that fascinating intersection where my hometown and words met; and the multitudinous marvels that span out from there. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and it’s rare a day passes without a fascinating fact revealing itself to me.
If there is one thing finer than finding these gems, it’s passing them onto others. In that spirit, I present to you ten of my favourite things learned over the past few years, which’ll hopefully convince you that we’re not just a City of Literature, but a bleddy brilliant one at that.
In Nottingham, poetry is the new rock ‘n’ roll
If you thought cramming shoulder to shoulder into sweltering, spot-lit rooms above pubs was the sole preserve of guitar band fans, you need to get yourself down town and into one of the many poetry events that crack off over the city. I’ve been to gigs that make Rock City’s loudest offerings seem tame, with audiences that display more diversity than any music gig. Nottingham has an incredibly exciting scene, where the lines between hip hop, poetry and grime are blurred to redundancy. I’ve yet to see a stage dive after a particularly electrifying quatrain, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
Our fellow cities are good fun
We now have 27 other cities in the City of Literature network, from Reykjavik to Melbourne; Montevideo to Ulyanovsk (it’s in Russia). We work together on projects, share ideas and do our best to build a better world with words. They provide a constant source of fascination and humour: have you ever tried explaining the concept of pantomime to Americans and Australians? Don’t. It won’t help. When Baghdad joined the network, I asked one of their team what had qualified them for the award. A perfect pause, and “Well. We sort of invented writing.” Touché.
Notts slang is the most contentious subject matter ever
Seriously, it makes Brexit look tame. Each week, I host a Notts Word of the Week on our website, using University of Nottingham’s linguist Natalie Braber’s book Nottingham Dialect as my source material. Not a single entry goes online without it being contested. Is it “mamar” or “nanar”? Is “nesh” exclusive to Notts? Did “mosh”, to describe loose coal jiggling around when transported, inspire the more common heavy metal dancing usage of the word? I’m convinced this is how wars start. At least we can all agree on “cob”, can’t we?
We do a fine line in inspiring urchins
Not only was JM Barrie’s Peter Pan apparently inspired by a waifish, ragged young boy the writer saw while walking through Clifton Grove, but we can also stake a claim on Oliver Twist: Dickens’ classic tale was a fictionalisation of the true tale of Nottingham’s Robert Blincoe, an orphan expelled from the workhouse into a life of crime after daring to ask for more. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies featured Young Tom, a chimney sweep based on a real child labourer from Notts; Kingsley’s dad was from around here. When it comes to undernourished youth lighting narrative fires in the imaginations of the nation’s finest writers, we ruled.
Arthur Seaton has the power to draw throngs of students from Milan to some of Nottingham’s less glamorous streets
In May 2016, I got a call from an Italian university. “I’ve got 25 MA students studying Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. We’re flying over next week to look at the places it was set, can you help?” And so it was that very early on a Sunday morning, I led a group of students, some suffering the after effects of a Seaton-esque Saturday night, from the Square to Canning Circus, through what remains of the Raleigh factory and across Wollaton Park to Bramcote Hills, as they eagerly took selfies outside derelict pubs and abandoned factories. If you thought turning Ilkeston Road into a tourist hot-spot was beyond the powers of literature, think again.
Our publishers lead the world
You’ve probably walked past the offices of Angry Robot Books, near Nottingham Contemporary, many times without realising that you’re strolling past a globally renowned publisher changing the face of science fiction. Up in Kimberley, DayGlo books are reinventing the concept of publishing with a series of simple, cost-efficient ideas that ensure people with dyslexia can read books with minimal trouble. Spokesman Books continue to uphold the great Bertrand Russell’s rich legacy, and Five Leaves lead the field in radical publishing. Candlestick Press have practically reinvented the poetry anthology and have eye-watering sales to match such genius. Heavy industry may have died in Nottingham, but the voracious fire for innovation that made us world leaders in pharmaceuticals, lace and bicycles burns on in our creative industries.
Byron was a well-endowed vampire, but no one really knows where DH Lawrence has got to
You probably know that the mad, bad and dangerous to know swashbuckling poet is buried in Hucknall, but you might be surprised to hear that when his crypt was last visited in the thirties, the tomb raiders found his body in near-perfect condition despite being dead for over a century, and noted that his, ahem, appendage “shewed quite abnormal development” or, as a less-mannered witness put it in a later interview, “He was built like a pony.” Apropos of nothing, one of the men to see this terrifying sight was Broxtowe’s local MP at the time, the marvellously monikered Seymour Cocks.
At least we know where Byron rests. While it was once assumed DH Lawrence’s ashes were in a memorial at Taos, New Mexico, a 1976 deathbed confession from the guy charged with transporting the cremains to the USA from France revealed they’d actually been lobbed in the Mediterranean to save the hassle of getting them past custom posts “I threw away the D.H. cinders... my worst lie is the D.H. Lawrence cinders lie” revealed Angelo Ravagli, the scamp.
Nottingham City of Literature is technically not a good name
While our city is jammed full of excellence, we’re more than just the city: how could we exclude the wider county, and all things Eastwood? There are some excellent publishers, writers and heritage all over the county, so we don’t discriminate against our less-urban neighbours. Also, “literature” is a little limiting as a word, and suggests just books, when we’re rich in screenwriters, lyricists and other wizardly wranglers of words. However, “Nottingham, and the Wider County Basically Anything with an NG Postcode of Literature, Lyrics, Poetry, Screenplays, Scripts, Feature Writing etc” is not easy to get on our letterhead, so the original will have to do.
Having a Nottingham Young Poet Laureate is a scream
Georgina Wilding was chosen in September 2017 to be our official verse-smith, and her feet have barely touched the ground since. What’s more, she’s also one of the funniest people to work with, and whether it’s turning on the Christmas lights or having a camera stuck in her face and told to rhyme on demand, she’s a consummate pro. Even when given just a couple of days to turn out a poem to present to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, she turned out a beautifully crafted piece before I’d even Googled where in Nottingham I could buy vellum and a quill. Expect to see a lot more of her genius in 2018.
Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not has been the city’s unofficial slogan for centuries
Sillitoe’s arch anti-hero Arthur Seaton might have codified it, but it’s been there since the marshy settlements around the Trent first started merging. Perhaps we can blame that original socialist outsider, Robin Hood. Perhaps it’s due to being stuck on the fault-line between North and South. Whatever it is, it’s the energy that fuels the spirit of rebellion running as an unbroken angry howl through the centuries, occasionally increasing in pitch until the rest of the world can’t help but hear. Ray Gosling, Ottoline Morrel, Lawrence, Byron: our writers have kicked out against the stale and the hypocritical with the same bracing energy that made us (in)famous as the city of riots, of burning down the Castle, of the Luddites and all others who make this place too lively and too contrary to pin down. We’re now in a position to shout out to the world, and we want you to help us do just that. We’re a city of voices, a city of words, a city of literature. Come and join us, and make sure we’re heard.