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We Hear All About New Book Follow the Moon and Stars: A Literary Journey Through Nottinghamshire

13 January 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
photos: John Baird

Approached by Five Leaves Publications, John Baird set off on a mission to uncover Nottinghamshire’s literary history. We catch up with the author about his new book Follow the Moon and Stars: A Literary Journey Through Nottinghamshire

*This is not John Baird, author of Follow the Moon and Stars: A Literary Journey Through Nottinghamshire

From Lord Byron to Alan Sillitoe, Notts has produced a rich vein of writers over the years. Yet never has there been such a comprehensive and well-researched history of the county and its literary past as in John Baird’s new book, Follow the Moon and Stars: A Literary Journey Through Nottinghamshire.

It’s best to imagine the text as a tour guide, meandering through the county and dispersing stories along the way. We bump into J. M. Barrie as he walks to work across the Arboretum, Alan Sillitoe as he meets his wife in Paul Henderson’s bookshop, and Graham Greene as he slogs away at his job for the Nottingham Journal - an institution that he unkindly referred to as “a third-rate paper run by third rate people.”

Baird’s book has been a long time coming. “I started volunteering for Nottingham City of Literature around the time we got the UNESCO title,” he says. “I was writing articles for the blog based on a series of literary locations. I didn’t intend for it to turn into a book at the time, but Ross Bradshaw from Five Leaves approached me, and I said yes.” 

It’s fair to say that the book is dense, clocking in at just around 400 pages. While not easy to read in one sitting, the format makes it accessible to dip in and out, each chapter named after a different area in Nottinghamshire. “I needed a device to structure the story and it made sense to go for locations,” Baird says. “I thought doing it that way was a good way of telling the story, because people will know the places. I knew it would help to get people invested, rather than naming each chapter after a writer they might not know.”

It’s best to imagine the book as a tour guide, meandering through the county and dispersing stories along the way

Through this, Baird unlocks ghosts of literary past, stored forever in the buildings and spaces of our county: The Zara on Pelham Street was the first Boots Library; the Arboretum an inspiration for J.M. Barrie's Neverland; The Jam Cafe, once home to Nottingham’s radical Mushroom Bookshop. The stories in this book bring Nottinghamshire to life, linking the past to places we know. “Ray Gosling used to say, ‘When you’re in Nottingham, make sure to look up,’ because that’s where the great buildings are,” John says. “I hope this book is a way to get people to look up and feel pride in their city.”

I ask Baird about the research process. Aside from reading a lot of books, he tells me that he spent a long time reaching out to people, searching for interesting stories. As he speaks, it’s easy to imagine the process as a treasure hunt, in which John searches for literary gems. “I spoke to a lot of people, mainly via email because of COVID. There are lots of stories I wouldn’t have known If I hadn’t reached out, like the story about how Alan Sillitoe met his wife, Ruth Fainlight. She told me about the bookshop where they met, and how Sillitoe read D. H. Lawrence to try and impress her,” John laughs. He tells me that he contacted countless people, and most of them were eager to help, musing, “It’s almost like the whole literary community of Nottingham has played a part in the book.”

While Follow the Moon and Stars drops a fair share of famous names, Baird also hopes to highlight writers that have been forgotten by history. “There were lots of new authors I came across,” John says. “Francis Vivien, for example, who was a crime writer. Apparently, he was better known than D.H. Lawrence and Sillitoe at one time in the sixties, but then he was forgotten. There were so many new discoveries that I stumbled across in strange places. I also wanted to include a lot of contemporary writers. If you’re a writer in Nottingham, there’s a high chance you’ll be in there somewhere.”

It’s about how Nottinghamshire shaped the world, because we have a lot to be proud of in this county

The author dedicates his longest chapter to the Nottinghamshire LGBTQ+ community, and their contribution to the literary scene. 'Without its LGBTQ+ writers and writing, Nottingham would not be a UNESCO city of Literature,' the author writes in chapter thirteen, 'and there might not even be a legend of Robin Hood.' I ask John about this chapter. “It occurred to me that so many of our writers have been gay or bisexual, going back to Byron. In the modern scene, so many of our performance poets seem to be LGBTQ+. I couldn’t ignore that, and I wanted to tie in the changes in society and law, regarding the way gay people have been treated. How we respond as writers is interesting. We have such a strong sense of social justice in this city, and writers have always been at the forefront of that.”

The thing I like most about Follow the Moon and Stars is how much it feels like a passion project. Throughout the book, Baird’s tone walks the line between factual and affectionate, eager to share the exciting stories he’s discovered. “If a reader wanted to visit one literary site, where would you recommend?” I ask Baird, a somewhat unfair question considering the mass of locations the book covers. “Within the city, the Bromley House is a must, then Newstead Abbey has such an incredible atmosphere. That’s one for the city and one for the county. Those are two locations you can’t help but be affected by,” he replies.

All in all, it’s a pleasure to see Nottinghamshire through Baird’s eyes, learning about literature and social history alike. “Even if you aren’t interested in Literature with a capital L, I think it will appeal to people who like history too. It’s also a book about how Nottinghamshire shaped the world, because we have a lot to be proud of in this county,” John comments - and on this front, I must agree.

Follow the Moon and Stars: A Literary Journey Through Nottinghamshire will be published this January and can be pre-ordered on the Five Leaves Publications website

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