Sunday, 13 May 2012

UNESCO City of Literature & The Writers Centre: in praise of Norwich

The essentials are here in Sam Jordison's Guardian piece where he tells us:

The name is an honorarium as much as anything. There is no pot of gold at the end of the several-year-long bidding process, just an impressive sounding label. The title is granted in perpetuity. Norwich  will be plugged in to a network of existing cities of literature (the other five so far are Edinburgh, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Dublin and Melbourne ) and will also be expected to reach out to others hoping to put their own bids together. 

But what will it do for the city?

Yet while the concrete benefits are perhaps amorphous, Chris Gribble, chief executive of the Writers' Centre Norwich, the organisation that put together the bid, is keen to stress his delight and the other benefits the award will bring. "It allows us to identify in a way no other city in England can...

There will, of course, be 'literary events and readings' and big international festivals and conferences. And other things:

There is, for instance, a plan to build a large international centre for writing in Norwich – which will provide space for more readings and events, but also contain a small flat for a writer in residence, and a large cafe and writing space...  Just as interesting is the ongoing translation of Meir Ben Elijah. Meir was a resident of Norwich and part of its thriving medieval Jewish community in the 13th century – until a blood libel and subsequent pogrom destroyed his life. He wrote his community's suffering in moving detail, although few knew about his work until it was rediscovered in (curiously) a Vatican library 700 years later and the fact that is being translated now is a direct result of the research that went into putting together the Unesco bid. 

Sam also points to the literary history of the city starting with Julian of Norwich, a very good source for more of that being the website Literary Norfolk (you'll find me here) - there really has been a great deal. The famous Creative Writing Course, on which I have had the honour to teach, is another major factor, as is the less-sung and much undervalued undergraduate Cultural Studies (and subsequent names for the same course) at what is now NUCA (some dozen or so of the writers who passed through that have now published books or are shortly about to). 


The Writers' Centre has been a phenomenon. It has grown year on year in both ambition and achievement.  The director, Chris Gribble, has been an inspirational, tireless figure, co-ordinating, promulgating, generating and driving forwards. The team is terrific. They have attended to the great  and established without neglecting the apparently small and new because they can see that the latter is where growth comes from.

As for myself, I came to the area to write and deliver a poetry course at the art school. Clarissa established her studio in the butcher's shop that is our house in Wymondham. Norwich has something of the air of Bruges, or Cambridge without the colleges: it is beautiful and lively without the self-conscious chic of a desperate tourist town. It is small enough to be readily comprehensible without being parochial. In the last fifteen years it has become more international with the good fortune of having developed at a time of easier relations between cultures. Norfolk was cheap when we moved in.  The sea is not far away and the streets and cafes are full of writers, readers, artists and musicians. We have been here long enough now to recognise some faces at every cultural event or indeed in most streets, while being aware that there are many more who are new to us. Norwich can be a very intelligent looking city.

Every so often I feel a little melancholy as though I had exhausted my usefulness here. Then I want to move away to live either in a cottage in the wilds a long way from anywhere or in a small inner city flat either in London or some other European capital where I can pop down to the local cafe and spend my latter years reading and scribbling. I want something to be totally new and blank-slate. I expect that is primarily the awareness that I am approaching sixty-five in a year and a half and the sense that it must mean something. I want to think and read from scratch and maybe build a bigger word-castle than I have yet done, something that is the shape of the world as I guess it to be.

Whether that will happen or not, I will have been very lucky to have lived and worked here with such remarkable people, in a city that is discovering itself as a place not in a forgotten pre-industrial corner of England but possibly somewhere at the heart of things in the human spirit. That, I think, is what - apart from the institutional, commercial or branding aspect - the UNESCO status actually means. 


NJP said...

This is a good, positive piece about this development and its benefits. Thanks for writing.

havantaclu said...

Norwich used to be either the second or third most important city in England in economic terms. Some would now call it a backwater. But it isn't, is it? There are many important things to the identity of a city, and its culture and literature are high among them. As you say, the heart of things in the human spirit. And you are part of that - and I hope will remain so. Thank you.

looby said...

Sam Jordison... founder of Crap Towns, the first annual winner of which was Morecambe (from where, I think I'm right in saying, Sam hails).

I've only ever been to Norwich on the way to family holidays in Cromer. You're a good advocate for the place. I also gather it's one of the best places for real ale in the country.

George S said...

I think it is supposed to be a good real ale place - it certainly has a big, conspicuous beer festival each year. I am not a great beer drinker - I'm a spirits man generally.

It was indeed the second city of England in the Middle Ages, Jeni, dense with churches and wool money. It has changed a lot in the last fifteen years or so.