Monday, 10 November 2014

Our City of Literature

Nottingham is aiming to become a UNESCO City of Literature, an ambitious undertaking. The advice from Edinburgh - the first City of Literature - being, Before you apply, prepare to be dedicated.’

So what is City of Literature status? What are our chances of achieving it? And which other cities are in applying in 2015?
Being named a City of Literature by UNESCO would be a permanent accreditation. If successful we would join an established network of seven * like-minded destinations that share our love and knowledge of literature.
We have an incredible literary heritage which includes the poet Lord Byron. A leading figure among the Romantics, Byron was also a political revolutionary and fighter of independence. D H Lawrence is another of England’s finest poets and one of the 20th century’s most accomplished novelists. The son of a miner, Lawrence was born in Nottinghamshire and his most successful books are set here. Alan Sillitoe makes up our trinity of literary legends. As rebellious and unapologetic as Byron and Lawrence, Sillitoe wrote with a working class resilience that has inspired many of Nottingham’s contemporary authors. His first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is arguably the best book set in Nottingham. See some of the best novels set in Notts.
Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe were writers that shook the establishment. They didn’t court controversy, it courted them. 
City of Literature status would see Nottingham working in partnership with the other Creative Cities, exchanging ideas and experiences to help sustain, build upon and promote our heritage and contemporary writing scene.
It’s not like Nottingham folk to celebrate our achievements. Too much like boasting. That’s one of the reasons we write. Somehow it’s not showing off if it’s written down. The pen is our microphone, the page our stage. Being an official City of Literature would unshackle us from our modesty and allow us to share our pride with the world. In addition to this, and the economic boost, the title would provide valuable inspiration to our many aspiring writers and help raise the below-average literacy standards in our inner-city schools.
UNESCO’s list of criteria stresses the importance of quantity as well as quality. When Reykjavik became a City of Literature the sheer number of new titles produced there was a factor. They have more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world. According to the BBC, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book. Impressive stats that demonstrate a depth of writers, but Nottingham can compete. Like Rekyjavik we have a huge number of self-published and independent authors that burst from the many educational programmes and writing groups that thrive here.
Bids must be submitted by March 2015 and other cities intend to apply. Kampala is striving to become the first African city to be admitted into the network. Their bid, being led by the African Writers Trust, is gathering pace. I also understand that Barcelona is in the running. Their candidature, which is being led by Barcelona City Council, is apparently gaining support from the entire country’s book and publishing sector as Spain seeks its first City of Literature. * And then there’s Seattle.
According to the mystery author J A Jance, ‘Seattle has always been a reading town.' Now, the Seattle area of Washington State is home to Amazon, Starbucks and Costco, three powerhouses that greatly influence America’s reading tastes. 
One organisation that helps UNESCO decide which cities deserve the accreditation is PEN International, the non-political promoters of literature and freedom of expression. This might be good news for Nottingham as we excel in providing a voice for independent thought and celebrate diversity. Our Festival of Words being an example. I'm not sure how Seattle’s Amazon factor will sit with PEN.
Nottingham author Chris Nickson worked as a writer in Seattle so I asked him for his verdict on their literary merits compared with ours.
‘As someone who's lived in both Seattle and Nottingham, it's fair to say that both have their good and bad points. With Five Leaves, Nottingham has a thriving small press and independent bookshop. There's a good literary festival, and Nottingham Libraries are supportive of writers, in my experience. A good tradition, too, from Lawrence to Sillitoe to John Harvey and Alison Moore.
Seattle doesn't have a literary festival, but it does have a plethora of independent bookshops. Elliott Bay, by far the biggest, has writers from all over reading most nights of the month. It's a place that's very supportive of its writers, with a number of small presses and literary magazines. Interestingly, several British writers have made their homes there - Jonathan Raban and the late Michael Dibdin, for instance - and a number of American writers, too. It's vibrant, and has been for several decades. For a young city (the first white settlers arrived in 1851), it's quickly grown into a vibrant place. The underground and alternative in all forms or the arts thrives there.’
You won't want to hear this, and I'm sad to say it, but I do believe that Seattle has the edge for the title (and I'd even have to give it the edge over my hometown, Leeds, which says a lot).
It seems that the case for Seattle will be a strong one and, in the spirit of the creative cities network, it’s good that the Nottingham bid team is exchanging ideas with theirs. Demonstrating an ability to collaborate internationally is important. In recent times only one city a year has been given City of Literature status (Dublin 2010, Reykjavík 2011, Norwich 2012, Kraków 2013) * but the award is non-competitive - in 2008 Melbourne and Iowa City were both accredited - so good luck to all the applicants. UNESCO’s decision is expected in November 2015.
Nottingham's bid has good backing from a range of sources but we must encourage the whole of Nottingham to get behind us. Let's show how much we care about literature and literacy. To do this we must highlight our numerous innovative approaches to encouraging reading and writing at grassroots level. Only this week a new publisher is launching at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal. Dayglo Books will publish books for dyslexic adults and children. Using many special adaptations that include a new font, and following British Dyslexia Association guidelines, these stories will make reading accessible for the many dyslexic people currently ignored by the publishing world. Another project that impressed me was held in Mansfield Woodhouse, Notts. Authors from New Writers UK (founded and based in Nottingham) helped a group of children produce stories based on their local history. This generated an interest in the kids’ hometown and led to the publication of a collection of their proud words and illustrations. Copies of this book are now in the Notts libraries.
There are many, many other examples of Nottingham nurturing its talent. Our writing community supports and encourages writers, qualities that would make us a valuable member of the Creative Cities network. In fact, we are a natural choice. Tracing back to the tales of Robin Hood our city has an identity shaped by storytelling. We challenge authority, value free expression and fight our fights with words. Like Robin Hood we demand social justice and the right to a good time.
City of Literature status would be wonderful for Nottingham. I created this blog because I wanted to do my bit to help raise awareness of the groups and activities that exist in my city (many of them listed to the right), and to celebrate the best of our literature. I know how talented, creative, active and ambitious the people of Nottingham are. We are ready for UNESCO to acknowledge this. Please BACK NOTTINGHAM’S BID.

On December 1st 2014, four new cities were given City of Literature status bringing the total amount of Cities of Literature in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network to eleven. They include Spain’s first city of literature, Granada.

Information about the new cities can be found here:

Other links of inspiration:
Iowa City, the third City of Literature, website and Video





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