Friday, 28 August 2015

Nottingham: Rebel City?

Nottingham, both anti-war and revolutionary, a northern city struggling with its geography. Our city. A city of Literature.

Back in 2010 our baseball club took the name Nottingham Rebels. An inspired choice as now, with nearly twenty-four million pounds earmarked for Nottingham Castle, it’s been decided that our city is to be rebranded, with our heritage of protest and rebellion coming to the fore.
In industrial cities like ours rebellion and rioting was commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries but it seems that we, in particular, had a reputation for it. We were a city of civil disorder. Inflated food prices (be it meat, butter, milk, cheese) had our poor regularly clashing with the greedy traders. There was the Luddite outrage and various examples of electoral issues that sparked violence and what Charles James Fox called an ‘uncontrollable spirit of riot’. Take 1831 as an example; its Reform Bill was set to give greater voting rights to the Labouring classes. The majority of Nottingham was pro-reform but a powerful minority, which included the Duke of Newcastle (who owned Nottingham Castle at the time), helped have the bill rejected by the House of Lords. Riots ensued. Land owners were targeted, the castle's Ducal Palace burnt down, and, were it not for military protection, Wollaton Hall would have gone the same way.  

Working class frustrations have fuelled most of the riots in a city described by Sir Robert Peel as ’disorderly, radical’. But we are not lairy for the sake of it. Being anti-authority may be our default position but that’s only because social injustice blows through our streets; frustrations that have also influenced our literature. If you’d allow me to generalise, I might say Nottingham’s writers (and poets) are socially conscious, left-wing, a voice for the working class. Our stories often follow a thread back to the legend of Robin Hood. Hood robbed the rich to give to a powerless poor because he had to. The reader understands the logic of his opposition, and that there’s no bigger bastard than Hood’s rival, the rich man that robs from the poor. Hood’s little victories against authority raise a smile. Another Nottingham legend, Brian Clough - a socialist who marched with the miners - also redistributed the wealth. Cloughie robbed the rich of their trophies. Before Forest, the 1970s had only seen three clubs win the European Cup (Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool). Under his management the establishment took a beating.
In Nottingham it’s not just the brassic that feel the inequality. The rich are all too aware of the thin line as they live side by side with the poor, drinking in the same boozers. The wealthy side must save their money, in fear of losing it. The poor must spend what little they have, fretting they’ll lose their minds if they don’t.

There’s a new anthology, with the tag line ‘have you read These Seven Nottingham writers?’ If you listened to the accents of the seven authors in question you’d struggle to name the city they were representing. London perhaps, maybe Liverpool? This is typical of our special literary heritage. Our writers are influenced by the city in a profound way but they have spent time away from Nottingham. They have been able to form a baseline, to see an alternative. Try it, think of a top ten or, if you can, top twenty Notts writers. How many of them have lived here all their lives?
But lived here they must’ve. A visit to Nottingham doesn’t count. To belittle our castle, or decry our attractions, is to miss us. To know the city, and write about it, is to know its people. Self deprecating, tolerant, diverse, gobby.

John Harvey grew up in north London, a city he now lives in, and yet his most celebrated series is set in Nottingham. His much loved detective, Resnick, is himself an outsider but the series is rooted in our city. When Harvey lived in Nottingham he drank in our pubs and coffee houses, he read our Evening Post, listened to our local radio, and stood on our football terracing. He listened to the city’s voice. Witnessed how the have and have nots lived across the street from one another and shared opinions.
Harvey is not an exception. Many of our finest writers wrote about the city when living away from it. Others, including many who now live and write here, don’t set their books in Nottingham but draw upon its inherent conflict. Our writers understand that readers are drawn in by characters. They see that people attract people. The city’s nightlife, its universities, its sport, and, increasingly, its music, bring many young doers to Nottingham. We provide interaction, a hedonistic retreat, an ugly inner city, a place of people and parks. Paris has its museums and structures but it also has its Parisians. We are the other side of that coin.  

If we are to be known as a rebel city, our literary heritage will play its part. The rebellious Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe are well documented but our heritage is not all about its writers. We are (or at least were) a city of readers too. In the mid-19th century Nottingham had a healthy number of operatives' libraries. As they were run by the workers they were kept affordable and provided a meeting place for struggles and stories to be shared. A home for union members and free thinkers, they were a place where people could learn how to challenge and make a difference.

Five Leaves Bookshop continues Nottingham’s tradition of radical bookshops, the first of which opened in 1826. Susannah Wright rented a shop in Goosegate and soon angered Christians who objected to her selling publications on theology, freethought and contraception. Despite attempts to force her out of the shop (literally) the store become so successful that Wright moved to larger premises.

The anthology These Seven, published by Five Leaves, is part of a new literature development project in the city run jointly with Nottingham Writers’ Studio and Bromley House Library. There’s a city-wide campaign to encourage those who may not usually engage with reading and writing to ‘have a go’.

Here’s what you’re in for:
Ask Me Now. A jazz-loving detective supping coffee in the old market square, this is classic John Harvey, only the lead role, normally afforded to Resnick, goes to Tom Whitemore of the Public Protection Team. The Detective Sergeant works hate crimes, sex crimes, and domestic violence cases. Sick of him taking his work home with him, Tom’s wife left six years ago, taking the twins with her. His hopes that this would be a temporary situation are about to be tested in this contemporary story set on the familiar turf of the Forest and Arboretum.  

Here We Go Again. What ifs can torment us, shape our memories. What if we’d not played spin the bottle in the Arboretum? Such a teenage memory is evocatively told in Megan Taylor’s story of hopes and regrets, set in the present day Old Market Square.   
Simone the Stylite. Saint Simeon the Stylite (the hermit on the pillar) gets the Brick (John Stuart Clark) treatment as he’s reinvented as a Nottingham Uni student in this satirical graphic story. Let’s hear it for the loners, the outsiders, the thinkers. Can a young woman seeking knowledge inspire other minds to enquire? Socialites, sheep, in-crowds, the noisy majority, lend us your ears.  

A Foreign Land. Paula Rawsthorne's YA-friendly story lives long in the memory. The Aziz family from Western Sudan live on the Tower Estate, a block of flats in Radford, but their appeal for asylum has been rejected. Narrated by 10-year-old Jamal, the story tells of his teacher-parents struggle, their friendly neighbour, acceptance and rejection.   

Hardanger. A family from Plymouth take a trip to Hardanger, a traditional district in the western part of Norway, in a story that feels like a folk tale in the Brothers Grimm canon but has a contemporary setting. It’s a departure from Alison Moore’s usual work but, as ever, the untold is just as important as what’s said.

Nimmi’s Wall. Nimmi is an Indian in Nottinghamshire in Shreya Sen Handley’s story. Having joined her surgeon husband in Sherwood Forest, Nimmi is keen to explore her enticing garden. When the weather permits she leaves her domestic troubles behind and heads for a garden wall and an idyllic land of fairylike children and a romantic figure. But is this antidote to life’s problems the answer, a sign of breakdown or a dream?      
A Time to Keep. Friday night and Martin’s parents are in a Radford boozer. After putting his siblings to bed, young Martin gets out his books. Like a secret reader he marvels in their wonder whilst an ear twitches for his parents return. Enter Raymond, a cousin from the Meadows that takes Martin with him to work on the new motorway. It’s Martin’s first day as a’ mash-lad’ when disaster strikes. It’s classic Alan Sillitoe and an appropriate ending for an anthology celebrating Nottingham writers wherever they’re from.   

The Anthology These Seven is priced at just £3.


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