A few days ago, UNESCO announced that Norwich – regional capital of East Anglia in southern England – would be made an international City of Literature. This is the first time this accolade has been given to an English city and only the sixth time it’s been given to a city anywhere – the previous five recipients being Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City and Reykjavik.
I was going to begin by saying that UNESCO’s decision will be welcomed by everyone who’s fed up with the common image that Norwich has in Britain, which is of being a dull, parochial backwater located in the middle of a region that’s remote, flat and populated by yokels. Indeed, the negativity of Norwich’s image is summed up by the fact that among British people the city is best known for being the home of comedian Steve Coogan’s fictional alter-ego, the self-obsessed, pig-ignorant, Daily Mail-reading sociopath-cum-radio DJ Alan Partridge. Mind you, I have rather spiked my own guns by using one of Partridge’s catchphrases – “Back of the net!” – in this entry’s title.
I’m pleased to hear this news as I’ve lived in Norwich in the past – I did an MA in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia there in 2008/09. (Don’t panic, British taxpayers – I funded this MA entirely with my own money.) Actually, Norwich is the third UNESCO City of Literature I’ve lived or worked in. I also lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s and again at the end of the 1990s and I briefly worked in Dublin in late 2004. Will any other place I’ve been based in become a UNESCO literary city in the future? Tunis? Sapporo? Newcastle? Pyongyang? Peebles?
Among those campaigning for Norwich to join the literary-city club was novelist Ian McEwan, an early graduate of the famous creative writing course run by the UEA. McEwan recently praised Norwich by calling it a ‘dreamy city’. Well, if McEwan had spent a year like I did living at the bottom end of the Prince of Wales Road, which contains pretty-much all the city’s nightclubs, late-licensed bars and kebab shops, he might’ve used a different adjective. While I made my way home down the Prince of Wales Road late on a Friday or Saturday night, threading between innumerable brawls, scuffles, arguments, unconscious drunkards, puddles of sick, broken glass, cordoned-off crime scenes and paramedic teams, the word that sprang to mind regarding this particular bit of Norwich wasn’t so much ‘dreamy’ as ‘nightmarish’.
But other parts of the city are lovely and I can see how a nascent writer would find his or her muse there. The banks of the River Wensum, the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, the cobbled Elm Hill area and the Lanes off the side of the Market Square are especially scenic and I was lucky that the cycling route I followed from my flat to the UEA campus every day took me through all of these areas.
And, considering Norwich’s size, I was surprised at how much there was going on culturally. While the Theatre Royal served up populist stage and musical fare, more offbeat entertainment was to be found at Norwich Playhouse, Norwich Arts Centre, Maddermarket Theatre, the Puppet Theatre and the Platform Theatre. The concert hall at the UEA wasn’t the best one I’d been in acoustics-wise, but I was impressed by the names it managed to attract during the year I studied there – among them, the Doves, Primal Scream, Motorhead, Florence and the Machine, Glasvegas and Pete Docherty.
Impressive too was the handsome city library housed (along with an exhibition area and the regional BBC TV headquarters) in the big new Forum building overlooking the Market Square. And while there were the usual multiplex cinemas showing the usual blockbusters, I caught up with a lot of cool non-mainstream movies at the charming Cinema City on St Andrews Street.
I should also say that Norwich – once you get beyond the Prince of Wales Road – is blessed with some wonderful bars. The Fat Cat, the Alexandria Tavern, the Golden Star, the King’s Head and the Coach and Horses would all, I think, make the Top 50 in Ian Smith’s World Guide to Great Pubs.
Obviously, the city’s biggest connection with literature is through the creative writing course at the UEA. Apart from McEwan, its graduates include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Toby Litt and current wunderkind of Irish literature, Paul Murray. And amongst those who’ve taught writing at the UEA is perhaps my biggest-ever literary heroine, the late Angela Carter. How delighted I was when, in the university bookshop one day, an elderly assistant told me that she still remembered Carter making her way around the campus “in a big billowy dress…”
Giles Fodden, author of the amusing but depressing novel about Uganda during the Idi Amin years, The Last King of Scotland, teaches there just now. His department was next door to the one I studied in. In fact, while I was doing a secondary course in Media and Development, I suggested to the lecturer – who’d been banging on about how much she disliked the negative coverage that Africa received in the media – that she go and collar Fodden, drag him into our lecture-room and demand that he explain himself. But alas, she didn’t.
Among the other links that the city and its hinterland have with writers… Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is Norwich-born, while in the surrounding countryside Bill Bryson, who is best known for his travel books (but who also wrote an informative and entertaining history of American English called Made in America) currently resides in the old rectory in Wramplingham. Victorian adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines and She fame, was born in Bradenham. And Anna Sewell, authoress of the Black Beauty books that were made into a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s and into a movie in 1994, came from Norwich’s local seaside resort, Great Yarmouth.
Mention should be made too of venerable science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who’s a native of East Dereham 15 miles west of Norwich. Aldiss’s odd little novel Brothers of the Head – the story of a pair of Siamese twins born in a remote East Anglian bog who end up fronting a rock band – was made into a movie in 2005. Several locations in the north of the region were used for filming, including Barningham Hall, Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point.
So congratulations, Norwich – and well done, UNESCO, for making a surprising but wise decision. And as I remarked earlier, I hope this will do a little to solve Norwich’s image problem in the United Kingdom.
Though having said that, I’m afraid I have to finish by providing a link to the only clip pertaining to Norwich and to books that I can find on Youtube. Which is footage of Alan Partridge reading from his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan, when it was launched at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich last year.