Yesterday saw the official launch of Nottingham’s attempt to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. The idea was originally raised by local playwright Stephen Lowe and since has developed into a multi-collaborative project between various organisations within Nottingham. I’m one of the Directors, representing the Nottingham Writers’ Studio.
Nottingham has an incredible literary history. DH Lawrence made it possible for us to all swear more freely after Penguin’s victory in the Lady Chatterley Trial of 1960, Lord Byron stood up for the Framebreakers in his maiden speech to the House of Lords, Geoffrey Trease gave meaningful roles to both male and female characters in his children’s novels, Mary Howitt, in between writing over 170 books/pamphlets with her husband William and inviting a spider into her parlour, was one of the first people to offer dietary information to the working classes. And then of course there was Alan Sillitoe who represented the working classes in their own terms, rather than ‘that view from the top of the hill’. So vivid was his portrayal that it petrified the literati.
Nottingham already has two trams named after local writers DHL and Lord Byron, so it was fitting that a new one should be named the Alan Sillitoe. I just hope it operates the whole week rather than just a Saturday night and Sunday morning…
Organisers and press met up at the Forest Recreation Stop, which was of course the location where Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) was caught with two sisters (Winnie and Brenda) on his arm and chased by two Squaddies. This was a more polite affair with speeches from City of Lit Chair David Belbin, ‘widow Sillitoe’ Ruth Fainlight, Alan’s son David, Councillor Dave Trimble and the Mayor of Nottingham.
Alan Sillitoe has been a phenomenal influence on both my career as a writer and in my moral outlook. ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’ has become a personal mantra and through Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) I learned that authority and respect is not a given but something that is earned.
I was commissioned, along with Paul Fillingham, to produce the Sillitoe Trail for BBC/Arts Council multiplatform The Space in 2013 where we explored the enduring relevance of Sillitoe’s seminal debut novel. It meant that Nottingham got to rub shoulders with the likes of Faber and Faber and the London Review of Books, and reminded the country that there’s culture beyond the confines of the M25.
Dawn of the Unread is of course a continuation of the celebration of Nottingham’s literary history and in February I will be bringing both Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith back to life with artist Carol Swain. Dawn of the Unread’s grassroots approach (just look at all the partners offering support to our campaign, most notable of which would be NTU who have seen over 50 students involved in various capacities) as well as our goals of improving literacy rates, working with schools, and attempting to create a sense of civic pride through literature, are also the goals shaping the vision of the UNESCO bid. It is not a coincidence, Nottingham has always done this. Difference is we’re now telling people.