By Matt Turpin

I am below the equator for the first time in my life, and for someone more used to the shouting about how great Nottinghamshire is at literature while not actually leaving the county (a recent trip to Worksop felt like A Big Day Out) this, on top of spending a sleepless 20 hours in the confines of an airline seat, feels weird. Hello, Indonesia.

While Jakarta lies low and is soaked in heat, the air feels clearer at higher altitude as we climb into the mountains. It’s all so extravagantly green, under a sky where the sun hangs high. Within two hours we are in Bandung, UNESCO City of Design, and stepping out of the car is far less jarring than arriving in Jakarta was: the air is fresh, and much more palatable to my delicate English East Midlands constitution.

I’m here as an addition to an international conference, Connecti:City 2023: a gathering of cities that place the creative arts at their core. Organised by the British Council to promote cross-continental cultural exchange, and hosted by West Java’s Regional Government (whose slogan ‘Smile West Java’ is less a mere marketing line than a city-wide ethos, as I shall later find out).The Conference is here in its fourth iteration, at the Grand Preanger Hotel in the heart of Bandung: a fascinating place for many reasons. In 1955, freshly independent countries gathered here at the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference to establish where they stood in this new post-war world. With Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia and 25 other countries, the group represented a staggering 51% of the global population. The historic conference was ostensibly to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism or neocolonialism by any nation, but it also laid out the policy of non-alignment, to position themselves as separate from either side of what was then a rapidly polarised political world. 

Indonesia, as well as many of the attendees 68 years ago, regard this non-alignment as the crux of any element of foreign policy, and a source of national pride.

En route up the mountain, my liaison officer Anam tells me he knows Nottingham well: several years earlier he won a competition to travel to the UK and watch football matches, and despite Nottingham Forest being away the day he visited, he still visited the City Ground. I will go on to speak to many people over the next few days with a connection to Nottingham: friends of past University students, relatives who moved here or close by. It’s easy to forget how international Nottingham’s reach is, and how much our city stretches around the world: how our writers’ voices – our voices – get heard in the most far-flung places. 

There is a frenzy of checking into the hotel and the conference itself; lanyards allocated, speeches printed up, presentations finalised. We go out for dinner in a light shower of mountain rain, and although my cognitive functions are now thoroughly ground to a halt through jetlag and lack of sleep, I’m still able to register that I’m in a fascinating place, eating food I have never before tasted and can only regret having lived 50 years without discovering before. 

The the opening event isa round table of Creative Cities discussing how they are made special with creative arts. 

Jakarta UNESCO City of Literature attend alongside St Etienne UNESCO City of Design and others; predominantly design-focused South East Asian cities that are doing wondrous things with their specialities. I was especially impressed by how Heidelberg UNESCO City of Literature had worked with a Javan city to weave poetry into Batik. Culture works best, it is agreed, when it goes to places less explored.

I used East Wood Comics as our example of how we worked with various partners – schools, local writers and many more – to create a collection of graphic novels about DH Lawrence. I’d brought several slipcases of the comics with me, and distributed them around. It’s nice to think that right now, the thoughts of school pupils from Lawrence’s home town are scattered around the world.

The following keynote event was in the hotel ballroom and  expertly chaired by the British Council’s Camelia Harahap. 

What to talk of, when talking of Nottingham? It’s a subject that can be approached in myriad ways, but as we are a City of Literature, the most appropriate was through simply telling a story. 

Nottingham in the spotlight

So I told a tale of a city that has long been the underdog, forced to fight its corner. A city with a strong social conscience, a unique way of looking  out at the world, and a unique voice that creates a vernacular like no other. A humble city, yet one which has much to be proud of; rich in history but with an eye to the future; always rewriting its story, a narrative arc that seems to be pointing up. I talked about how we are using creativity to address the challenges many cities face as the world reshapes our idea of the very purpose of cities. Why is geography still important in a world of increased digitisation, where life can be lived in the clouds – provided one has rented enough memory from the cloud provider?

And of course, I got to give the audience a hearty ‘Ayup’, as any Nottingham speaker should be contractually obliged to do.

The conference was soon over, and after media interviews, the presentation of a rather handsome statuette and much swapping of business cards we were whisked to a beautiful building in central Bandung for a gala dinner hosted by the Governor of West Java, Ridwan Kamil, who is a well-known figure in Indonesia (22 million followers on Instagram, and a habit of making cameo appearances in films shot in the country). He’s a fascinating character, an architect by trade and a huge fan of football: as he shakes my hand he asks for my affiliation, nodding appreciatively at my confession of love for Nottingham Forest. ‘Liverpool are better’ he laughs, and I give a sceptical nod.

The following day sees more speakers. The host of the morning event is a delegate I’d been sitting next to the previous day, who showed me the notepad she was doodling on: when I say ‘doodling’, it’s in the same way I might describe Da Vinci’s ‘throwing paint around’ or Henry Moore’s habit of ‘mucking around with rock’. See for yourself.

Not your average doodle….

(The phenomenally talented Tita Larasati ( is responsible)

Day three is a whizz around Bandung, seeing the cultural sights: the joyous chaos of the Braga district, where through the crowds we are taken to a floral courtyard full of cicada chirps, hummingbirds and butterflies the size of dinner plates. It reminds me of the garden of Bromley House Library, that same sense of being able to step out of one reality into another. Which in turn has strong parallels to the power and joy of reading. 

We then head up into the mountains, the air crystal clear and floridly perfumed. We visit Wot Batu, a sculptured installation of rock and flowing

Wat Batu

Wot Batu

water, set on the side of the mountain. It is a place of great serenity and calm, and our chattering group falls into an awed hush. In a city famed for its design, Wot Batu is still a mind-blowing place, and somehow encapsulates something about Bandung, and perhaps Java: a connection to nature, a quiet confidence, a humane understanding. I’m thousands of miles from home, from my family, yet here I felt more at peace, more at home, than I could have ever expected. 

We leave, reluctantly, to climb down the mountain back into the muggy city embrace, and to a wet-market that has been converted to a sprawling centre for fledgling shops on low rents in a supported network of businesses. We take part in a live art installation, in which we are taken on a journey around our own personalities, via an app and floor markings: it’s quirky, fun and fascinating. At one point, we are encouraged to write a message to the future and leave it in a letter box, and also to each take a message written by a previous visitor “di mana ada seni, di situ ada harapan” it says. I ask my liaison officer to translate “Where there is art, there is hope” he explains. I wonder who will find my message, written in English, and what they’ll take away from it: “words build better worlds”.

Thursday is the final day, so I pack and venture out for one last look around the city. Omar, a fellow speaker, brilliant architect and fascinating thinker

An Imperious Bandung Campus Cat

from Cairo, explores with me, with our respective liaison officers guiding and translating throughout. We visit the Institute of Technology Bandung (ITB), a campus of intense architectural wonder – the library resembles a stack of books, to name just one example. It’s quiet: today is a national holiday, so where there are usually students there is only us, and the free-roaming campus cats – which are no mangy strays. The cats are locally famous, with their own Instagram feeds, well-fed and justifiably worshipped as the feline deities they evidently know they are. 

Somewhere, there is music. At first it seems to be just birdsong from the trees, or insects delighting in the heat. But no, the melody is clear, something beautiful; we are drawn to its source. There is a building with an open door, and a flight of stairs we descend. Along a dark, cool corridor, the sound becomes clearer, louder. 

We reach a windowless room full of students, each with a traditional Indonesian instrument, playing the most beautiful music. They nod and smile a welcome then carry on playing as we watch and listen, rapt.The power of creativity, the joy of sharing and the sheer human spirit washes over me. It is a moment that will live with me forever.

 After a walk around a jungle trail on the outskirts of the city, we are back in a car and headed down the mountain to Jakarta, and our planes home.

We leave that evening, bound to our respective cities. There are hugs, there are farewells, there are wallet-fulls of business cards swapped. We leave elated, jubilant. West Java is an incredible place, Bandung a city unlike any I’ve ever visited. Strengthened relations between Nottingham and this creatively extraordinary city will undoubtedly benefit everyone involved, and I hope that we can show how when it comes to creativity, Nottingham is also a city that smiles broadly, and gives a welcome as soul-enriching as I was fortunate to receive.