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How Nottingham Became A UNESCO City of Literature #NottsLit5

Fri 11 Dec, 2020

Nottingham becoming a UNESCO City of Literature in 2015 was by no means a certainty: rather, the odds were greatly against us. Here, some of the team that made it happened explain how a single idea can grow into something wonderful.

DB:David Belbin, Author; Creative Writing lecturer and former trustee of Nottingham Playhouse / PH: Pippa Hennessy; former development director at Nottingham Writers' Studio / CA: Catharine Arnold; Writer, former councillor and Sheriff of Nottingham (2018-19) /JW:James Walker; Writer, campaigner / BS: Bridie Squires, Writer, Leftlion Editor at Large, founder GOBS collectiveMT: Matt Turpin, Communications, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature bid /CB: Chris Breese, Notts TV Head of News.

2013- 2014: The story starts several years ago, when the first stirrings in Nottingham could be heard...

David Belbin: In 2013, I went to a Writer’s Guild talk at the Festival of Words in Nottingham Trent University’s Newton Building. Playwright Stephen Lowe, who had recently become President of Bromley House Library, talked about Nottingham’s literary tradition and how it was as great as any city in the country, and went on to prove his point.

James Walker: It had been noted by Michael Eaton and John Lucas at Nottingham Writers’ Studio that Nottingham hadn’t had a dedicated literary festival in the city for 40 years: that’s where the Festival of Words sprang from in 2013, a festival that wasn’t closeted away but out in the community, across many venues. Looking back, you could almost see those little steps of awareness appearing, this waking consciousness.

Pippa Hennessy: Stephen Lowe was the most vocal advocate for Nottingham's greatness. ‘We should declare ourselves a City of Letters!’ he once told a meeting at the library, but no one really knew what to do about it. I was tasked with finding out how I could develop the idea, to see where we could take it. I found the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, including UNESCO Cities of Literature, almost accidentally while randomly browsing the internet, but it didn't seem right for a grass roots organisation. Yet there was nothing to say we couldn't bid, so I made some notes, looked at how Edinburgh had done it, and before long I called a meeting (somewhat appropriately, on May 1st) to discuss if it was worth doing.

PH: I contacted as many people as I could: the City Council, Arts Council England, the Universities, and all the Nottingham-based literature organisations I knew of. I'd heard the University of Nottingham Vice-Chancellor's wife, Sue Greenaway, was a strong advocate of literature, so I wrote directly to David Greenaway, more out of hope than expectation. He replied, enthusiastically. It felt, more than anything, like a heist: an audacious plan coming together. The afternoon of the meeting arrived, and I was terrified that attendance would be poor. I'd spent some time putting together briefing packs for people and organisations we wanted on board, and in doing so felt the first stirrings: ‘This is a community that can make it happen. We can do this.’

JW: It felt organic and, somehow, an inevitable synthesis of all the conversations going on at the time. A distillation of serendipity, coming at an essential part of that decade when ideological attacks on the arts were in full sway. Nottingham was typically defiant: the success of Broadway, Nottingham Contemporary and the investment in the Creative Quarter bore testament to that. There was a buzz that this was somehow meant to be. I'm not sure anybody was expecting the meeting to be so successful, but people just kept arriving at the library.

Catharine Arnold: What struck me about the idea was it was grassroots, not top-down: this wasn’t the City Council trying to persuade people to get a bid together, this was people asking the council for help: it felt collegiate.

At the time I was Executive Assistant for Culture and Leisure, with David Trimble as portfolio holder. Dave used to say that I was the Culture, he was the Leisure, so I examined what was happening and decided to make a case for it. It wasn’t easy: austerity cuts had really hit the council and anything that might seem frivolous was not on the table. Yet after I explained that this was an investment into our city, and that by improving literacy rates, as well as drawing aƒttention to the issue, it would be a win-win. It was agreed I should look closer.

PH: About 100 people were there, beyond all expectations. I gave a short overview of the proposal, Andrew Graves performed some of his excellent poetry, then we got down to business. The enthusiasm was unbelievable. Organisations came on board and a structure started to form. It hit me then: we were going to do this. We were actually going to bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

DB: I was working that afternoon and couldn’t be at Bromley House, but I urged a senior colleague at NTU to go. I thought that applying for UNESCO status was an excellent idea, albeit an ambitious one. I also thought that, even if we didn’t achieve the status, making a bid could only be good for writers and writing in the city.

CA: There was an anxiety that although Nottingham might have a rich literary scene, we also have poor literacy figures. That disconnect was a worry, with the Leader at the time, Councillor Jon Collins, concerned that it might be, as he described it, ‘a bunch of luvvies’ just talking and not proposing anything practical. I went along, and found that both literature and literacy were elements, and that using the former to improve the latter was key to the mission. The council was pleased, and agreed to contribute £10,000 in funding towards the bid.

DB: The scoping meetings were chaired by Nigel Hawkins, Head of Culture and Libraries at Nottingham City Council. Nigel didn’t join the board we set up, so we needed a Chair. Stephen would have been the obvious choice to lead the bid, but he’d recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Ahead of the first board meeting, I thought about whether to put my hat in the ring. I had chaired a lot of meetings back in my 20s: Labour Party, union branch, school governing bodies, etc. I knew our literary scene inside out. It felt like something I ought to do. I discussed it with my partner, Sue, and decided that I’d take the role if I was asked to.

CA: I’m a writer brought up in Nottingham, so it felt good to be involved. The initial advocates for the bid came from a variety of professional backgrounds, which was great, but could have led to some misunderstandings in terms of approach. There was some anxiety about where it should be based. Using Bromley House as a hub and rotating meetings was an excellent idea, as it was a neutral space. If we’d been at either university, or four floors up in Loxley House, it would have had a very different dynamic.

“"I was booked to do the Council House event. I read from the podium to all these people, while and I was all the time thinking 'what is an UNESCO?' ”

DB: Having the universities on board was crucial both for the research side of the bid and the financing. The city council was very poor so their cash contribution was pretty minimal. We scraped £60,000 to fund the bid: ten from each of the universities (four times their initial commitment) and ten from four different parts of the council, in equal chunks. We got 30K match funding from Arts Council England. I can’t stress enough how important ACE’s contribution was. James Urquhart, who was then East Midlands literature relationship manager, came to nearly all of our meetings and was an invaluable mentor throughout the process.

At the inaugural board meeting, Catharine Arnold nominated me as Chair. Like many of us, she felt the bid ought to be led by a creative writer. I said I was willing provided we acted as a partnership board, one where everybody pulled their weight. I also suggested that we become an educational charity.Vic Simmons, Chair of Bromley House Library, agreed to be Vice-Chair. His support, and that of the library, where the bid originated, was crucial. That first board meeting also appointed Pippa as Project Director.

PH: I set to work quickly, looking at what we had to do. The bidding process was staggeringly complex, and it wasn't easy to understand the criteria. Still, we set up as a charity and I started working out a strategy and creating a plan

DB: The original board consisted of Stephen Mumford from UoN, Nahem Yousaf from NTU, Henderson Mullin from Writing East Midlands, Cat Arnold from the City Council, Kathy McArdle from the Creative Quarter, Victor Semmens from Bromley House and James Walker representing the Writers Studio. At the second meeting, Stephanie Sirr replaced me in representing the Playhouse. We met monthly, but there was a lot more going on. Sue Dymoke chaired an invaluable education subgroup that looked into how we could use UNESCO status to boost literacy. Five Leaves published a book, These Seven, which took a group of Nottingham writers on tour around the city, promoting the bid and our literacy efforts. We got a lot of support from the Nottingham Post and Leftlion.

DB: In September, we hired Matt Turpin to head our Comms, based on his enthusiasm, energy and experience running The Beestonian. From July 2015, when the bid went in, until Sandy was appointed a year later, the team consisted of just me and him.

Matt Turpin:My first task was to help set up and promote a formal launch party at the Council House. I was looking for a poet to do a reading, and discovered the astonishing Bridie Squires. I booked her onto BBC Radio Nottingham the morning of the launch, and was walking to work listening to her read her award winning 'Nottingham Likes Days Out, Out' as she read it out live on air. The world seemed to stop. I've never felt so Nottingham.

Bridie Squires: I did the radio, and then was booked to do the Council House event. I read from the podium to all these people, while and I was all the time thinking "what is an UNESCO?"

Late 2014, early 2015

CA: Pippa Hennessy was brilliant in organising the bid, and getting it written up. It was remarkable to watch the narrative of Nottingham take shape, and the bid develop.

DB: Edinburgh were supportive of our bid. I had a long phone conversation with their director, Ali Bowden. My biggest takeaway from Ali was that we needed a slogan, or a shoutline, a phrase that summed up our mission in no more than six memorable words. That night, when I was brushing my teeth, I came up with “Building a Better World with Words”. I still had a mouthful of toothpaste when I wrote it down. I’ve published fifty books, but that phrase is probably the piece of writing I’ll be best remembered for. Which is fine by me.

At first, we didn’t have a strong understanding of what we were applying to become. Stephen wanted acknowledgement for the city’s brilliant heritage, but we soon realised that this was merely a prerequisite. We needed lots of evidence. What mattered most was that today’s Nottingham was a hive of literary activity. Since the turn of the century, there’d been a real explosion of creativity. Some of that energy, Mouthy Poets in particular, had been nurtured at the Playhouse, but it’s hard to put a finger on how this confluence of writers came together. Being in the middle of the country and a cheap place to live, with two very successful universities, helped. Five Leaves Bookshop had opened, the first independent city centre bookshop to open in the UK since 2000, which also augured well.

PH: We took on a researcher, Jay Arnold, who went out into the city and searched out as much info as he could find, filling vast spreadsheets with data. We were eventually given a date to submit our bid to UNESCO UK, as it was a UNESCO requirement that the national organisation endorsed it. That date was two weeks before UNESCO’s submission deadline.

DB: The odds were against us. The UK already had two cities of literature, Edinburgh and Norwich. Perhaps say which ones? Two days before the bid launch I was warned by someone in the know that Nottingham wasn’t ready, and I was also told that UNESCO didn’t want to add European cities. They wanted to expand in other, under-represented continents, which was fair enough. I didn’t get much sleep that night, so worried was I about wasting everyone’s time. Then I had to write my speech for the official launch at the Council House, which would be attended more than a hundred of my friends and colleagues, along with the great and the good. It included the phrase ‘success is far from guaranteed’. This was the understatement of the night.

Summer, 2015

JW: When the bid was being put together, I didn’t feel confident, I had a creeping insecurity from living in a provincial city that was so often overlooked. We knew we had the right stuff, but how could we convey it well? I was working on Dawn of the Unread at the time, working with many writers and creators, and I could see close up the excellence we possessed in both history and the contemporary, as well as the urgent need to address the scandal of poor literacy rates. I honestly believe, in the way it affects life outcomes, that child illiteracy is akin to child abuse. We had to do something about it.

We were community-led, grass roots, determined to not only celebrate our literature but also to ensure that everyone in the community could access and enjoy it. I was proud to be part of something that branded itself not on past glories, but on aspiration. But would UNESCO understand that?

PH: We submitted to UNESCO UK, and soon received feedback. It wasn't good. The bid had failed to communicate the spirit and passion, it had failed to convey the sheer dynamism around our literary scene. We had to rewrite and get that over somehow.

PH: Sally Bowden from UoN, David Belbin and I locked ourselves down for two days to rewrite. We went through it word by word, intensely scrutinising and savagely editing to get it right. We submitted, but spirits were low. That was the end of my involvement, I went back to concentrating on other things and it began to slip away from my mind.

Mouni

Rain Readers, by Mouni Feddag

December 11th 2015

DB: On the morning of the announcement, the BBC interviewed me at home. I had to give one interview as though we’d failed, and that was easy. Then I had to do one as though we’d succeeded, and that was rubbish.

The announcement wasn’t due until 6pm. At 1pm, a friend had just arrived for lunch when the phone rang. It was Notts TV – they said we’d got it. How could they know?

Chris Breese: We had a meeting in the Notts TV newsroom and knew it was the day of the announcement, but didn't know when. We really wanted it to make our 5.30pm bulletin, but time was running out so I did the old fashioned journalistic thing of actually ringing UNESCO in Paris and after a bit of schoolboy French that turned into English, asked them directly. They took my email and said they'd get back to me, a few minutes later an email arrived, saying Nottingham had been successful. I initially assumed everyone had been told the same, but then found out that wasn't the case. I was delighted - first for the good I knew this would do to the city, second for the fact we'd got ourselves a scoop.

DB: I said ‘no comment,’ then searched out the phone number for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. I explained who I was. The woman on the other end of the phone looked down a list. ‘Yes, here you are. Nottingham, City of Literature. Congratulations.’

JW: I remember the day they announced we’d got it. I was on a work day out, and just burst out laughing when I heard. When I got home, I saw David Belbin, who lives nearby. He was just ecstatic. It was a beautiful moment of joy: I was absolutely buzzing. Nottingham had done something wonderful!

PH: For me, it came out the blue. We'd made the submission months beforehand, and I was busy with other projects. I was stunned, simply stunned. We'd pulled off the heist!

CA: My reaction was complete and utter astonishment: now we’d got it, what were we going to do next?

Matt Turpin: Things went crazy. Emails flooded in, my phone wouldn't stop ringing. I had written a press release with analogies to the Wizard of Oz: yeah, the news was bad, we'd not got the accolade, but it's the journey that matters, right? I'm so glad I could delete that, unsent.

DB: I wrote a tweet which immediately went viral. The rest of the day was crazy. I remember walking into Bromley House and everybody clapping.

MT: I jumped on a tram to Bromley House, absolutely buzzing, and was delighted to see it was the Stephen Lowe tram. Then, at Lakeside Arts, the actual Stephen Lowe got on the Stephen Lowe tram. It felt like I was in a poorly written movie.

DB: There was champagne, a TV interview and a horrible photo for the Nottingham Post, whose photographer insisted we all roar like lions.

Twenty or so of us went to the Guitar Bar. It was all relatively low-key. Nottingham doesn’t like or need to show off about success, we know how good we are without shouting it from the rooftops. But there was a lot of pride in that room, and a lot of people who had put their hearts into what we’d achieved. Stephen, Pippa and I made speeches. Drink was taken. Next day, we had the whole front page of the Post and a leader inside congratulating us.

Then the really hard work began.

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