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Literary Locations #79: The University of Nottingham

John Baird
Sun 25 Oct, 2020

The University of Nottingham’s long literary history.

Highfield House was built in 1797 for Joseph Lowe (thrice Mayor of Nottingham). Over the following decade Lowe and his son, Alfred, carried out the landscaping that’s formed much of the existing Highfields Park.

The Highfield House estate remained with the Lowes for several generations. Joseph Lowe’s great grandson, Edward Joseph Lowe (1825-1900) - born at Highfield House - began making meteorological observations when he was fifteen. He later gained a prominent reputation as an astronomer, botanist and scientist. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he wrote papers on a wide variety of subjects, including luminous meteors, sunspots and meteorological observations, publishing ‘A Treatise on Atmospheric Phenomena’ (1846), helping to shape our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere. His interest in ferns, grasses and other plants led to his most noted work ‘Ferns: British and Exotic’ (1856), which consisted of eight illustrated volumes. Known as ‘Big Snowflake’ because of his beard, Lowe is one of Nottinghamshire’s most eminent scientists.

There is a blue plaque commemorating Lowe’s life and work at the Beeston home and observatory he built on Broadgate, Beeston, in the early 1850s.

Highfield House was sold by the Lowes in 1881. It passed through various hands until it was bought by Sir Jesse Boot (1850-1931) in 1919. He then purchased the surrounding buildings and their land. A few years later, disabled and living in Jersey, he learned of plans for the development of Nottingham’s University College. He said, “From all I hear, the university extension movement seems to be making but little progress. I do not like to think that my native city should fall in any way short of other large towns.”

Sir Jesse decided to split his Highfields site, and he gifted land above the lake for the establishment of a new East Midlands University, largely funding the project himself. The new University College building (today known as the Trent Building) was designed and built between 1922 and 1928, with the addition of a new road system and an improved park to the south. The original Highfields House became part of the campus.

Morley Horder, a designer of Boots’ shops (including Nottingham’s first wonderstore branch, now Zara), planned University College’s ‘palace of education’ (the Trent Building), with its iconic tower, opened by King George V. Over the course of ten years, Sir Jesse Boot gave donations totalling over £440,000 (over £9,000,000 in today’s money). It was a further twenty years before independent university status was bestowed upon what is now the University of Nottingham.

In 1929, perhaps having read Rolf Gardiner’s report of the new building, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote a disparaging poem, entitled 'Nottingham's New University'.

‘In Nottingham, that dismal town

where I went to school and college,

they've built a new university

for a new dispensation of knowledge.

Built it most grand and cakeily

out of the noble loot

derived from shrewd cash-chemistry

by good Sir Jesse Boot.

Little I thought, when I was a lad

and turned my modest penny

over on Boot's Cash Chemist's counter,

that Jesse, by turning many

millions of similar honest pence

over, would make a pile

that would rise at last and blossom out

in grand and cakey style

into a university

where smart men would dispense

doses of smart cash-chemistry

in language of common-sense!

That future Nottingham lads would be

cash-chemically B.Sc.

that Nottingham lights would rise and say:

-By Boots I am M.A.

From this I learn, though I knew it before

that culture has her roots

in the deep dung of cash, and lore

is a last off-shoot of Boots.’

From ‘Pansies’ (1929)

Gardiner described Lawrence’s poem as “…an excellent bit of Lawrencian buffoonery, to be recited with gusto!”

‘Pansies’ (the volume’s title derived from the French ‘pensées’, meaning ‘thoughts’) attracted the attention of the Home Office on grounds of indecency, and typescripts of the poems were intercepted by postal workers.

Following his donated ‘noble loot’, Jesse Boot was elevated to the peerage and named the first Lord Trent. South of the lake, at Highfield Park’s entrance, is Charles Doman's bust of the benefactor, erected in 1934.

Near the University’s Hallward Library is a full-size statue of D. H. Lawrence. Created by the sculptor Diana Thomson, the statue depicts Lawrence holding a blue gentian flower, referencing his poem ‘Bavarian Gentians’. Lawrence studied for his teacher's certificate at University College (see Arkwright Building). It was at this time that he experimented with poetry and short stories, and wrote a version of his novel ‘Laetitia’ (later to become his first novel, retitled as ‘The White Peacock’ (1911).

The University’s Manuscripts and Special Collections (from now on called M&SC) owns a study notebook of Lawrence’s from 1910, containing draft versions of his poems. This is one of a large number of items in the University’s Lawrence Collections, which cover all aspects of his life and work, including published and archival writings, photographs, biographies and critical literature.

It took decades for the University to acknowledge and celebrate Lawrence, due to a loyalty to his former teacher, Professor Ernest Weekley, whose wife, Frieda, left him for Lawrence in 1912. It wasn’t until Ernest Weekley died (in 1954) that the University finally recognised Lawrence.

They held an exhibition in 1960, which one newspaper covered with the headline: ‘With Apologies to a Genius’. That exhibition, ‘D. H. Lawrence After Thirty Years, 1930-1960’, held accompanying lectures, including one by the University’s own Department of English Professor, Vivian de Sola Pinto, a champion of Lawrence’s work. Pinto appeared for the defence (Penguin Books) in the famous trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in 1960.

Over three and a half million documents are housed in the M&SC, in a converted television studio on the King's Meadow Campus. They include donations from writers, such as the Stephen Lowe Collection; around sixty box files of his scripts, publicity material, tapes, photos and letters. The Sneinton born playwright was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Nottingham in 2011. He is also an honorary lecturer in the School of English.

The University’s M&SC has a large number of rare publications, including first or early editions of works by notable local writers; Lord Byron - whose life and work has been commemorated with a series of high-quality memorial lectures - Muriel Hine, Hilda Lewis, James Prior, Cecil Roberts, J. C. Snaith, Geoffrey Trease and Dorothy Whipple.

There is a letter from Mary Howitt (1799-1888) to her sister, plus a copy of the short-lived ‘Howitt’s Journal’. There is also one of Henry Kirke White’s (1785-1806) legal notebooks c.1800, which has a summary of his studies alongside verses of his poetry.

Another notebook in storage is one of Stanley Middleton’s (1919-2009), containing a handwritten draft of ‘Beginning to End’. Middleton was educated at University College where he studied English and French. He contributed stories and poetry to the student magazine, ‘The Gong’, for which he later became an editor. ‘The Gong’ ran intermittently from 1895 to 1995, publishing poetry, prose and art.

M&SC has research notes (c.1940) on the lace trade, compiled by Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) for her historical novel ‘Penny Lace’ (1946), a book set in the Nottingham lace trade. The story follows Nicholas Penny’s career. Lewis’ ambitious and rebellious protagonist could have influenced Alan Sillitoe in his creation of Arthur Seaton. Hilda Lewis’ husband was Professor M. Michael Lewis, a specialist in the education of the deaf. A lecturer in Education at University College, Dr Lewis was later appointed Director of the University’s Institute of Education. His work inspired his wife’s novel, ‘The Day is Ours’ (1946), about a young deaf girl, a book which formed the basis of the film ‘Mandy’.

M&SC also hold a copy of ‘The Trent: a record of friendship’, the long poem for which a young Cecil Roberts (1892-1976) won the Kirke White Memorial Prize in 1912.

‘Yes, poet though you would be, or you are,

You answer to a chord which stirs us all,

And, could I speak in song, I would express

The joyous beauty of this river Trent.’

(An extract from ‘The Trent’)

Some of these items were displayed as part of the University’s Collected Words Exhibition, held in 2017 at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre.

Taking part in the event was the author Alison Moore, who had previously worked as an assistant to the director of Lakeside Arts Centre before becoming a full-time writer and Honorary Lecturer at the University. Moore’s debut novel, ‘The Lighthouse’ (2012), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

B. S. Johnson’s (1933-1973) ‘The Unfortunates’ (1969), takes the form of memories of his friendship with Anthony (Tony) Tillinghast, a University of Nottingham student and academic, whose early death from cancer had a profound effect on Johnson and inspired his ‘Nottingham’ book in a box. Johnson met Tillinghast in the late 1950s when he came here to assist him with the editing of a new inter-university magazine, ‘Universities’ Poetry’. Tillinghast also edited ‘The Gong’.

‘The Gong’ isn’t the University’s only publication that its students have written for. There's ‘Scribble’, edited by Andrew Bailey, winner of the 1996 Kirke White Prize for poetry; ‘Pulp’, of which a special issue celebrating 25 years of creative writing at the University is pictured below; and current outputs: ‘Impact’, ‘Her Campus’ and ‘The Letters Page’.

The Letters Page is edited by Professor Jon McGregor and produced by the creative writing section of the School of English. Students gain editing and publishing experience through this literary journal which publishes essays, stories, poetry, memoir, travelogue, and criticism; all in the form of letters. Each new edition puts out a call for submissions, and letters have been received from Naomi Alderman, George Saunders, Joanna Walsh and Colum McCann. These have been added to the M&SC’s Letters Page Archive, to go alongside other collections of letters by leading literary figures such as Percy Shelley and Philip Larkin.

Jon McGregor was the youngest contender for the Booker Prize when his first novel, ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ (2002), was long-listed. McGregor won the IMPAC Dublin Literature Award for ‘Even the Dogs’ (2010), and his fourth novel, ‘Reservoir 13’ (2017), won the 2017 Costa Novel Award.

The MA explores contemporary writing and its hybrid forms as well as building on student’s own critical writing skills. Other lecturers on the course include Matthew Welton, Thomas Legendre, Lila Matsumoto and Spencer Jordan.

A lecturer in Writing and Creativity, Matthew Welton received the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for ‘The Book of Matthew’ (2003), a Guardian Book of the Year. The Nottingham born poet has four collections of poems with Carcanet Press. His latest book is ‘Squid Squad: A Novel’ (2020).

Dr Lila Matsumoto, Assistant Professor in Creative Writing, is also a practising poet with three published collections. Matsumoto was born in Japan and grew up in the US. She was the editor of the poetry magazine SCREE and currently co-runs FRONT HORSE, a magazine and performance night of poetry, music and art.

Spencer Jordan is deputy head of creative writing and programme director for BA English with Creative Writing, MA Creative Writing and PhD Creative Writing. The Leicester born author’s first novel was ‘Journeys in the Dead Season’ (2005).

Thomas Legendre’s novels include his debut, ‘The Burning’ (2006) and ‘Keeping Time’ (2020). His play, ‘Half Life’, was performed with the National Theatre of Scotland, and his radio drama, ‘Dream Repair’, was aired by BBC4. Legendre is an Assistant Professor in English.

The University will soon be celebrating ten years of its creative writing MA and BA. One of their success stories is Clare Harvey, an alumna of the MA course. The novelist tells us:

“I have such fond memories of the hours I spent discussing books with a handful of other writing-nerds in a tiny room beneath the University clock tower with our tutor, Thomas Legendre, back in 2011-12. What the creative writing masters course did, brilliantly - through a combination of close analysis of texts, writing practice, and critical feedback from peers - was to raise my own work to a level where it was good enough to be noticed by agents, publishers, and writing competition judges. My debut novel, ‘The Gunner Girl’, which began as MA coursework, not only bagged me an agent and a deal with a major publisher, but also went on to win both the Exeter Novel Prize and the Joan Hessayon Award for new fiction. Moreover, the discipline I learnt as an MA student (wordcounts and deadlines, responding to criticism) stood me in good stead for the rigours of a career as a published author.”

In addition to Clare Harvey, D. H. Lawrence, Stanley Middleton and others mentioned above, the University of Nottingham has many literary figures among its alumni. Here are some of them:

The poet and crime writer John Harvey took an MA in American Studies at the University, where he also briefly taught Film and American Literature. In 2009, he was awarded an Honorary Degree, making him a Doctor of Letters, in recognition of his literary eminence and associations with the University and Nottingham, the city in which his Charlie Resnick stories are set.

It was whilst studying architecture at the University, in the mid ‘80s, that Jonathan Emmett developed his writing and illustration skills. A decade later he pursued a career in children’s literature and now has over sixty children’s books to his name, translated into over 30 different languages. Emmett is best known for his picture books, such as ‘Bringing Down the Moon’ and ’The Princess and the Pig’.

Meena Alexander (1951-2018) was born in India, first moving to Sudan with her family, and then to England, where she began a PhD in Romantic Literature at the University of Nottingham. Alexander completed her PhD with a dissertation that she would later develop and publish as ‘The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism’ (1980). The multi award-winning poet and scholar published eight volumes of poetry and two novels.

Christopher Bigsby is a Dundee born literary analyst and novelist who came here for his PhD (1964–66). He has published over fifty books including a two-volume biography of Arthur Miller and books about Joe Orton and David Mamet.

The London born writer and novelist Michael Bracewell graduated in English and American Studies. Bracewell is the author of six novels and two works of non-fiction, including the much-acclaimed ‘England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie’ (1997). His writing has appeared in ‘The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Fashion Writing’ and ‘The Faber Book of Pop’.

The screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst received a first-class joint-honours degree in English and American Literature. He is best known for his films ‘Elizabeth’ (1998) and ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ (2007), as well as the Emmy Award-winning television series ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Vikings’. He owns Green Pavilion Entertainment.

Philip Blake Morrison studied English literature at the University. Morrison has written a wide range of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his best received being his memoirs ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ (1993) which won the J. R. Ackerley Prize.

Emma Barnett, presenter of BBC Women’s Hour and Newsnight, graduated with a degree in History and Politics. In ‘Period’ (2019) she draws on female experiences and attitudes to menstruation, resulting in a series of humourous and heartfelt stories.

Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature’s first poet laureate, Georgina Wilding, graduated in 2015 with a first-class degree in Creative and Professional Writing. She is the founding editor of poetry publishing house Mud Press.

Today’s students have a range of literary pursuits offered to them. There's the Students' Union Book Club, literary societies, such as the Creative Writing Society, Poetry and Spoken Word Society and Songwriting Society, and the chance to write, direct and perform for the New Theatre, the only theatre in England run entirely by students.

Since 2009, the University’s Off the Page events have welcomed notable speakers, not least their inaugural guest, Roddy Doyle. Organised by the creative writing lecturers, these talks, readings and conversations are often open to members of the public.

For more information on the University of Nottingham, from its early days as University College (1881) to 2016, I recommend ‘Nottingham: a history of Britain’s global university’, written by Professor John Beckett.

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