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Sandeep Mahal's first year

Fri 8 Sep, 2017

Our Director, Sandeep Mahal, shares her reflections on her first year at Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature

It seems hard to believe it’s been twelve months since I wrote my first blog as Director of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. Once I arrived in Nottingham, I made it my business to get intimate with the city, meeting the writers, poets, artists, booksellers and publishers who bring it to life through their creativity, as well as the people who lead our city council, universities, libraries, museums and arts organisations. Immersing myself in Nottingham’s culture has helped me understand how our City of Literature ecology works. I believe we’re on the way to realising a vision in which we build a better world with words.

Like most cultural organisations, Nottingham City of Literature’s focus and direction have developed gradually. We have existed only for two years and already have a strong character and reputation, especially for leveraging new funding, new partnerships and new programming opportunities with our wider partners across the city.

In the last six months alone, I’ve witnessed how literature makes an important contribution to our local economy, to our communities, and to the lives of all our citizens. With support and funding from Arts Council England to the value of £226,235, we launched Storysmash - a twelve-month programme of activities using the close connection between reading, creative writing and creative gaming to develop confidence and new skills, and to address low literacy in those aged 11-25 years. We’ve also leveraged funding from Visit England to work with Marketing NG to develop a suite of literary products and experiences connected to local itineraries and overnight stays in order to attract more visitors to the city.

I’ve seen work of ambition and innovation with Jon McGregor’s live literature event, which made use of mobile phone technology and a newly commissioned musical score for his novel, Reservoir 13. We launched a beautiful print edition of the award-winning digital project, Dawn of the Unread, and accompanying educational resources for teachers to use comics as inspiration in the classroom.

Reservoir 13 Hb 1

If one thing has struck me in the year I’ve been in Nottingham, it’s the incredible breadth, diversity and intense energy of the local poetry scene. Poetry slams and spoken word nights bring words to life almost nightly across the city. It has been a delight to watch this grassroots scene flourishI’ve encountered brilliant poetry events breaking out in unexpected places. Aside from buses, tram bridges and caves, I’ve seen poetry on pavements, in cafes and in tuk-tuks! We saw the expansion of Nottingham Poetry Festival, celebrating the local, the national and the international. We recently announced the shortlist for Nottingham’s first-ever Young Poet Laureate, which shines a spotlight on a diverse spectrum of voices and poetic styles. I am looking forward to seeing them perform at the next Poetry Dead Good event.

Crucially, we have made Nottingham’s presence and contribution to UNESCO widely recognised. The UNESCO Cities of Literature is a network of cities committed to making the literary and creative sectors thrive. Together we promote and support cooperation between cities by sharing knowledge and best practice, and by promoting the shared values of of dialogue, freedom of speech and expression throughout all our activities – values that promote the diversity that is the strength of the UNESCO Creative Cities network.

 In July, I travelled with the Leader of Nottingham City Council, Councillor Jon Collins to Enghien-les-Bains for the XIth Annual Meeting of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) where Jon showed his commitment to a new shared strategy for culture and creativity. We also presented Nottingham’s vision of ‘Building a Literate City’ as a way of improving children’s life chances, tackling social inequality and fostering social cohesion.

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I believe we should build on these achievements, whilst also looking for new opportunities, especially to facilitate international partnerships and collaborations. We will continue to celebrate the writers and literature organisations who play a crucial role in growing audiences, encouraging greater dialogue and engagement with literature.

Worryingly, over the last year, we have also seen a period of huge political change following the decision to leave the European Union. In the last month, Nottingham declared its intention to bid for the title of European Capital of Culture 2023. As a city which narrowly elected to leave the EU by just 2,000 votes, ours is the perfect place for the UK to reconsider and redefine our relationship to Europe and the rest of the world.

The bid presents Nottingham with a unique opportunity to shape and tell its story of being an ambitious, young and diverse city with a culture of rebellious innovation and grassroots collaboration. Our bid will be massively helped by being a UNESCO City of Literature. We are proudly strengthening Nottingham’s ties with Europe and, in turn, enhancing Nottingham’s status as a truly European City. I have no doubt at all that the city can produce the type of extraordinary, imaginative programme that can win this competition, so I urge our readers to pledge support for the bid here.

Our role, alongside the local authority, higher education institutions and our other partners, is to ensure that we create conditions and foster an environment where literature can be created, expertly curated and enjoyed by diverse audiences. It’s been an amazing experience from the onset. I’m excited to see how the next twelve months map out for us, our colleagues and our partners regionally, nationally and internationally.

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