For a provincial city, Nottingham has an incredible literary history. When you arrive via train into the orange bricked Victorian station you are immediately greeted by a banner proclaiming our three most famous ‘rebel’ writers: Alan Sillitoe, Lord Byron and DH Lawrence.
Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) was the first novel to give an authentic voice to the working classes through the eyes of hard drinking, womanising Arthur Seaton. It would become Pan’s first paperback to sell a million copies.
Lord Byron, whose ancestral home of Newstead Abbey is set in a glorious landscape of gardens and parkland north of the city, fought for the underdog in the Greek War of Independence as well as at home. In his maiden speech to the House of Lords he stood up for the 1811 framebreakers who were demonstrating against diminishing wages and faced lengthy prison sentences. Byron famously argued: “Can you carry this bill into effect? Can you commit a whole county to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows?”
DH Lawrence, whose home at 8a Victoria Street, Eastwood is now a Birthplace Museum with regular talks and literary walks, would pave the way forward for greater freedom of expression after the acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley Trail of 1960.
But Nottingham is also home to Quaker poet Mary Howitt who translated the works of Hans Christian Anderson and was one of the first writers to offer dietary information to the working classes through a journal she co-wrote with her husband William. You can find a bust of the Howitt’s at Nottingham Castle or read her books at Bromley House Subscription Library, which celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2016.
Graham Greene converted to Catholicism during his short stay in the city and trained as a journalist at the Nottingham Express Offices on Upper Parliament Street. The building has a distinctive style having been designed by local architect Watson Fothergill. Incorporated into the entrance are the busts of three leading Liberal politicians of the day – Cobden, Gladstone & Bright.
Cut across the city and you’ll find the old offices of the Nottingham Daily Journal on Pelham Street. It was here that J M Barrie learned his trade as a journalist and allegedly found the inspiration for his Peter Pan story after spending time in the Arboretum on Waverley Street.
Directly opposite the Arboretum on Portland Street is the former home of Geoffrey Trease, who studied at the High School which you can find up the tramline leading out of the city. Trease produced an incredible 113 novels during his life before calling it a day at 88. He, too, was a rebel writer in that he was the first children’s author to give equal roles to both genders, offering historically accurate details to his stories that avoided the jingoism of the age.
It’s because of this rich history of positive rebellion that various organisations in Nottingham have partnered together to create Nottingham City of Literature. At the beginning of July we submitted our bid to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. We find out on 11 December if we’ve been successful. But until then, why don’t you visit Dawn of the Unread, a graphic novel serial exploring Nottingham’s literary history. It’s taken over my life for the past sixteen months and will be finished in September time when we publish a physical version of the book.
And if you want to learn more about Nottingham’s general gobiness over the centuries, check out my Rebel Hearts essay in Issue 70 of Leftlion.
- Our Rebel Writers’ Trail (sillitoe.com)
- The Howitt’s literary marriage Rowena White (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Riot 1831: The App (riot1831.org)
- Streets of Stories (leftlion.co.uk)