Nottingham Means Business…at last.

David Cooper Photo_2013

David Cooper Photo_2013

Nottingham isn’t so much a city, more of a giant village where everyone knows your name. But despite our diminutive size and a general awareness of who’s doing what, we’ve tended to operate in little pods. This seems to be changing as various umbrella organisations have started to pop up, slowly pulling the strands of the city together.

We’re now a UNESCO City of Literature. Straight up. But this is more than just a fancy title. It’s acted as a catalyst for a scribal gathering of the literary community. Primarily we are an education charity but there’s the hope that in bringing together representatives from eight organisations we might just be able to support each other. See the twitter hashtag #Barker4Notts to see this in practice.

We’re also the first ever City of Football. Fortunately this status has nothing to do with the antics at Meadow Pain or the City Grind. It’s about strategies to make the sport more accessible and to use football as a means of bringing football organisations, businesses, creative industries, communities and faith groups together.

The Creative Quarter has also been instrumental in bringing different sectors together such as through their Pecha Kucha talks or supporting initiatives such as Cobden Chambers. Underpinning this is a real push for ‘independent’ businesses which in the literary community is epitomised by events such as States of Independence. But see also the CQ’s Summer of Independents campaign which kicks off on 4 July.

Nottingham is really on the up, which means we’ll get a right thick head if it all goes wrong and we come thudding down to the ground. So let’s not get too excited. Government cuts are having a profound effect on the provisions provided in local communities and this is evident by the increase of homeless people on the streets. We may be the birthplace of William Booth, but this didn’t stop us closing down the last remaining Salvation Army male hostel a few years ago. And now the D.H. Lawrence Centre has gone too. History and heritage don’t mean anything when you view culture through an excel spreadsheet.

Nottingham Means Business (L to R) James Walker, Hugh White, Simon Gray and Peter Askew

Nottingham Means Business (L to R) James Walker, Hugh White, Simon Gray and Peter Askew

One umbrella organisation doing its bit is Nottingham Means Business. Their ethos is to bring members of the business sector together with the overall aim of encouraging investment in the city. Part of this process is about being aware of the wider community and so I was recently invited to give a talk about Nottingham’s City of Lit status.

Literature has a vital role to play for business, not least in helping to produce a confident, reliable and intelligent workforce. Various reports from the OPEC to the Literacy Trust have found the UK has alarming literacy and numeracy levels. The most recent report actually positions the UK as having the widest literacy gap out of 22 industrialised nations. Literacy is also related to social outcomes, such as whether you have trust in society. This is why the City of Literature slogan is: Building a Better World out of Words.

Nottingham has traditionally been a poor city and in the current economic climate some of our communities and families face real challenges including high levels of deprivation, intergenerational worklessness and are feeling the impact of welfare reform. As a city we need to do everything we can to support each other and we passionately believe that literature plays a vital role in this. Participation in creative learning activities, speaking and listening work, reading for pleasure, storytelling and storymaking and engagement with writers from all disciplines, is key to developing literacy as a core skill for all our young people. And that participation in shared literature-based activities is at the core of developing strong resilient communities.

On a more pragmatic level, literature has the potential to boost tourism which in turn will benefit the business community. And we have a lot to shout about: We are home to a Booker Prize winning author (Stanley Middleton), a two hundred year old subscription library (Bromley House) our rebel writers Lord Byron, Alan Sillitoe and D.H Lawrence offer the potential for tours that extend beyond the city boundaries and that’s before we’ve even got on to that fella in green tights (excellently brought to life by Ade Andrews, the creator of Ezekial Bone). The most recent report from UNESCO suggested the status was worth £1m to the UK alone.

Stanley Middleton featured in issue 14 of Dawn of the Unread

Stanley Middleton featured in issue 14 of Dawn of the Unread

I am the kind of person for whom these kind of stats apply because every holiday I take has books at the heart of it. I’ve just returned from Sardinia, retracing the route taken by D. H. Lawrence in 1921. Prior to this I visited Riga to see their new library completed, Ljubljana when they were named Book Capital of the World and our friends in the nord, Reykjavik because they are a UNESCO city. I hope many people will now start to visit Nottingham.

We’re in this together and so it’s important to ask what the business community can do for the City of Literature team, remembering that we get no money from UNESCO. The purpose of the accreditation is to help build an infrastructure that will enable us to deliver the aims outlined in our bid. And if we don’t, we lose the status. Obviously money would help and donations could align with businesses KPIs, particularly in terms of widening participation and civic engagement. A simpler option could be sponsoring events. We could list and cost things we need to achieve (paying a writer to go into a school to help with literacy targets) which would enable businesses to see exactly where their money is going. On a pragmatic level why not simply make the most of each business e.g. a printing company could help us by printing leaflets promoting events. A marketing company could help by promoting a spoken word event. A consultation company could advise on fundraising initiatives and sustainability.

We don’t know exactly what it is we need at the moment as we only got our fancy title last December. But it’s good to know that the city is becoming more familiar, that we’re talking a bit more, and that for once it doesn’t take a Reform Riot or Framebreaking to bring us all together.

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Nottingham City of Literature: Talk to National Union of Teachers

City of Lit banner

Since Nottingham’s accreditation as a UNESCO City of Literature, we’ve had a silly amount of emails. Quite a few of these are from local organisations asking for a representative to come and give a talk about what the fancy title means and how they can get involved.

On 25 Feb I addressed the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for their Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire branch. I snapped up the chance because the event was hosted at Mogal e Azam, an Indian restaurant opposite the Theatre Royal. I was lured by the offer of a free curry, which is the first form of ‘payment’ I’ve had since becoming a director of Nottingham City of Literature. But before you get all excited at my luxurious lifestyle, I had to pay for my own drinks.

The gathering was pretty much what you’d expect from a Union meeting; the highlight of which was hearing a request for an amendment to be made to an amendment. But on a serious note, there’s some pretty tough issues that teachers need to address. The most recent being the government’s plans to convert all schools into Academies. Needless to say the meeting over ran by an hour or two. When it was my turn to address the 20 or so teachers I managed about four words before being halted by the clatter of plates as the waiters – who, despite their job title, do not like waiting for people to finish what they’re saying – had begun serving up the mains. The food smelled lovely so there was no point having a hissy fit. We would continue after the mains.

When everyone was suitably bloated and tired, I took the stage. The audience has shrunk down to about eight people, with many having to shoot off due to childcare duties. This also included the host who had invited me over to give the talk. It was a humbling experience that I won’t forget in a hurry. Every time I look at the curry stain on my shirt that won’t come out, I’ll think: NUTs.

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Image taken from the Independent, Oct 2013

Joking aside, I was really eager to talk to the teachers because improving literacy is one of the City of Literature’s core goals. According to the most recent report from the OECD, Britain is now officially the most illiterate country in the developed world. This is why I positioned illiteracy as a form of child poverty in my Dawn of the Unread manifesto in 2014. Literacy levels are a particular concern in Nottingham as we are below the national levels. Therefore listening to teachers and offering them support is absolutely vital if we are to achieve our ambitious aims.

Certain areas of Nottingham need real support at the moment as they include high levels of deprivation and intergenerational worklessness and are really feeling the brunt of welfare reform. In the face of these challenges we’re committed to doing everything we can to help our children and young people achieve their full potential and learn the necessary skills to progress and become valued members of their community. We passionately believe that participation in creative learning activities, speaking and listening work, reading for pleasure, storytelling and storymaking and engagement with writers from all disciplines, is key to developing literacy as a core skill for all our young people. And that participation in shared literature-based activities is at the core of developing strong resilient communities.

Numerous research, in particular that produced by the National Literacy Trust, has shown the correlation between literacy levels and social outcomes. People with low literacy levels are less likely to vote, less likely to get married or be homeowners, and most worrying of all, have the least ‘trust’ in society. I could go on…

Teachers are under enormous pressure at the moment too. Putting aside the endless marking, long hours, and Ofsted inspections, they are also expected to teach to classrooms of increasingly diverse pupils. I witnessed this first hand last year when I took Dawn of the Unread to Djanogly Academy. I was informed by one member of staff that the school was 60-65% non English speaking as a first language. Therefore teachers are faced with the impossible task of teaching pupils from a broad range of countries who don’t even have language in common. Remembering that those non English speakers are from a wide variety of countries and so there isn’t even a second language in common. The result is boredom and apathy in the classroom as there simply aren’t the resources to give each pupil the individualised teaching they require. But I digress.

Low literacy levels, then, are not just about the diminishing attention spans of mobile-phone-obsessed youth. Not just about digital versus print media. But about language, aspirations, poverty, overcrowding, resources, pressure, support networks and multiculturalism.

The City of Literature team has now created a sub group headed up by Sue Dymoke which focusses on all issues relating to literacy. It’s a working group of around 30 people who work in various capacities within education and relevant sectors and was formed out of an open callout. Their findings will determine how we as a board go about achieving our literacy goals and implementing a strategy to support teachers, parents and children.

Complimenting this is the recently formed Cultural Education Partnership (CUP), a network of education, cultural, heritage and arts organisatons working together to address the inequalities in access to culture among young ‘uns in Nottingham. I attended their first meeting on Thursday 24 March and the most important issue raised was demand is more important than supply. In this sense, raising literacy levels isn’t just about flooding schools with writers but creating the desire for reading and writing from the pupils. For this to happen we need to listen to what children have to say.

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