Robert Shore: Made in the Middle

For the last decade or so I’ve been rattling on about Nottingham’s literary heritage in the hope that people might just start to take us seriously and realise that there’s more to us than women galore, Brian Clough and that fella in green tights. We’re now a UNESCO City of Literature, we have our own literary graphic novel in Dawn of the Unread, our own literature radio show, the National Video Game Arcade is here with a wonderful poet in residence called Abigail Parry (who I’ve interviewed for the July issue of LeftLion) a subscription library called Bromley House that turned 200 on 2nd April, some arty farty stuff at the tempreh, and a population of 320,000 people who all thank the bus driver when they get off. And if that’s not enough to entice you up (or down), we’ve got the UK’s first Pot Noodle vending machine that can be found midway up Mansfield Road…

Robert Shore shares my passion for the provinces, but he’s less parochial and embraces the whole of the Midlands. He recently published a book called Bang in the Middle which explores how UK culture has come to be defined by two polar opposites: the beautiful south and the grim norf. The Midlands, he argues, is the squeezed middle. Forgotten. Left to rot. He then visits various places and puts forth a convincing argument that we’re actually responsible for quite a lot.

Robert Shore: Photo taken from www.birminghampost.co.uk

Robert Shore: Photo taken from www.birminghampost.co.uk

For whatever reason, I have no affinity at all with my Midlands neighbours. It’s not an overarching identity as it might be for those at the top or bottom. Yes, I’m glad Leicester won the Premiership and of course there are parallels with Forest. I don’t really identify with Leicester just as I don’t identify with Birmingham. Perhaps this is part of the Midlands identity? We just get on with it.

I first worked with Robert when he produced In Praise of the Midlands for The Essay on Radio 3. I put forward the case for Alan Sillitoe (see video at top of the page) and was joined by Geoff Dyer (D.H Lawrence); Henry Hitchings (Erasmus Darwin); Dominic Dromgoole (Shakespeare)  and Katherine Jakeways (Adrian Mole). Now he’s switched sides and has produced a series for BBC Radio 4 called England: Made in the Middle. It does pretty much the same thing but this time it’s five 15 minute episodes presented by Historian Helen Castor.

The interviews were done in Bromley House library in front of the Alan Sillitoe bookcase. I was joined by Al Needham. You can’t talk about Notts without having Al along. It’s against the law. The recordings were done by Made in Manchester. In the series I have a natter about Eastwood’s mardiest beardo in episode 3 and Alan Sillitoe’s charismatic anti-hero Arthur Seaton in episode 4. I haven’t listened to them yet because it makes me cringe to hear my voice on the radio. But I’ve had some encouraging tweets. Now I’m waiting for the inevitable Notts response: Think yer summat? You don’t know nowt.

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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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