About James

James is the Literature Editor of LeftLion magazine. He is also an academic and a writer who has been published in various magazines and books. This means he spends most of his time in front of a computer screen writing about life instead of living it. Therefore, do not trust a word he says.

Look Who’s Tolkien: Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers.

As the dust jacket states, this is ‘a cornucopia of writers, modern and ancient, famous and obscure, dead and live, men and women’. But there isn’t really any BME voices. This, as Ross Bradshaw acknowledges in his publisher’s note, is a fact of history, and something he hopes will be rectified in a future update. His publisher’s note also acts as a disclaimer, an advance apology for those who are having a strop because they weren’t included and consequently are thinking of boycotting his shop, which was recently crowned Independent Bookshop of the Year.

One such author who isn’t included is Norma Gregory. Norma is a historian (among other things) who for the past twenty-five years has researched African / African Caribbean experiences in the UK. This includes the self-explanatory Jamaicans in Nottingham: Narratives and Reflections (2015) and currently, Digging Deep, which gives voice to the African Caribbean coal miners who stood shoulder to shoulder with white British, European and Asian miners. Through her social enterprise, Nottingham News Centre CIC, she’s sponsored and supported heritage events that promote inclusion and equality for all, thereby creating a platform for the very writers who might make it into a future edition of this book. Just as DH Lawrence was the first writer to depict the lives of miners from the inside, and Alan Sillitoe, through the flat Radford vowels of Arthur Seaton, portrayed factory life with such brutal honesty that a Nottingham Councillor wanted his debut book banned, so to Norma continues this fight for self-representation, a recurring trait of writers from this city.

Which brings me on to two living writers, arguably our most famous, who have chosen not to be associated with the county: Jon McGregor and Robert Harris. I suspect that Jon McGregor was too busy collecting awards to rattle out 200 words. His kids were born here, he helped form the Nottingham Writers’ Studio in 2006, and he’s a professor at the posh uni. Surely that’s enough? But perhaps his heart is in Norwich, where he spent his childhood, and where he’s a patron of the Writer’s Centre. Robert Harris was born here and went to school here, but has no intention of ever returning here, either in print or in person. But it’s equally understandable why both of these superbly talented writers wouldn’t want to be reduced to a postcode.

Two other absentees are Andrew Graves and Al Needham. Andrew’s first collection of poems takes an unassuming look through Nottingham’s side streets. His second, God Save the Teen (2017), explores his Ashfield adolescence where he was raised by a single parent miner who looked like a ‘lardy Alice Cooper’. Al Needham was the definitive voice of Nottingham during his tenure as editor of LeftLion magazine, delighting readers with his bawdy irreverent chelp, and his legendary column, May Contain Notts. But you simply can’t include everyone. It would be impossible. But it does raise the question of what constitutes a Nottinghamshire writer.

I was faced with a similar problem when I created Dawn of the Unread (2017), a graphic novel exploring Nottingham’s literary history. As my objective was to lure reluctant readers in by giving snippets into the lives of dead writers, I was after interesting back stories. So I had a broad palette to draw from. In this collection the parameters are equally flexible, enabling a broad exploration of tenuous and tangible links, as well as writers who have contributed towards science, religion, politics, as well as fiction, on the page and stage.

After 15 years of harping on about Nottingham in various publications and broadcasts, I know my biscuits. I pride myself on being able to link any living person with my home city through a few degrees of separation. So I was pretty confident I’d know a good whack of the 126 featured writers. But it turns out I know nothing, or at least nothing about 67 of them.

I’ve immediately begun my self-imposed penance by purchasing Hilda Lewis’s Penny Lace (1946), which Ross Bradshaw suggests is a precursor to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and should be read side by side. And he’s right. The novel opens in a lace factory with a Seatonesque character complaining, ‘those bitches were taking it easy again! All very fine for them! But a chap couldn’t afford to be held up, not on piece work.’ Another Sillitoe link is Pat McGrath’s The Green Leaves of Nottingham (1970), written when McGrath was fourteen! Set in Radford, it also comes with a forward from Sillitoe.

The 126 entries in this directory are mini biogs, exploring connections and teasing out further reading. For something meatier, try the contextual essays at the back. I was fascinated to read about the Sherwood Forest Group, a bunch of radical ruralists detailing the effects of the enclosure system on the forests during the 19th century. Peter Hoare’s essay on libraries explores, among other things, the unique phenomenon of Operative Libraries that were hosted in pubs around the city, enabling the working classes to self-educate. Though if Chartism and Socialism is your thing, try Chris Richardson’s City of Light (2013). Artist Brick is a passionate advocate of comics, ensuring they are taken as seriously as literature with a capital L. But he fails to mention Dawn of the Unread, a graphic novel about Nottingham (of which he was one of the commissioned artists!) and instead pays homage to artists who scarpered out of here the minute they became successful: Luke Pearson (Bristol) and Lizz Lunney (Berlin). Yes, I am having a strop.

Tolkien of which, brings me on to the most surprising connection with Nottinghamshire in the entire book, J.R.R. Tolkein (1892-1973). After his mother died, Tolkein would stay with his aunt at Gedling. It was in Gedling in 1914, at the age of 22, he wrote the poem ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star,’ about a mariner who sails off the earth into the sky. The poem outlined the mythological landscape of Middle-Earth that would lead to the novels that cemented him forever as the father of fantasy fiction. If you’re thinking of making a pilgrimage, don’t bother. His aunt’s home, Phoenix Farm, was flattened by the coal board in 1953-4. Which is probably just as well as the Brummies would go wappy if they thought we were trying to claim him as our own.

We’ve never been very good at preserving our literary heritage, no matter how tenuous the links. But we’re getting better at it; thanks to books like this. It’ll give you a right headache, in a good way, which is fitting, as Nottingham has faced many problems over the years, mainly through being a factory city. It’s made us lairy, sweary, and quite contrary. From Robin Hood to the Luddites, we’ve had to rebel when things weren’t right. And this is the true value of this book. Read as a whole you realise we’re pretty much fighting the same battles today as we’ve always done.

Rowena-Edlin-White (2017) Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers, Five Leaves, £12.99.

This article was published in The Spokesman, Issue 140: Europe for the Many.

#MondayBlogs Heanor Coalmining Literary Heritage Tour

Narratives of coalmining have tended to focus on the lives of men from the North East, Yorkshire, and Wales. But thanks to the work of Natalie Braber and David Amos, the history of the East Midlands is starting to be recognised. It was through their research that I came across the pit poet Owen Watson, who plied his trade at Heanor.

Heanor colliery started off mining for shallow coal, then when this ran out they sunk bell pits. This was particularly dangerous as coal had to be got out sharpish before the pit sides collapsed. When they needed to go deeper underground, engineering was required. Shafts, horse gins, and other structures were erected, with headgears and engine houses following soon after. Iron and steel industries began to develop to support these needs. Work was plentiful, communities developed, British history was written. But industrial developments were pricey which meant big organisations and wealthy families stepped in and took over during the 19th century. In Heanor, mining operations were dominated by the Butterley Company and the Shipley Collieries.

If we skip forward a century, the Coal Industry (Nationalisation) Act in 1946 established the National Coal Board. This was responsible for underground mining and later, opencast mining. Despite developments in mechanisation and the sinking of new collieries, the industry was doomed, unable to compete with oil, gas and nuclear power. As the Heanor area was a very old coalfield, it wasn’t long before local pits got shafted. New Langley Colliery was closed in 1960 and Ormonde followed on 25 September, 1970 – despite employing 1219 miners in 1963, who collectively were turning out 4200 tonnes a day. With it went a whole way of life, as well as community.

In a recent documentary for BBC Radio 4 called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets, I chatted to Bill Kerry III who has updated Watson’s poem Wheer are t’ gooin’ when Ormonde shuts? into a folk song. The poem was originally published in Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner (1975) and captures the uncertainty and optimism that miners felt as pits closed and they were forced to try and find work elsewhere, as captured in the opening three stanzas below.

Wheer are t’gooin’ when Ormonde shuts?/You hear where e’re you go -/Ah have na’ made me mind up yit!/Ah have na’ exed ah Flo!

Ah’m thinkin’ o’ gooin’ t’ Babbin’ton!/ What abert Moorgreen?/ Ah know they anna’ long t’ goo -/Tha’ knows pal, what ah mean.

It doesna’ matter wheer tha’ goos/Tha’ll ‘ay t’ flit agen/But it tha’ goos a long wee off/What abert your Gwen?”

As a result of the programme Owen Watson has been added to John Goodridge’s database of working class poets. This means his work will be read by future generations. I’m particularly proud of this as there’s no point doing projects unless they have genuine impact. But the real highlight was being contacted by Watson’s grandson Richard Buxton shortly after the broadcast. We met up for a cuppa and he told me more about his talented grandfather.

Watson was a quiet, serious man. Richard was seven when Watson died in 1980 but he had vivid memories of walks with him on a Sunday afternoon around Shipley Park. Watson lived opposite Shipley Park on Roper Avenue in Marlpool. “We used to walk around Osboune’s Pond, up to Mapperley Reservoir then into the woods around the old Shipley Hall, where he would show us the gravestones of the Squire’s dogs buried in what would have been the grounds.  All the while, he would be pointing out different mushrooms and toadstools, what you could eat, and what you couldn’t and asking me to listen to the sounds of the natural world and telling me which bird was responsible for which song. He’d often break off a sprig of Hawthorn and give it me to chew, saying it was better than bread and cheese.”

The love of nature is a familiar theme among miners, presumably because they spent most of their lives in darkness in the bowels of the earth. This is epitomised by the work of DH Lawrence whose novels are crammed with references to nature and names of flowers, many of which he learned through walks with his father who worked at Brinsley Colliery in Eastwood.

These walks clearly had a profound effect on Richard. “I credit him with sparking my interest in the natural world and birds in particular.  I work for the city council but my dream job would be working for a Wildlife Trust or the RSPB.  I’ll always be thankful to him for this. He was a great naturalist and artist and I’m sure that my love of natural history comes from our walks in the countryside at a formative age.  He was an expert at identifying bird song and seemed to me to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world.”

Miners could be a rough lot, but many were incredibly creative too. Art, poetry and music offered an escape from monotonous labour, as well as a means of coping with the constant threat of death. Owen Watson was also a gifted artist and his grandson remembers him helping him draw a picture which was shown on Midlands Today (they used to show artwork that people sent in before the weather forecast).

To celebrate Owen Watson’s life and work there’s a literary walk planned that will start at Eastwood library. On this we’ll be retracing his walk to work and reading his poems along the way. It’s being led by David Amos and will include some of the updated folk songs as well. Please see the mining heritage website for updates or David’s Twitter profile

The walk will start at Eastwood Library, Wellington Pl, Eastwood, Nottingham NG16 3GB.