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.

DH Lawrence: Herd Mentality

For the past couple of years I’ve been retracing DH Lawrence’s footsteps across the globe in preparation for a Lawrence inspired ‘memory theatre’ project with Paul Fillingham, due to be published in 2019. The following article was originally published on our Lawrence bloging site and then tweaked for an article published in the January 2018 issue of Leftlion, a UNESCO City of Literature special. The artwork is by one of my favourite artists, Eva Brudenell. 

On September 11th the world changed forever. DH Lawrence was born. To celebrate that special day in 1885 I’ve arranged to go for a stomp across his childhood home of Eastwood with other members of the DH Lawrence Society. Eastwood was a booming coalmining community at the turn of the 20th century, but Lawrence wasn’t a fan. In his early novels and plays he bemoans the destruction of the natural landscape. Although Emile Zola had written about coalminers in Germinal (1885) and Vincent Van Gogh slouched off to Belgium to live among the miners he painted, Lawrence was the first writer to portray them from the inside. He didn’t hold back. Eastwood has never forgiven him. Neither has the literati.

His books were consistently banned and he faced censorship throughout his career. Consequently, he turned his back on England in 1919, cursing “the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed”. He set off with his German wife Frieda, who he nicknamed the Queen Bee, travelling the globe in search of Rananim – a community of like-minded people. But there was no-one like Lawrence, so he just kept on moving. He lived in Sicily for a bit, but was irritated by the locals who were “so terribly physically over one another” like “melted butter over parsnips”. “Beastly Milano” was no better, “with its imitation hedgehog of a cathedral”. So he set off East for Mexico, stopping off in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he got bad guts and took it out on the Buddha “Oh I wish he would stand up!” Lawrence was a proper mard arse, raging at everything. It’s why I love him so much.

By the time I arrive at my destination I’m 15 minutes late. Nobody is around. Given that the average age of membership at the DH Lawrence Society is 70 I naively presume I can catch them up and so leg it across the field. But they’re nowhere to be seen. I start shouting which attracts the attention of a herd of cows in an adjacent field. They start to chunter over, perhaps thinking I’m the farmer rather than a disorganised reader wanting to recite bits of Sons and Lovers at relevant locations on a 6 mile circular walk. Then one of them kicks out a leg like he’s dancing. They start to pick up pace. Some run into each other. They’re not bulls are they? Then they pick up pace, charging. There must be sixty on them. I peg it towards a hedgerow in the middle of the field and within seconds I’m circled by angry cows. I shout at them to piss off. They take it in turns mooing and staring, like they want a fight. I begin to walk away calmly, but they follow, less calmly. Then one at the back panics and starts to run, setting off the others. I make it to a nearby tree and clamber up, waving my copy of Sons of Lovers at them, telling them to f*ck off. They’re having none of it. They want me dead. I can see it in their “wicked eyes.” Lawrence could name every flower, plant and tree. I haven’t got a clue what tree I’ve scrambled up. I just know it’s prickly and my hands are bleeding.

As I stare at the cows and the cows stare back I think of Birkin in Women in Love when he tells Ursula he wants their connection to be founded on something beyond love, “where there is no speech, and no terms of agreement.” This was definitely a moment of no speech and no terms of agreement. Just a lot of stamping and mooing. “This is the wrong book” I scream, waving my copy of Sons and Lovers. FFS! This isn’t Women in Love.

In Women in Love Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen end up singing and dancing naked in front of a herd of Highland cattle. It’s one of many incidents that have wrongly led Lawrence to be classified as a dotteh author. Nothing could be further from the truth. He believed that in privileging the intellect, we’ve lost touch with our more intuitive and instinctive senses, what he described as blood consciousness. He was more pagan than pervert.

I spot a man in wellies in a garden on the edge of the field. He has to be the farmer. He looks like a farmer. I scream at him from up my tree. Eventually he looks up; too casual for my liking, but at least I have his attention. “You ok?” he shouts. “Of course I’m not f*cking ok. These cows want me dead.” “Do you want some help?” “Of course I want some f*cking help.” He climbs over his fence and plods over, clapping his hands at the cows who immediately disperse. “Just got to clap at ‘em,” he informs.

He asks if I’d like to be escorted out of the field and I say yes, of course I want to be escorted out of the field. I consider giving him my copy of Sons and Lovers but decide against it as I’ve highlighted my favourite quotes. I tell him that it’s DHL’s birthday today. He nods. I don’t elaborate further. Once over the fence I give him a clap. He walks off. Not just cows, then.

When I get back to my car I smoke three cigarettes on the bounce and then speed out of Eastwood as fast as I can. I’m in such a rage that I pull over to call my GF. She’s more of a hornet than a Queen Bee, and delighted by my misfortune. I am always scalding the GF for her poor time management so she revels in my misfortune. She’ll store this day forever. Never forget it. September 11th will forever be cowgate. Rather than DHL’S birthday. Or the date when two planes flew into two towers.

As I head home I clock the blue and yellow hell that is Ikea. Lawrence wasn’t a man for flat-packed philosophies but he did love his DIY. Aldous Huxley said Lawrence “could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.” If the GF ever dumps me, I’m using that quote for my Tinder profile.

Although I missed the walk I’ve unwittingly celebrated elements of Lawrence’s personality on his birthday. He hated the herd mentality, despising any group that attempted to force its will upon him. He hated the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and how this slowly removed man from nature – the cows were a curt reminder that nature still has some fight left in it. Lawrence couldn’t get out of Eastwood fast enough and this led him to live a nomadic life across the globe, often in abject poverty. “I find I can be anywhere at home, except home,” he lamented.

Later that evening the radio reports there’s been an increase in tuberculosis in cows. To stop this spreading 33,500 badgers will be culled in autumn. Lawrence died of tuberculosis. He was my age, 44. Perhaps the cows were trying to tell me something. Instead of running I should have listened.

You can follow the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre blog at www.thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com on Twitter  or on instagram