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.

LeftLion 57

boogie57225(1)LeftLion 57 announced itself to the world on 1 Feb with a cover that split our readership. Those who loved it admired the bubble handwriting and were able to make the connection with the relevant articles inside. Those who didn’t like it have been staring at mobile phones for so long they can’t deal with anything unless it has an emoticon in it. Der It says ‘Koolie oown Nitts’ or is it ‘Budgie Aown Notts’ …;-)

To get everyone in the mood for the seventh World Book Night we had a lit frenzy. Clare Cole explored the books that shaped her childhood and asked some other writers (David Almond, Catharine Arnold, Paula Rawsthorne and Wayne Burrows) which books were important to them.

Robert Nieri told us about a Nottingham lace-maker who would travel 900 miles from his home of 129 Mansfield Rd and help form AC Milan. It’s another truly odd connection with Italy, particularly given Notts County’s association with Juventus. The book’s taken 6 odd years to write and Nieri is now looking for a publisher. If you’re interested, contact him via @lordofmilan.

Machinist (Ink Drawing) by Rosemary Wels

Robin Lewis (who is slowly being ushered in as the Dep Lit Ed) interviewed Nicola L Robinson, author and artist of the fabulous The Monster Machine. I came up with Raving Loony Monster Painter as the headline, and was a little worried Nicola might take offence at this pun but fortunately there’s been no reports of a mard. Some people who were very definitely offended were WoLan (Women’s Liberation and After in Nottingham) when we ran a two page feature on their incredible historical project. Surprisingly, it wasn’t for another of my headlines (I may not be a lady, but I’m all WoLan) but because we forgot to credit artist Rosemary Wels for her beautiful black and white machinist drawing. Big Oops. This is somewhat inevitable when things come in so late but still shouldn’t happen. The drawing was for a box-out feature about the history of female libraries. 

Paul Kaye and Damon Albarn were up in Nottingham for the 170th anniversary of The School of Art & Design at Nottingham Trent University. Paul Kaye gave a fantastic opening speech, discussing his life here as a student and the approach of lecturers ‘back in the day’. Afterwards I caught up with him, commended him on his ace beard and crazy appearance and asked if he’d like to write anything for us. The result was Anarchy in the Paul K, celebrating the 35th anniversary of the death of Sid Vicious, Paul’s childhood idol. I’m hoping he’ll write some more for us at some point which I think may be music orientated as he’s currently working on an album. Look at that for a career trajectory – Dennis Pennis – Game of Thrones – Band.

Sid Vicious by Si Mitchell

WriteLion saw an interview with Pippa Hennessy, arguably the busiest female poet on the planet, and four reviews of female authors to celebrate 2014 being The Year of Reading Women. These were: Sarah Dale’s insight into life for women over fifty, a fictionalised account of Mary Howitt’s diaries, a guide to making Steampunk paraphernalia and Roberta Dewa’s memoir. Content wise it couldn’t have been a more diverse mix.

Finally, I wrote a much needed 10 point ‘fun’ guide aimed at our self-published authors because recent communication with some of them has verged on harassment. And as I smugly stated the importance of employing a proofer and editor, and laughed at one unforgivable typo (June Austin), sure enough, when the page got laid out, the wrong cover was placed next to two of the reviews. So my advice to smug editors thinking of warning others about their failings. Don’t. It will inevitably end up booting you in the face. Humility, etc.