New £8m National Centre for Writing to open the next chapter in Norwich’s literary history

Chris Gribble at the City of Literature writers' centre. Photo: Bill Smith Chris Gribble at the City of Literature writers' centre. Photo: Bill Smith

Thursday, July 24, 2014
4:52 PM

It’s been touted as the world-class centre that will cement Norwich’s place on the literary map. But what will the National Centre for Writing actually mean for the city? MARK SHIELDS reports.

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Norwich - a literary heavyweight

Norwich’s unparalleled literary history stretching back nearly 1,000 years was recognised with Unesco City of Literature status in 2012.

The permanent accreditation gives international standing to the city, putting it in the cultural top tier of cities across the world.

From the first battlefield dispatch from 1075, now on display at Norwich Castle Museum, to the first book written by a woman – Julian of Norwich in 1395 – Norwich has long been one of the country’s cities of letters.

In the 16th century, the first poem in blank verse was written in Norwich, by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and the first printed plan of a city was produced here.

The country’s first provincial library was set up in the city in 1608, and the first provincial newspaper in 1701. By the 18th century the first published Parliamentary debates were being published from Norwich by Luke Hansard – whose name lives on to this day.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Norwich was home to the largest concentration of published dissenters, revolutionaries and social reformers, including Thomas Paine, and Anna Sewell, (pictured), whose novel, Black Beauty, which has sold 30 million copies, was written while she lived in Old Catton.

In more recent times, Norwich was home to the first British MA in creative writing, at the University of East Anglia, where the first student was Ian McEwan, and became the UK’s first City of Refuge for persecuted writers in 2006. For the past seven years, the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library has been the most popular in the country, with the most recent figures showing 1.3 million visitors borrowing 1.16 million books (April 2012 to March 2013).

Norwich’s days as England’s second city may be long gone, but the centrepiece confirming it as the country’s First City of Literature could be ready to open its doors in just over two years.

The new National Centre for Writing at Gladstone House in St Giles Street is billed as a hub for world-leading authors and translators-in-residence, literary research and performance.

To capitalise on Norwich’s status as a Unesco City of Literature – one of only seven in the world – those behind the plans, including Writers’ Centre Norwich and the University of East Anglia, hope to turn the Georgian building into focal point celebrating Norwich’s 1,000-year history of letters.

A boost for business?

Norwich has an opportunity to capitalise on its Unesco status to entice tourists, but the new National Centre for Writing could also strengthen the city’s burgeoning business reputation for new media and creativity, according to a business leader.

Stefan Gurney, (pictured), executive director of the Norwich Business Improvement District, said: “Norwich is already somewhere that people come if they are interested in literature and its history. It’s central to our cultural tourism offer – no one else in the country has positioned itself as a city of literature, a city of stories. We see that as being our unique selling point, and already we are seeing visitors from the US and Europe coming over here for that.”

Mr Gurney said the new centre could spark growth in new businesses linked to writing and new media.

“The more creative and the more vibrant Norwich becomes, the more it adds to its overall attractiveness,” he added.

But with Writers’ Centre Norwich already well established, and our literary past and present showcased at festivals throughout the year, why do we need a new centre?

Writers’ Centre Norwich chief executive Chris Gribble believes establishing a city-centre presence will boost tourism, business and the city’s reputation for creativity, as well as making literary events accessible to even more people.

A new 120-seat eco-friendly auditorium will be built in the garden for public readings, and apartments for a writer and translator in residence, with teaching spaces, a cafe and a temporary basement bar also included.

“I think it will bring something to everyone who lives here, works here and visits the city,” said Mr Gribble.

An artist's impression of the new National Centre for Writing proposed for Gladstone House in St Giles Street.An artist's impression of the new National Centre for Writing proposed for Gladstone House in St Giles Street.

“It will bring focus to what we do, and provide us with a medium-sized and flexible space in the city, which we don’t currently have.

“We want to increase the number of tourists coming to the city who understand and know about our literary heritage, and this will allow us to do that.”

He also hopes the National Centre for Writing will consolidate the growing number of literary events in Norwich.

There was an expanded literary line-up at this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival, with events held at the Spiegeltent, and Writers’ Centre Norwich has announced plans for a City of Stories project, and the city’s first crime writing festival, Noirwich.

An artist's impression of the new National Centre for Writing proposed for Gladstone House in St Giles Street.An artist's impression of the new National Centre for Writing proposed for Gladstone House in St Giles Street.

Mr Gribble said these events, and the popularity of WCN’s schools and library programme – including poetry slams, performances and workshops - should dispel any “lazy and opportunistic” accusations of elitism.

“Every time we do an event we don’t have 100 people in a dark room stroking their chins. Sometimes they’re laughing, and you have to have those different ways in for people,” he said.

“We staged a literary ‘death match’ at the Spiegeltent at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival – that’s entertainment as well as literature.”

Writers will be able to use the centre on a ‘gym model’, buying monthly memberships or day passes to use facilities which will include isolation vaults in the basement cut off from phones and internet.

There will be space for 18 writers at a time in four different locations in the building, and writers will be able to mix and share ideas in the cafe.

So far, nearly 60pc of the £8m target has been raised, including a £3m Arts Council grant, smaller contributions from Norfolk County Council, the University of East Anglia, which is a partner, and trusts and foundations.

Writers’ Centre Norwich needs to have raised £7.2m by next June for work to begin, and a public fundraising campaign will then be launched to stimulate public interest in the centre. The refit of the building will take a year, finishing in June or July 2016, ahead of a planned opening date of October 1, 2016.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

It might still be more than two years away, but discussions over the new National Centre for Writing began nearly four years ago.

A planning application was made in summer 2013, and went before Norwich City Council’s planning committee for the first time in March 2014.

A technical glitch on the council’s planning website caused a decision to be deferred once, before it was discovered houses neighbouring the site had not been given notice and the decision was deferred again.

The project was not short of opponents, including English Heritage, which said some of the alterations lacked “clear and convincing justification”, while the Friends of Gladstone House campaign group said the auditorium would lead to the loss of views of the rear of the building. Others said that the centre was not needed, given the number of city-centre venues suitable for events.

At a heated two-and-a-half hour meeting in May, councillors voted 8-3 in favour of the plans, but communities secretary Eric Pickles asked for time to consider “calling in” the application. His eventual decision not to call it in means plans can now push on.

Writers’ Centre Norwich said objectors’ concerns had not been ignored, and vowed that the restoration of the 18th-century former merchant’s house would be done sympathetically. It said that the work would improve a building which was currently used as offices and whose condition had deteriorated, and bring it back into public use.

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