Norwich on world’s literary A-list after UNESCO honour

The United Nations' cultural agency has anointed Norwich as England's first member of its global network of literary cities, confirming for the rest of the world what readers and writers living there already know: that it is an intellectually stimulating place with a deep, rich cultural history and a tradition of freedom of expression.

Writers such as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich and Hebrew poet Meir ben Elijah, the great renaissance man Thomas Browne and modern masters such as WG Sebald and Ian McEwan span a long history of distinctive literary voices emanating from the city, and the announcement means that this tradition should only intensify in future.

Writers and politicians have responded to the confirmation with pleasure and satisfaction. Mr McEwan said: 'I'm delighted by the news. Literature has deep roots in the beautiful city of Norwich and it was a natural first choice for UNESCO. I'm happy too for personal reasons – Norwich is where my own writing life began. Writers have known for centuries that Norwich is a dreamy city.'

Philip Pullman, the renowned children's author who was born in Norwich, called the city's success 'thoroughly deserved', while Barry Stone, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for cultural services, said: 'This is absolutely brilliant: a fantastic achievement and an incredible honour for Norwich and Norfolk.

'Our writers have made enormous contributions to literature, politics and social reform over the course of hundreds of years, contributions that have gone on to change the world.

'This international award not only recognises their outstanding efforts but also puts Norwich and Norfolk on the global stage, and gives us great hope for the future in that we can inspire, encourage and do everything possible to help our writers of tomorrow.'

But beyond the pleasure of seeing Norwich's merits signalled to a worldwide audience – a perfect riposte, were it needed, to those who would depict our region as a cultural backwater – what benefits will Norfolk residents actually experience?

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In 2010 much clamour surrounded Norwich's bid to become the first UK City of Culture, a one-year designation eventually won by Derry-Londonderry – but this UNESCO accreditation is more prestigious and valuable; and what is more, it is permanent. It will allow a long-term development of cultural connections with the network's other member cities that will see visiting writers from around the world come to Norwich, giving public readings and working with schoolchildren. It will enable Writers' Centre Norwich, the organisation at the heart of the bid, to help increase tourism based on Norwich's literary heritage.

But the most tangible legacy and by far the biggest project associated with the UNESCO accreditation is the International Centre for Writing, which will see the 18th century Gladstone House in Norwich's St Giles Street redeveloped into a premises dedicated to literature. The proposal is for teaching, conference, event, office and writers' spaces in the main house, two annexe apartments for writers in residence, a caf�, and a 120-seat events space in a new structure in the garden. Writers' Centre Norwich intends to open it to the public in April 2016. The expected cost is �7m, of which �3m has already been promised by the Arts Council England; the project's other partners are the University of East Anglia and Norfolk County Council.

The bid for UNESCO City of Literature status drew upon the riches of a 900-year tradition. In that time Norwich has been, in the words of the bid document's author Magdalen Russell, 'a place of ideas where the power of words has changed lives, promulgated parliamentary democracy, fomented revolution, fought for the abolition of slavery and transformed the literary arts. Today,' she added, 'it remains the English destination for poets, novelists, biographers, playwrights, translators, literary critics, historians, environmentalists and philosophers: a place for writers as agents of change.'

The story of Norwich as a city of writers begins deep in the medieval period, when a dark episode in the city's otherwise exemplary history of tolerance towards incomers prompted an early demonstration of its tendency to provoke memorable literature. The anti-Semitic persecutions of the 12th and 13th centuries are documented by the Hebrew poet Meir ben Elijah, often referred to as Meir of Norwich. His 20 poems combine an authoritative knowledge of the Bible with heart-rending references to the conditions experienced by Norwich's Jewish population prior to their expulsion from England in 1290.

Later this year, in one of the first projects connected to the new UNESCO City of Literature status, Meir ben Elijah's poetry will be published in English for the first time by an independent Norwich press, having been translated by two former UEA academics.

From there onwards comes a roll call of literary notables and significant firsts, as observed by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt when he endorsed the bid. In November 2010 he welcomed the 'exciting cultural, social and economic opportunities it presents for the city and nationally. Norwich has a long and rich tradition as a place of ambition, new ideas and freedom of expression… Literature is a golden thread throughout the city's history from medieval times to the radical non-conformity of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, and more recently to the UK's first and famous Master of Arts creative writing courses at the University of East Anglia.'

Mr Hunt could have mentioned many more writers and books connected by that golden thread. Mother Julian's Revelations of Divine Love represents the first English book written by a woman. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) created the sonnet and blank verse, forms that were then taken up by Shakespeare. Thomas Browne's baroque prose and breadth of interest continue to dazzle readers 400 years on from his birth. In the early 19th century Luke Hansard began developing a printing business; today his name is synonymous with the written record of parliamentary debates, which are published in Norwich by the Stationery Office. 'Literary lioness' Harriet Martineau upheld the dissenting tradition by fighting against slavery and for human rights ('there is in Norwich a deaf girl who does more than any man in the country,' the Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham noted of her in 1830), and among her peers was Anna Sewell, whose 1877 work Black Beauty sold 50 million copies. George Borrow roamed from Norwich to Wales, Spain and beyond, but his most familiar line concerns his home: 'A fine old city, truly, is that, view it from whatever side you will.'

And while it is important to note that the Fine City's literary life long preceded the establishment of the UEA's Creative Writing MA, there is no doubt that that has been central to the city's association with major authors in the past 40 years. It was the university that brought one of 20th century Europe's great writers, W G Sebald, to settle in Norfolk, where he crafted beautiful, unsettling meditations on displacement and loss until his sudden death in 2001.

So as it joins Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin and Reykjavik in the world's first rank of literary cities, Norwich is taking its rightful position on the global stage.

Writers' Centre Norwich will celebrate this development in June when it welcomes Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Jeanette Winterson and other outstanding writers to its Worlds Literature Festival.

But the lasting legacy of this week's announcement will unfold in the years to come, as authors and book-lovers across Norfolk benefit from the boosts to our economy and cultural life that this hard-won and well-deserved status should bring.