What does Norwich's status as England's first UNESCO City of Literature mean for people in Norfolk?

PUBLISHED: 14:25 12 November 2012

Supporters of Norwich's successful UNESCO City of Literature bid celebrate outside the House of Lords. From left to right: Elif Shafak, Neel Mukherjee, Helen Lax, Andrew Cowan, Brenda Arthur, Laura McGillivray, George Szirtes, Alex Preston, Anjali Joseph.

Supporters of Norwich's successful UNESCO City of Literature bid celebrate outside the House of Lords. From left to right: Elif Shafak, Neel Mukherjee, Helen Lax, Andrew Cowan, Brenda Arthur, Laura McGillivray, George Szirtes, Alex Preston, Anjali Joseph.


Great fanfare surrounded Norwich's admission into the UNESCO Cities of Literature network, which has been celebrated with a reception at the House of Lords. But what does it mean for people living in Norfolk? KEIRON PIM finds out.

Prominent Norwich writers through the ages

Meir of Norwich (13th century?)

Very little is known about this Hebrew poet, whose writing gives an insight into the conditions experienced by Norwich’s Jewish community before their expulsion from England, along with all the nation’s other Jews, in 1290. Meir’s poems were rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the late 19th century and published then in Hebrew. Later this year they will be published in English for the first time in a book officially tying in with Norwich’s new UNESCO City of Literature status.

Julian of Norwich (1342?-1416?)

By 1373 Norwich was scarred by plague epidemics. The woman we know as Julian fell ill that year and, lying on what she believed to be her deathbed in a secluded cell, experienced a series of visions that she later called ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. Twenty years after her illness she wrote a full account of the 16 revelations, which amount to the first English-language book written by a woman, and introduce the idea of God as a loving maternal figure. Her works remained relatively obscure until the 20th century, when they found great popularity. Admirers of her work continue to visit St Julian’s church in Rouen Road, built on the site where Julian’s cell is believed to have been.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547)

When Henry Howard was beheaded on January 19, 1547, the last person to be executed by King Henry VIII, English literature lost one of the most promising figures of his time. In his short life Howard, who lived at the family palace at Kenninghall, near Diss, pioneered the sonnet form later taken up by William Shakespeare, and produced the first blank verse in English with his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)

Many would place Sir Thomas as the single greatest writer associated with Norwich. Renowned for his beautifully melancholic prose and the diversity of his interests, he was born in London and moved to Norwich in 1637, settling in a house on Hay Hill.

He practised medicine from there and in 1642 came the publication of his first book, Religio Medici (meaning “the religion of a physician”).

The following year he published his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a wry and authoritative explanation of numerous “vulgar errors”, commonly held beliefs that Sir Thomas corrected for his readers’ enlightenment. In it he contributed several new words to the English language – among them electricity, computer, literary, medical, pathology and hallucination.

Elizabeth Bentley (1767-1839)

Her name may not be familiar but Elizabeth Bentley was a poet who, like many people in Georgian Norwich, played a part in the campaign against the slave trade. Her father was crippled by a stroke when she was young but he retained the use of his right hand and taught her how to write.

After his death in 1783 she began writing poems, and in 1791 they were published after an impressive 1900 people, many of them eminent writers, offered to contribute toward publication costs.

Her subjects spanned from Lord Nelson’s death to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

“There is in Norwich,” said the Lord Chancellor in 1830, “a deaf girl who does more than any man in the country.” Martineau was a prodigious worker who wrote 35 books, among them Deerbrook, The Hour and the Man, and Life in the Sickroom, and many essays in her lifetime. She grew up to become a friend and correspondent of Charles Darwin, and make her name as a student of the whole of society.

George Borrow (1803-1881)

One of the great characters of Norwich’s literary history, Borrow is known for his picaresque prose, his interest in Romany culture and his amazing physical endurance. He was a great walker who thought little of striding from Norwich to London, and a brilliant linguist who could pick up any language he chose with seemingly little effort.

Anna Sewell (1820-1878)

When Anna Sewell died in 1878 her book about a horse had only just been published by Jarrold. She’d spent seven years working on it from her sickbed at her home in Old Catton, writing on slips of paper or dictating to her mother.

Told from the perspective of a horse, Black Beauty went on to sell millions worldwide and help change attitudes towards horses’ welfare. Its success helped reinforce Jarrold’s reputation as a publisher, and therefore Norwich’s reputation as a literary city.

Ralph Hale Mottram (1883-1971)

Novelist, poet, historian, biographer and Lord Mayor of Norwich, Ralph Hale Mottram was one of 20th century Norwich’s most eminent writers. He served in the first world war in France and Belgium and his war experiences prompted his best-remembered books, the Spanish Farm trilogy.

W G Sebald (1944-2001)

Many famous writers grew to be associated in the late 20th century with the University of East Anglia, which has been at the heart of much of Norwich’s literary life since the establishment of Britain’s first MA programme in creative writing. Winfried George “Max” Sebald perhaps stands pre-eminent among them; had he not died in a car accident in 2001 it is likely he would have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His book The Rings of Saturn casts a revealing and insightful eye over the East Anglian landscape, melding travelogue with often melancholic digressions triggered by the people with whose lives he intersects and the places through which he wanders.

Norwich has taken its place on the world stage as England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, a heartening accolade for anyone who cares about the city. Where once its image further afield was dominated by Alan Partridge and ‘Normal for Norfolk’ jibes, now a truer picture of the city’s merits is emerging. The hard-won status proves to a global audience that the city has enormous cause for pride in its tradition of fostering writers and radical thinkers. But further than being a well-deserved pat on the back for a long and sometimes obscured history, what does this new status actually mean?

Writers’ Centre Norwich, the organisation based in Princes Street that organised the successful bid to UNESCO, has revealed details of some of the projects it is co-ordinating in association with the new status. Some are major and others minor, but all are intended to build upon Norwich’s growing reputation as a literary city. As reported, some of these projects include joint plans with fellow UNESCO Cities of Literature to project poetry on walls and buildings, the publication of long-lost mediaeval Hebrew poetry from Norwich, and a two year series of UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professors that will see Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood and Timberlake Wertenbaker come to the city to work with writers and to talk to readers.

At the House of Lords reception she hosted, Baroness Hollis of Heigham discussed the significance of the planned International Centre for Writing, which is due to open in early 2016 in Gladstone House. The refurbishment will bring a fine but neglected Georgian building back into prominence. Backed by the UNESCO accreditation and in the run-up to its opening, the Writers’ Centre team will host events around the country over the coming two years exploring issues for writers and readers and celebrate the importance of the literary culture in all our lives. Addressing the reception Baroness Hollis asked those present to picture the view from Gentleman’s Walk, taking in the City Hall, Guildhall, St Peter Mancroft and the market. She said: “It’s a collage, a palimpsest, a of a functional city: civic governance, law and order, commerce, faith and now, if you turn your head to look up St Giles, there is a new beautiful building to add to it, which is of course the wonderful Georgian building that will become the International Writers’ Centre.

“The development of the Writers’ Centre is a national first which will encourage and champion diverse forms of literature at a time when the book world is facing unprecedented challenges. It brings together Writers’ Centre, UEA, which founded our first school of creative writing and where I was privileged to be a student, the City, the County, and Arts Council England.

“Norwich as a UNESCO City of Literature is now on the world stage. I recall in 1933 J B Priestley’s English Journey took him to Norwich. When he came from Bradford to Norwich he felt he was coming from a town to a city. It has flourished as a big city in the minds of men for generations. It’s not about being large but thinking large. I think he read the city well.”

Other developments lined up include the fact that Norwich City Council is in the process of renovating and remaking all of the Welcome to Norwich signs around the City’s border to include a panel noting the UNESCO City of Literature status. The aim is that this will make clear to all those who live in, work in and visit Norwich that it belongs to an elite international network.

Meanwhile a partnership with Norwich University College of the Arts will aim to explore the space where architecture and city planning meets literature and the web, and a project called 26 for Norwich will pair 26 writers with 26 figures from Norwich’s literary past and present. John Simmons, founding director of the project, said: “We are going to be pairing the contemporary writers with people going back almost 1000 years, among them Julian of Norwich, Bishop Herbeet de Losinga and Luke Hansard. We will publish what they write on our website and as a book. The project will start in spring 2013 and last about six months.. the contemporary writers won’t all be from Norwich, so for people who aren’t based there we hope they’ll become ambassadors for the city elsewhere in the country.”

Part of the remit of UNESCO City of Literature status is also to work with other literary cities around the world. Norwich is working with the African Writers Trust, FemWrite and Goretti Kyomuhendo to explore the opportunity for Kampala in Uganda to become Africa’s first UNESCO City of Literature. In January Writers’ Centre Norwich is sending a writer to work with emerging writers in Kampala for a week and to share knowledge about how the online world can boost a writer’s career.

• Chloe Smith, Norwich North MP.

“I’m immensely proud of Norwich being a UNESCO City of Literature. I think our city has yet again contributed something to British and global cultural life through this achievement.”

• Andrew Cowan, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA.

“I came to Norwich to become a writer - my favourite writers were Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan, and both had come here before me. I was then taught at UEA by another, Angela Carter. Twenty-five years later I am helping others become writers, on the same MA programme that employed Angela, and taught me. There are now hundreds of us, graduates of UEA, with a special reason to be grateful to Norwich. It nurtures writers and writing. It is a city of literature.”

• Maria Miller MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Women and Equalities.

“Many of Norwich’s most illustrious writers have put pen to paper to welcome the news that the city has become England’s first, and the world’s sixth, UNESCO City of Literature, and I am delighted to add a few words of my own. Congratulations, Norwich, on taking your place alongside the world’s first rank of literary cities.”

• Christopher Bigsby, director of the Arthur Miller Centre at UEA.

“Increasingly writers [travelling from overseas] are coming to Dublin, London and Norwich. It’s become a place to go because they know that they will sell books and find intelligent, receptive audiences. It’s hard to think of internationally famous writers who have not been to Norwich now - it’s part of their map of the world.”

• Alex Preston, novelist, short story writer and critic.

“Norwich was absolutely central to my development. One of the things about the life of writers is the falsehood that we are up in our garret hiding away from the world. One of the things we need, and Writers’ Centre Norwich does brilliantly, is the space for writers to meet and talk about their craft. I’m in Norwich every few months - it’s feels like my second home, and maybe my home as a writer.”

• George Szirtes, T S Eliot Prize-winning poet.

“I think this confirms Norwich’s importance as one of the major cities of literature in the country and opens up a new gateway to the world.”

• Laura McGillivray, chief executive of Norwich City Council.

“It’s tremendous for the city as it really puts us on the global map. We’ve always known that Norwich is a critical city and an important one in terms of culture, and great writing is one of the most important aspects of that. Getting this international recognition is tremendous. The critical thing is that we use this now to reach down into schools and communities to get better standards of reading and writing, and to raise aspirations.”

• Dominic Bradbury, journalist and writer, and son of Sir Malcolm Bradbury, who co-founded the UEA Creative Writing MA with Angus Wilson.

“I think my father would be delighted by this. Norwich was his adopted home and he was incredibly fond of the city. He would be delighted that the course is flourishing - it’s in such good hands. He was somebody who really cared about his legacy, and I think he would be pleased.”

• Joe Dunthorne, novelist and graduate of UEA’s Creative Writing MA.

“The birth of my interest in writing and its development pretty much from the beginning through to now happened in Norwich. When I got there as a student I liked writing but it wasn’t a huge part of my life. Over the next five years it swallowed me whole and the culture of Norwich played a huge part in that. The openness towards writing, the way you can be served a cup of tea and find out that the waitress is in the middle of her third novel... for me Norwich and writing are totally intertwined. Whenever I go back I feel I’m returning to my literary roots.”

• Anjali Joseph, Bombay-born novelist and graduate of the Creative Writing MA.

“I came to live in Norwich in 2007 to do the MA and it was a really great experience, a really great place to be with other people that were serious about their writing. For a place that isn’t enormous it has a really good climate for the arts and I think that is only going to grow.”

Tickets are still available for this week’s fifth annual EDP-Jarrold East Anglian Book Awards ceremony, which will take place in Norwich’s Assembly House.

Novelist and poet Sophie Hannah will discuss her work and present awards to the winners in seven categories at the event on November 15th, which will be hosted by ITN entertainment correspondent Nina Nannar.

The event, supported by Writers’ Centre Norwich, will see trophies awarded in seven categories: Fiction, Poetry, History and Tradition, Biography and Memoir, Places and Nature, Art and Photography, and Travel and Guidebooks.

The ceremony in the Noverre Suite begins at 7pm and the £15 ticket price includes a glass of wine on arrival and a hot buffet supper. For more information see and to purchase tickets see, visit customer services in the Norwich department store or telephone 01603 660661.

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