Get past Alan Partridge and the ‘Normal for Norfolk’ jokes and you will see that this East Anglian city has creativity in its veins.
What makes a city a literary giant? According to Unesco, it takes a rare and rarified combination of editorial initiatives and educational programmes, lashings of libraries, bookstores and cultural centres, plus a vibrant literary event scene. In short, it’s the extent to which literature plays an integral role in the urban environment – and the only city in England to have earned the status so far is Norwich.
Norfolk’s county town may not be the first city that springs to mind when considering England’s foremost cultural offerings. Dig your way past the Alan Partridge and ‘Normal for Norfolk’ jokes, however, and you’ll see why Norwich well deserves its City of Literature title, awarded in May 2012 (the other six recipients to date are Reykjavik, Krakow, Iowa City, Edinburgh, Melbourne and Dublin).
The city’s latest endeavour to promote the joys of literature and heritage is a 12-week campaign called City of Stories, which is currently exploring the city’s local culture in depth with a different theme each week (last week it was spires and ziggurats), moving beyond ink and paper to tell local stories through buildings, people, food and shops.
Authors flock to Norwich, following a tradition that dates back to the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived in the city during the 13th and 14th centuries and was the first woman to write and publish a book in the English language. Modern versions of the text, The Revelations of Divine Love, are still widely read, and the church where Julian lived is still open for visitors today. The first parliamentary debate publisher Luke Hansard was born and lived in Norwich, and generation-defining novelists such as WG Sebald and Anna Sewell (author of Black Beauty) made Norwich their abode.
The city is also home to the University of East Anglia and its prestigious creative writing department, established in 1970 by the writer Malcom Bradbury and purveyor of the longest-running creative writing MA in England. Literature professors in the 2013-14 academic year included Margaret Atwood, James Lasdun, Giles Foden and Amit Chaudhuri, appointments that attract students from across the world to study at the institution.
“In the mid-60s, the UEA helped to change the direction of my life, setting me on the path towards becoming a writer,” says Rose Tremain, multi-prizewinning novelist and the university’s current chancellor. “It’s an exceptional institution which has stayed marvellously faithful to its chosen motto ‘Do Different’.”
Novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan is another UEA graduate whose open endorsement of the city has aided its standing. During the bid for the City of Literature title, he said: “Norwich has turned itself into a world hub for literature. I’d be amazed if Unesco refuses.”
Writers, novelists and poets come from all over the world to speak at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival each May, at the Worlds Literature Festival each June, and at the UEA Literary Festivals each season. The current City of Stories initiative is spearheaded by Writers’ Centre Norwich, which also organises regular workshops, literary salons and reading events, many of them free, that ensure Norwich’s literary community don’t go too stir crazy in their various writing nooks.
If you’re not yet convinced, perhaps Stephen Fry can help. The comedian, actor and writer has officially endorsed The Book Hive, Norwich’s only independent bookshop, as “the kind of place I dreamt of existing when I was growing up”. The city is also home to an independent publishing outfit called Galley Beggar Press. This year they published A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, the debut novel by Norwich-based writer Eimear McBride. The book went on to win the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize and the 2014 Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Historically, libraries have had an unfortunate time in the city. In 1898, the local library burned to the ground in a fire. In 1994, on the very same day, Norwich Central Library suffered a catastrophic fire, resulting in the loss of more than 100,000 books. Today, the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library stands on the same site, and was voted the most popular library in the UK seven years in a row from 2006 to 2013.
But it’s more than all this that makes Norwich such an incredible literary place. When you go out for a drink with friends, you’re likely to stumble into a literary event — a book launch, a poetry slam — pretty much any day of the week. Sitting in a crowded bar, you are surrounded by authors, poets and essayists. Ideas and creativity are in the veins of this city.