City of Literature

UEA, Norwich.

UEA, Norwich.

26 Norwich Writers, the latest project from 26, has just gone live over here. It’s a collaboration with the Writers’ Centre in Norwich. Here’s how they describe it:

Norwich is a UNESCO City of Literature, England’s first – we thought we should celebrate the achievement. The writers’ group 26 suggested pairing 26 of its writers with 26 writers from Norwich’s history selected by Writers’ Centre Norwich. The twins turned into triplets when students from the UEA creative writing course joined in. The idea was simple: produce a piece of writing in response to the historic writer you’ve been paired with. And we asked each writer to tell us, through a ‘creation story’, how they went about the task. You can find all these pieces of writing on the site.

The names of the contributors to the project – including mine –were placed in a hat, then pulled out at random. None of us knew who we might end up writing about, and thinking about for weeks on end, until we were informed by email. So signing up for this project involved a degree of risk. What if you disliked your subject (one or two did, as it turned out)? What if you simply didn’t know where to start (a common feeling amongst many of the contributors)?

I was paired with Ian McEwan, a difficult experience I write about in my ‘creation story’ below. If you prefer to go straight to the piece (which I’ve called Second Person), you’ll find it here. It sees me ejected from a science park by security, order an ‘Ian McEwan’ cocktail, wander into an extraordinary version of Thomas More’s Utopia, amongst other adventures.

There are twenty-six pieces on the project website, together with parallel contributions by UEA students. I’ve only just started to read what’s there, but I can already recommend John Simmons’ Skeltonic celebration of John Skelton.

In the meantime, here’s the background to my own effort.

On ‘Second Person’

Some years back my wife, Lesley Katon, came across a box of old postcards in a charity shop. She flicked through, picking out those of interest. One, sent in 1966, featured an amusingly uninspiring photograph of prefab buildings at the University of East Anglia. I was at the university in the late 80s, so she bought it for me.

The card included a wonderfully direct note from someone called Gillian to her friend Sally. The writer was having a miserable time, partly because ‘things are completely finished with R.’ She was clearly keen to receive a visit. ‘You must come up soon (!) to see the appalling mess that Denys Lasdun has thrown us into.’

The postcard of UEA, sent in 1966. The reverse side says ‘This Is A Real Photograph’.

The postcard of UEA, sent in 1966. The reverse side says ‘This Is A Real Photograph’.

Several years later, and an email from the 26 Norwich editors arrives telling me I have been paired with Ian McEwan. For some reason, a televisual scene flashes across my mind: Malcolm Bradbury looks into the camera, holds up a small ball marked with the number ‘26’ and declares ‘Diss Town FC will play Manchester United, away’.

In other words, I found the pairing exciting, but somewhat daunting. Much has been written about McEwan and his works. He also writes and talks with great insight on the art and act of writing. An example: just as I was preparing my piece he produced a remarkable article for The Guardian on what happens when our faith in fiction falters, and what restores it.

My initial approaches brought me full circle to a blank page. Then I realised that sitting at a desk would get me nowhere. I needed to take my subject out into the wider world. And Norwich was the obvious place. I wanted to get my subject and the location interacting. And along the way I could then explore this idea that a place might be considered a City of Literature.

I spent time searching for a format that would reflect or accommodate my movement around Norwich. Then I came across the UEA postcard (which I had tucked inside a copy of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). I was reminded again how refreshingly direct and succinct postcards are. They are a conversational medium, and often written quickly. That appealed as a way to overcome the anxieties of the blank page.

I’m interested in writing as thinking – a theme I’ve written about here – and the postcard format is an example of how we sometimes use words to clarify what we think, rather than simply record our thoughts through writing. This all seemed promising territory, and then I started to play with the idea of writing the postcards to my subject, which took me down some unexpected roads.

I couldn’t ignore the photographic aspect of picture postcards, not least because I carry a camera everywhere and use it as a second notebook. I wanted my postcards to feature imagery, but I thought it would be more interesting to try to create visual images in the reader’s mind rather than supply real photographs.

A photo-note of St Ethelbert’s Gate, Norwich; a place that reminded me of McEwan’s Black Dogs.

A photo-note of St Ethelbert’s Gate, Norwich; a place that reminded me of McEwan’s Black Dogs.

One of the postcards caused me some disquiet. It recalls a shocking episode from my days living in Norwich. I didn’t want to trivialise something that left many people deeply upset. But Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth had taken me right back to the site of that event, and I felt it would be dishonest if I didn’t reflect this in my piece.

I don’t want to say much more because Second Person is itself a creation tale. A number of people have asked which McEwan book I would recommend as a place to start. I suggest the short story collection First Love, Last Rites – his first published work, and still as powerful today as when it emerged into the world in 1975. Of the novels, I think Black Dogs is an exceptional work of art.

You can read my piece here.

Tim

A photo-note of a building in Norwich – referred to in my piece – on which an artist has reproduced the entire text of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’.

A photo-note of a building in Norwich – referred to in my piece – on which an artist has reproduced the entire text of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’.

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