Nottingham, City of Literature

July 7th, 2015



As I’m typing this, Nottingham’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature is being electronically submitted to UNESCO UK, who, if they decide to support it, will send the bid to UNESCO’s director-general next week. On our City of Literature website we’ve published a long letter from the city’s great and good (University Vice-Chancellors, MPs, a rich array of civic and business leaders), demonstrating their support of the bid. It’s been a busy year, and a particularly hectic last few days, in which we rewrote the bid in the light of a helpful review of the initial draft from UNESCO UK. I’m proud of the the bid we’ve written, which, I believe, represents the city’s thriving literature scene and creative infrastructure in an honest, exciting way. In the process of getting the bid together, the company that we’ve formed to write the bid has started to make things happen, and has already made our literary, literacy and Creative Writing organisations more joined up, capable of even greater things.

So, tomorrow, for instance, a bunch of us meet to discuss next year’s biennial Festival of Words – I don’t want to pre-empt that discussion, but it’s likely to have an even more international flavour. And, a week on Friday, at the Council House, we formally launch the biggest project that has come from the City of Literature company so far. The These Seven stories anthology, a quarter of whose print run will be given away, and the Big City Read, where numerous groups – most of them young people – will read the anthology, meet the writers and do some writing themselves.

I’d like to thank everybody who’s helped with the bid: our Project Director, Pippa Hennessy, of course, and Matt Turpin, both of whom did far more work than they were paid for, our researcher, Jay Arnold, Paul Fillingham, Sharon Scaniglia, Sally Bowden, Jo Guy, Pat Thomson, all of the board members and working group, our student helpers Phoelyx Delany, Chris Jelfs and Ula Wronska, Danny Hahn of the Society of Authors, Bernie Corbett of the Writers’ Guild, all of our patrons, the new Lord Mayor, Jackie Morris and everybody who contributed to the review of the bid first draft. Lastly, Stephen Lowe, pictured above. Steve kicked the whole thing off at the first Festival of Words, in a Writers Guild discussion that I attended. A fine playwright and scriptwriter with a long record of voluntary public service, he’s President of Bromley House Library who funded the initial bid exploration. Despite serious illness that prevented him from chairing the bid company, a job I took on, Stephen accepted the role of being our honorary president. Last week the city honoured Stephen by naming one of our new trams after him. It was a lovely occasion and I can’t think of anybody who deserves it more. The new trams roll out any day now but can’t be used yet. Serendipitiously, however, a big crowd of us rode back into the city centre on the tram that we named on the night our bid was launched, eight long months ago. Alan Sillitoe’s tram.

I’ve named lots of people above, but want to stress that our City Of Literature bid is not the work of a small committee or some elite drawn from one section of the community. Rather, it represents a rich, diverse range of talented people, all involved in the flourishing city of literature we live in. It belongs to everybody. For that reason, presuming that UNESCO are OK with it, we plan to put the full bid and supporting letters on our website next week, for everybody to see, discuss and celebrate. If we get through the next stage, the result will be announced on December 11th.

Update: I’m pleased to report that UNESCO UK have endorsed our bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature and our bid has now been formally submitted. In the coming five months, we plan to act as though we’re already a city of literature – because, in every sense except the official accreditation, we already are – which means we’ll work at making the city’s literary scene even more joined up, promoting literacy, planning a festival and developing loads of new projects. For more information, visit our website.


Burt Bacharach – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, July 3rd 2015

July 5th, 2015

X030715KC1-2 Copyright Nottingham Post/Kevin Cooper

Burt Bacharach is a legend, with over fifty UK top forty hits. His ensemble’s performance on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage last Saturday received raves. No surprise that he drew a packed house for his first visit to Nottingham. Only question is, with over 600 songs to his name, how many could he fit in? Answer: just about all the ones you’d want to hear – excluding only his 1999 collaboration with Elvis Costello, Painted From Memory.

He enters to a standing ovation, a frail figure in the trademark that seems too big for him. He plays a single note on his piano. Each of his three singers sings a line of What The World Needs Now (is Love). Bacharach plays delicate piano with jazz progressions while leading his superb, seven piece band like a general. At 87, Burt is the oldest act I’ve ever seen, but he looks younger with every song.

Those exquisite songs, mostly with lyrics by Hal David, are a real memento mori for the sixties, when our parents were young and many of us were very young. They are best when performed by Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Karen Carpenter or, recently, Rumer. Yet, as Burt pays tribute to David and begins a medley with Don’t Make Me Over, it’s clear that tonight’s singers are great and the songs are the stars. Just when I’m starting to miss middle eights, Josie James gives us a superb, full Anyone Who Has A Heart. Burt explains that he only found out about Northern Soul recently (in a Nottingham Post interview with Kevin Cooper, whose photo is above – hope you enjoyed the show, Kevin!) and how his songs were the source of several classics. The encores will include the terrific John Pagano singing the Chuck Jackson classic Any Day Now (My Beautiful Bird). Donna Taylor does a cracking version of Etta James’ Waiting For Charlie (To Come Home).

As well as telling stories, Burt quizzes us: who had the UK hit with this song?  ‘Frankie Vaughan? He always sounded like a baseball player to me.’ ‘These Magic Moments’? Yep, Perry Como. So many hits, it must be hard to keep up, but he’s particularly proud that The Beatles recorded Baby It’s You, a personal favourite. We also get a lovely Close To You and lots of songs from movies like My Little Red Book, The Look Of Love, Arthur’s theme and so many more.

I’ve seen countless shows at the Concert Hall in its 33 years, but I have never felt so much love in the room as was there tonight. Evidently lots of people were in tears throughout, but I was mostly smiling. Towards the end, Burt sings a little himself, his voice a fragile but moving thing, especially on finale A House Is Not A Home.

Another standing ovation and he concludes the 130 minute set with a four song encore, climaxing in a sing-along of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. A pure joy.

(Footnote: the above is a slightly extended version of my review for the Nottingham Post. I had to miss out far more songs than I mentioned: There’s Always Something There To Remind Me, Windows On The World, Trains & Boats & Planes, loads more. The one song I really missed was a favourite that Dionne Warwick only sang a snatch of when I saw her here two years ago. Here’s the full version).

You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart)



June 7th, 2015


Nottingham’s free monthly listings and culture magazine, Leftlion, has been unfailingly supportive of the city’s UNESCO City of Literature bid, and this month’s issue carries a long interview with me about the bid. If you live in Nottingham, you can pick up a copy all over the place, from my local greengrocer, Thompsons, through to Broadway, Five Leaves Bookshop and Rough Trade. But if you’re not, and want to read it online, click here. Oh, and, the online version has an extra question, towards the end, where I talk about the next Bone and Cane novel, due this autumn. More on that anon.

A week tonight, I’m off to see Elvis Costello for the umpteenth time over the last 35 years. Solo, for, I think, the third time. Here’s a recent appearance he made on David Letterman’s farewell series of shows, performing a medley of his own ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ and Nick Lowe’s ‘When I Write the Book.’ Wonder if we can get him to endorse the bid?

When I Write the Book & Everyday I Write the Book (Medley)

We Are Many

May 22nd, 2015

Last night I went to see Amir Amirani’s feature length documentary, ‘We Are Many’, which centres on 2003’s world-wide demonstrations against the imminent invasion of Iraq, which is officially released today. I had three reasons for going. I met Amir many years ago and his older brother Taghi (also a renowned documentary director) is an old friend. I was unable to go on the massive march, because my mother had died suddenly just three days before. My youngest brother, Richard, went on the family’s behalf and I remember my dad talking about ‘warmongers’ at Mum’s funeral, which took place the day before the invasion.

Thirdly, I’m about to start writing the next novel in my Bone and Cane sequence, which will be about the parliament during which the invasion took place (this will be the 4th in the sequence: news on the third soon). ‘We Are Many’ is a remarkable achievement, a labour of love that took its director many years to make. It’s a very ambitious, entirely absorbing hundred minute movie that starts with 9/11, focuses on the massive demonstrations (so many of them), then goes into the aftermath and consequences of the demonstrations and the illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq, going on to its effects on the Arab spring and the vote not to send troops to Syria. Amir, clearly a sensitive, endearing interviewer, gets revealing comments from Conan Powell’s right hand man to Tony Benn, for whom this film also forms a fitting epitaph. Good to see lots of comments from one of our best political writers, John le Carré, along with many others including Mark Rylance, Damon Albarn and David Blunkett, the only cabinet minister MP who agreed to appear.

It’s a serious movie, but there are plenty of laughs. For some reason, it was showing in a well attended Cineworld, rather than our local Arts cinema, Broadway, and something happened that I’d never seen there before. There was not one, but two spontaneous rounds of applause during the film (and two at the end, as well). The first came for Robin Cook’s resignation speech in the house, a very moving scene. The second… well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it involved Donald Rumsfeld.

‘We Are Many’ is a terrific movie with important lessons for everyone. A colleague who teaches International Relations at NTU told me during the long wait afterwards (Cineworld forgot to show the discussion stream until my partner went and reminded them!) that he plans to use it with his students as soon as it’s available. Even the Daily Bloody Mail loves it. Yet it doesn’t doesn’t currently have national distribution. Last night’s Curzon screening streamed to seventy cinemas was a one-off. So ask your local cinema to show it, ask the BBC when they plan to buy and show the film, spread the word and, if you get the chance, don’t miss it. Congratulations to Amir and everyone involved in its making.




War – Young Fathers, who play the Rescue Rooms next Tuesday.

Dawn of the Unread: Shelves

April 11th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 17.14.09

Dawn of the Unread is an interactive graphic novel aimed at celebrating Nottingham’s literary heritage and encouraging literacy in the city’s schools. There have been thirteen issues so far, each eight pages long, featuring such diverse authors as Alan Sillitoe, Mary Howitt and DH Lawrence, along with even more diverse writers, from Michael Eaton to Nicola Monagahan and Alison Moore to Al Needham. Artists have included Brick, who I’ve often collaborated with and the brilliant Eddie (‘From Hell’) Campbell.

The fourteenth comes out this weekend. It’s online now, with a couple of embeds still to be added. I wrote it, and Ella Joyce, daughter of author Graham Joyce – who was going to write one of the stories before his untimely death – has illustrated it. Brilliantly. Regular readers won’t be surprised to find that I’ve written about Stanley Middleton, the Booker Prize winning author who was also a neighbour and close friend. But I shied away from this at first, thinking I’d said enough about him already. I wanted to write about some of the more obscure writers who’ve passed through or lived in Nottingham, like Philip Callow, who Stanley introduced me to, or Dorothy Whipple, or even Cecil Roberts.

Who? Roberts has a room named after him at the city library, but to find out more, you’ll have to read my story, which turned out to be mainly about Stanley, but also about the fleeting nature of literary reputations and how Nottingham’s authors support each other. A fitting theme, given that I’m chairing the city’s bid to become a UNESCO city of literature (my speech launching the bid is one of the embeds).

Oh yes, the embeds. At first, reading the earlier stories, I didn’t notice the little buttons with stars in the middle, but each links to an essay or feature, written at all sorts of levels. Shelves has more than most: a terrific one by my old friend John Lucas (we became friends while editing Stanley Middleton at 80, seventeen years ago) about six of Stanley’s novels that were recently reissued. There’s a lovely piece by Ella’s mum, Sue Joyce, all about Graham. There’s a brief guide to Bromley House library (which features in the story) by Elaine Aldred. And there are a few bits by me: one about the Booker, another about Stanley’s art, a memoir about our friendship and a discussion of the bookshelves that appear at the end of the story. I’ve also done an interview about the comic for the Dawn of the Unread blog, here.

I’m very proud to be part of Dawn of the Unread, which is edited by James Walker and put together online by Paul Fillingham. It was James’ excellent idea to put Ella and I together. There’s a video interview with her at the end of the piece, filmed by NTU students, in which you’ll learn that she’s only 18 and about to study Fine Art at Ruskin College, Oxford. I know her dad would have been very proud of both this and her work on Shelves.

Stanley wasn’t averse to comics himself. He was a modest man, but I hope he would have been chuffed by Shelves. There is one bit of artistic license in the cover image, by the way: he always paid someone else to do his typing. He never learnt to drive either. Read Shelves here.

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Burt Bacharach - Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, July 3rd 2015
Burt Bacharach is a legend, with over fifty UK top forty hits. His ensemble’s performance on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage last Saturday received raves. N...

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