Norwich: a tale of two cities

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Norwich was awarded UNESCO City of Literature status in 2012 in recognition of the city’s 1000 year writing heritage. It is the only City of Literature in England. The Norwich City of Literature office is based in the Writers’ Centre Norwich, WCN. Its magnificent new home is in Dragon Hall, a medieval building in the city centre.

The WCN joins up literary activities across Norwich. They are currently making a bid to become The National Centre for Writing.

Their work is divided into three main areas:

1. National and international work. This includes partnerships with other UNESCO cities of literature and creative cities.
2. Talent development for writers, including a mentoring program for literary translators.
3. Engagement and learning programs, run in partnerships with schools and libraries.

I spoke to Jonathan Morley, Programme Director, Alice Kent, Comms Director, and Melanie Kidd, Programme Coordinator for Brave New Reads. We discussed the work that the WNC does with readers and libraries, including their impressive summer reading program for adults, Brave New Reads.

Work with readers in the community

Many literary luminaries hail from Norwich, including Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ali Smith. The prestigious writers’ school at the University of East Anglia is one of the best regarded in the country. However, Norwich also has areas of distinct disadvantage and is, overall, a low wage economy. It is definitely a ‘Tale of Two Cities’.

As a creative response to the city’s literary and migrant heritage, WCN established Norwich as the UK’s first City of Refuge. People in the city shelter asylum seekers in their own homes. WCN are working with PEN and the International Cities of Refuge Network, ICORN, to offer writing internships to refugees. This is a cause that has been championed by Anna Funder.

The county of Norfolk, of which Norwich is the capital, is predominantly rural. The WCN works with the Norfolk’s libraries and schools as outposts in the community to counter what is sometimes referred to as ‘rurality’. Health outcomes – physical and mental – tend to be poorer outside major cities. Rural areas are isolated and young people often leave because they are disengaged and have low job prospects.

WCN’s main work with schools is to provide creative writing programs through writers-in-residence. Their main work with Norfolk’s libraries is to deliver their programs for readers.

Brave New Reads

Brave New Reads, BNR, is a summer reading program for adults. Summer reading promotions traditionally focus on page-turning, lighter beach reads. BNR promotes lesser known books that offer a challenging, original and stimulating reading experience. It’s all about getting people out of their reading comfort zone.

The ‘Reader’s Circle’ – a community of almost 100 readers from the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – selected the six books that appear on the BNR reading list. The books were chosen over the course of six months from a longlist of 150 books.

Once the books were selected, the libraries across the three counties planned an extensive program of creative BNR reader-centred activities from May to August 2015. These include launches, pop-up book clubs, tea parties, quizzes and radio shows.

The program is administered by Melanie Kidd, based at WCN, and is funded by a three-year grant from the Arts Council. Of the program, Melanie said, ‘An unexpected outcome is that the librarians themselves are starting to think differently about their own reading. The books on the BNR list are outside their usual reading comfort zone but they’ve worked their way through the lists and are encouraging people in their communities to give them a try.’

BNR is true reader development at work.

Possibilities to collaborate with Melbourne in the future

The Brave New Reads program is a transferrable model. I can see this working well in Victoria. It could be delivered via the Public Libraries Victoria network across the state to reach even our remotest communities. The WCN enthusiastically offered to share the program model with us.

Name five Norwich/Norfolk books you would recommend to Melbourne readers

In no particular order:

The Rings of Saturn WG Sebald
Revelations of divine love Julian of Norwich
(Written in 14th century. The first book written in English by a woman.)
Ritual murder ST Haymon
Restoration Rose Tremain
After me comes the flood Sarah Perry

And a couple of classics for children… or adults:
Black beauty Anna Sewell
Coot club Arthur Ransome

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2 thoughts on “Norwich: a tale of two cities

  1. Jennie Bolitho says:

    I’m so enjoying your posts Shirley – so much interesting information and food for thought. Love your recommendations for use in a Victorian library setting. Thank you.

    Like

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