How to become a UNESCO City of Literature: What Indian cities can learn from Nottingham

How to become a UNESCO City of Literature: What Indian cities can learn from Nottingham
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“We’ve got it,” said the unfamiliar voice on the phone, one wintry afternoon in Nottingham a few days ago.

“Got what?” I asked, puzzled. The only thing I was expecting to get at that time of day was lunch.

But then I remembered that it was, in fact, the BIG day. The day we were to find out from UNESCO, after a fifteen-month long campaign, whether we would be awarded the prestigious World City of Literature status.  Yet, wasn’t the announcement meant to be in the evening? So late that I might have to go on TV to talk about it, without a clue about the outcome?

“Oh, nothing but the City of Literature status!” laughed the man on the other end.

Turned out the local television station had got hold of the news before us. And what news! All thoughts of lunch were shelved as I scrambled to relay it to our bid’s core team. Concerns that it may be a mistake were dispelled soon after with a call to the UNESCO HQ in Paris. We’d got it.

We had actually got it. That prize every city with a bookish bent coveted. The one that was recognised globally as an acknowledgement of not just literary pyrotechnics in the past, but a blazing literary life in the present. We could barely believe it. Not because we didn’t deserve it or hadn’t worked hard for it (and how!), but because Nottingham had become used to being seen as the slightly silly city of men in green tights. Or industrial, impoverished, dull and gloomy. Even our own DH Lawrence called it “the last little ugly place of industry, the cold little town that shivers on the edge of the wild, gloomy country beyond”.

Yet the Nottingham I arrived at ten years ago was green without a single green legging-ed man to be seen. It was industrious rather than industrial (Lawrence’s mines were long gone). Impoverished in part, yes, but hardly strikingly so for a native of Kolkata (and aren’t both proof that conditions less than perfect produce the best literature?). But dull and gloomy? Never!

The Nottingham I settled in was alive with a sense of good things to come. It wasn’t long before I was happily delving into its rich literary past. Ten minutes from my house was Byron’s home which became a favourite haunt. And in town, even on a sunny day, I was drawn to the many gracious libraries and packed-to-the rafters bookshops, the range of which (big, small, indie) very few British cities offered.

A few years later, I found myself involved with Nottingham’s most ambitious literary project ever – the UNESCO City of Literature bid. So, here it is, my super six quick-but-not-at-all-easy (yet-tons-of-fun) steps to becoming a City of Literature:

Get a literary giant or two behind you.

We had Byron, DH Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe, amongst others. Less than some, but more than many. And in the best possible way, we never let anyone forget it. We celebrated our heritage for all it was worth. We named trams after our literary heroes. We fought hard to stop the shutting down of important historic sites linked to them, like the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre, which was facing closure, getting backing from international stars like Glenda Jackson and Rosamund Pike along the way.

We re-issued stories from these literary giants in, amongst others, a specially commissioned-for-the-bid book, These Seven, where Alan Sillitoe lived, breathed and told stories again. We read their work aloud in random public places and was heartened to find people gathering round to listen (muttering to yourself in public usually has the opposite effect)!

Rope in all your contemporary literary lights.

Henry Normal, the writer and producer of the TV series Alan Partridge, started a well-attended poetry festival with his own money. Bafta-nominated scriptwriter William Ivory, a bid patron, gave freely of his time and expertise. Booker-shortlister Alison Moore contributed a story to the bid book and her time to read with groups across the city.

In fact, the City of Lit endeavour inspired such civic pride that people not naturally attracted to things literary were drawn in as well – prison inmates, refugees, and even truant teenagers. Some of them went on to write their own stories for the websites we had set up. And one of our project’s primary aims, of raising literacy levels, began to flower in the most organic way possible.

Bring everyone in.

Nottingham’s many creative communities united to produce some fabulous inter-disciplinary work. Art and literature came together in a series of graphic horror-spoof novels, Dawn of the Unread, that taught Nottingham about its literary heroes. That the book went on to pick up The Guardian Award for Teaching Excellence didn’t do our cause any harm.

The nationally recognised Nottingham Playhouse’s call for more home-grown plays was deluged with work of the highest standard. At a time when literary sections in papers around the world are folding up, The Nottingham Post began to publish a short story a week from its readers (throw a stone in Nottingham and you hit a closet writer). And now, politics, philosophy, performance art and literature promise to coalesce in the new, improved and frankly radical 2016 edition of the Festival Words which will give a voice to the globally muzzled.

Be special instead of competing.  

Every bid has its USP. Edinburgh had its famous festivals, Norwich, the University of East Anglia’s world-renowned writing school, and Dublin, its long line of slightly pickled but utterly glorious writers. Nottingham did not have comparable institutions (though we can lay claim to glorious writers too, just sooty instead of pickled).

So, rather than try to compete against cities with better infrastructure and larger economies, we made a virtue of being small, tough and scrappy. Not only did we have a history of rebellion from Robin Hood, through the Luddites, to Booker Prize-winning Stanley Middleton, who lobbed his OBE back at the Queen, we re-invented common literary activities such as the Big City Read by introducing interesting new elements to them.

London, for instance, picks a classic about itself every year, encouraging its citizens to acquaint themselves with it. We didn’t just do that, we published a new book of (mostly) freshly-written short stories based in Nottingham from a range of writers that would speak to everyone. Nor was ours just a Big City Read but a Big City Read and Write, with each author featured in the book visiting institutions of all kinds to read and get Nottingham writing.

And instead of accepting the lack of dedicated literary venues as an obstacle, we transformed it into an opportunity, holding storytelling events in unlikely places – from trams (the Tramboree as it came to be known) to castles and caves (yes, caves). And flash mobs gathered around us where we read, getting immersed in their own copies, in mass read-ins.

Teamwork. Make it real.

The word on the street is that the bid for a city which was almost a shoo-in fell apart because their board was pulling very publicly in different directions. People were summarily ejected till there was no one left on the board at all. We took care not to do that.  Not only did our small core team work well together, but diverse groups of people with very different talents from all over the city also got involved, bringing a range of expertise that a more aloof enterprise may not have attracted.

Our Press was rooting for us too, putting our efforts out in the news as often as possible to bring the rest of the city on board. Then we all put our shoulders to the till and heaved and ho-ed enthusiastically till we got there. And not one of us wore green tights.

Believe in it but also, enjoy the ride.

It took a leap of faith for a city grown used to its also-ran image to apply for it at all, although we knew we could do it. But we also had zest by the zeppelin-full and a never-say-die spirit we were banking on. With so many cities jockeying for the position, and the chance that you may not get it the first time (or at all), that latter proved essential. You will, as Alan Sillitoe said (and we reminded ourselves every day), have to “keep on keeping on”. For that, you must be, not just as grimly purposeful as DH, but have as much fun with it as Byron. We did both.