Thursday, 26 July 2012

City of Literature

In my previous post, I mentioned how I wrote my rather forgettable third novel, Local News, in the summer between finishing my A-Levels and heading off to Norwich to start my degree at the University of East Anglia. Which got me thinking about my time there, and the writers I knew, particularly as a member of the university’s Creative Writing Society.

There’s no set career path to being a writer. You can’t just leave school and head down the job centre and say “Hello – I’d like to be a novelist please.” There are no interviews, no formal qualifications you particularly need, and no positions as writers of fictional prose advertised in the situations vacant columns of the local paper. You’re pretty much on your own, and have to make up how you go about doing it as you go along.

However, there is Norwich. And there is a certain type of person – let’s face it, a predominantly white, English, rather bookish, usually male sort of a person – to whom Norwich in general and the University of East Anglia in particular is a writing Mecca. The UEA’s creative writing minor and MA are legendary for producing authors of great renown. It’s the university of Bradbury, McEwan, Ishiguro, etc... If you want to follow in their footsteps, head for Norwich. Earlier this year, this reputation saw Norwich named by UNESCO as England’s first ever “City of Literature”, and one of only six in the world to have been bestowed the title.

So, as I say, for a certain type of person, if you wish to be a writer, this is where you come, for better or for worse.

I am not sure when and where exactly I first became aware of Norwich’s reputation as a great literary city. I have a dim recollection of an afterword to Paul Magrs’s Doctor Who novel The Scarlet Empress, wherein he talked about his life and his work lecturing in creative writing in the city. When I arrived at the UEA in the autumn of 2002, I recall having a lecture from him on Angela Carter. Carter was a central plank of the UEA’s English Literature degree at the time – indeed, doing said degree almost at times felt like doing a degree in her work alone.

(Magrs, incidentally, later buggered off from the UEA moaning about it being too middle-class, seemingly on the basis that someone had once turned up to one of his seminars wearing a beret).

Wherever it was I first heard of Norwich’s literary background, certainly by the age of seventeen I was convinced that this was the place for me to go to university, and I never seriously considered going anywhere else. I applied to study English Literature with Creative Writing, but to my disappointment didn’t get on the creative writing minor. You had to send in a sample of your work, and the short story I selected – a rather gruesome piece called Fight From the Inside (yes, named after the Queen song – I was a fanatical fan of theirs as a teenager) about a baby killing its mother from within the womb – obviously didn’t impress them very much. This was an early indication that I was perhaps not quite as good a writer as I thought I was...

I later heard the statistic being bandied about that 300 people applied for the 15 places on that year’s creative writing minor. I have no idea of the accuracy of that, but in the end decided to accept the offer they did make me, which was to study plain English Literature. This was on the basis that studying how other people did it would surely help to make me a better writer, and just the act of being in Norwich and soaking up its authorly ethos still seemed a better bet than heading anywhere else to study anything else.

In the event, I did end up doing a couple of the creative writing units as part of my degree, including the prose fiction unit under Doug Cowie. But what really sticks in my mind from my time at the UEA, and indeed formed some of my most enjoyable experiences of the place, was my membership of the Creative Writing Society, who would meet twice a week in one of the large rooms upstairs in Union House to engage in writing workshops and share their work for feedback from their peers.

When I was at the UEA from 2002 until 2005, it was the era when the self-described “poetry boyband” Aisle 16 were in their pomp, and their members were among the leading lights of the CWS. I have never harboured any ambitions to be a poet, but I greatly admired and envied the Aisle 16 members for their linguistic skills and the enormous self-confidence they seemed to have about their writing.

 You can still find traces of Aisle 16’s guerrilla advertising around and about in Norwich. I took this photo yesterday, opposite the Catholic Cathedral, where Earlham and Unthank Roads meet.

I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience for people to go away to university and find they’re not actually as good at something as they thought they were. You’re used to being among the best and brightest in your sixth form or college, and then you find you’re actually bang average when put alongside the best and brightest from all the other places across the country. That’s certainly how it felt for me when I started going to CWS meetings at the UEA. At school I’d been pretty sure I was one of the best writers I knew among my peers. When I sat in CWS feedback meetings, I rapidly realised that compared to these people, I was average-to-poor.

It was always the feedback meetings I used to attend, rather than the workshop ones, because in my experience the latter tended to always revolve around poetry and improvisation, things I am not blessed with any talents for. I did always enjoy the feedback sessions, however, and even on one memorable occasion got a rather pleasing round of applause from my assembled fellow scribblers after reading out a short horror story called Cake, about a young girl who accidentally kills her mother.

That latter story was included in a small anthology put out by the society in 2004, which I sadly don’t have a copy of to hand. In my parents’ attic, I think. I also wrote three chapters of the collaborative novel organised by Andrea Tallarita. I did not, though, appear on the society’s naked calendar, thank goodness...

The UEA Creative Writing Society on the beach at Great Yarmouth in November 2002. The number of these people who have since been published is frankly sickening.

I did however, in a rare display of socialising, go on the society’s jolly to Great Yarmouth in the autumn of 2002, from which I find I have a few photos of some of my peers who have already gone on to be published writers, the talented bastards. I have kept an eye on how some of my fellow CWS members have done down the years – I know I shouldn’t, it only makes me feel worse about not having had a novel published yet, and these people were always better and much more talented writers than I was. But I can’t help it – and can’t help but feel jealous of their success.

Joel Stickley was the president of the society in the first year I was there, and although we were not close friends or anything and I didn’t know him well, he was a writer I greatly admired. A member of the Aisle 16 gang, it wasn’t just that he seemed a nice chap – which he did – but to me he felt like a grown-up (complete with impressive beard), and wrote fantastically well in poetry or prose, and when I was eighteen I thought he was the finest writer I had ever personally met. The internet tells me he has since gone on to hold such positions as Writer in Residence for the Town of Corby and Poet Laureate of Lincolnshire, which sounds like nice work if you can get it.

Luke Wright and Joel Stickley on a dancing machine in Great Yarmouth back in 2002. A few short years later they’d be asking “Who Writes This Crap?”, something they may well ask of this blog if they ever come across it.

Joel was the first person I noticed from the society getting a book out, Who Writes This Crap?, co-written with fellow society member and poet Luke Wright. Luke is still in Norwich and makes semi-regular appearances on our afternoon show at work – I went down and said hello to him one day when he was in, although he didn’t remember me, which isn’t surprising as we didn’t know each other outside of the society meetings.

Someone who rather surprisingly did remember me when I encountered him at work was Tim Clare, another nice chap who I chiefly remember from the society’s feedback sessions reading out sections from a children’s novel he was writing about a couple of characters called Pally and Sanskrit. He came in for an interview on an edition of the drivetime show I was producing earlier this year to talk about a poetry event in Norwich, and I was taken aback to note that he did remember me from the UEA days.

 Tim Clare celebrates a well-skimmed stone on the beach at Great Yarmouth. He too has subsequently gone on to enjoy the greater joys of publication.

There are plenty of others – my BBC colleague and fellow aspiring author Jacqui Burgoyne was at the UEA at the same time as me, was a society member for a while, and when she first started at the BBC we did wonder where we had seen one another before... And Beth Settle, who works in the library in Norwich next door to the BBC, who I regularly bump into when coming or going to and from work, and meet up with for literary discussions over hot chocolate once in a blue moon. Fellow happy inhabitants of Norwich’s velvet coffin – like the fictional Royston Vasey, “you’ll never leave...”

The Creative Writing Society at the UEA was a very positive experience for me, I think. It taught me some humility and realism about the extent of my writing talents. It gave me the chance to meet and interact with some very fine writers. And it was possibly the most enjoyable part of three years at university which, while not a waste, weren’t the great formative or enlightening experience that other people seem to have.

 Chris Farnell was president of the Creative Writing Society during my final year there, 2004-05. His first novel came out just a year later, and I remember being very jealous to hear him interviewed about it on Chris and Kirsteen’s afternoon show during my first week of work experience at BBC Radio Norfolk in the summer of 2006.

Chris, as I recall, got everyone on the Great Yarmouth trip to sign a wooden chip fork. I wonder if he still has it? It might be worth something some day, at the rate this lot are going...

Joe Dunthorne consults with Noddy in Great Yarmouth in 2002. Possibly getting tips for his acclaimed novel...

Probably the most important thing about coming to the UEA, though, was that it brought me to the city of Norwich. And if I hadn’t come to Norwich, I would almost certainly never have ended up working for the BBC, and in turn would never have had published the one book which I do so far have to my name.

But that’s another story.

 Me on the beach at Great Yarmouth in 2002. And look, it’s a book, all right? It counts!


  1. Paul mate, great blog and good to put a face to the name, finally. Funnily enough, you look exactly like I imagined...:)

    Catch ya around...

    1. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing...! But thank you for your kind words about the blog!