Nottingham’s literary ghosts

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When Nottingham won Unesco City of Literature status in 2015 I was gobsmacked, and delighted, especially having played a teeny part in supporting the bid by joining in a literary flashmob – which involved sitting in the market square with 100 or so others reading a book for 15 minutes.

Of course I knew about Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe, but had no idea my city was scattered with so many other literary associations – until yesterday when writer John Baird took our Maggie’s group on a literary tour of the city. The tour, which moved at fast pace along streets I walk through every day but never notice – started at Five Leaves bookshop – this year crowned Independent Bookshop of the Year, and finished at the Bell Inn where the Nottingham Writers’ Club used to meet, among its members Helen Creswell, creator of Lizzy Dripping.

So here’s a few factoids about Nottingham writers I never knew:

  • A plaque in Trinity Walk marks the place where teenage poet Henry Kirk White was born. He died at just 21 but not before his poetry had caught the attention of Byron, Wordsworth and others.
  • Graham Greene lived in the city for a brief period while he worked on the Nottingham Express. He was miserable in Nottingham, but it was here that he converted to Catholicism at St Barnabas Cathedral, so that he could marry his fiancee Vivien. He did however make one friend here, Cecil Roberts, the youngest newspaper editor of his day and the only writer that century to get Freedom of the City
  • Lord Byron wrote his first poem – aged 10 – about an old lady who lived in a house in Nottingham. It wasn’t very complimentary. It went like this:
    In Nottingham County there lives at Swine Green
    As curst an old lady as ever was seen.
    And when she does die, which I hope will be soon,   
    She firmly believes she will go the moon.

    Incidentally, 10 was also the age he got his title and inherited the house at Newstead Abbey.

  • Poet Sophia Pyatt, who was obsessed with Byron, got killed in a collision with a horse-drawn carriage on Maypole Yard. She’s buried very near Byron in Hucknall and her ghost is said to haunt Newstead.
  • Back in the Day, Nottingham’s Theatre Royal was thought to be a very lucky place for shows to premiere. The Scarlet Pimpernel was first shown here, as was the Mousetrap, before it opened in London and became the longest running West End show ever. Agatha Christie, who loved Nottingham, treated a young Brian Blessed to a tour of the city – picture that!
  • J M Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, worked on the Nottingham Journal. Rumour has it he got inspiration for Peter Pan from an urchin he saw running through the city. It’s more likely however that the character was based on his brother who died young.
  • There used to be lots of libraries, including the Boots library (above what’s now Zara), set up by Florence Boot to increase literacy among women. There was also one called ‘Library for Females’ on Hounds Gate.
  • Susannah Wright, a Nottingham-born radical jailed for daring to suggest church and state should be separate, returned to her home town on release from prison and opened a bookshop in the city. Such was the opposition to her, rioters invaded her shop. She kept them at bay with a shotgun.
  • Phillip James Bailey wrote his 40,000-line poem Festus in Nottingham. He kept adding to it for 50 years. Although it’s a bit long by today’s standards, there are some choice lines in it, like ‘We live in deeds not years In thoughts not breaths In feelings not figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives who thinks most, feels noblest, acts the best.” ..’
  • Geoffrey Trease, prolific children’s author, also hailed from Nottingham. His family still own Weavers Wine shop and there’s a library of his books just up the street from there. You can ask to go and see it.

There were lots of other gems I can’t remember, but you can book on one of the Gold Star Tours where you can learn much more about Nottingham’s literary history.

Of course, Nottingham’s still a great city for writers. We have Booker nominated Alison Moore, Costa winner Jon McGregor and Bafta nominated screenwriter William Ivory in our midst, along with countless other authors. We have the wonderful Nottingham Writers Studio which nurtures and supports local writers, and we are a Unesco City of Literature!

Here’s some pictures

The ‘Library for Females’ was somewhere on this street
Used to be the Elite Cinema – where the first talkies in Nottingham were shown
Our lovely guide pointing out the Graham Greene plaque
The alley where Five Leaves is – it’s also where poet Thomas Miller made baskets
The Express offices on Parliament Street, where Graham Greene worked. 




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2 Responses

  1. Mr Dominic Willcocks

    The tour sounds very interesting

    • admin

      It was Dominic, learnt lots I didn’t know about our city. I recommend it if you get the chance to go on one.