Norwich is in the news at the moment due to the launch of the latest Alan Partridge film, Alpha Papa set there. For him a sad city so easy to parody. And yet for me, the city and its literary heritage has come to define my attempt to create a Second Chance in Life, the theme of this blog over the last two years or so.
I was entirely unaware of my Norwich links until recently.
As for making headlines recently Norwich was also nominated by Unesco as England’s first City of Literature.
It was only when I was asked to write about Malcolm Bradbury, as part of a project to celebrate this nomination, that I came to appreciate the role of the city in my life. Bradbury was one of the founding fathers, in the 1970s, of the iconic Creative Writing Department at the University of East Anglia on the edges of the city. The university department has been in the vanguard ever since of Norwich’s growing status as a crucible of emerging literary talent.
The commission to write the article was linked to a project to commemorate 26 writers with Norwich connections, from 1094 to the present day, by asking contemporary writers to write about them and the Norwich of the time that inspired them.. A new website 26 for Norwich launched this week, presents the 26 pieces along with the creation stories of how and why the stories were framed and written. My piece is entitled “Say Hello to my Giacometti.”
I am a writer drawn to writing about my literary heroes. Currently I am writing about Laurie Lee and how his life was shaped by a few years in the 1930s by the Spanish Civil War. My book, As I Walked Out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee (seeking a publisher for the run up to Lee’s Centenary year that starts in June 2014), tells the story of how, last year, I retraced Lee’s journey, much of it on foot, across Spain on the eve of the Civil War in 1935. At a time of personal crisis, I was looking for inspiration from Lee and from Spain to try and make sense of my first life which seemed to have become stuck.
I discovered a lot about Lee and about myself. I came to realise that Lee,a heroic figure and constant companian in my adolescence and throughout my life, although on the surface, a successful and fulfilled writer and man, was actually a somewhat tortured and secretive individual. And yet for me, I discovered a new empathy with my erstwhile literary hero, I discovered that failure is a most universal of human conditions and to experience it and be challenged by it, does not always mean the end of the journey.
When I set out to research Bradbury I came upon a number of links that have shaped my own journey towards being a writer:
Susannah Marriott, my non-fiction writing tutor for my book which I started on the MA Professional Writing at the University of Falmouth, started her own journey towards becoming a successful writer and editor by studying at UEA. She taught me to be bold and audacious in style and voice.She also gave me my title for my Malcolm Bradbury article “Say Hello to my Giacometti.“
Richard Holmes, Director of the UEA Lifewriting MA from 2001- 2006 and successful author and biographer, provided the inspiration for my book on Laurie Lee through his innovative book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He showed me how immersing yourself in the sense of a place can connect you with people who have been there before and find, in Chatwin’s words “a trail of words and musical notes along the line of the footprints.”
Kathryn Hughes, Professor of Lifewriting UEA , chaired an academic conference on the future of Biography, Turning Points, at UEA in February 2013. The conference inspired my MA Paper on Biographical Writing Trends which was accepted for a possible post conference publication.Hughes introduced me to the Turning Points of Biography, “the event, the collective and the return of the life in parts.” To capture the essence of a biography you have to freeze the crystallising moments of a life and start from there. For me the start and end of Lee’s life turning points was his first step on to Spanish soil in Vigo off the boat from Tilbury in 1935 and the moment in which, as an enlisted International Brigade soldier he killed his one and only Fascist in the Spanish Civil War or did he?
Kashuo Ishiguru who studied for an MA at UEA in 1980 wrote a novel The Remains of the Day that struck a chord with me when I was researching the life of Laurie Lee. The book chronicled the unravelling of a man’s life underneath the novel’s perfectly still surface. A portrait of a wasted life, with 1930s Britain and the movement for appeasement always in the background. A man suddenly sees with clarity the wastelands of “the remains of his days.” He has let his life slip by, a life wrecked not by tragic flaws but by adherence to ideals. “Ideals” Ishiguru shows us,“can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism.” Ishiguru underlined for me the complacency of my first life and pointed me towards the need to live a second life, before entering “the remains of my days.” Sadly, as I show in my book, Lee also seemed entrapped in a stultifying nostalgia for the England and Spain of his youth, his first and only active life stalling at the age of 23. He saw out his days through a haze of alchohol and drew his last breaths choking on the bitter taste of disappointment and unfulfilled potential.
All roads lead back to Bradbury and his History Man, Professor Kirk, who leaps off Bradbury’s pen like Bram Stoker’s draculan big black dog, stalking and prowling the pages, turning them and people over. The anti-hero Kirk epitomized the amoral tone of the 1970s, the decade when I went to a Polytechnic to study Spanish Literature in an old Lorry Depot in Portsmouth and where I took my first steps in my first life towards becoming a writer in my second life. In my second life I was drawn to the sea to study for an MA (Distinction) Professional Writing at the University of Falmouth and started my book on Laurie Lee.
For Bradbury, the last word falls to him:
He wrote once that ” A landscape comes to life through what has been written in it; writers come to life when we follow in their steps.”