A Voyage of Discovery

Henry Kirke White; image courtesy of Picture the Past; https://picturethepast.org.uk/
Henry Kirke White; image courtesy of Picture the Past; https://picturethepast.org.uk/

What names would you come up with if you were asked to make a list of writers associated with the county of Nottinghamshire?

Many (if not most) people would, I imagine, start with the Big Three – Lord Byron, D H Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe. Quite possibly in that order, too.

Anything beyond that would depend largely upon personal interests and circumstances.

My list, until recently, would have looked something like this:

  • Lord Byron (I’ve read several of the seemingly endless number of biographies, a few of his letters and a shamefully small amount of his poetry)
  • D H Lawrence (as with Byron, I’m probably more interested in the man himself as opposed to his work. Of the latter, perhaps unusually (and somewhat perversely, in light of my Byron admission), I’ve been drawn more towards the poetry)
  • Alan Sillitoe (probably my favourite Nottingham writer and the one who I identify most closely with. I can’t remember whether I encountered the novel or the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning first, but I love them both. I’ve also read The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The Ragman’s Daughter, but am painfully aware that I’ve barely scratched the surface as far as Sillitoe’s writing is concerned)
  • Stanley Middleton (if the ‘Big Three’ ever expanded to become a ‘Big Four’, Middleton would surely be a prime contender for the fourth spot. Producing 40-odd novels, including one that shared the Booker Prize in 1974, our Stanley turned down an OBE and, other than going away for a period of national service, seems never to have absconded from Nottingham, which is more than we can say for those other three boggers)
  • Ray Gosling (Ray was a giant – a massively underrated, in some ways tragic, figure. In 2013, I attended an event at the Lakeside Arts Centre, where Ray had been scheduled to introduce his 1963 film Two Town Mad, a fond look at the Nottingham and Leicester of the early 1960s. Not without his problems in recent years, Ray had ambled into the auditorium, somewhat the worse for wear, several minutes after the organisers had announced that he wouldn’t be able to make it, and proceeded to deliver an utterly compelling introduction to the film, together with an equally absorbing (and even more inebriated) question and answer session afterwards. I wish I had been able to meet him before his death later that year)
  • Philip James Bailey and Henry Kirke White (two poets who I encountered through my interest in local history. Bailey is most famous for his lengthy (lengthy being perhaps something of an understatement) and, to the modern eye, fairly impenetrable poem, Festus, while Kirke White never had the chance to fulfil his early promise, dying at the age of 21. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, Byron opined, ‘Unhappy White! while life was in its spring, and thy young muse just waved her joyous wing, The spoiler swept that soaring lyre away, which else had sounded an immortal lay.’
  • J M Barrie and Graham Greene (both lived in Nottingham for a short period of time while working at the Nottingham Journal in the early stages of their careers (though the Journal had moved offices by the time Greene came along). Perhaps one day we will forgive Greene for such comments as ‘an educated person in Nottingham is as precious & rare a find as jam in a wartime doughnut!’)
  • Arthur Mee (born in Stapleford, Mee was famous for publications such as The Children’s Encyclopedia and the King’s England series)
  • Matthew Henry Barker (Barker spent some years as editor of the Nottingham Mercury (later the Nottingham and Newark Mercury) and wrote a book called Walks Round Nottingham, although he was better known nationally for his nautical stories, which were published predominantly under the pen name of The Old Sailor. I found out about him almost by accident while researching old non-fiction books written about Nottingham and its surrounds. His own story is as interesting in some respects as the fiction he wrote)

There were other names that I was aware of, both past and present – Geoffrey Trease (by virtue of a plaque on Castle Gate), David Belbin, Helen Cresswell, Philip Callow, Abigail Gawthern, John Harvey, Jon McGregor, the Howitts, Nicola Monaghan and Robert Millhouse to name a few – but of these individuals and their work I knew very little.

Praise be, then, for a magnificent tome by Rowena Edlin-White called Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers, which was published by Five Leaves in 2017.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers is a guide to some 126 writers with Nottinghamshire connections. It also includes a selection of essays entitled The Sherwood Forest Group, Old Nottinghamshire Libraries, Charles Dickens in Nottingham, Graham Greene in Nottingham, Comic Creators of Nottingham, Arise! and A Working-Class Hero is Something to Be. A preface, introduction and publisher’s note help to place everything in context.

The focus is primarily on the past and it’s an egalitarian affair, with two pages dedicated to each individual, regardless of stature. Writers who are no longer with us are each introduced by way of a well-researched mini-biography, with mention made of notable works and one or more associated places to visit, while those still knocking around are, with one exception, allowed to express themselves in their own words.

The book is well-illustrated and the essays at the end are as fascinating as the entries that precede them. As a whole, Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

The pleasure in reading work by the writers explored in this book for anyone like me who has lived most, if not all of their life in Nottingham and/or Nottinghamshire is obvious: a sense of connection, a heightened ability to relate to the material in question – particularly if it references local places – and a sense of pride in our communal heritage.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers has enabled me to discover more about the writers that I’d already heard of and to encounter many others for the first time.

Pat McGrath’s book The Green Leaves of Nottingham, set in and around Radford, written when he was 14 and published in 1970 with an introduction by Alan Sillitoe, has gone straight on to my ‘To Read’ list, as have works by the likes of Dorothy Whipple (whose books include They Knew Mr Knight, which was also turned into a film) and Cecil Roberts (finally I know why there is a place in Nottingham’s Central Library called the Cecil Roberts Room).

I’ve learnt that the Rev. Dr Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, an edition of whose famous book, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, has been resting on my shelves for years, lived in Edwinstowe towards the end of his life and is buried there, and I’ve discovered more about J R R Tolkien’s connection with Gedling.

If the mood takes me, thanks to information contained in the book, I can have a wander over to, for example, Nottingham’s General Cemetery and visit the last resting places of the likes of Ruth Bryan, Ann Gilbert, Anne Gilbert, Josiah Gilbert, Anthony Hervey, Henry Hogg, Annie Matheson, Robert Millhouse, Charles Bell Taylor and Sarah Agnes Turk.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers has opened my eyes to the extent of the literary tradition that we have in this unfairly overlooked county of ours.

in the Nottinghamshire volume of his Buildings of England series, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote, ‘As far as natural attractions go, there is indeed Sherwood Forest, but otherwise the countryside has little of outstanding beauty… In its history also Nottinghamshire is not marked by many events of prime national importance’, while Jeremy Clarkson apparently once referred to Nottinghamshire as ‘a non-county, like Staffordshire – just there to fill the gaps.’

By introducing us to such a wide range of authors who celebrate all things Notts (well, mostly – you’re not off the hook just yet, Greene), Rowena Edlin-White has made a huge contribution towards helping Nottinghamshire to assume its rightful place at the table, and I highly recommend that you seek her book out.

2 thoughts on “A Voyage of Discovery

  1. Derrick Buttress, he of ‘Broxtowe Boy’ and short stories deserves a mention as does Lucy Hutchinson, who wrote a biography of her husband, Col. John Hutchinson, a Parliamentarian, a regicide and Governor of Nottingham Castle (he and Lucy deserve a statue outside the Castle). Good to remember Ray Gosling and why does no one ever mention Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Birthday’, my favourite book of his and if I had to have just one chapter from a book it would be chapter 8 of ‘Birthday’! Finally, I’ll take you on a General Cemetery ‘Writers’ Tour’ soon if you wish.

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  2. Good tips (both Derrick Buttress and Lucy Hutchinson have entries in Rowena’s book). I’ve refrained from reading any of the other Seaton novels thus far because I like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as a self-contained book. Yes please to the General Cemetery ‘Writers’ Tour’!

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