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Local Lit: East Anglia

31st Jan 2014

Local Lit: East Anglia
We're taking a loving look at literary East Anglia, including nursery rhymes, Medieval nuns, independent publishers and grisly deaths set among pretty fields.

East Anglia is a big region, but its reputation as a rural backwater full of inbred six-fingered yokels (and the fact that it contains some of Essex) means it often gets missed in people’s cultural imaginations. But the area’s literary pedigree is actually exquisite.

Literary history

For example, did you know that the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star were penned in Colchester? About 15 minutes walk away from where I live, a blue plaque on a crooked house states that Jane Taylor lived there when she wrote the lyrics in 1806, as part of a book called Rhymes for the Nursery.

Down the street from this house is a 14th century building, now a pub, that Daniel Defoe may have lived in; when the pub was renovated in 2011 the workmen found 18th century manuscript paper and a quill, which got people very excited, because rumour has it that Defoe wrote Moll Flanders when he was living in Colchester.

If this scintillating detective work doesn’t do it for you, how about the first woman published in English? Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic who lived, probably as a Benedictine nun, in Norwich and was allegedly cured of a serious illness thanks to religious visions. She wrote a book called Revelations of a Divine Love to share her experience, and it was published in the late 14th century.

Festivals, events and accolades

Norwich’s impressive literary traditions (it also lays claim to the first provincial city library, which opened in 1608, and Anna Sewell was living on its outskirts when she wrote Black Beauty) helped it become England’s first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012.

Plans are afoot for a state-of-the-art National Writing Centre, due to open in 2016; the new Centre will be a base for Writers’ Centre Norwich, which runs events and valuable community programmes, including City of Refuge projects for persecuted writers.

Norwich is also home to the British Centre for Literary Translation, part of the University of East Anglia, whose campus is to the west of the city centre.

BCLT is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014 with a lecture by Margaret Atwood (sold out, obviously, but it’ll be available on YouTube), and UEA runs one of the UK’s most popular and successful Creative Writing MAs, whose first graduate was Ian McEwan. Other famous alumni include Rose Tremain and Naomi Alderman.

In case that isn’t enough, every spring the Essex Book Festival manages a full month of events across the county. This year the calendar is packed with interesting woman writers, from established authors like Joanna Trollope and Adele Parks to new talents Essie Fox and Wendy Wallace.

A number of Festival events are hosted each year by the University of Essex, in Colchester, which has its own thriving creative writing department and a star professor in the form of Marina Warner.

Suffolk, as it happens, does murder quite well. Publishing and bookshops

In Cromer, on the Norfolk coast, bibliophiles can find one of the UK’s most innovative independent publishing houses, Salt Publishing. Alison Moore’s Booker-shortlisted novel The Lighthouse and the annual Best British Short Stories sit within its oeuvre.

Norwich-based Unthank Books is another independent house; it runs regular creative writing courses as part of its Unthank School of Writing, and recently published Red Room, a collection of stories inspired by the Brontës.

The region has a raft of lovely independent bookshops, including Red Lion Books in Colchester, which runs regular local author events, Claude Cox antiquarian bookshop in Ipswich and the award-winning The Book Hive in Norwich.

Murder

It’s easy to overlook Suffolk, sandwiched as it is between the (relative) literary might of Norwich and north Essex, but Suffolk has a number of smaller literary events each year.

The Lavenham Literary Festival is worth a mention, partly because it takes place in arguably the region’s most beautiful historic town and also because its 2013 author line-up was pretty impressive.

Suffolk, as it happens, does murder quite well. P.D. James has a second home in Southwold and has set several of her crime novels in Suffolk. (Southwold is also where all the old people commit suicide in The Children of Men.)

Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels are heavily influenced by the Suffolk landscape, and crime-writing duo Nicci French live there too.

Escapism

East Anglia isn’t the easiest place to get out of, being motorway-free and served by the ghastly cock-up of a train service that is Greater Anglia, but with all this bookish wonderfulness around you could do a lot worse than spend a literary weekend here.

Recommended East Anglian Reading

The Children of Men, by P.D. James, and Naomi Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience. FBS has also heard an extract from Norwich-dwelling Sarah Perry’s debut novel The Visitors, due for publication this July, and we think it’ll be well worth checking out.