Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent and newly appointed Patron of the National Centre for Writing, spoke at the civic launch about her experience with the organisation, East Anglia’s literary heritage, and the future of Dragon Hall.
Read her full speech below.
I am here both as a newly (and proudly!) appointed patron of the National Centre for Writing, and as a grateful recipient of the advice, wisdom and kindness of Writers’ Centre Norwich.
I arrived in Norwich on Halloween, 2012 – very much a stranger in a strange land. I knew no-one here, either friends or family, had no work, and no connections – simply an obscure feeling that East Anglia’s literary heritage, its coastline, and its comparatively cheap rent, made Norwich the place for me.
In this (as in most things) I have been proved correct – as have the many writers who came here as strangers and never left, either in spirit or in person. That the Centre is to be based here in Norwich is entirely fitting. East Anglia’s literary heritage is an embarrassment of riches – I need hardly list the glittering array of writers and visionaries that runs from Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich via WG Sebald to the latest Nobel laureate, and current generation that includes Emma Healey, Julianne Pachico and Sarah Hall. Quite what mysterious alchemy makes the East Anglian air so vital a source of inspiration for writers I am not sure – but the alchemy is there, and I suspect Dragon Hall is home to the alchemists.
All those who work here, and especially Chris Gribble (whom I have taken to calling the Godfather, in a Mafioso rather than Anglican sense of the word) have done a great deal to enrich my personal and professional life, and those of writers from all over East Anglia, the UK, and the rest of the world. It is through the support and advice of Writers’ Centre Norwich that I was able to access funding to write my second novel, The Essex Serpent; it was through them that I was appointed a UNESCO city of literature writer in residence in Prague, where in due course I set my third novel; and it is through them that I have shared time with writers from all over the world.
I suspect Dragon Hall is home to the alchemist
Dragon Hall has been – and now will continue to be, on a far larger scale – a meeting place for artists who without their intervention lack support, and may even risk growing small and parochial in their vision. If John Donne (a London man, and not an East Anglian one, though that can’t be helped) will forgive me: Every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
What’s more, if the personal is political, then the literary absolutely is. In a climate of isolationism and suspicion, the National Centre for Writing – which through collaboration and communication will explore how writing can interrogate and change the world we live in – is not merely desirable, it is essential.
Now, I wanted to conclude on some inspiring quote from a titan of East Anglian literature, and turned instinctively to Sebald, partly out of my own love for him, and partly because – as a German living in Norwich, whose writing was transformed and illuminated by the work of his translators, including Anthea Bell and Michael Hulse – he seems perfectly fitted to this evening’s event, and to the future of the Dragon Hall.
I leave you with a line that encapsulates with typical lucid solemnity precisely why writers and readers the world over need the National Centre for Writing: “The longer I carry on, the more difficult writing seems to get.” So on behalf of myself, and all writers everywhere: THANK YOU – and congratulations!