In 2012, Norwich consolidated its position as England’s foremost literary city by becoming the country’s first UNESCO City of Literature, joining an elite international network that now includes Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik, Kraków, Nottingham, Dunedin, Granada, Manchester and Prague.
Norwich has been a literary city for over 900 years: a place of ideas where the power of words has changed lives, promulgated parliamentary democracy, fomented revolution, fought for the abolition of slavery and transformed the literary arts. People in Norwich spend more per capita on culture than anywhere else in the UK, and Norwich remains a destination for poets, novelists, biographers, playwrights, translators, editors, literary critics, social critics, historians, environmentalists and philosophers. It is a place for writers as agents of change.
The first book written by a woman in the English language came from the pen of Julian of Norwich in 1395, when a series of visions led her to compose Revelations of Divine Love – an extraordinary contemplation of universal love and hope in a time of plague, religious schism, uprisings and war. In the sixteenth century, the first poem in blank verse was written here by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The first English provincial library (1608) and newspaper (1701) followed, and Norwich was also the first place to implement the Public Library Act of 1850. More recently, in 1970, Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson founded the UK’s first Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia (UEA); Ian McEwan was the first graduate. In 2006, Norwich became the first (and still is the only) UK city to join the International Cities of Refuge Network, which was formed to promote free speech and support imperiled writers.
The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, housed in the magnificent Forum in the heart of Norwich, is one of the most-visited public libraries in the UK and lends more items than any other in the country. Across the city, the Cathedral Library is home to more than 20,000 books (some dating back to the fifteenth century), while the John Innes Centre hosts a remarkable collection of natural history and rare books.
The Jarrold family arrived in the East of England in the seventeenth century, bringing with them the art of printing and bookbinding. They published Anna Sewell’s global bestseller Black Beauty in 1877. Today, Norwich remains the regional centre for publishing and is home to five per cent of the UK’s independent publishing sector, including Propolis, Galley Beggar, Gatehouse, Eggbox and Strangers Press.
The Jarrold family also opened Jarrold independent department store in 1823, which contains one of the foremost independent bookshops in the UK. Norwich’s newest bookshop, The Book Hive, opened in 2009 to national praise and in 2011 was named by The Telegraph as the Best Small Independent Bookshop in Britain.
The National Centre for Writing provides professional development for writers through workshops, courses, networking and competitions, reaches thousands of children through innovative school programmes, and hosts a series of high profile events throughout the year. The Worlds international gathering of writers is held each June and offers a uniquely writer-focused forum for discussion and debate about writing and literature from a writer’s perspective.
Following a successful start with Ian McEwan, the Creative Writing MA at UEA has established itself as the foremost course of its kind in the UK and a global hub for national and international literature. Graduates include three Booker Prize winners (Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright), as well as a number of other major prize-winners including Tracy Chevalier, Joe Dunthorne, Emma Healey and Naomi Alderman. The British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA, founded by the renowned author W.G. Sebald, is Britain’s leading centre for the development, promotion and support of literary translation from and into many languages.
Writers from Norwich have, quite literally, changed the world. Born just south of Norwich, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, a treatise that influenced the course of the American Revolution, and his Rights of Man is one of the most widely read books of all time. Harriet Martineau, another radical and campaigning journalist, wrote promoting the causes of gender and racial equality, personal responsibility, fair economics and evidence-based science. Celebrated polymath Thomas Browne, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and, more recently, humourist Stephen Fry have all called Norwich their home.
Writers’ Centre Norwich established Norwich as the UK’s first City of Refuge for threatened writers, and was a founding member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).
Norwich is the focal point for a thriving live literature scene, and is home to some of the best-loved performance poets in the UK, such as Luke Wright, Molly Naylor, Martin Figura, Tim Clare, Hannah Walker, Ross Sutherland and John Osborne.
Norwich is home to the oldest city arts festival in the country, the internationally renowned Norfolk & Norwich Festival. At UEA, the International Literary Festival regularly plays to packed houses of up to 500. Within an hour of Norwich are a multitude of other literature festivals, including the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Poetry-next-the-Sea and Cambridge Wordfest, and new initiatives such as Noirwich Crime Writing Festival, the Young Norfolk Arts Festival and the Norfolk Festival of Nature continue to grow and thrive.