When the writer W G Sebald went into self-imposed exile from his native Germany, he ended up settling in a small city that sits like an island in the agricultural flatlands of eastern England. Sebald worked at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in 2001, one of a long line of literary greats to call Norwich home. My own recent novel, The Revelations, was inspired by the Revelations of Divine Love, written in the late 14th century by Julian of Norwich from her anchoress’s cell in the city.
From Sir Thomas Browne to Anna Sewell to Ian McEwan, authors have flocked to Norwich through the ages, perhaps finding in the wide East Anglian skies space to think, away from the metropolitan bustle a hundred miles to the south-west.
In May, Norwich was named a Unesco City of Literature, England’s first. It caps an impressive few years for culture in this city, which can not only claim Europe’s leading creative writing course, but also the busiest public library in the UK, a flourishing series of literary festivals and, in Writers’ Centre Norwich, an extraordinary creative hub that is the beating heart of the city’s literary life. In another piece of good news, the centre secured a £3m grant from the Arts Council at the end of March, the first stage in a planned £7m development of an international centre for literature.
In these bleak times, when the conflagration engulfing the euro is visible over the dark waters of the North Sea, Norwich is a bracing success story. The local economy is growing at a rate that wouldn’t have looked out of place during the boom years and unemployment in East Anglia is the lowest in the country. This all despite Norwich also being a major centre for financial services (Aviva is one of the city’s largest employers). In the discussions about what will replace the Square Mile as the driver of Britain’s economic growth over the next decade, much has been made of the potential offered by the fabled “knowledge economy”. Norwich is an example of exactly this: a city that has drawn on its history and culture to drive growth, where the local motto – “Do Different” – seems more than mere marketing pap.
Chris Gribble, chief executive of the Writers’ Centre and the mastermind of the Unesco bid, says that the accolade reflects “a decade of investment in the literary arts, reading and writing”. This investment, he explains, is aimed at projects “that don’t just have an economic focus – but will have an economic impact”.
This is the crucial aspect of Norwich’s success: that the growth has happened organically, with economic benefits as a happy result of cultural activities rather than their raison d’être.
It is a story mirrored in other Unesco Cities of Literature – Edinburgh, Dublin, Reykjavik and Iowa City. This last, in particular, shares not only big skies with Norwich: Iowa City was an agricultural backwater until, in partnership with Iowa State University, the city council began a programme of knowledge-based regeneration. It is now a flourishing cultural centre with unemployment less than half the national average.
Norwich, once famed for its turkeys, tractors and Delia Smith, is moving boldly into the future, a future built on one of the oldest technologies of all – books.