Sandeep Mahal on Nottingham’s Status as a UNESCO City of Literature

Words: Sandeep Mahal
Wednesday 03 January 2018
reading time: min, words

Nottingham is a literary city. From the heritage of Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe, to the proliferation of today’s writing scene, the literary conversation here in Nottingham is a roiling cacophony. Within LeftLion's January issue, we find pressing proof of Nottingham’s remarkable contribution to literature and why it is deserving of its UNESCO designation...


UNESCO actually stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Established in 1945, at a time when governments of the European countries were looking for ways and means to reconstruct their systems of education once peace was restored, the project gained support, and governments from outside of Europe, including the USA, decided to join in. UNESCO’s mantra was born: “To contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.”

Being in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network is an invitation to a challenge, and a major responsibility to engage with member cities and foster our capacity to work better with culture and creativity. We’re taking ownership of this opportunity, and proving what we already know: Nottingham can be the greatest creative city in the world. Having the city council and universities committing to such a global network offers unparalleled opportunities to use culture as an agent of positive social change. Moreover, we now have another tool to help us build a creative city. And if done right, this has to be a good thing.

Does it mean more funding and recognition? Probably. More tourists? Possibly. Better mobilised and comprehensive programme for the promotion and growth of Nottingham’s creative industry for which it is earned? Definitely. The UNESCO designation does not come with a big fat cheque, but it does bring prestige and publicity which makes it easier to attract money and easier to attract visitors.

Nottingham shares the City of Literature title with 27 other cities. The network meets twice a year and collaborates all year round through projects which promote the network, share good practice, and ensure that literature reaches diverse audiences.

It’s easy enough to be given a badge of creativity, but living up to that reputation requires investment, hard work, and a commitment to working together to help build the cultural ethos of the city. Freedom of expression must be celebrated, child literacy must be improved and a culture of listening to diverse voices and criticism must be cultivated. Crucially, Nottingham has an important role to play in bringing together the disparate parts of our world at a time when many seek to divide us. We need writers and we need groups, such as LeftLion, organised to publish, promote, present, and connect to writers, because literature helps us understand each other.


1) Edinburgh, Scotland
The first designated UNESCO City of Literature and host to the world’s largest book festival: the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Also home and hangout to writers including JK Rowling, Muriel Spark, Sir Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle.

2) Óbidos, Portugal
With a population of 12,000 people, Óbidos is the world’s smallest City of Literature. Livraria da Adega is a bookshop housed in a wine cellar, which also provides workspaces for creative practitioners.

3) Iowa City, USA
The cultural capital of Iowa. The city has an impressive literary history, boasts the oldest creative writing programme in the USA, and has been home to over forty Pulitzer Prize winners over the years.

4) Melbourne, Australia
More people borrow books from libraries in Melbourne than anywhere else in Australia. The city was home to nineteenth-century novelists Rolf Boldrewood (Thomas Browne) and Marcus Clarke.

5) Dublin, Republic of Ireland
This city’s produced some of the world’s most famous writers, including Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and James Joyce. It also hosts the world’s most valuable literary prize.

6) Reykjavík, Iceland
The first non-English speaking city joined the Network in 2011. Medieval Icelandic literature is an integral part of Iceland’s cultural heritage, most notably the Sagas of the Icelanders and the Poetic Edda.

7) Norwich, UK
Julian of Norwich penned the first book written by a woman in English in 1395. In 2012, the city was awarded £3million to develop the International Centre for Writing.

8) Krakow, Poland
A dynamic centre for the country’s most important and exciting literary festivals: the Miłosz Festival and the Conrad Festival. Several hundred poets live and work in the city, and poetry soirées and salons are hugely popular.

9) Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg’s famous writers include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of Faust, and the great Romantic-era writers Clemens Brentano, Bettina von Arnim and Friedrich Hölderlin.

10) Dunedin, New Zealand
Home to many of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers and poets, including: poet Thomas Bracken; Charles Brasch, founder of Landfall, the country’s foremost literary journal; and Hone Tuwhare, poet laureate from 1999 to 2001.

11) Granada, Spain
The Festival Internacional de Poesía de Granada is the most important poetry festival in Spain, with over 10,000 people coming to the city each spring. The palaces of the Alhambra contain one of the most singular collections of poetry ever built in stone.

12) Prague, Czech Republic
The city has one of the highest concentrations of bookshops in Europe with a whopping 130 bookshops, about sixty second-hand bookshops, and about twenty literary cafes.

13) Baghdad, Iraq
Nazik Al-Malaika (1923–2007) was a female Iraqi poet who made her name as the first Arabic poet to use free verse. Baghdad celebrates her legacy through the Nazik al-Malaika Award for women writers.

14) Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is home to two languages, four literary festivals and a strong publishing network. The city has also provided the backdrop to literary adventures from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

15) Ljubljana, Slovenia
During the second world war, Ljubljana was the centre of an illegal literary resistance movement, which saw graphic houses printing propaganda and literary works at a time of great unrest.

16) Lviv, Ukraine
Since its inception in 1997, Lviv’s International Festival of Literature has hosted 538 authors from 38 different countries and welcomed audiences of over 60,000 people to the city.

17) Montevideo, Uruguay
Born in Montevideo, writer and poet Bartolomé José Hidalgo was one of the initiators of Gaucho literature. He has a statue in Montevideo, and the Premio Bartolome Hidalgo Prize is awarded each year by The Uruguayan Book Chamber.

18) Tartu, Estonia
Tartu hosts the Prima Vista Festival and Crazy Tartu. Organised by the Estonian Literary Society and the Estonian Writers’ Union, the festivals bring together writers and poets from all over the world.

19) Ulyanovsk, Russia
This city takes its name from Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin, born there on 22 April, 1870. Widely recognised as one of Russia’s greatest satirists and literary critics, Dmitry Minayev translated Lord Byron’s poetry into Russian.

20) Bucheon, South Korea
The city’s literary tradition is strongly tied to the likes of Byun Yeongro and Chong Chi-yong, forerunners of Korea’s new poetry movement. The city hosts the Bucheon International Comics Festival, The Korean International Comics Market and the Korea-China Comics Contents Forum.

21) Durban, South Africa
The Time of the Writer Literary Festival has hosted writers from virtually every African country, and over seventy countries from all over the world, including Arundathi Roy, Ngugi wa Thionga, John Pilger and Chimamanda Adichie.

22) Lillehammer, Norway
Home to the Norwegian Festival of Literature, attracting some 25,000 visitors each spring, the city hosts the annual Norwegian Amateur Theatre Festival, as well as Bastard, a festival celebrating art books and micro-publishing.

23) Manchester, UK
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her campaigning novels there; The Pankhurst Centre celebrates the polemic writings of Suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst; and Lemn Sissay’s poems are inscribed upon the streets of the Northern Quarter.

24) Milan, Italy
Home to authors including Bonvesin de la Riva, Beccaria and Verri, and poets like Alessandro Manzoni, Giuseppe Verdi, Testori, Eco. The Laboratorio Formentini per l’Editoria is dedicated to the enjoyment of poetry and the art of publishing.

25) Quebec City, Canada
The first French-Canadian novel, The Influence of a Book by Philippe Aubert de Gaspe fils (1837), was published in Québec city, while eight annual literary festivals animate the literary landscape of the city.

26) Seattle, USA
Microsoft and Amazon have made Seattle their home, but successful bricks-and-mortar Elliott Bay Books Company is home to over 150,000 titles and hosts over 500 author events each year.

27) Utrecht, Netherlands
The city is home to 56 bookshops, more than 200 publishing houses, The House of Literature, and Drongo: the biggest annual language festival in the Netherlands.

Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website

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