Nottingham's lesser known literary history: Eight Oddities
We have a rich history of literature in Nottingham, with our writers laying down a body of work full of vigour, verve and verisimilitude. The stories of our writers are known internationally; the swashbuckling Byron; the scandal-causing Lawrence; the whatever-you-think-I-am-I’m-not of Alan Sillitoe. But we have a fair dose of weird in the mix. We thought we’d dig up some choice nuggets of strange to make you see the city in a different light.
1. Peter Pan was inspired by Nottingham
Nottingham as Neverland? It’s a distinct possibility.
Legend surrounds this, but what we do know to be true is that James Matthew Barrie moved to Nottingham in 1883, working for the Nottingham Daily Journal. For 18 months he would walk from his home just off Mansfield Road (which is marked by a plaque) to his town centre workplace (which is also marked by a plaque: have a peek next time you’re heading up Pelham Street). The journey would take him through the recently opened Arboretum, where it is thought he drew inspiration for Neverland: the bell-tower, the cannons, the lake. Also, the idea of Peter pan himself was reportedly inspired by Barrie seeing a ragged urchin wandering round Clifton Grove "See that lad," Barrie told fellow writer George Basil Barham, "his name's Peter and he has lost his shadow. His sister's pinned that rag on him for a shadow."
2. Alan Sillitoe was asked to write for The Archers
Would the creator of Arthur Seaton swop lathes and boozing for tractors and milking?
Although a writer that defied genre and expectation, Sillitoe nonetheless was an interesting choice by the producers of the long-running radio soap. Would they manage to persuade him to swop Nottingham for Ambridge; trade the urban streets for the bucolic Borsetshire?
Sadly not. He turned it down without a pause, and we lost the chance to see what was sure to be quite a bizarre hybrid: perhaps a punch-up after ten pints of scrumpy in The Bull? (The late Nottingham writer Derek Buttress, also turned down the chance to write for a soap – this time Coronation Street).
3. Nottingham turned Graham Greene Catholic
Hyson Greeneland, anyone?
It’s fair to say that Greene didn’t have the best of times in Nottingham. Arriving in 1925 after spending his first 23 years in leafy Hertfordshire and Balliol College, Oxford; grimy, industrial Nottingham came as something of a shock. He was here to work at the Nottingham Evening News, and, unbeknownst to him, gather inspiration for later work.
And gather he did. His landlady, a Mrs Loney, went on to be immortalised in Brighton Rock as Mrs Prewitt. His digs, and the city itself, were used as the settings for several of his works, perhaps most identifiably in A Gun For Hire, set in, ahem, Nottwich.
However, the greatest influence Nottingham left on the young Greene was religion. It was here that he converted to Catholicism, at St Barnabus Cathedral, on Derby Road. His new faith – despite his protestations of atheism – defined his novels more than any other factor.
4. Henry Kirke White out-romanticised all other romantics
The writer of ‘Clifton Grove’ went from the cradle to grave with some speed
Writers have a habit of dying young, living lives that glow bright before dying at a romantically tragic age. Lawrence: 45; Rimbauld: 37; Byron: 36; Plath: 30; Shelley: 29; Keats 26. Butcher’s son and Nottingham auto-didactic poet Henry Kirke White made these look practically geriatric, not bothering to stick around too long after his teens. Falling off his mortal coil at just 21, after being ill with consumption for some time, his early death led him to be eulogised with every romantic flourish available to his contemporaries (Byron wrote of him “While life was in its spring, thy young muse just waved her joyous wing”. Which was a very Byron thing to do.)
5. A Nottinghamian invented AC Milan
As well as having the world’s oldest league football club, we are pretty handy at exporting the beautiful game...
Another butcher’s son, Herbert Kilpin, probably should have been expected to either succeed his father in all things meat; or work until retirement in his chosen profession, the lace industry. But no, not our Herbert. He instead plumped for moving to Italy, being the first Englishman to play abroad, and then set up what would become one of the greatest football clubs in the world, AC Milan.
But what has this got to do with literature? Well, there is a rather great novel about him, The Lord of Milan, out now.
6. DH Lawrence was a contrarian to the last…
The Eastwood mard-arse’s humour could be rather dark
Consumption, by the time of Lawrence’s death, was more commonly known as tuberculosis, and poor old David Herbert never shook it off. When he eventually succumbed in 1930, while in France with, among others, Aldous Huxley at his bedside, his final words were reportedly “I am better now”.
7. ...But no one knows where his remains are
In a concrete slab in the USA, or floating around the Med? No one knows
Rather than spending eternity under French soil, Lawrence only spent five years undisturbed before being dug up at the request of his widow, Freida. She arranged for his cremation in Marseille, with the ashes taken to her ranch home in New Mexico, USA; where they were to be mixed with concrete to form a memorial.
Unfortunately, Frieda’s lover and future husband Angelo Ravagli, was tasked to do the urn-carrying. Wary of US the expense and complications of transporting the ashes through US customs, he allegedly dumped Lawrence’s remains into the Mediterranean, then on meeting Frieda in New Mexico handed over an urn of ashes from…well, who knows?
He was alleged to have drunkenly confessed to his miserliness later in life, long after Frieda had died “I threw away the D.H. cinders... my worst lie is the D.H. Lawrence cinders lie.”
8. Lord Byron seemed to be a well-endowed zombie
We can say with certainty where Byron’s final resting place is, however. And we also know a lot more...
Byron died in Missolonghi, Greece, after several years abroad doing the sort of things that make the term ‘Byronic’ what it is today. Leading revolutions and liberation movements, writing extravagantly; and sleeping with vast swathes of the local population. His body was returned to the UK, but was refused burial at Westminster Abbey due to the Dean of Westminster asserting that Byron’s reputation would sully the place. He had long sold the ancestral home of Newstead Abbey, so he couldn’t be buried there, either (however his beloved canine companion, Boatswain, was buried there, with a large monument commemorating his life). Instead, he was interred in the much more humble surroundings of Mary Magdalane Parish Church, Hucknall.
In June 1938, the Vicar, Rev Canon TG Barber decided to open the family crypt, gaining permission from the then Lord Byron, another vicar, from Thrumpton, who “...expressed the fervent hope that great family treasure would be discovered and returned to him”.
Sadly for the pair of Vicars, no such treasure was found when masons prised the tomb open. Yet when they examined Byron’s corpse, they made this astonishing observation, as recorded by A.E. Houldsworth, church warden:
“No decomposition had taken place and the head, torso and limbs were quite solid…the hair on his head, body and limbs were intact, though grey. His sexual organ shewed quite abnormal development”.
It is worth noting that one of the small group of witnesses in attendance was the local MP: the venerable Mr Seymour Cocks.