It was a good while back, in 1966, that I first came to Norfolk, a county I scarcely knew except through the promising pages of books. I knew it through John Skelton, Sir Thomas Browne, Parson Woodforde, George Borrow, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Rider Haggard, L.P. Hartley, Arnold Wesker, especially through the Broadland stories of a favourite author of my childhood, Arthur Ransome. I had come from one literary county, Yorkshire, to another – except that Norfolk is far less well-sung. Yorkshire boasts about its writers, proudly promoting Bronte Country, Herriot Country, Larkin Country. Norfolk does not, and still has to capitalize on a dense literary history which still continues. For there is scarcely a city, town, village in this amiable county that doesn't serve as home to several writers now.
Perhaps this shyness in cultural self-promotion goes with the sense of separateness, retreat and 'du different' that was always part of the Norfolk and East Anglian spirit – and still provides an attraction for those who come here to get on quietly with their own work. Yet over many generations the big, varied county of Norfolk, with its grand historical houses (and their fine private libraries), rolling agricultural estates and rural poverty and protest, strange isolated rectories with their strange isolated rectors, folktales and pub storytellers, Broads and waterlands, Dutch-gabled ports (like Fanny Burney's King's Lynn) and extensive sea connections, its chilly north coast beaches for sharp summer holidays and great bird reserves, served as patron, producer and muse for a very large number of writers. Its connections were international. It sent off many of the Pilgrim Fathers, and got back Pocahontas. It lay on a crucial trade route, for once much of the traffic of Britain came down the coast from port to port.
Norwich itself was a great medieval city, the second in England: a place of learning, cultural activity, religious and political dissent. It too felt itself close to the continent, and was always enriched by 'Strangers.' The many Huguenots, and emigres from the French Revolution, joined with some of the great, often dissenting and reforming local families – the Frys, Bacons, Barclays, Gurneys, Martineaus – to make it one of the key regional capitals, like Exeter and York. Well into the nineteenth century it boasted a thriving artistic culture, with the Norwich School of painters (Crome, Cotman), a fine musical and theatrical heritage, a major printing and publishing industry, and a good many writers, from George Borrow to Anna Sewell, Amelie Opie to Harriet Martineau. Martineau worried that in the industrial age Norwich was losing out: "Its bombazine manufacture has gone to Yorkshire, and its literary fame to the four winds," she wrote.
It was true that in the nineteenth century the region lost some of its historical place as the Industrial Revolution shifted social energies north and west. One thing it needed for cultural focus was a university, but not until 1962 did it get one. Then the 'new' University of East Anglia was established on the edge of Norwich, in the Yare Valley, and began to pull together some of the region's cultural and artistic life. It had the sense to appoint a very distinguished – and local – writer, Angus Wilson, as Professor of English. That had everything to do with bringing me here. Like Angus, I was a writer as much as an academic, and wanted to be in an institution and region where writing seemed to matter.
It was a happy choice. I soon found myself in a thriving local community of writers: Anthony Thwaite, George Macbeth, Corelli Barnett, Edwin Brock and more. With its strong literary emphasis, the university quickly began attracting as students many would-be writers, including Rose Tremain, Clive Sinclair and Snoo Wilson. By 1970 we were able to put this onto formal footing, starting a postgraduate creative writing programme, the first of its kind in Britain. Its first student was Ian McEwan, soon followed by Kazuo Ishiguro. The programme is a major centre for new and modern writing, and is world-famous.
This is by way of reminder that literature is both a heritage – a form of imaginative history that gives meaning and presence to a region's history – and a vigorous, continuous living thing. Writers all come from somewhere, live somewhere, form into communities, relate to their places. Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen, whatever its setting and subject-matter might be.
Norfolk has always been a profitable mixture of both kinds of author. Its writers, from the Pastons to the Walpoles, have kept the record well. There have been many vividly descriptive regional writers, like Rider Haggard, Henry Williamson, John Middleton Murry (farming near Diss) and R.H. Mottram, who have drawn on Norfolk landscapes, seascapes, agriculture, characters, social experiences. Others – sometimes the same ones, like Rider Haggard, writing tales of African adventure – have chosen to live here, but set their books elsewhere, anywhere at all.
I belong to the second breed. My fictional world is spread very widely, even to imaginary lands– though my imagination has caught up Norfolk from time to time. Like many writers I see writing as a constant intersection between the local and the universal, things near-at-hand and events far away. Yet even in our globalized age 'regional' writing still survives, indeed flourishes. Of course each generation defines place, region, and bigger world afresh; but that too is part of the story.
As for myself, though I do not necessarily write about Norfolk, I am a Norfolk writer. I've loved my thirty years here, write here, and have put down my roots (literally, since I've taken on a farm). Place is important for writers – and readers too, which is why I welcome this book. It is extremely well-researched, telling me much I never knew. It lovingly reveals what remains a quite distinctive regional landscape, and the literary associations and landmarks, many unexpected, that fill it. I had forgotten that C.P. Snow set a mystery story on the Broads, though I did remember that Robinson Crusoe came ashore here. A landscape comes to life through what has been written in it; writers come to life when we follow in their steps. This companion is an excellent way to track down an undersung literary heritage.