Cities are full of stories – and growing up in Nottingham means my own small adventures are filled with memories of my home city. It’s a place that’s made a great contribution to literature, of course, so I’m excited to be playing a tiny part in a curious celebration of that heritage, unfolding this Saturday. Let me tell you the story …
Me and 99 other volunteers will be embedding ourselves at various points across town to read – aloud! – to anyone who wants to listen, throughout the day. Our text for this remarkable 12-hour performance project comes from an equally remarkable book, an experimental Nottingham-set novel called The Unfortunates, written by avant garde author Bryan Stanley (BS) Johnson and published 50 years ago.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s Johnson’s ‘novel in a box’; its 27 chapters were separately bound, with the idea that they might be read in more or less any order. The narrative (if that’s the word) is conveyed via an internal monologue, the narrator a man sent to a city to report on a football match but caught up in his own thoughts and reflections. The city is clearly Nottingham, which Johnson knew.
Place and the past will chime for me, too, as I’m doing my bit in the Bell Inn, just off Market Square, something of a haunt in my teenage years. Other readers will be in bookshops, a hotel, an art gallery, TV workshop, a theatre, the railway station, a church – even inside a Fiat Bravo in Sneinton Market car park.
Readings start and finish at the Broadway Cinema. In between, the story can be followed in any order at various locations between 10am and 10pm. There is a map here. The event is part of Being Human, a festival of the humanities in Nottingham and is supported by the Nottingham City of Literature.
As a lifelong book-lover, I’m amazed how hard it’s been to read, out loud, words on a page, even though the tone in my chapter is chatty, spontaneous: “That short occasion in Brighton, the first summer it must have been that he was ill…” The only public performance I’ve given was with Ruddington and District Choral Society. I’m nervous, and a little dismayed I can’t memorise the chapter. It just won’t sink in.
But at least I won’t be alone. My six-hour stint in The Bell is shared with my new chum, Amanda Pearce (no relation) from Wollaton, pictured above. And we’ve both had great support from actor and writer Andy Barratt. Andy is artistic director of Nottingham theatre group Excavate, which is behind the But I Know This City! project. Now, there is a man who can project. At rehearsals, he listened and was kind. Then he read it aloud and everything came to life – including the amused couple eating fish and chips at the next table.
I have no idea if anyone will turn up, but with Amanda’s support it will be okay – and very interesting to inhabit the weird world of BS Johnson for an afternoon. Do come and find me in the front bar at the Bell.
*First published in the Nottingham Post