Sunday, 24 March 2013

Nicola Monaghan, Alan Sillitoe and Nottingham’s Literary Soul



Nottingham on a rare sunny day

Nottingham is a city with soul. 

This is a non-negotiable position, and one which is soon reached by anyone who has spent time in the East Midlands conurbation.

It’s got its problems, like anywhere. But, time and time again, its positives outstrip its negatives, both in number and in weight.

Ask someone to describe Nottingham’s literary soul in two words, and the answer that is likely to be fired back your way is: 'Alan Sillitoe'. 

This is unsurprising: the author's scintillating work “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” continues to reverberate in every drunken laugh that echoes out at 3am on Forman Street and Broad Street to this day.

To paraphrase the Arctic Monkeys – somewhat appropriately, given the Sheffield quintet’s admiration for Sillitoe’s novels – there is a certain romance in the next generation of Nottingham’s youth emulating Arthur’s adventures on the cobbles of Old Market Square each weekend. How accurate they make such emulations is up to them.

So, while Sillitoe is the undisputed grand master of Nottingham’s literary scene, and is immortalised at the heart of the city’s cultural soul; who are the young writers ready to take up that torch and forge on into the 21st century?

Writers like Ghanaian-born, Freddy Fynn have already helped to expand the traditional boundaries of Nottingham’s literature.

His outstanding collection “Of Life and Love: Eight Moral Tales” retells traditional African short stories handed down by Fynn’s grandfather, and could not be set further from NG1 if it tried. Despite this, Fynn’s book instantly became part of the cultural fabric of the East Midlands city.

If writers like Fynn are taking Nottingham in new and exciting directions and introducing fresh perspectives, it is writers like Nicola Monaghan who are continuing the Sillitoe lineage and drawing influence directly from the city of Nottingham, from the ground upwards.

The influence of Alan Sillitoe is evident throughout Monaghan’s work. Even the title of her blog “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer”, owes a debt to the famous author, while her short story “Sunday Night and Monday Morning” offers more than just a gentle nod in his direction.

Published in 2006, Monaghan’s award winning debut novel “The Killing Jar” follows young Kerry Ann Hill as she grows up on a council estate in Aspley, north-west Nottingham. Certainly not a love letter to the city, “The Killing Jar” contains some of the most hard-hitting writing and bleak subject matter produced by a British writer in recent years.

The book’s central metaphor is its eponymous killing jar. Used by Kerry Ann’s elderly neighbour, Mrs Ivanovich to kill butterflies for her collection, the jar becomes a symbol, not only for the drug-infested council estate, but also for Kerry Ann’s poisonous relationship with her mother and, later, her abusive partner, Mark.

Tackling these issues head on makes “The Killing Jar” uncomfortable reading at times, but there is a thread of positivity that runs throughout the book that prevents the novel becoming an ‘it’s-grim-up-norf’ caricature of itself. Without giving too much away, it is this antithesis of the positive, the uplifting and the downright horrible, that makes the book so readable.

With a keen eye and ear for what makes her city tick, Monaghan's “The Killing Jar” is a triumphant text that repeatedly lays bare the foundations of Nottingham’s strong identity, for better or worse. With that identity brought under scrutiny so often over the last decade, we need texts like this to preserve and propagate it.

Monaghan followed up her debut by moving on to pastures new and producing “Starfishing” – a dark tale of corporate excess set in The City in the boom days of the late ‘90s – and “Okinawa Dragon”. I have to admit that I haven’t read either novel, although I will do someday. However, I go about my day with constantly crossed fingers in the hope that Nicola will return to our shared hometown for her next literary outing.

In the meantime, I continue to be quietly overwhelmed with civic pride.

Click here for an exploratory journey around Nottingham's oldest pubs.

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