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NICOLA MILLER: Our town’s full of the written word

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller

I recently interviewed the poet and author Michael Rosen. We talked about poetry and how parents might be discouraged by its seemingly rarified air.

Something he said about nursery rhymes stayed with me; that they are ‘wonderful and surprising little dramas’, and I started to think about how poetry and words of all kinds could be lifted from the pages, into our everyday lives. Something else he said resonated with me too: ‘that we learn through the world and what is around us – our bodies, the earth, the way we play, eat and the energy and life around us’. Isn’t this actually the way children learn in the most unselfconscious of ways?

Rosen’s comment about nursery rhymes was made in the light of preconceptions about poetry, that it is all big themes and complex words, precisely plotted and requiring high learning to understand. Not true, he said, citing Jack and Jill as a poem that all parents can relate to.

Imagine walking through Bury St Edmunds and engaging with words in a fresh way, enjoying its literary connections and proximity to a landscape that inspired some of our greatest artists.

Walking past the Angel Hotel, we could hear or see the words of Dickens, projected on to the abbey walls or spoken via discreet apps or speakers. We’d hear Pickwick Papers as if he were there writing it, pondering at a desk overlooking Angel Hill. We could hear about its creation, about what the town looked like then. Then there’s Norah Lofts who once lived in Northgate Street. Her words could keep us company as we trudge home or sit on benches embedded with technology that reads her Suffolk Trilogy to us, these, wonderful books saturated in 600 years of English history and set in a fictional place believed to be our town. Lofts herself said this about her writing, that ‘out of the bits and pieces I could gather, out of my own imaginings and speculations, I built up a picture and a story... how much nearer, even with much documentary evidence, can we come to understanding the myriad dead who have gone to their graves, carrying their real secrets, of motive and essence and personality, into the silence with them?’.

The town has plenty of living artists to choose from too. The author and musician Nick Cave wrote Gates to the Garden during his stay here and often walked through the ivy and lichen encrusted graves in St Mary’s churchyard.

Cave met his girl in the Abbey Gardens, a living relationship very much in contrast to the ‘fugitive fathers, sickly infants, decent mothers, runaways and suicidal lovers’ beneath the ground, lying ‘in unlucky rows, up to the gates of the garden’. Now imagine hearing the strains of the song as you walk through the gates, the melody full of the lonesome echoes of a cathedral organ. Think of the lyrics whispered at dusk as the sun cuts in low through the abbey gateway.

I imagine astroturfed sitting areas in the arc shopping centre stocked with book drops and benches for listening to poets and writers: vivid performances of words which are the very opposite of the silent living statues you see everywhere else.

We could gather to hear the work of local nature writers such as Roger Deakin, Mark Cocker and Helen MacDonald or hold informal outdoor art history classes about our artists. Then there’s the word pictures painted by folk songs about West Suffolk’s rural past: of politics, economics and the need to respect the land. People sometimes dared not speak of these things but they did sing about them. There are ghost stories by Great Livermere’s MR James to scare ourselves with, read aloud in the shadow of the ancient ruins. We have buses and trains where snatches of poems and books can be performed or posted on to the carriage sides. The station platform could ring out with words other than announcements.

This is what living storytelling can do, help those that come after to build up a picture of what went before and Bury St Edmunds has a lot of ‘before’.

We can only conjecture beyond a certain point about the thoughts and feelings of people long gone but by grounding words in their settings, we re-engage with our imagination, the storyteller that lives in us all.


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