This year’s non-fiction writers have proved themselves enthusiastic travellers in both time and space. In this anthology you’ll find pieces set in Japan, Poland and Egypt together with explorations of the 18th Century art world, 19th century boarding schools and battle tactics from the 1940s. Even the occasional stay-at-home author takes flight into a parallel universe of deep dreaming.
The range of work on show here reflects the flexibility and capaciousness of our Creative Non-Fiction programme. Students come to write memoir, biography, travel odysseys, war reportage, sport or food writing and, most excitingly, work that refuses to fit any category at all. You never quite know what you’re going to get and that, really, is the fun and beauty of it all.
Starting as far away from Norwich as you can possibly get, Susan K. Burton explores the Japanese phenomenon of ‘rent a vicar’, by which mild-looking British men make a living by dressing up in clerical garb and ‘marrying’ young local couples. Amazingly, it’s consensual, legal and very big business. From there we spin away to Ecuador where John Dennehey, a young man in voluntary exile from Bush-era America, finds himself about to get deported from the new, rebellious country he has come to love.
Lauren Razavi also encounters the impact of violent upheaval. An inveterate traveller, she fetches up in Egypt during the Arab Spring and finds herself caught up in an interminable wait for a train that seems to bear all the metaphorical weight of the country’s political situation. Amy McTighe tells the story of one Kurdish family fleeing from Saddam’s hateful chemical attacks in 1988. Meanwhile Helen de Borchgrave makes a journey to Solidarity-era Poland, determined not simply to mend the beautiful artwork that has been damaged under Communism, but also to heal her own fidgety soul.
The mid-twentieth century continues to be the new ‘hot spot’ for historians and biographers. Phyllida Scrivens gives us a gripping story of courage and friendship set in 1944 on a dank bridge somewhere between Belgium and Holland. Suzanna Rose reconstructs the early womanhood of her mother, a young code breaker at Bletchley Park. In both cases these are stories that might have disappeared into the unrecorded past, and it is consoling to know that such excellent writers are engaged in the hard graft of narrative rescue.
Another trio of our writers have pushed further back into history, to tell stories of people far removed from them in time and place. Deborah Jay brings us the strange tale of Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the Italian artist who enabled Lord Elgin to walk off with the marbles from the Acropolis. Leslene Kwame presents the story of Dr Edward Atkinson, an apparently exemplary English gentleman who went out to Antarctica with Scott but whose identity is more tangled than anyone could possibly have guessed. Charlotte Peacock goes in pursuit of Nan Shepherd, the author of The Living Mountain, that classic love song to the Cairngorms. Does it matter, Peacock asks, that she herself has never cared for even the smallest hills?
Four memoirists pull us into the heart of their lives. Catherine Conroy warns against buying a run-down house when you’re grieving, while Peter Noble becomes 11 again, a smashed up schoolboy who may never learn to walk or think straight. Gwenllian Jones goes up to the slate quarries of her native North Wales and wonders at their topographic blankness and historic weight, while Bridget Read reads her own dreams with an ingenious wit that might stump Freud. What, you wonder, would the good doctor have made of her dog suddenly sprouting Michael Jackson’s hair?
Finally Hannah Coneys brings up the rear with her sad, sweaty and enthralling account of a tragedy that occurred during the Tour de France of 1967. Not only is all human life here, but UEA’s non-fiction writers are making certain that it is told in ways that make it new and, in the best ways, strange.