Sunderland has become a literary wonderland

PUBLISHED: 17:36 05 April 2012 | UPDATED: 21:15 20 February 2013

Sunderland has become a literary wonderland

Sunderland has become a literary wonderland

Bookshelves groan under the weight of works by authors connected to Sunderland, as Barbara Mason reports

Shipbuilding, mining and football are just some of the things that instantly come to mind for many people when they think of Sunderland. The pits have long gone of course and the once proud boast of being the biggest shipbuilding port in the world is now confined to history, as the last ship built on the Wear was launched over two decades ago although of course football is still integral to the fabric of life in the city.

But Sunderland has much to admire: long sandy beaches at Seaburn and Roker, the biggest free international airshow in Europe, the National Glass Centre, and the most productive car plant in Europe.

Another of Sunderlands list of attractions is St Peters Church, the early home of The Venerable Bede, which dates back to AD 674 and which is currently seeking World Heritage status. Widely regarded as the greatest of Anglo Saxon scholars, Bede wrote some 40 books and is often known as the father of English history. Having written some of the worlds most important Ecclesiastical texts as well as books on astronomy and mathematics in addition to stories in verse, Bede set the tone for Sunderlands rich literary history, which is perhaps surprisingly varied.

Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, James Herriott, Oliver Goldsmith, Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott, George Orwell, William Morris, Lord Byron, William McGonagall, Denise Robertson, Terry Deary, Allan Ahlberg, Bryan Talbot, Chris Mullin and Sheila Quigley are all writers with Wearside connections.

It has been suggested although it is rather far-fetched that Lewis Carroll used the name Wonderland in Alice in Wonderland because it sounded like Sunderland. What is true is that Carroll regularly visited Southwick in Sunderland where his sister lived having married The Reverend Charles Collingwood of Holy Trinity Church in the village.

Carroll wrote the famous poem Jabberwocky while visiting the Wilcox cousins in nearby Whitburn in 1855 and The Walrus and the Carpenter is thought to have been composed on the beaches of Seaburn and Whitburn. Youll find a statue of Carrolls Walrus in Sunderlands impressive Mowbray Park while theres also a statue of Carroll himself in Whitburn library and a blue plaque commemorating Carrolls stay at the rectory of Holy Trinity Church in Southwick in 1872 and 1887.

As noted elsewhere in this months magazine, this year marks the bi-centenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. He also visited Sunderland several times and on August 28th 1852 he performed at The Lyceum Theatre in Lambton Street.

While there were difficulties in performing in a newly opened theatre with several safety worries that concerned Dickens, he said of Sunderland people in a letter to his friend John Forster: Last night in a hall built like a theatre, with pit, boxes and gallery, we had about twelve hundred I dare say more. They began with a round of applause when Cootes white waistcoat appeared in the orchestra, and wound up with three deafening cheers. I never saw such good fellows. Stanny [Dickens friend, Clarkeson Stanfield, the renowned Sunderland born artist, had created some of the scenery] is their fellow townsman; was born here, and they applauded his scene as if it were himself.

Perhaps taken with such good fellows, Dickens even spent some time living just outside Sunderland at Cleadon House in Front Street, Cleadon which some believe was the basis for Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

While staying at Cleadon House, Dickens learned from George Cooper Abbs, who lived there, of a jilted bridegroom whose bride disappeared before the wedding breakfast causing the heartbrokenwould-be husband to set all the clocks in the house at the time intended for the abandoned marriage.

Best known for writing The Moonstone and The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins was a friend of Dickens and joined him in Sunderland in the production of Not so Bad as We Seem.

Joseph Conrad, the Polish writer whose outstanding novels include Heart of Darkness and Nostromo twice sailed from Sunderland to Australia on board one of Wearsides most famous ships: The Torrens, once the fastest vessel on the planet. Conrad was First Mate and set sail from Sunderland in 1891 and 1894.

You may not have heard of James Alfred Wight who was born in Sunderland in 1916 and even has a suite named after him at the citys football club but the chances are youll have read one of his books or seen a TV or film version. He is better known as James Herriot, author of the best selling series of novels about being a vet. Books such as All Creatures Great and Small and It Shouldnt Happen to a Vet were among his most popular while Herriot also produced some delightful childrens books including, Moses the Kitten and Bonnys Big Day.

The 18th century playwright Oliver Goldsmith, most famous for She Stoops to Conquer, didnt have a great time in Sunderland when he visited as a 25-year-old in 1754 he was arrested for an offence committed by a friend to whom he had offered security. He eventually
left Wearside on a ship bound for Rotterdam.

Other famous writers who visited the city include George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) who married former Sunderland High School pupil Eileen OShaughnessy, and Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, who visit The Exchange Building in 1827 for a visit by The Duke of Wellington.
St Andrews Church in Roker contains tapestry and carpeting by the celebrated 19th century poet, craftsman and socialist William Morris while the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron married in 1815 at Seaham Hall, which is now a hotel and spa. Just outside Sunderland, Seaham Hall was at one time Byrons family home.

The poet William McGonagall wrote about perhaps Sunderlands greatest tragedy, The Victoria Hall disaster of 1883 when 183 children were crushed to death.

And the literary connections continue, with a host of contemporary
writers having a strong bond to Wearside.

Sunderland native Denise Robertson, well known for her role as a TV agony aunt, has written several locally based novels including The Land of Lost Content and Blue Remembered Hills.

Another to be born here is Terry Deary, creator of the Horrible Histories series, who was voted Outstanding Childrens Non-Fiction Author of the 20th century and is the 10th most borrowed author in British Libraries. And anyone with younger children is likely to be familiar with the work of Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Allan trained to be a primary teacher in Sunderland and met his wife Janet in the city.

Former Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin, who still lives near the city centre, is best known as an author for his critically acclaimed political diaries but his novel A Very British Coup was also hugely successful and made into a TV series while Houghton housewife Sheila Quigley sprang from a local writers group to produce a series of very popular novels such as Run for Home and Bad Moon Rising.

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