Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A New City of Literature

In 2004, Edinburgh was declared UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature.’ According to their website, ‘[t]his permanent, non competitive title bestows international recognition on Edinburgh and Scotland as a world centre of literature and literary activity.”

When I arrived in 2007, I was unaware of its UNESCO status, although my reasons for moving there were entirely literary, as I was heading to the University of Edinburgh to undertake an MSc in Creative Writing. Not that a huge amount of thought had gone into my university city of choice: I was conserving wildlife in the Tanzanian savannah when I made the fateful decision (but that’s another story…) and in the end my choosing Edinburgh came down to some familial ties and the still-fresh memories of the previous madcap summer spent in Scotland’s capital training to be an EFL teacher. Yet despite my rather flippant method of picking its university, and my ignorance of its UNESCO status, it was not too long before I worked out that Edinburgh - and its literary scene – was something rather special.

The aforementioned website will explain far better than I the many organisations and activities which put Edinburgh on any booklover’s map, not to mention all of its literary alumni (including two of my biggest inspirations, JK Rowling and JM Barrie). All I can add is that I have always thought that the city’s literary achievements owe a debt to the place itself, for there is something about the atmosphere of Edinburgh that is so very stirring: from the gothic Old Town closes to the genteel grid of New Town streets, from the looming giant of Arthur’s Seat to the refreshing vistas of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh feels like a place steeped in stories.    

For exactly four years, Edinburgh became my city of literature too. As well as the MSc, I worked at Waterstone’s, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and, most recently, I volunteered with Scottish Book Trust. I also set up a writers’ group, read my work in public for the first time, was shortlisted in competitions, started a novel, launched a freelance career… In fact, barely a day went by when I wasn’t engaging with literature in some way and, while that perhaps says more about me than it does the city, the point is that Edinburgh made it easy. Quite simply, it inspired me.

But all good things must come to an end - at least for a little while - and since September 2011, I have been based in Geneva, after accepting my Literary Consultant position on a permanent basis. This time around, I’ve been a little more active about ascertaining how much of a ‘city of literature’ my new home is and, despite Edinburgh being a hard act to follow, Geneva is so far proving a worthy successor.

For starters, I am in good writerly company. Within a few days of being here, I realised that Mary Shelley famously conceived Frankenstein in the ghost story session with Percy, Lord Byron et al just across Lac Leman. But then there’s also the fact that George Eliot stayed a few streets away from my apartment, and Jorge Luis Borges lived just two doors down (and might well be the ghostie I’m convinced is haunting me at night).

Like Edinburgh, Geneva is a city of great importance but modest size, which is nice and unintimidating for this West Country girl. It is surrounded by glorious countryside, specifically the lake and mountains (and – sorry Edinburgh – features far better weather in which to enjoy them). Generally I find the natural world not only exhilarating but hugely comforting too. Perhaps it is my overactive imagination, but I like to know where my exits are, so I can make a quick getaway should the apocalypse come (unlikely, in a country not exactly famed for its war-mongering).
So I can scribble outside, but Geneva also caters for my predilection for writing in cafés, despite the fact that almost every coffee establishment in the city offers table service, and not necessarily very welcoming table service at that. Thank goodness, then, for Boreal Coffee Shop, which boasts excellent beverages, a particularly fine New York cheesecake, and friendly staff who leave you alone. Although I was initially intimidated by the sheer number of Macs its customers owned (all the apple logos glowing at me upon entry made me wonder if I had stumbled into a kind of futuristic electronic orchard), I quickly came to realise that Boréal was the natural home of writers and students, and definitely a place I could be productive – just as long as no one gives me the Wi-Fi password.­­*

Finally, and most importantly, amongst all the corporate and banking bods, I have been lucky enough to find some wonderfully creative people in Geneva. I am fortunate that, through my work, I get to chat to writers all day, but outside of the job too, I have met many interesting, funny and admittedly rather bonkers individuals. They have encouraged me to write, read, enter competitions, raise my online profile, and as a result I am even on the brink of setting up another writers' group.    

So far so good, Geneva. So far so good. 

Inspirational: view of Geneva from Mont Saleve (I took the cable car).
*(The original and best writing café, as far as I’m concerned, is Boston Tea Party, in Exeter. I spent a lot of my formative years nursing marshmallow steamers in there – just try it – as I scribbled away, pretending to be JK Rowling.)