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Norwich has been a literary city for 900 years: a place where every hidden garden, cathedral spire and crooked beam has a story behind it. Home to the oldest football chant in history, the first BAME English circus proprietor (inspiration for The Beatles’ song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’), and the first woman to publish a book in the English language anywhere in the world, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature is the picture-perfect destination to explore the power and pleasure of words.
Every month, the National Centre for Writing, based in Dragon Hall – one of Norwich’s 12 iconic buildings – celebrates the individuals that were born or found their voice in Norwich, that continue to weave their stories and words through the fabric of the city today. Even though we can’t visit our favourite haunts right now, join us in raising a toast to the small businesses and arts organisations that make the city tick and have drawn so many talented people here – including, poet, creative practitioner and NHS Emergency Nurse, Piers Harrison-Reid.
Piers Harrison-Reid is a performance poet primarily inspired by his real-life big boy job as an Accident and Emergency Nurse, and the stories of life and loss from the people he meets there. Now perhaps best known for his viral love poem to the NHS ‘Love is for the brave’, he has supported the likes of Buddy Wakefield and Scroobius Pip, performed internationally and toured Scotland and England. He has featured on BBC Look East, is a weekly guest on BBC Radio Norfolk, has performed at a multitude of summer festivals including stages at Bestival and Latitude, and given keynote speeches to conferences including the Chief Nursing Officer of the NHS.
Were you born or drawn here?
I was gradually drawn here, after moving to the Suffolk/Essex border from my hometown of Sheffield when I was young, I came to Norwich frequently in my teens to see gigs. I was struck by how artistically dynamic and vibrant Norwich is, despite feeling only marginally bigger than its surrounding towns and cities. I ended up studying Nursing at the UEA as it was rated as one of the best courses in the country, and I felt that Norwich had a good balance between nightlife and culture, safety and beauty, and focused calm. I really didn’t want to get distracted from my studies by (too much) debauchery and loved the contrast of the brutalist concrete of the UEA buildings with the undulating grassland and lake. I’m not sure I could have found that balance in Brighton or London.
Favourite thing to do in the city?
It’s still live art and music even after 8 years, I’m just performing in more of it now! From performing at the National Centre for Writing’s summer party to the Norwich Arts Centre’s newly refurbished Sound and Light rig, and The Octagon Chapel there’s loads of incredible places to be. But with the different festivals maturing and growing now (Norfolk & Norwich Festival, Wild Paths, Love Light etc), I feel lucky to have seen great art installations and performances in a variety of beautifully unusual places. Norwich just keeps surprising me.
Favourite place for a coffee or beverage or food?
That’s tough! There are so many lovely places. It probably used to be Grosvenor’s Fish Bar and The Birdcage as you can bring your fish and chips into the pub with its awesome drinks, vibe, and events. Also, I’m eternally grateful for the fact Grosvenor’s put my Poem ‘What is A Norwich?’ up all over their windows last year (it’s also going to be put up in the Bridewell museum very soon).
However, even as I’ve changed my diet and the city has morphed into one of the best vegan hubs in the country, I still can’t go wrong with the incredible options on the market, especially in the summer. They’ve even got vegan ice-cream, vegan Fish and Chips, and a bar there now! If I can include Thorpe St. Andrews in the Norwich footprint then the award-winning River Green Café and Redwell Brewing Company in the summer are absolute gems, and only a short cycle away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to settle on one thing…
Favourite spot to read or write?
I’m boring, I do most of my reading and writing in front of the woodburning fire in my house, out in my garden, or on public transport (I take a lot of overpriced trains). If I’m really struggling to focus, it’s either the Forum’s Millennium library or the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Library. If I want to treat myself though, my favourite place in the whole city is probably the Plantation Garden on Earlham road- it’s such a peaceful hidden gem.
My Norwich story:
In my poem for VisitNorwich I talk specifically about its warmth as a city, which I think is a reference to the hazy and vague collection of all the good memories I have of the city. There’s so many: In the 140-year-old Victorian Plantation garden, I saw two foxes laying lazily in rectangles of sun, dozing. It’s only a step off Earlham road so the calm it manages to achieve is quite surprising, the only other place that manages it, is Mousehold Heath during the sunset looking over the city.
My first night in Norwich as a student I excused myself from my student flat pre drinks and arrived at the Playhouse without a ticket for Tim Key who was my favourite comedian at the time, I met the manager of the Norwich Playhouse who let me creep in and sit at the back while Tim put on one of the funniest shows I’ve seen and jumped in a bath fully clothed.
Then there’s Pasco from the Norwich Arts Centre, who is a genuine force of nature and tirelessly supports innumerable artists to develop and grow, as well as running what has been one of the best small venues in the country for decades. I mean just look at True Stories Live – if you want a poster child for Norwich as ‘The City of Stories’ look no further – it’s incredible and warm to the core. The fact this city (with all its instagrammable cobbles and colours) holds onto people is sometimes said as a negative, but it’s so warm and comfortable I can’t think of a better thing for a city to be.
Finally, I remember talking to my elderly neighbours who until last month had lived in the house next door for nearly 50 years, about the Norwich factories. Their memories of the city smelling like mustard & chocolate, and the sounds of the cobbling district making shoes. In fact, one of the cobbling buildings was repurposed this year for the awe-inspiring inaugural Wild Paths festival as a venue.
So many stories.
Piers is part of a weekly topical panel discussion on BBC Radio Norfolk, and has just started a project funded by the Arts Council England and in association with the Norwich Arts Centre to get other members of staff in the hospital to share their experiences through poetry and storytelling.
The aim is to create a collection of pieces from interesting and undervalued voices to start conversations about and reflect on the difficulty, mundanity, and pure euphoria of NHS jobs and lives. So, if anybody reading this wants to be involved or wants more information please get in contact!
Contact: Facebook/Twitter/Insta: @piersthepoet