It seems fitting to write about Cromer on World Poetry Day. If you are new to the blog, please don’t be baffled by this! Regular readers will know that Cromer is the adopted home of Salt Publishing, which is becoming ever more renowned for its fiction. Last year it achieved international fame with The Lighthouse, Alison Moore’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. (Its crime list includes In the Family, my first crime novel, and will shortly also feature Almost Love, the second in the DI Yates series.)
However, Salt built its reputation for literary excellence on its superb poetry list; in my view it is the greatest current British publisher of contemporary poetry. Some Salt poets are poets’ poets, though most are very accessible. I believe that perhaps, of all its achievements, Salt’s greatest has been to develop its ‘Best of’ lists, especially the Best of British Poetry series, and the Salt Book of Younger Poets. Now widely adopted by undergraduate courses in English literature and creative writing, these books bring contemporary poetry alive to a new generation, as well as supply more mature readers with an impeccable selection of great poems. The Best of British Short Stories series achieves a similar effect in a different genre. And, not to spare his blushes, Chris Emery, the founding inspiration behind Salt, now publishes his own poetry under the Salt imprint. If you have not yet read The Departure, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Back to Cromer. I was there for a long weekend because, as I mentioned on Sunday, I was asked to play a small part in the Breckland Book Festival. I stayed at The Barn, one of the cottages owned by The Grove Hotel (itself steeped in history – parts of it are eighteenth-century and its original owners were the founders of Barclays Bank). I called in on Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery after the Breckland event and my husband and I were kindly invited to have dinner with them. They were brimful of ideas as usual and delighted that Chris has been appointed writer-in-residence at Roehampton University, as well as looking forward to celebrating Jen’s birthday today (that it is on World Poetry day is a poetic thing in itself!).
The rest of our time in Cromer was spent exploring the beaches and the streets of the town. Twice we walked along the beach in the dark and, on Monday morning, we took our dog for a very early morning run there. Even in bitterly cold weather, the town itself is enchanting. Developed in the mid-nineteenth century to cater for the emerging middle classes, who could for the first time afford holidays away from home, it seems to have been preserved intact from any attempted depredations by the twentieth century. There are not even many Second World War fortifications in evidence, though a pill-box languishes in the sand of the west beach, its cliff-top site long since eaten by the sea. The pier retains its pristine Victorian originality – it is well-maintained but has not been ‘improved’. Some of the hotels, again ‘unreconstructed’, are quite grand and all serve superb food at reasonable prices, as do the many cafés and restaurants. It is true that some of the shops seem to exist in a time warp. My favourite is the ladies’ underwear shop that does not appear to stock anything designed after 1950; it even displays ‘directoire’ knickers – much favoured by my grandmother – in one of its windows.
Cromer has a literary past, too. Winston Churchill stayed there as a boy and Elizabeth Gaskell was a visitor, as the pavement of the seafront testifies. (Churchill apparently wrote to a friend: ‘I am not enjoying myself very much.’) That Tennyson also came here, even if I had not already decided that I loved it, alone would have served to set my final stamp of approval upon the town: Lincolnshire’s greatest poet, he is also one of my favourites. (I’ve always considered James Joyce’s ‘LawnTennyson’ jibe to be undeserved.) I know that Tennyson would have been fascinated by Salt if he had been able to visit Cromer today. I can picture him perfectly, sitting in Chris’ and Jen’s Victorian front room, sharing his thoughts about poetry – as one fine poet to another – in his wonderfully gruff, unashamedly Lincolnshire voice.
And so, Jen, Chris and Salt, have a very happy Cromer day, listening to the lulling rhythm of the rolling, scouring waves and painting salty pictures in the sky.
I recently visited ‘Salty Towers’ (headquarters of Salt Publishing), which, as usual, was an inspiring and energising experience. It was made even more exciting than usual by the fact that Jen Emery, Director, has recently been accepted as the Labour candidate for the forthcoming council elections. As this is her ‘Next Big Thing’, I asked her if she would give me a short interview for this blog.
What made you decide to stand for election as a local councillor?
There has not been a Labour seat on the North Norfolk District Council for ever and there’s a lot that can be improved in Cromer. I’ve been involved in several local campaigns. As a relative newcomer to Norfolk, and a woman, I hope to be able to attract some people to the polling station who didn’t come last time.
What do you want to change in Cromer?
I want there to be decent recreational facilities in the town for everyone, especially children. What we have now for young people or teenagers is pathetic – almost non-existent. People retire to Cromer and when they are visited by grandchildren there is nothing for them to do if they can’t go to the beach. We also need to reduce the car parking charges, in order to attract more visitors and support the town’s retailers.
You’ve been celebrated as the first Labour woman candidate to stand. Do you think that there is a ‘glass ceiling’ in local councils generally?
I don’t know whether it’s a glass ceiling or whether women just don’t get involved. I think that the problem really lies with women feeling that they can’t (or don’t want to) get involved in the first place, which is a real pity. Women make up over 50% of the population and have a valuable perspective to offer, particularly on policies that impact on family and working life.
When do the elections take place?
On the 21st February.
You have been described by the local media as a businesswoman and publisher; you are also a mother. If you’re elected to the council, how will you juggle all of these activities?
Salt Publishing is bigger than I am and, since the Man Booker success of The Lighthouse, we’ve been able to involve more people. If I were elected, I’d split my time between the community and Salt.
What is your greatest achievement as a publisher?
Having a business and making it work for thirteen years is quite an achievement, especially as in that time we’ve consistently grown and have become better-known, whilst surviving the impact of the recession. Getting The Lighthouse shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize is an achievement that is hard to beat.
If you’re elected, do you think that your experiences as a publisher will help you with your work as a councillor?
Yes, because publishing is all about working with people; it is a very people-orientated business and means dealing with everyone in the book supply chain, particularly authors and customers. This, as well as my background in the NHS, will help me to represent the diverse communities of Cromer.
What are the personal strengths that you feel you can bring as a Cromer councillor?
I’m resilient; I have a sense of humour; I can see controversies from lots of different perspectives; I’m broad-minded, with a strong sense of fair play.
Do you think that you might ever be interested in a role in national politics, if the opportunity arose?
I would be interested in one if it directly benefited the public. As long as I could have a positive impact on people’s lives, I would not say no.
Within the context of what’s going on in the world today, both socially and economically, and especially what’s happening in the UK, what’s your top message for 2013 to the readers of this blog?
Make it your mission to be aware of what’s happening – there is a lot going on, politically speaking, right under people’s noses (for example, in the areas of health and benefits), that will have drastic long-term effects on people’s lives. Become super-aware politically and watch what the government is doing (for example, it’s setting one generation against another to detract from the fact that the richest have been given a tax cut). Make it your mission to find out what’s happening and do something about it: there is no room for apathy these days.
Many thanks to Jen for providing this insight into her exciting venture into local politics. I should like to wish her every success in the election, as it’s very clear indeed that she has in mind particular practical improvements for the benefit of everyone in Cromer.