Writer Graham Greene’s most celebrated works are Brighton Rock and The Third Man, but for Nottingham residents there’s another that will be of much more interest. A Gun For Sale was first published in 1936, and is a dark thriller concerned with the escapades of a cold-blooded, disfigured assassin. Beginning in London, the story quickly shifts to the fictional city of Nottwich.
Greene had worked in Nottingham as a journalist at the Nottingham Journal newspaper in the mid 1920s, and for me there’s little doubt that Nottwich is based on our city. The etymology would work, since ‘-wich’ simply means village, and ‘Nott-‘ would be from the Saxon chieftain Snott, so Snott’s village (losing the ‘S’ after 1066 as Normans found it impossible to pronounce) is entirely reasonable as place name.
Anyway, onto specifics. Here are three quotes from the book concerning the setting, along with my own comments.
‘The street was full of people; they stretched along the southern pavement, past the theatre entrance, as far as the market. They were watching the electric bulbs above Wallace’s, the big drapers, spelling out the night’s news.’
This section mentions a theatre, a market, and a big drapers store. In the 1920s, Griffin and Spalding’s huge shop on the corner of Market Street and the Market Square was subtitled ‘the General Draper’s Store’. At the top of Market Street was the Theatre Royal. The geography doesn’t match exactly, but maybe reinventing Nottingham as Nottwich allowed Greene to condense or simplify the environment to ensure more concise writing.
‘It came in sight all along one side of the market place, as big as a railway station, of red and yellow stone with a clock-face in a pointed tower… There were sculpted figures in between every pair of windows; all the historic worthies of Nottwich stood in stiff neo-Gothic attitudes, from Robin Hood up to the Mayor of the Nottwich in 1864.’
This description of the Metropole hotel strikes me as an amalgam of several Nottingham landmarks. Victoria Station’s facade was crafted from red brick and yellow stone cladding, and featured the clock tower we now know as heralding Victoria Centre’s side entrance. The Elite Building on Upper Parliament Street would have been recently opened and a huge attraction during Greene’s time on the Nottingham Journal. It was also a short walk from his place of work, so I wonder if the sculptured figures on the Metropole may have been influenced by the representations of St George, Shakespeare and others that adorn the Elite. The old Black Boy Hotel stood ‘along one side of the market place’ (more or less) in Greene’s day, and was considered a landmark hotel. Designed by Watson Fothergill, it is conceivable that the Black Boy featured sculpted figures since many of Fothergill’s surviving buildings do, too. The Black Boy stood on the site now occupied by Primark. The mention of Robin Hood can hardly leave any doubt to Greene’s intentions.
‘Over the way, fifty yards down towards the market, he could see the portico of the Royal Theatre.’
Another reference combining the market and the theatre; this time named as the Royal Theatre. Our own Theatre Royal features a portico entrance atop Market Street, a scant two minute walk from the Market Square.
I began reading A Gun For Sale purely because of my interest in Nottingham history, but quickly became immersed in the tale. It’s masterful story-telling in the noir tradition, featuring long shadows, fedoras, cunning women and brutish men. I’ve only listed three short Nottwich/Nottingham references here, but the book is peppered with them. There are liaisons in restaurants, altercations in office buildings, and hideouts in housing estates. It was a pure delight for me because it felt like being whisked back in time to Nottingham ninety years ago. Sadly, it’s the only novel set in Nottwich as far as I can tell. That’s a shame, but I’d heartily recommend it to fellow history-loving Nottinghamians.