Early in the pages of my novel The Bookman’s Tale we meet a minor writer whose work becomes a major element of the novel. His name was Robert Greene and he was an Elizabethan playwright and pamphleteer. Popular in his time Greene is now largely forgotten and those who do know of him think of him primarily as the first person to mention Shakespeare in print as a member of the London dramatic profession (it was hardly a flattering mention—he called the Bard an “upstart crow”).
The past weekend I was in Norwich on a trip that was much more ecclesiastical than literary. My wife and I were meeting a group from our church at home who were visiting one of the canons of Norwich cathedral. In a visit of less than forty-eight hours we went to four church services and spent most of our time within the beautiful cathedral close.
Walking around town on Saturday afternoon, I noticed that outside each of the ancient churches of Norwich (of which there are dozens) is an informational sign telling something of that church’s history. I had ignored several of these and, by sheer chance, stopped to look at one outside a church no more than fifty yards from our hotel and visible from the cathedral close. Later buildings, many of them Georgian, had grown up around the church and (except for the tower) it was almost invisible from any distance. Yet for some reason I found myself reading about its history and was stunned to learn that in this church, in 1558, Robert Greene was baptized. My ecclesiastical journey had turned unexpectedly literary.
The church was locked (and largely covered in scaffolding for a restoration project), but I returned after the cathedral service on Sunday morning and had a short chat with the rector and the verger. Neither of them had ever heard of Robert Greene. The verger did show me a lovely memorial on the wall with a statue carved by the same sculptor who carved the statue of William Shakespeare in poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey. Shakespeare is also a character in The Bookman’s Tale.
All this is not necessarily to recommend that you visit St. George’s—until the restoration is finished there won’t be much to see; I couldn’t even get close to the font in which Greene was baptized—rather to let you know that literary tourism is not always planned and that one should always be ready to embrace the coincidence of the accidental