Building a better world with comics

We’re three issues into our new comic serial Whatever People Say I Am which aims to introduce a bit of complexity back into life by confronting stereotypes. Our latest comic, ‘What is Coming’, explores the lives of Syrian refugees. It’s drawn by Ella Joyce (who we worked with on Dawn of the Unread). Here’s why we think the project is important and why it took ages to write.

I’m worried about the world we live in at the moment. From Brexit to Covid to the US elections, we’re becoming increasingly fragmented and tribal. These divisions are amplified by social media platforms which were meant to enhance democracy by giving voice to everyone. But now that we can all speak; we’ve forgot how to listen. The world has become a very noisy place…

It’s for this reason, I’ve spent the last three years working on a comic series that aims to dispel myths around identity. Each issue has taken around two years of interviews and research. This is good old-fashioned s-l-o-w journalism, offsetting the immediacy of social media. If we want to challenge stereotypes, prejudice and simplistic thinking, we need to listen.

The project is called Whatever People Say I Am (yes, another nod to Sillitoe, gawd bless him) and each issue focuses on a particularly theme – the elderly, refugees, the unemployed, the lonely – and of course everything you presume to know about these types of people – that’s what they’re not.

The aim is to take the reader from birth to death (the last comic in the series is with someone who works in a funeral parlour) but at present, the comics are lobbed up online as and when myself and Paul Fillingham get a chance to finish them. We have three issues so far. The project has been funded by the Police Commissioner, City of Football and Kaplan College Inc (as well as the goodwill of me and Paul). But we’ve nearly run out of private investment so it will soon be time to continue with the Arts Council Grant form I started three years ago and gave up on.

This week we published ‘What is Coming‘ – the story of Syrian refugees who have settled in Nottingham. Some arrived here via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPRS). Others through sheer will and determination. They are ordinary people living ordinary lives doing ordinary jobs who gave everything up for one thing: To live.

None of us know what is coming, which is why this project is so important to me. It’s not just about writing stories. It’s about changing perceptions and helping to ‘build a better world with words’. I want these stories to make a difference. As with the Dawn of the Unread format, we have included embedded essays so that readers can gain deeper context to the stories and learn more about the people involved.

These first three stories also have another function, to utilise research by Dr Loretta Trickett and make her findings more accessible to a wider audience. I work part time as a senior lecturer in digital humanities at Nottingham Trent University and I want the incredible work that goes on here to have a deeper impact on society to help bring about meaningful change. There’s no point hiding it away in journals that only a privileged few have access to. Therefore, we have taken her research into new and emerging communities and, along with the interviews, drawn out important themes to shape our three stories.

Now, get reading the comics! www.whateverpeoplesayiam.co.uk

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This is an abridged (and tweaked) version of a blog originally published at Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on 4 November 2020

The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle

Brick illustrated our Sławomir Rawicz issue in Dawn of the Unread and more recently was the artist for ‘The Bigger Picture’, which kicked off our follow on project Whatever People Say I Am. In between these commissions and other projects he’s been working on a story that’s intrigued him since the 1980s. In this guest blog, Brick tells us about the 40 year itch that is The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle

I first became aware of this story in the late Eighties, a little over a decade after the world was informed that evidence had come to light proving that Leonardo da Vinci had invented the bicycle over 300 years before history tells us it was invented. An argument was raging in academic journals, the cycling press and New Scientist, between the out-and-out poo-pooers and those who believed the mechanics of a bicycle were well within the possibilities of medieval technology and that knocking up a self-propelled wooden horse was a walk in the park for a genius like Leo.

Having cycled across a couple of continents, I had a strong affinity with that vehicle of delights and more than a passing interest in its evolution from Draisienne (‘Hobby Horse’ in the UK) to the sophisticated expeditionary vehicle carrying me across deserts. After all, that was my and every other cyclist’s journey, starting as a kid on a trundle bike (no pedals and properly called a Draisienne). I began following the arguments for no better reason that I couldn’t believe intelligent people were actually having them.

As with everybody who unwittingly gets sucked into the controversy, I rapidly and reluctantly found myself flipping between the poles. Each new piece of evidence raised more questions than it answered, each disputed fact, rebuffed approach and blatant obfuscation fuelling the drive to crack the case. It was only when I started digging deep into the substrata of circumstantial evidence that the conundrum began to make sense, and that took time, a lot of it spent exploring narrow twisting alleyways.

It was one of those investigations where you begin to wonder if there will ever come a time when you believe the questions have all been answered and the case proven. I had boxes of clippings, lever files groaning with notes, a library of authoritive texts, thousands of emails, hundreds of web hits, videos and DVDs galore, and very little of it about bicycles. As Alfred Hitchcock would say, the bicycle bit was just the ‘MacGuffin’ in the story.

What was emerging was a convoluted case that would take me into academic mendacity, state terrorism, Vatican corruption, a German democratic uprising and a global natural disaster that produced climate change the like of which the world has never experienced before or since. It also took me into the lives of two great human beings, both creative geniuses, both lonesome outsiders wracked with self-doubt, both sorely treated by society then and now, the one a 15th century jobbing painter, the other a 19th century jobbing inventor.

What finally clinched it for me was the appearance of the prehistoric ‘Lu Ban bicycle’ in China in 2010 and the bizarre reaction in the press. Suddenly and unexpectedly I had the full story, case proven, and it takes nothing from the book to confess that there remain niggling loose threads and grey areas. You have to be suspicious of any case that that is totally stitched up. Chances are it is precisely that.

During those decades I wrote a number of articles for various international magazines on the subject; dry – almost academic articles – that failed to capture how ridiculous and downright funny the controversy had become. Certain highly respected academics, antiquarians, medieval technologists and bicycle nerds in Italy, German, France, Britain, Russia and China were at each others’ throats, adamant theirs was the nation that could authentically claim to have invented the very first bicycle. The emergence of the Internet then provided a platform to all manner of outrageous theories and conspiracies propagated by any number of misguided geeks who really needed to get out more.

Certainly I wasn’t the only gumshoe working the case. Better brains than mine were sticking oars in on both sides of the argument, and I’m grateful to several of them for their steers and revelations. By far the most generous was Prof. Dr. Hans-Erhard Lessing, Karl Drais’ biographer, who still works tirelessly to champion Germany’s inventive genius in a homeland that seems embarrassed by him. By contrast, our cycle city is proudly twinned with Karl’s birthplace, Karlsruhe, because of his seminal invention.

Brick discussing his 40 year obsession.

Twenty years in it became obvious that somebody needed to present the definitive story, mostly because it was shaping up to be a cracking detective story, one the Internet couldn’t leave alone. Since the controversy was all about a drawing, since much of the evidence was visual, and since nobody else seemed to be considering the evidence I was unearthing in the substrata, I settled down at the back end of 2010 to produce the graphic investigation that has become ‘The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle’.

Interestingly, the full story could only be presented using the comic book form. A prose narrative with evidential illustrations would never get to see the light of day, and for no better reason than the bill for reproduction rights of the images would have been untenable. But the copyright laws are clear; as soon as I built a copyrighted image into a comics page the law regards the image as a quote, rights free. I was off and running.

The complexity of the case demanded that each element be presented as a self-contained block or chapter that the reader stitches into an ever-expanding tapestry as they progress through the narrative. Some of the elements, such as the ‘Godforsaken Years’, were so far from most people’s awareness it seemed the best way to present them was through imaginative fictions. Holding the whole thing together my incredulous sleuth jumps through historical eras and lurches across continents, examining every thread with the jaundiced eye it deserves. In the process, unexpected revelations slapped me in the face that demanded weaving in, like the shocking truth that Leonardo da Vinci really wasn’t the inventive genius the international art market needs us to believe to keep the bucks rolling in.

Nine years later I finished the artwork and began the soul-destroying process of trying to find a publisher. I approached around thirty in the UK and overseas. Par for the course, many blanked me. A few rejected my efforts on the grounds that my cartooning was, well, cartooning and not the glorious technicolour smorgasbord they were looking for of their next graphic eyed-candy. Fourteen took the trouble to contact me (itself an achievement) with appraisals ranging from ‘neat’ (from the US of A) to ‘a masterpiece’ (from France). A couple, notably Myriad Editions, even put a whole lot of work into the manuscript, suggesting improvements, searching for sponsors and shoving it in front of imprint houses. None took it up, mostly (they said) because nobody could figure where it might fit in their catalogue.

Quite simply there was no way I was going to die without seeing my ‘magnificent obsession’ (Tim Allan) in print, so I did it the old way, the way so many of the tenacious writers in previous centuries did it. I saved the money (mostly from working overtime erecting garden fences for the grapevine), found a good local printer who would suffer my interference (Temple Printing, recommended), and turned out the limited and thoroughly unique edition now available to you as a monograph, signed, numbered and seal stamped.

But I don’t recommend it. People I respect had given the manuscript the thumbs up, but for all the encouraging accolades the trade bestowed upon the work, bottom line, they weren’t prepared to publish. I was bound to have huge doubts about the wisdom of my gross indulgence; that is until the reviews started coming in. They were glowing and my relief was akin to staggering into base camp having bagged a perilous and previously unconquered peak.

Now all I need is for you to buy it, please, so I can get back my bank account and life.

BRICK

For more information, trailer, flip-through flick and to purchase go to leonardosbicycle.co.uk.

This Girl Codes on Ada Lovelace Day

Junction Arts are holding a free, one-hour Zoom workshop titled ‘Atomic Poems’ to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day (13th October 7-8pm). Ada Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) was a mathematician and writer who is widely credited as the first computer programmer. She was also the daughter of Lord Byron, who featured in the 5th issue of our literary comic series.

The workshop is open to anyone and will feature artist Cora Glasser and poet Hannah Cooper-Smithson who will help you create a short piece of text themed around Margaret Cavendish and her time at Bolsover Castle. Then working with creative technologist Claire Garside, participants will programme the text to become Fibonacci Poetry, using the Fibonacci Poetry Generator.

Now you want to know what Fibonacci Poetry is, don’t you? It’s a sequence whereby the number of syllables in each line equals the total number of syllables in the preceding two lines. So, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. Gerrit? The constrained form makes you think about word choice, unlike your social media posts last night. Ahem.

Both Margaret Cavendish and Ada Lovelace were prolific writers whose work intersected poetry with maths and science. Margaret Cavendish was one of several writers in C17th who used the terminology of dancing atoms, helping us to understand the movement of the smallest particles that make up the world around us today. ‘Mad Madge’ also featured in Dawn of the Unread in our 15th issue. She was a truly inspirational woman, creating her own fashion and refusing to write love poetry. She is also credited as writing one of the first science fiction novels.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a prolific or revolutionary writer to take part in the session. Neither do you require experience of writing or coding. Book your free place here

You can follow the project with @ThisGirlCodesUK on Twitter and Instagram and @JunctionArtsUK on Facebook

Beautiful Libraries: National Library of China

The National Library of China is an absolute whopper! Home to 37 million items, open 365 days a year, and the front looks like the deck of the SS Enterprise. I visited it in 2016 and have finally got around to sharing the experience.

Beijing is the third largest city in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Sheltered on three sides by mountains and a certain wall, it’s been the political centre of China for most of the last 8 centuries.

People visit Beijing for various reasons. It’s home to 91 universities, the Forbidden City, and the bird’s nest stadium, created for the 2008 Olympic Games. Then there’s Tian’anmen Square, where citizens can see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, although I remember it for the man armed with two shopping bags, who stopped a tank in 1989.

But what I wanted to see most during my visit was the National Library of China, home to 37 million items – with an additional million items added each year. Fortunately, it’s open 365 days a year, although to get to it you need to cross an 8 lane highway that’s pretty chocker. Tranquil gardens calm you down at the entrance, but solitude is soon lost to the honking cars in rush hour traffic. Air pollution is a real problem in Beijing. Fortunately, there was no red warning during my visit in May 2016 as there would be towards the end of the year when a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city for five days.

The library is divided into levels. The base level contains the contemporary library with reading rooms and reference works. Its oldest collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the Oracle Bones. These date back 3,000 years. But you can also find epigraphs and rubbings, ancient maps, documents in 123 foreign languages, and dissertations prescribed by the State Council.

Above this is a digital library whose resources exceed 1000Tera byte. This number is increased by 100 Tera byte each year. One digital element that stands out is the China Memory Project, which collects visual historical data and other new types of literature on major modern events and important figures in China. But if you do visit this, have a read of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years – a dystopian narrative that you won’t find in any Chinese library, and which addresses a different aspect of Chinese memory – collective amnesia.

The long glass fronted top deck of the library faces the highway, making it stand out to passing traffic, presumably to lure you in. It’s a bit like the front of the SS Enterprise, with an earthquake-proof steel canopy keeping you secure.

Although the design is sleek, it’s defining characteristic is functional – presumably in order to accommodate the 12,000 visitors it receives each day. Everything in China is huge, and so too are the reading and research rooms. This is epitomised by the central study area as you enter the building. Books, file cabinets and draws adorn the outer perimeters, with seating areas out front looking down into the abyss. This is then repeated on descending levels until you reach the basement where rows of tables are perfectly aligned and constrained. It is basically an inflexible grid, a slave to mathematics and functionalism. If we are all products of our environment, then this environment demands discipline, logic and conformity.

As I made my way up the escalator to film the library I was immediately followed by some guards. But nobody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Presumably, I looked like an excited tourist and hadn’t broken any laws. Sometimes at iconic locations in China random people will come up to you and take a photograph whether you like it or not. Many are tourists themselves from other provinces and have never seen Westerners before, and so you find yourself a bit of a novelty. But in the library, people were only interested in the books. Always a good sign.

Libraries started to take off in China around the turn of the 20th century against the backdrop of reform, with the government of the Qing dynasty sent on diplomatic missions to Europe to understand the value of these intellectual spaces. Prominent exile Liang Qichao was particularly impressed by readers who did not steal books they had borrowed. I wonder what he would make of some British libraries today, who have adopted the attitude that if someone steals a book, they must really need it. Punitive measures are a waste of time.

The Metropolitan Library was established in 1909, with the Qing government realising the opportunities to promote national culture. Situated in the Beijing Guanghua temple, it was opened to the public on 27 August 1912, receiving its first legal deposits of publications in 1916. It would later be known as the National Peking Library, then Beijing Library, before it was moved to north of Purple Bamboo Park in Haidian District in 1989. It was renamed the National Library of China on 12 December 1998. Today it’s the third largest national library in the world, covering 280,000 square meters, costing 1 billion 235 million dollars to complete.

If you fancy visiting, get the subway unless you want to sit in traffic for hours. Lines 4 and 9 will deliver you calmly to this gigantic, beautiful modern library.

OTHER BEAUTIFUL LIBRARIES WE’VE VISITED

 

 

Rebel Writers: Alan Sillitoe

Notts Rebels, the new weekly series made in conjunction with the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, celebrates stories of fighting injustice and acts of rebellion from Nottingham’s history. Originally published on LeftLion, our contribution explored the rebellious and anti-establishment themes in the work of Alan Sillitoe, who died ten years ago on 25 April.

“For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, but Arthur was following government advice and social isolating.”

If Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been written today instead of 1958, it would not have started like this. Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s most famous creation, would be the kind of knobhead who’d be getting lathered in the park, racing his mates through the empty streets, and absolutely hammering Tinder, probably claiming you can’t catch Covid-19 from a blowjob. The fact that I can vividly imagine Seaton’s reaction to events 70 years since he came clattering onto the page is testament to Alan Sillitoe’s skills as a writer.

Sillitoe didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He left school at 14 to work at the Raleigh factory. Like many people of his generation he was self-educated. This meant reading a lot of books and figuring things out for himself. This is why his characters are so authentic; they are chiselled out of experience and imagination rather than following literary blueprints. It’s for this reason that he refused corrections from editors, retaining, like his characters, uncompromising independence.

Growing up in abject poverty, the act of buying a book was itself a rebellious act. The Sillitoe’s were moved on from place to place during his childhood and his father was imprisoned at one point for being unable to pay for what he had bought on tick. This is why Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is so authentic, it captures the rawness of place, warts and all.

“Generators whined all night, and during the day giant milling-machines working away on cranks and pedals in the turnery gave to the terrace a sensation of living within breathing distance of some monstrous being that suffered from a disease of the stomach.”

1950s Radford is a brutal, violent world where “women with battleship faces and hearts as tough as nails” have to be won over, but “you could try all you liked to be kind to them, but they wouldn’t have any of it”. It’s no wonder a local councillor wanted the book banned at the time, fearing it would damage Nottingham’s reputation forever. This is why Sillitoe is a rebel writer. Instead of serving up a sanitised version of working class life that were palatable to middle class sensibilities, he dolloped up something offensive: truth.

Alan Sillitoe, author of that novel

Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator in the Raleigh factory who grafts hard in order to quench payday thirst down his local, the White Horse. When he’s not puking up over people or having drinking contests with a sailor, he likes to craftily latch his arms around the waist of any woman daft enough to fall for his patter.

Sillitoe argued that Seaton had no spiritual values because he was a product of his environment, and therefore his own survival was all that mattered. This is best exemplified when he gets a married woman pregnant and persuades her to have a ‘gin bath’. While she is doing this, he gets it on with her sister, reflecting, “Never had an evening begun so sadly and ended so well.” I can’t imagine any writer daring to pen such selfish (and honest) sentiments today, particularly given the speed by which we are held accountable by the Twitterati.

Colin Smith is another classic Sillitoe anti-hero, appearing in the short story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1960) Like Seaton, Smith comes from a tough background. His father is dying, and the family are poor. He escapes his dire circumstances by getting involved in petty crime which invariably goes horribly wrong. While incarcerated in Borstal, he takes up running which acts as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape his problems and be temporarily free. But the governor recognises his talent and has other plans, putting him forward for a cup race. Winning the race would give the governor prestige and make Smith’s life comfortable. But he’s not interested in an easy life, there’s more pleasure letting the governor know he’s not for sale. His individuality is the only thing they can’t take from him and so he deliberately loses the race, stopping at the finishing line.

“I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there, and he’ll never know what’s there because he’s stupid. I suppose you’ll laugh at this, me saying the governor’s a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He’s stupid, and I’m not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me.”

Alan Sillitoe didn’t choose to be a rebel writer. He would have hated this label as much as he hated being called an Angry Young Man or a Nottingham writer. Like Colin Smith, he was nobody’s puppet. He happened to write 50 odd novels because he was pensioned off from the air force at 21 after contacting TB. This afforded the time and opportunity to write. His novels, however, are rebellious and anti-establishment by nature. Sillitoe was born into unimaginable poverty which meant he had to fight every day to survive. He was writing what he knew. Or as Seaton puts it:

“Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, and income tax offices rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death.”

This article was originally published on 22 April 2020 on LeftLion as part of their Rebel Writers series.