Celebrating Women’s History Month with Maid Marian

Zach Omitowoju is the latest student to take a placement with us, creating the above promotional film for our Ms. Hood comic. Inspired by the issues raised in Aly Stoneman’s poetic reimagining of the Hood legend, he’s written a guest blog for us to celebrate Women’s History Month.

For me, Maid Marian is the true hero of the Robin Hood legend in English literature. Often assumed to be his lover, Marian gained high respect in Robin’s circle for her courage and independence as well as her beauty and loyalty.

Courage and independence are still traits that are highly desirable in modern society. These are particularly relevant for women who continue to break down barriers – be that women entering traditionally male dominated industries, such as engineering, or those demanding equal pay. For this reason, Maid Marian is celebrated by many feminists as one of the earliest strong female characters in English Literature.

There have been several books based on her character. Maid Marian was the title of Thomas Love Peacock’s 1822 novella and Elsa Watson’s 2004 novel. Whereas American author Jennifer Roberson followed up her 1992 novel Lady of the Forest with Lady of Sherwood in 1999, presenting the story of a ‘handywoman who can take care of herself’ – as one reviewer opined it.

Marian remains a non-controversial character on the screen and has been played by actors such as Uma Thurman, Kate Moss, Cate Blanchett, Audrey Hepburn, and most recently, Eve Hewson. Marian’s presence provides a strong, but not over-bearing, presence in what would otherwise be a male-dominated story. This is why I enjoyed making the promo video so much as Aly Stoneman places ‘Ms. Hood’ at the centre of the narrative, determining her own destiny.

This led me to research other women from Nottingham who display similarly inspiring characteristics. Such as:

  • Ada Lovelace
  • Catherine Greenaway
  • Dame Stella Rimington
  • Sherrie Hewson
  • Susan Hallam
  • Vicky McClure

There are organisations within Nottingham and all over England that we can show our support for during Women’s History Month, including Nottingham Women’s Centre as well as Women’s Aid, both of whom help and support women. On Twitter, you might want to follow the account @onthisdayshe which ‘puts women back in history, one day at a time’.

Dawn of the Unread includes other pioneering literary figures such as Margaret Cavendish, Mary Howitt and Alma Reville aka Mrs. Hitchcock. I also hear from James that there are currently plans for a female rebel trail across Nottingham as part of the #rebelnotts project created by the Howie-Smith project, Mark Shotter, and others. These are all reasons to be positive that women (and other voices) are being heard. To misquote Aly’s poem: ‘Ms Hood will never be gone. Her fight goes on’

Happy birthday Sir Tom Courtenay. Here’s your prezzie…

When it comes to rebellion, Alan Sillitoe knows how to do defiance. His anti-hero characters are absolute bastards, and therefore a real joy to read. In the ‘them v us’ world of postwar Britain, there’s only one person you can rely on in this life: yersen.

Two of his most belligerent anti-authority figures are Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and Colin Smith from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959). Both are masters of their own universe, who refuse to toe the line – no matter what the consequences.

In our Sillitoe themed comic For it was Saturday Night, we brought both of them back from the dead to protest at the closure of libraries. But Colin Smith wasn’t much use. Riga mortis had set in and so it took him ages to get anywhere. This, of course, was in stark contrast to his character in ‘Loneliness’ – an athletic seventeen-year-old who could outrun anyone because ‘running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police’.

I daren’t leave me house at the moment. Not because of covid, but because our street is full of lockdown runners, or, more specifically, lumbering overweight middle-aged men who see furlough as an opportunity to finally lose a few pounds. Or have they suddenly taken up running because it’s better than being stuck in the house with the kids watching Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Kitchen Disco?

Amid a pandemic that requires us to keep a reasonable distance from each other and to be hyper conscious of our hygiene, joggers seem to think now is the time to come panting and spluttering past like a back firing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Worst still, you can’t even tell them to back off as they’re tethered to their headphones.  

I am happily overweight and unfit. But I prefer a casual stroll through the streets, counting discarded facemasks rather than how many miles I’ve done on the fitbit.

It’s with these issues in mind, I’ve decided to reimagine Sillitoe’s classic story for the covid generation as The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner. This will be published on Twitter as a series of tweets at 5pm each evening, starting on Thursday 25 Feb. This is to mark the 84th birthday of Sir Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith in the British New Wave film of 1962. Sir Tom also played the role of Billy Fisher in Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1963), the story of an office clerk who escape the boredom of his humdrum existence through elaborate daydreams. Both of these books (and films) had a profound impact on me in my youth, so I wanted to do something to celebrate this great actor who helped me feel less alone during my adolescence.      

The story will incorporate text from the original story, but address issues raised by lockdown. For example, our homes have become mini-Borstals due to lockdown restrictions. And whereas Colin Smith steals out of necessity, now we find ourselves on furlough with an equally bleak future…

I’ve decided to reimagine the story on Twitter because, like Lockdown, Twitter is a medium of constraint. Similarly, the story can be told in short, sharp bursts, replicating the slow-paced trot of lockdown running. I like the idea of the form reflecting the content.   

Follow @Lockdown_Runner published each day on Twitter at 5pm for the next week. 

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Why Physical Books Matter

Dawn of the Unread started out as a reading flashmob where people showed their support for bookshops and libraries by sitting down and reading in the centre of Nottingham. It then became a series of online comics celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Aware that our reading habits are changing as a result of digital technology, we created Twitter accounts for some of our featured writers and captured the essence of their best known novels in a series of Tweets. We produced ‘how to’ videos on YouTube to encourage people to create their own comics and then followed this up with visual essays called the Nottingham Essay. We morphed into a smartphone app and used gaming theory to entice younger readers into libraries and bookshops. We created a dance record for our Alma Reville issue, a computer game for our Alan Sillitoe issue. And on and on we went with our relentless quest to share our passion for reading through transmedia storytelling.

The project started in 2013 and continues to flourish in 2021. The outbreak of a global pandemic has reiterated the importance of reading for our mental health as we find ourselves locked away. In these difficult times, literature transports us to different places across time, making lockdown more bearable. For some of us, books have become our main friends.

It is this that brings me us onto Zachary Omitowoju and arguably the most important ‘add on’ of Dawn of the Unread. We created 120 placements for students between 2013-15 which was one of the reasons we won the Guardian Teaching Excellence Awards. These placements continue today. I’ve now lost count of how many people have been involved. Zach is the latest student to do a 37 hour placement with us. This is a two-way relationship. Whereas he helps us produce YouTube videos which keep the important conversation about reading going, Zach is given a platform to share his ideas and have a voice. Each new placement brings something different to these conversations and allows our project to develop in ways we could not have imagined as we sat down on the cold slabs of Market Square many moons ago.

This is the second video Zach has created for us. His first was about 10 reasons I love reading but this time he has narrowed his focus to a very important issue: why physical books matter. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus on reading as multiple devices vie for our attention. Constant notifications and digital rabbit holes mean that we are losing the ability for deep focus. Reading physical books is no longer simply about the pursuit of knowledge or escapism from our locked down lives. It’s about bringing deep focus and concentration back. As a transmedia project, we are more than aware that we have created many digital distractions for our readers. But our goal has always been to raise awareness of great books and writers, to encourage people to use libraries and bookshops, and to celebrate the physical medium of books for their ability to engage with our imagination. Needless to say our favourite transformation was when we became a book in 2018, published by Spokesman Books. The profits from sales go to literacy projects via Nottingham City of Literature. Show your support for these causes by buying a copy.      

Further reading

10 Reasons I love Books and Reading…

On 11 December 2015, Nottingham became a UNESCO City of Literature. It was a truly euphoric moment, and we were proud to have been part of the original bidding process. Dawn of the Unread represented digital innovation, Nottingham’s collaborative grassroots culture, as well as raising awareness of Nottingham’s literary heritage. Our comics championed libraries and independent bookshops, and, most important of all, argued that illiteracy is a form of child abuse. This was a particular problem for Nottingham at the time as our literacy levels were below the national average. Therefore, achieving the UNESCO status was so important because it represented a commitment towards addressing these appalling statistics and creating a better future for younger people.

The City of Literature team has exceeded expectations and done a fantastic job so far. They really are building a better world with words. We’re particularly impressed with the way that younger people have been brought into the conversation, such as through the Young Ambassador scheme which led to their Manifesto for Change, and the Eastwood Comics project which gave school pupils the opportunity to create, edit and produce comics celebrating the work of D.H. Lawrence. The completion of the new Central Library – and with it a possible national children’s library – is the crowning glory of an incredible first five years.  

To celebrate City of Literature’s 5th birthday we commissioned Zachary Omitowoju to share his top ten tips on why reading is important to him. Zachary is a 2nd year student at Nottingham Trent University and is the latest student to take a placement with us. He is also a member of WRAP (Writing, Reading and Pleasure) a collaboration between Nottingham Trent University and City of Literature. WRAP was launched this autumn and provides writing workshops and book groups, meet ups, masterclasses and talks from readers and authors, and is another example of a concerted drive to improve literacy rates across the city.

Please visit Nottingham UNECSO City of Literature and subscribe to their newsletter so that you can get involved in their events. Get along to a WRAP café event or watch their live streams on YouTube. And if you are a business that wants to create placements and opportunities for students, please contact the Employability Team. And don’t forget to support libraries and bookshops by loaning or buying books.

Related articles

How Nottingham Became a UNESCO City of Literature

Sanctuary, Connection, Inspiration: Hopes for New Libraries. Trevor Wright on Libraries

Helen Goodbarton on Libraries

‘Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’: A Vision for the New Central Library by Becky Cullen

LD Lapinski on Libraries: Ticket to Anywhere

Reading Rooms: Graham Caveney on Libraries

The Central Library Wishlist

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