Thumbs up for thumbnails

Our Dawn of the Unread YouTube channel has 63 videos. I’m pretty proud of this, especially given that we don’t have a studio, budget or team of paid employers. The videos have been created mainly in collaboration with students and have been filmed on everything from a fancy phone to borrowed cameras.

Our first upload was on National Libraries’ Day on 8 Feb 2014 and featured disabled performance artist Simon Raven crawling across the streets in a sleeping bag and mask pretending to be a bookworm. The film was originally created for another commission, but Simon kindly allowed us to use it to kickstart our project.

Over time, themes for the videos have developed – some strategic, others more random. We have a ‘how to make a comic’ series which does everything the title suggests. These were originally embedded at the end of each comic with the aim of encouraging aspiring writers and artists to do similar. Our ‘Nottingham Essay’ series explores literary figures from Hood Town and was created to help Nottingham in its bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

The rest are a mixed bag related to our core themes: books, libraries, bookshops, reading, comics, promotion and Nottingham. The most recent one is a trailer for our Ms. Hood comic and was created by Zachary Omitowoju. Again, I’d love to have a promo like this for all of our comics, but we’ll see…

Recently, I’ve taken a bit of time out from our current project, Whatever People Say I Am, to go back and tidy up old content. This has involved doing a bit of training in graphic design via training sessions on LinkedIn and learning new programmes such as Canva – a graphic design programme that provides user friendly templates for all social media platforms.

This has resulted in new thumbnails for all our videos which make it easier for users to distinguish between content. I’ve also included our logo, a strong image, and a block of colour in the designs. I’m really happy with the results and hope that this helps attract a few more visits.

Dawn of the Unread was created for many reasons, most notable of which was to raise awareness of low literacy levels across the country – particularly in the East Midlands. But digital literacy is becoming equally as important – not least in our ability to distinguish between fake news, conspiracy theories, and the insidious incentives of algorithms. But another form of digital literacy is being aware of your own digital presence.

It’s too easy to just keep lobbing up content and moving onto the next project. Sometimes you need to pause and go back and perfect or update previous work. New platforms like Tick Tock and Instagram Reels have high production values and consequently, audience expectations are rising. The age of the amateur is dead.

Taking the time for a digital spring clean has been a priority and hopefully our account now looks worth a visit. We now have playlists to help distinguish between different types of video. If we want viewers to embrace the themes of our project and share in our love of reading, we need to be as professional as possible. I’ve also welcomed the opportunity to upskill and learn new stuff.

Further Reading

  • Linkedin Learning on YouTube (YouTube)
  • 25 Graphic Design Tips for Non-Designers and Beginners (Canva)
  • Time for a Digital Spring Clean (jameskwalker.co.uk)
  • Your Easy Guide to Making a YouTube Thumbnail (blog.hubspot.com)
  • Building A Brand: Why A Strong Digital Presence Matters (Forbes.com)

Comics addressing refugees, migrants and asylum seekers

‘I’m Only Happy When it Rains’ is our fourth comic to challenge stereotypes and features a Hungarian migrant. The comic is based on research into new and emerging communities and aims to provide a better understanding of why European migrants come to the UK to work and the possible barriers they face. It will be available on our website on the 6 May to coincide with the Police Crime Commissioner elections.

For the past three years we have been working in collaboration with Dr Loretta Trickett of Nottingham Trent University to create two comics that address the issue of new and emerging communities. One key area of her research is barriers faced by migrants and refugees as they integrate into the host country. She is also interested in ways in which understanding of migrant communities can help reduce Hate Crime. These sentiments bode well with Whatever People Say I Am as we try to address stereotypes through comics. Our other reason for collaboration is to help make academic research more accessible. Often, it’s hidden behind expensive paywalls and read by a privileged few. The comic format allows us to distil the essence of this research and frame it in a format that will reach a broader audience.    

This has been a slow process for numerous reasons, the main one being that we have interviewed lots of people to find the best story to address the issues. I originally set out with the intention of featuring Roma people as I think modern life makes it increasingly impossible to live a simple nomadic life and I was eager to represent such issues in a comic. Similarly, the beautiful colours associated with the culture lent itself to visual representation. But as is often the case with research, the focus changes the more people you meet.

In the end, we featured Syrians in our first of two comics addressing this issue. This made sense as some had settled in Nottingham as part of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme – and so we had a strong local link. But this created its own problems, such as which of the 20 or so Syrians we interviewed do we make as the main narrator – particularly given that they all had such incredible back stories. In the end I opted for a teacher called Maamon as through his adult classes we could introduce the lives of some of the other Syrians.

Since then, we have been working on the second comic addressing new and emerging communities. This features a Hungarian migrant who comes to work in Nottingham post-Brexit referendum. I was drawn to this story because it was so positive and features an independent woman with a strong work ethic who has no fear of integration, believing hard work can help you settle anywhere – she had previously worked in other countries too. I won’t give away the premise of the story other than to say it’s called ‘I’m Happy When it Rains’. The weather plays a significant part in the storyline and was also an opportunity for me to give a nod to my adolescence via The Jesus and Mary Chain.

This is the first comic that Paul Fillingham and I have worked on together. It’s been a very slow process because Paul has had to fit this in around his day job (running Think Amigo) as well as teaching himself new skills, such as 3D modelling. But I’m really glad we’ve had this opportunity to properly do something together. We’ve worked together for nearly ten years now, so creating a shared story together is a lovely way to celebrate this.  

The comics are partly funded by Paddy Tipping, the Police and Crime Commissioner. In an article for the comic, Paddy reflects on his tenure as PCC and said: “Britain is more diverse than ever before. Nottinghamshire is a rich mixture of races, cultures, beliefs, attitudes and lifestyles. I want it to be the most welcoming county in the country, a place where people can be who they are without judgement or fear.”

He is genuinely committed to ending hate crimes of all sorts and recognises the importance of getting this message out in a way that’s befitting of the people and issues it addresses. It’s hoped that we will be able to put printed copies of the comics in public spaces – libraries, community centres, etc to trigger debate and discussion. It will also be used as a resource in schools. The comic will be available on our website by the end of the week.

Until then, the Police and Crime Commission elections are happening up and down the country on 6 May. In Nottingham the candidates are:         

  • Paddy Tipping (Labour)
  • Caroline Henry (Conservative)
  • David Watts (Liberal Democrat)

Please take the time to research the candidates and vote. We know who we will be voting for…

Dawn of the Unread explored Nottingham’s literary history and was created to raise awareness of low literacy levels in the UK. Whatever People Say I Am is our follow-up project and challenges stereotypes.

Further reading

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. 

Related articles

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