Literary Leicester: Graham Joyce 

The following article is a rough outline of a talk I gave at Literary Leicester on how writers inspire us to make a difference. My chosen writer was Graham Joyce.

Graham Joyce was born in Keresley, Coventry on 22 October 1954. But Leicester was his adopted home.

I first encountered Graham at The Writing Industries Conference in 2010 where he delivered the keynote speech, warning writers that the days of a hefty advance for their novels were over. Anyone serious about becoming a professional writer needed to diversify their output. Digital technology and social media were transforming the literary landscape. Best get involved than be left behind.

Graham was good to his word. He helped develop storylines for computer games, scripted the short film Black Dust, and cowrote song lyrics with Emilie Simon. He was eclectic with genre, writing horror, ghost stories and a form of speculative fiction which defied classification. Some see this as magical realism; I prefer to think of his words plucked straight out of the hedgerow. He described his work as having ‘the flavour of dreams’ but his novels are also grounded in family, relationships, and an infectious zest for life.

Despite his reservations about the financial rewards of novelists, he was incredibly successful. As well as winning the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for The Facts of Life, and collecting an O’ Henry Award in 2009 for the short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen, he was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times. If he was a football team, his dominance of the genre would make him a Man City. A Pep Guardiola. Graham would appreciate this metaphor, but not the team. He was a Coventry City fan, occasionally writing for fanzines. He also played in net for the England Writer’s Football Team which he detailed in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.

Talk at Literary Leicester on 26 March. Photo: Aly Stoneman

So, why was he such a successful writer?

To answer this, you need to look at his life. He grew up in a mining village, worked at Butlins in Skegness, and spent ten years as a youth worker in Leicester where he believed the three R’s would get anyone back on track: Respect, recognition, responsibility. Each of these jobs and environments required an ability to connect with people. It’s this humanity which greets you on the page.

Graham was very much a writer who you could enjoy a pint with. He loved the energy of people and enjoyed sharing tales. He had courage and charisma about him. It’s this that led him to start an arts magazine in Leicester in 1980 with Sue Townsend who published a short diary entry about a certain ‘Nigel’ Mole. It was this that led him to quit his job as a Youth Worker in 1988 and drive to Lesbos with his girlfriend Sue, later to be his wife. They lived on a shack on the beach with no water or electric. But what he did have was the freedom to think and the time to write. One year later, his first novel, Dreamscape, was accepted for publication. Aspiring writers out there take note…   

Graham was awarded a PhD by publication from Nottingham Trent University where he taught creative writing from 1996 up until his death. As fate would have it, I now teach parttime at NTU and occupy his former office.

In 2013 I began work on Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel series celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Graham was one of the commissioned writers but soon afterwards was diagnosed with lymphoma and unable to complete the work. He passed away on 9 September 2014.

The following year I was in Leicester with Lydia Towsey who I had commissioned to host some writing workshops. During the break I popped outside for a fag and got chatting to a young woman and her mother about the project. When I explained that Dawn of the Unread was a celebration of dead writers and aimed to bring them back to life by encouraging people to read their books, the young girl, then seventeen, said, ‘My dad was a writer, his name was Graham Joyce, have you heard of him?’

To cut a rather lovely and long story short, it turned out that Ella Joyce – the seventeen year-old women I was talking to – was about to start a Foundation in Art. I asked to see an example of her work and was absolutely blown away. I gave Ella her first commission and she illustrated the ‘Shelves’ comic in Dawn of the Unread.

I know that Graham would love the symmetry and peculiarity of this story. But he would also appreciate that youth had been given an opportunity. The commission gave his daughter respect, recognition, responsibility. We have since gone on to collaborate on Whatever People Say I Am, a series of comics challenging stereotypes.     

Ella’s artwork.

I’ve not read all of Graham’s nineteen or so novels. And this is deliberate. Books are precious. You can’t binge watch them like the latest series on Netflix. They need time to settle. I treat myself every three years or so to a new one. This year I will be reading The Year of the Ladybird.

In the last blog published on his website, Graham writes about the Anglo Saxon heritage of Wistow and how Charles Ist once galloped past here seeking refuge in Leicester. As he courts ghosts of the past, the Sence gently bubbles away on its way to meet the River Soar. He talks about his own mortality and ‘the shocking clarity that cancer brings’ only to discover later that a missile has randomly downed a plane in Ukraine and killed 300 people. This has more resonance today, given the current political climate. He then asks, ‘why anyone would want to die?’

It’s at this point a dragonfly whispers in his ear, ‘I have inhabited this earth for 3 million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries. Just cherish it all.’

And then his old friend, the heron, appears, and asks: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’

Let’s make this our mantra today. To inspire each other as Graham Joyce and other writers have inspired us.

Literary Leicester is an arts council funded festival that ran from Wednesday 25 March to Saturday 26 March. The above talk was given during the festival closing event, Mi Duck: Writers Changing Leicester  

grahamjoyce.co.uk

#International Women’s Day: Comic to imagine a future that’s ‘safe’ for women

In 2020, during lockdown, I wrote a script for a comic called ‘Changing Minds’ which aimed to raise awareness of everyday misogyny. The script was based on research by language and criminology experts Louise Mullany (University of Nottingham) and Loretta Trickett (Nottingham Trent university).

Their Nottingham Misogyny Hate Crime work has recently influenced police and government policy, including the Upskirting Bill. In 2016, Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in the UK to make misogyny a recognised hate crime. The researchers hoped that this would become a national policy but on 28 February, MPs voted to scrap a proposal to make misogyny a hate crime in England and Wales as part of new public order laws.

For ‘Changing Minds’, Mullany and Trickett conducted a survey, focus group and interviews with 679 participants. The participants were asked about their experiences of harassment in Nottingham between April 2016 – March 2018. Their findings included:

  • 94% of respondents had either experienced or witnessed street harassment.
  • 75% of people who experienced street harassment reported that it had a longterm impact on them.
  • Only 7% of victims reported the incident to the police.
  • 94% of people considered street harassment to be a social problem

My job was to take this data and condense the findings into three pages of a comic. The narrative also had to contain a positive message to men to ‘call out’ offensive behaviour; include a diverse range of women; demonstrate how women experience misogyny in a wide variety of settings. This was quite a lot to fit into three pages, but constraint is the essence of creativity.

My solution was to take one statistic from the report and use it as a framing device for each page. This meant that pages could ‘stand alone’ (and be printed out separately) while also providing context for the narrative. Given the density of the research, this helped to split the story into three parts and create a narrative arc.

The reason we were approached to create the story is because of our current project Whatever People Say I Am. This is a series of online comics challenging myths around identity. We haven’t included it on our website because the comic is too small at three pages. In terms of commissioning an artist, I spoke to Steve Larder who suggested Kim Thompson.

I mention this today, on International Women’s Day, as I’ve just given a talk with Loretta Trickett about a forthcoming comic we’re working on which will revisits some of these issues to imagine a world that’s safe for women. To do this, we’re asking women to come forward and share their experiences and ideas as this research will inform the narrative. One person this morning mentioned how her running route is determined by how well lit an area is and if there are other people around rather than a route that’s more aesthetically pleasing. Another person said she used to share her running route through an app until she realised this made her routines knowable to strangers. It’s these type of everyday anxieties we want to address in the comic.

Our intended publication date is the end of June. If you would like to get involved, please get in contact.

References

Wanted: Student experiences of Lockdown

Whatever People Say I Am is an online comic series challenging stereotypes. It is the follow-on project to Dawn of the Unread. We are currently working on a comic about student experiences during lockdown and need your help to write it.

If I believed everything I read in the press, during lockdown students were all having parties, getting fined £10,000 each weekend for breaking rules, and were solely responsible for the spread of coronavirus. This makes me angry because it’s very different to the experience I’ve witnessed working at Nottingham Trent University and Nottingham Trent International College.

The students I’ve spoken to have spent their 21st birthday behind closed doors, missed out on graduation, never met other people from their modules face to face, and feel anxious not just about the virus but what this means for their future.

It’s with this in mind, that I’ve spent lockdown listening to students from different cities and countries. I’ve discovered that in Cyprus you have to carry a card around with you proving that you’re allowed to leave your house during set times; in Manchester, students have had security guards knocking on their dorms to check there’s nobody smuggled inside; I’ve spoken to students who have remained in student accommodation because they don’t want to go home due to family problems; and some international students who have come here for one term as part of an international placement and spent it entirely inside their room.

I want to address these representations in the next comic for Whatever People Say I Am, a series of online comics challenging stereotypes. The artist for the project is Lauren Morey, a Creative Writing student in her third year at Nottingham Trent. Lauren draws people without faces which seemed apt for a story about a group of people whose fears and anxieties have been largely overlooked by the media. There will also be some embedded videos in the comic. But more of this another time…

As part of the project, I’d like to include eight ‘pen portraits’ by students. Very simply, I want them to share their experiences of lockdown – whatever that might be. These will be published on the ‘Features’ section on the website which provides context to the comic. I witnessed some wonderful strategies for keeping sane during lockdown, from live streamed fancy dress parties in the bedroom to a silent disco on the balcony of flats. If there was anything positive to come out of our enforced solitude it was how vital our imagination is.

If you have a story of how you coped as a student during lockdown, please do get in contact. You don’t need to have sky dived off your balcony or learned how to speak dolphin. You just need to be honest about what you did and be yourself, sentiments which are alluded to in the extract from the comic above.

You can contact me here    

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