I had originally planned for Dawn of the Unread to start on October 10 2013 to coincide with Michael Eaton’s play Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend. October 10 is significant as it was at 2am in 1878, in the affluent suburb of Blackheath, that the notorious Victorian criminal was finally nobbled by the ‘blue lobsters’. Four months later he would find himself dancing in the air at Armley Gaol on 25 February 1879. But Michael’s commitments and other factors have determined we will now start in early February 2014 to coincide with National Libraries’ Day.
‘The King of the Lags’ was born in Sheffield in the early 1830s. Peace’s life was always destined to be theatrical with a one-legged lion tamer for a father. At fourteen he found himself down a steel mill but after a horrific injury which very nearly crippled him for life, he decided to turn his back on honest toil and vowed no other man would ever be his master.
Peace embarked on a career as a portico thief, womaniser and double-murderer that would position him as Victorian England’s number one villain until you-know-who came along. He was mythologised in popular culture as a daring rogue who put two fingers up to respectable society. His exploits could be heard in nursery rhymes, read about in Penny Dreadfuls and visualised in the waxwork museum and travelling fairs. Up until Eaton’s play, the only part of his story not to be told was his brief stint in Nottingham where he holed up in the notorious Narrow Marshes and fell for Susan Bailey, a Music Hall singer known as the ‘Nottingham Nightingale’.
Charlie Peace may not be a writer but he is certainly a literary figure. His exploits made the front cover of The Illustrated Police News a record nine issues on the trot. Prior to this he was a regular staple of the Penny Dreadfuls. In literary fiction he is mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes story The Illustrious Client (1927) and across the Atlantic Mark Twain satirised the celebrification of ‘the Bannercross Murderer’ in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909). Edgar Wallace fictionalised Peace’s later career in The Devil Man (1931).
In choosing Peace as one of our literary figures we are spoilt for choice with the material we can point readers to. Similarly, his life story raises lots of issues which we hope will engage with younger audiences. For example, Peace was dobbed in to the police by his lover Susan Bailey when she discovered his true identity – Peace went under numerous aliases. Although it was his infidelity that led to the betrayal, the hundred pound reward probably came in quite handy too. By taking themes from Peace’s life we are able to ask teenagers a wide variety of questions such as: under what circumstances would you inform on someone who had committed a crime? This in turn could be related to topical issues such as gang loyalty and culture.
Charlie Peace as graphic novel
Charlie Peace was a master of disguise. A broken jaw enabled him to contort his facial appearance, making him unrecognisable as he burgled his way up and down the country. Originally I had the idea of getting multiple artists to illustrate his story, the different styles reflecting his changing appearance but Michael Eaton suggested replicating the Buster comics Peace appeared in during the early 1960s.
In these subversive stories Charlie is transformed from a selfish thief into a survivalist, a Robin Hood like figure, who steals from exploitative capitalists. Michael wants to remain true to the Buster comics in both narrative and visuals. Therefore Peace will return via a time machine into the Playhouse and stumble upon his play. He looks in the Sky Mirror (which is outside the Playhouse) and sees the many representations of him reflected back. He goes on an adventure, bemused by modern Nottingham, and discovers an old disused library in Calverton which has hordes of comics which he steals and gives out to the poor.
In addition to alluding to the original text, the story draws on a real fact. There once was a library/archive in Calverton that stored comics and newspapers but this was closed down many decades ago. As Dawn of the Unread is about promoting libraries, seeing what we’ve already lost will hopefully make us fight for what we’ve got.
Michael Eaton has always wanted to create a graphic novel of Charlie Peace so I’m hoping this might help kick-start that ambition. Now we have to find the right artist. The person I would love to match Michael with is Nottingham-based Ian Culbard. Check out his adaptations of H P Lovecraft, Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes and you’ll understand why.