Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence and coronavirus (1)
Design James Walker.

Thoroughly fed up with modernity and the censor, D.H. Lawrence travelled the globe in search of Rananim – a community of like-minded people. Will lockdown help us think differently about our values and how we want to live? 

Although he would have enjoyed the solitude, D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have coped very well with lockdown. Not because he was rubbish at following rules, but because he was a proper fidget. After leaving Britain in 1919 he travelled the globe, never settling in one place for more than two years. He refused to own property, making home in disused cabins at the top of mountains or being put up by friends. There were numerous reasons for his peripatetic lifestyle, but here we’ll focus on one: Rananim.

It’s believed that Lawrence first came across the concept of Ranamim when his friend S.S. Koteliansky sung the Hebrew chant Ranani Zadikim l’Adonoi to him. The two met in 1914 and were together in Barrow-in-Furness when WWI was declared. This was a significant time to bond as it marked a very difficult period for Lawrence as he suffered from poverty, political persecution – his wife was German, and frustrations with the censor that would plague his entire career. This is best captured in a letter to Edward Garnett in June 1912, when Lawrence really let rip:

“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime.”

This letter was in response to publisher William Heinemann who had rejected the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers. This was eventually published in 1913 but it didn’t take long for it to be banned from libraries. His next novel, The Rainbow (1915) was seized under the Obscene Publications Act and burned. Although it didn’t contain any naughty words, it was deemed anti-British for daring to question everyday fundamentals such as work, religion, and relationships.

Lawrence was as frustrated with the publishing industry as he was with modernity. Industry dehumanized community and destroyed the natural landscape, whereas war demanded blind conformity to the flag and a further loss of individuality. He felt like he was the only one who could see this ‘Ugliness. Ugliness. Ugliness’ and so began to develop a philosophy for life through his novels. To do this he had to get away from Britain sharpish, and so embarked on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ of self-imposed exile.

“I shall say goodbye to England, forever, and set off in quest of our Rananim” he wrote to Koteliansky, on 12 January 1917. Rananim was the concept of a utopian community, a place where humanity could rise from the ashes of the past and old values, and purged of evil, be reborn in peace and love. Away from modernity and consumerism, it would be possible to find “a good peace and a good silence, and a freedom to love and to create new life.” The phoenix became his personal emblem, as he too was rising out of the flames and being reborn.

It would be a mistake to interpret this as the desire to create some kind of hippy commune or scribal gathering. This is evident from Lawrence’s time in Taos, New Mexico. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, invited the Lawrence’s to stay with her in 1921. She wanted him to capture the spirit of Taos in the same way that he had done with Sea and Sardinia (1921). She too was trying to escape modernity and believed that bringing the greatest thinkers and artists together in one place would help build a better world than the one currently being destroyed by war and industry.

Lawrence was apprehensive at first, asking whether he’d encounter “a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people”. He wasn’t a fan of literary crowds who he described as “smoking, steaming shits”. He was also cautious of “meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.” But he eventually turned up a year later after taking a detour via Australia and Ceylon.

There was an immediate clash of personalities and they quickly fell out. He hadn’t travelled halfway across the world to further her status. So, he headed off to the hills to live in a cabin. It was here, away from the crowds, that he was truly happy, embarking on a series of DIY projects – carpentry, glazing and putting up shelves, living simply and writing under a tree.

We are being asked to self-distance at the moment and many of us our finding it difficult. But Lawrence chose to get as far away from people as he could, writing, “I only want one thing of men and that is that they should leave me alone”. What he really meant was anybody who banned his books or didn’t share his world view.

His search for kindred spirits took him to many countries, but it never quite worked out. At his most desperate he considered ploughing his savings into a boat, “I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all…with a captain and a couple of sailors, we could do the rest.”

Lawrence teaches us to seek out Rananim in our lives. We may not have the freedom to replicate his nomadic lifestyle, but we are starting to think about what community means, or, at the very least, have introduced ourselves to the neighbours for the first time.

Rananim doesn’t exist in a single place or location, location, location – so don’t expect Kirstie Allsop to source it out for you. Rather it’s a state of mind shared with likeminded people. So, don’t expect to find it too soon. In a letter to Catherine Carswell he explains, “I think people ought to fulfil sacredly their desires. And this means fulfilling the deepest desire, which is a desire to live unhampered by things which are extraneous, a desire for pure relationships and living truth”.

DHL
Lawrence featured in issue 7 of Dawn of the Unread.

Lawrence lived through the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 50 million people – more than died in WWI. He had terrible health throughout his life and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 44. He was not happy with the world he was born into, or perhaps more accurately, unhappy with the way that world was being destroyed by industry, pollution and greed. Sound familiar?

It seems fitting, then, that during lockdown, where everything “extraneous” has been removed, the rainbow, the title of Lawrence’s 1915 novel, has become the symbol of hope during these difficult times. This once banned book which dared to demand a different way of being holds a message in the final paragraph that we can all relate to.

“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”

 This article was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website

James and Paul are currently working on D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts. You can submit artefacts to it here, or join in the conversation on Instagram.     

Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

burning-photograph dhl
Design by James Walker.

A friend of mine recently splashed out on a painting by the Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington. Naturally, this gave me an excuse to photocopy a short essay by Lawrence called Pictures on the Wall and post it through her letterbox. ‘The human race loves pictures,’ declares Lawrence, ‘barbarians or civilised, we are all alike, we straightway go to look at a picture if there is a picture to look at’. This is perfectly true, although my first port of call for distraction and stimulation is the contents of a bookshelf. I remember once being shown around a house I was interested in buying, and being put off by the seller’s book collection. I just couldn’t bring myself to live in a space that had housed such a shabby collection of fiction. My partner at the time was appalled by what she perceived as my lack of sincerity. But I was deadly serious. The space had been polluted and I didn’t want to catch anything. We split up a year or so later.

Lawrence is fascinated by the pictures we hang on our walls. But needless to say they bring as much pleasure as pain. He takes particular offence at painting that have been hanging around for a long time as they represent ‘sheer inertia’ and a ‘staleness in the home is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. He uses an analogy of fashion to explain these sentiments. Fashion in clothes changes because ‘we ourselves change, in the slow metamorphosis of time,’ consequently it is hard to imagine ourselves in the clothes we bought six years ago because we have since become different people. This is true, although fashion is also a process of aesthetic obsolescence that keeps the greasy wheels of capitalism turning.

Our reason for buying paintings, he argues, is that the painting somehow reflect or respond to some feeling in us. But as we grow (or age) these feelings change. If our feeling for a picture are superficial, our feelings for the picture wears away quickly. This is definitely true and I witness this every year when there’s a poster sale outside Nottingham Trent University for the latest batch of students. There’s only so long you can have a poster of a ‘doh’ing Homer Simpson, Bob Marley toking on a joint, or Tupac ‘God rest his soul’ Shakur on your wall before you feel a bit silly.

Lawrence, as subtle as a flying brick, has a simple solution for dealing with unwanted unfeeling pictures: Burn them.

Now this might seem extreme at first, and it is, but that’s because Lawrence doesn’t like art that’s reduced to materialism. ‘It is fatal to look on pictures as pieces of property. Pictures are like flowers, that fade sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt’. A picture, therefore, is only useful when it is ‘fresh and fragrant with attraction’. Once the aesthetic emotion is dead, the picture is no more than ‘a piece of ugly litter’.

And there’s more…

It’s a fallacy to see a picture as part of the architectural structure of a house, as somehow opening up the walls and functioning with the same purpose as say, the fire. Oh no. ‘The room exists to shelter and house us, the picture exists only to please us.’ Pictures are decoration, nothing more.

It’s at this point that a lot of readers probably pack in reading this six page essay. Life is too short to be scalded for having a painting on your wall for a decade. Some, good to his word, may even set Lawrence’s essay on fire. But try to have the one thing that Lawrence lacks, patience. He’s toying with you. He’s slowly building up to a bigger idea on how to make art more accessible to the masses. And to do this he brings in the example of public libraries.

In the 18th century books were very expensive. If you asked a gentleman whether he had read so and so he would most likely reply ‘I have a fine example in folio in my library’. Books being expensive rendered them a form of property, thereby overwhelming ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was only the development of the lending library system that changed the direction of the conversation to the contents of the book, the pleasure of reading for readings sake. ‘The great public was utterly deprived of books till books ceased to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.

Lawrence argues that the same principles apply to art as long as a ‘picture is regarded as a piece of property, and not as a source of aesthetic emotion.’ He suggests that we need a Circulating Picture scheme that follows the principles of the library, where we can hire pictures as we hire books until we’ve ‘assimilated their content’. Obviously he doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to implement such an arrangement, but the sentiments are honourable.

LORD-BIRO
In 2010 Lord Biro and me created a ‘recession-busting’ Hirst skull covered in jelly tots. You can read about it here. Photo Aly Stoneman.

Money is always a corrupting influence for Lawrence, and he suspects that a man who pays a hundred pounds for a canvas is doing it in the secret belief, or hope, that one day it will be worth thousands of pounds. The world of modern art supports these accusations, not least the vulgarity of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. But I think Lawrence’s arguments don’t necessarily apply to my friend. She hasn’t purchased her Waplington painting for financial reward, she’s bought it because he’s a local artist and, perhaps, it helps her feel a sense of home, within her home. And she certainly wouldn’t burn it because that’s wasteful and she’s someone who thinks about her impact on the planet. I’m quite sure she didn’t bother to read Lawrence’s essay on paintings but this doesn’t matter. If we’re still friends in ten years and the Waplington is still on her wall, I’ll post another copy through her door.

In 2019 Paul Fillingham and me will be creating a DH Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will include artefacts that address aspects of Lawrence’s life. Perhaps ‘Pictures on the Wall’ will be one of these artefacts. If you’d like to get involved and have any suggestions,  please submit your ideas here.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Source: #MondayBlogs Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

Shhh…it’s NW5’s Secret Artist

Karl Marx's home
Karl Marx’s home by The Secret Artist.

On Wednesday 18 March Dawn of the Unread (in partnership with Nottingham Trent University) won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards (more of this in another blog). While in London I went on a literary tour of NW5 (Kentish Town) as it’s been home to D.H. Lawrence, Karl Marx and George Orwell. I was made aware of NW5s incredible literary history by the Secret Artist who has painted Blue Plaque buildings in watercolours. They’re beautiful paintings that have helped to map out the heritage of this area in a really unique way and so I thought we’d celebrate our win by championing the work of someone from another city who cares about their home as much as we care about ours here in Nottingham. Enjoy…

We live in a world of celebrity culture and the selfie so it’s quite rare to find someone who wishes to remain anonymous….
I want the focus to be on the buildings rather than me. Most of them have been around for many years and will be around for many years after I’m gone.

When did you start painting blue plaques and why?
The first Blue Plaque house I painted was George Orwell’s house in Lawford Road. I was painting pictures of listed buildings in Kentish Town, where I live. Although Orwell’s house is not listed, it is of great local interest because Kentish Town is full of writers. It was the manager of our local bookshop, the Owl Bookshop, who said he thought his customers would buy postcards of that house. He was right. I painted that in July 2014.

Did you intentionally set out to create a collection of blue plaque paintings or did this kind of happen after painting the first one?
Someone who liked my listed building paintings suggested I start doing postcards of Blue Plaque houses. Up till then I had only done George Orwell’s house but I really liked the idea. He has managed to persuade the local council to put up some Blue Plaques, so it is his passion. I saw it as a good way to broaden my art project, which up to then had been restricted to listed buildings and the popular old shops of Kentish Town. This allowed me to go all over London in search of houses with plaques.

Naturally DHL had to live at Byron Villas during his time here in 1915
Naturally DHL had to live at Byron Villas during his time here in 1915. Artwork by The Secret Artist.

You’ve painted DH Lawrence’s old home. Could you tell us a little bit about this area and any details you have of Lawrence’s time there?
This house is in the Vale of Health, a hamlet in the middle of Hampstead Heath, where many writers have lived in the past. Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived here, in Byron Villas, in 1915. While they were there, his novel, The Rainbow, was declared obscene by London magistrates.

When you paint your pictures do you research the famous person who lived at the house and if so, does this inform your approach in any way?
There are many Blue Plaques commemorating long-forgotten people. I don’t bother with them, I’m afraid. I pick well-known names that I think will appeal to a wide range of people who might buy prints of the paintings. So long as the person lived in the existing building, then I will paint it. I don’t bother if someone ‘lived on this site’. Sometimes the house is interesting or beautiful, sometimes it’s not. I will always do a bit of research, just out of interest. Also, if I get some nice anecdotes about a person, I will use these when I publicise the painting.

What tools do you use to create these gorgeous paintings?
I paint the pictures on an iPad, using an app called Paper 53. It is very simple and allows me to draw and paint free hand, making the pictures look like watercolours. Watercolour is my favourite medium but the iPad allows me to mix colours very quickly so I can finish these pictures faster than I would if I was getting my watercolour paints out all the time. It is very satisfying and lots of fun. I take photos of the buildings for reference and have the photo up on another computer as I paint on the iPad. It is very relaxing, but when I go on holiday, I revert to old-fashioned watercolours, which I love.

What’s your favourite listed building?
My favourite listed building is Blustons, a 1930s shop in Kentish Town which sells clothes from the 1940s and 50s. It has a beautiful shop front and is famous in Kentish Town where everyone wonders who on earth buys such old-fashioned clothes. But apparently a lot of their business comes from the film industry, when period clothes are needed. Presumably, long ago, the clothes were fashionable.

You’ve focused on capturing the buildings of NW5. Any plans to expand elsewhere?
There are about 120 listed buildings in Kentish Town. I have painted all but two, and will get the last ones finished soon. I have edged into NW1 (Camden Town), a bit, as it has a lot of attractive old buildings

It seems like you’ve set up the perfect business, concentrating on a niche subject and then offering commissions where needed. What advice would you give to artists thinking about setting up their own business?
I have been struck by how much cafes and coffee shops are keen to have art exhibitions by local artists. This seems to be more and more the norm and a good way to get known. Social media is also very important to me. I don’t use Facebook but I am very active on twitter, where I post my latest paintings and communicate with my followers. Make yourself accessible. Although I am anonymous and few people know my name, I set up a Secret Artist email account, a Secret Artist Paypal account and a Secret Artist website which shows all my paintings and prices. I spend a lot of time getting postcards and larger prints printed, having befriended the local printer, and delivering them to shops that sell them to their customers. The other day I was on holiday in south-east Asia, and the local vicar emailed me, asking for a print of his church urgently. I emailed the printer (who had a jpeg of the church having done a print of it before), and the vicar was able to pick up the print from the printer the next day while I was on the other side of the world.

Where can we see your work (exhibitions/online)
My website is http://www.secretartistNW5.com and I currently have an exhibition at a popular local café called Map Studio Café in Grafton Road, Kentish Town. This is running indefinitely at the moment. There will be another show in June at a coffee shop called Two Doors Down in Kentish Town Road, showing my paintings of the local shops.

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A Brief History of Underground Comix

Hunt Emerson's interpretation of D.H Lawrence in our current issue
Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson: Issue 7 D.H Lawrence Zombie Hunter

Our script editor, Adrian Reynolds, gives a brief history of the American underground comix movement, something that inspired Hunt Emerson, the artist for our DH Lawrence chapter. 

“The American underground comics were what started me on comics in the first place. I’d read the Beano etc as a child, and also been profoundly influenced by early MAD comics, but it wasn’t until I saw work by Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, and their contemporaries, when I was in my early 20s, that I got the idea that this was the path I wanted to follow. My own work was influenced by them and by the British kids comics, and then later, as I learned about comics history, by such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and by European comics.” Hunt Emerson

American kids of the fifties grew up but never really left childhood behind. Advertisers recognised youth as the biggest market to sell stuff to, and entertainment was aimed at a generation who didn’t want to make the same choices as their parents. Movies like Easy Rider were made by people in the film business who felt a kinship with the counterculture. And having grown up reading comics, it was no surprise that their creators started to produce comics that fit the times.

Some would say they were comix and not comics, the x signifying that they were for adults like X-rated movies. A lot of the time, that amounted to nudity and drugs featuring in stories to no great effect – like sixties comedians realising that they could swear on stage, without having anything to say. While many titles had little to offer beyond the desire to shock, some underground comix explored their times with more insight, in the way that Lenny Bruce brought subversive intelligence to the comedy stage.

Robert Crumb was the Lenny Bruce of underground comix. Fearless in his frank depiction of his sexual fascinations and neuroses, his art burst the bubble of the hippy dream that other artists such as Vaughn Bode were suckered by. Crumb’s honesty was a pointer to something uncomfortable: many of the new radicals were basically their own parents with longer hair, as messed-up as any generation. And he wasn’t going to win favours with his views on drugs as a time when they were the fashionable thing to do: “Killing yourself is a major commitment, it takes a kind of courage. Most people just lead lives of cowardly desperation. It’s kinda half suicide where you just dull yourself with substances.

There’s a timeless brilliance to Crumb’s work, but it often makes for uncomfortable reading. His truthfulness about his own obsessions perhaps reminds us of whatever our own may be. The result is that though he’s acknowledged as the leading underground creator, he’s not the most popular.

Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, concurs with Crumb about the counterculture: “what came out of it was also kind of an imitation community with a lot of mindless conformity.”  Like Crumb and many of the underground cartoonists, Griffith’s work was a way of exploring America’s underbelly. His approach was idiosyncratic – he dissected his neuroses not directly as Crumb did, but through putting the media to scrutiny, one of his conclusions being “All life is a blur of Republicans and meat.

The sixties underground scene was a pretty male-dominated one, and a lot of the work thrived on imagery that was essentially pornographic. A different kind of underground emerged in the seventies, taking feminism as one of its key notes. Trina Robbins and Joyce Farmer were behind titles like Wimmen’s Comix and Tits & Clits Comix, which presented a stronger view of women as creators and protagonists.

Trina Robbins was appalled by some of the misogyny of stories in Zap – to which Crumb was a major contributor. “We were simply not accepted by the underground comix community, which were all guys. They were incredibly threatened by my feminism and they hated the fact that I dared criticize the absolutely violent misogyny in underground comix. I’m not talking about simple sexism, I’m talking about violent [comics] where women are raped and murdered and their body parts are scattered across the landscape and then the whole thing is considered funny. It was horrific stuff and I had the nerve to criticize it so I was really persona non grata in the comix community.”

A lot of the underground material has dated now, but some of it transcends its era. Most of all, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, which has constantly been in print since the seventies, and finds new readers whenever a new generation of young people discover the pleasures of cannabis. Actually, the comic – created by Gilbert Shelton – is brilliantly funny, with archetypal characters in the form of buddies Fat Freddy, Freewheelin’ Franklin, and Phineas…not forgetting their cat, often the smartest of the bunch. Their adventures are well-plotted, the cartooning is brilliant, and the whole is very funny indeed.

It’s hard to be clear just when underground comix became independent comics, but that’s one transition that happened. Another was the way that mainstream comics were influenced by the underground scene. Steve Gerber is the clearest example, his Howard the Duck being one of the least likely Marvel titles ever. Howard owes a lot to the underground’s critique of American culture, the mallard hero ‘trapped in a world he never made’ and thus able to offer comment on it in ways that ‘hairless apes’ could not.

In turn, Gerber was acknowledged as an influence by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two of the British writers who went and contributed to the revitalisation of the medium at a point when superhero comics were looking particularly tired, and needed an injection of fresh blood. Both had dabbled in the British underground as part of their early years too, and its interest in politics, drugs, and satire is apparent in much of the work put out when DC editor Karen Berger started to hire writers from this side of the Atlantic in the eighties. All of which is to say, there’s a line connecting some of what those creators did in titles like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Sandman, and the work a bunch of potheads were putting out in the sixties. It’s worth checking out in its own right, and you’ll get a better sense of the history of comics if you do so.

Hunt Emerson’s D.H Lawrence Zombie Hunter was released on 8 September. You can read it here.

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Hunt Emerson interview

Adrian Reynolds, the writer of Little Boxes (our current chapter), talks to his childhood hero Hunt Emerson, the artist and writer for Chapter 7: D H Lawrence (released 8 September 2014) 

Without cartoonist Hunt Emerson, Dawn of the Unread might not exist in quite the form it does. It was his work I was introduced to in the seventies when my dad brought home some of the comics that Hunt was producing in what was then termed the Print Lab of Aston University. I’d seen comics before, but I never quite clicked with most British humour comics, and war comics didn’t do it for me either.

Something about Hunt’s work clicked with me though. The titles for a start – who wouldn’t want to read a publication called Large Cow Comix? They were clearly the work of an interestingly deranged mind that even in their lettering – Hunt used to put a dot in the middle of a letter O – suggested something off-kilter going on. And then there were the elastic figures who populated the surreal landscapes of his drawings, where background details shift from one panel to the next.

I was captivated, and that glimpse of what comics could be like primed me to actively seek out further examples of what people could do when they put images and words together, from 2000AD to Marvel, DC, and a pretty broad spectrum of indie creators. In time that introduced me to some of Hunt’s influences – Herriman’s Krazy Kat and the American underground scene.

All of which made it inevitable, when I was asked to get involved in Dawn of the Unread, choosing artists and working with them and writers to ensure their stories work, that I’d approach Hunt Emerson to contribute. He said yes, and is working on a piece about D.H. Lawrence for us, a kind of follow-up to his acclaimed take on Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Hunt’s berserk adaptations of literary works, from Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Dante’s Inferno, are acclaimed. And they’re just part of a career that also includes stints on Radio Times and The Beano. But it all starts off back in the seventies, with the Arts Lab scene that also gave rise to Alan Moore…

Alan Rabbit aka Bill the Bunny, Hunt Emerson
Alan Rabbit aka Bill the Bunny, Hunt Emerson


What role did Arts Labs play in what you were doing then? What were Arts Labs, and what distinguishes them from what you’ve seen since?

In 1967 Jim Haynes, David Bowie and others started an experimental arts workshop in London they called the Arts Lab. Soon, Arts Labs appeared in other cities, including Birmingham. They mostly lasted for about a year before closing, but the Birmingham one hung on, and became a fixture of the city from 1968-1982. It was, at first, in a former gym and youth centre in the Newtown area, and it had the world’s most uncomfortable cinema (3rd hand cinema seating, no heating) showing art films – Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, “foreign” films, etc. There was also theatre studio space, experimental music workshops, painting studios, a dance troupe, poetry readings, and so on. The building was dilapidated and chaotic, the place was forever on the verge of collapse, and it was just great!

I was involved there from early in my time in Birmingham – from about 1973, when I was part of the experimental music workshop. The Lab had a silkscreen workshop printing posters, and a small offset litho press for film and theatre notes, flyers, etc. I wangled myself a job there in about 1975, operating the press – though I soon moved on to darkroom work, design and layout. We got a larger, A3 press, and inevitably I started printing and publishing underground comics there, with a group of friends (none of whom, incidentally, were comics artists). We published a number of titles under the banner of Ar:zak, the arts Lab Press, titles including Street Comix, Committed Comix, David Noon’s Moon Comix, and Heroine (Britain’s first wimmins’ comic), and we featured artists such as Steve Bell, Bryan Talbot, Kevin O’Neill, Mike Matthews, Chris Welch, Suzy Varty and Graham Manley. We never sold more than a thousand or so of any title, though some of our print runs were 10,000!

The Arts Lab moved to a site on Aston University’s campus, and struggled on until around 1990 until it finally closed. I left the place in 1980 to go freelance. My time there was the most fun I’ve ever had at work, though it was also very frustrating and poverty stricken! We learned to improvise and make do with depleted resources, to not be “precious” about work, art and comics, and to develop a healthy anti-establishment attitude. We didn’t learn any business sense.

Birnmingham Arts Lab
Birmingham Arts Lab by Hunt Emerson.

Did you have much sense of the American underground scene when you were starting out, or did your work evolve independently?

The American underground comics were what started me on comics in the first place. I’d read the Beano etc as a child, and also been profoundly influenced by early MAD comics, but it wasn’t until I saw work by Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, and their contemporaries, when I was in my early 20s, that I got the idea that this was the path I wanted to follow. My own work was influenced by them and by the British kids comics, and then later, as I learned about comics history, by such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and by European comics.

How did the idea of doing literary adaptations crop up? Are you planning any more?

My first literary adaptation was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, produced with Knockabout Comics after they had fought and won an expensive and resource-devouring censorship prosecution. We wanted to celebrate our win, and coincidentally, Lady C came out of copyright at the right time, so we made an irreverent lampoon of D.H. Lawrence’s book. It was, for us, successful, so we went on to do the same to Casanova (not so successful) and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (still selling). Most recently, we’ve published my take on Dante’s Inferno. I’ve taken to the form, and I’ve worked on comics adaptations of the literature of John Ruskin, Edward Lear, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Robert W. Service, Lewis Carroll, and others that I can’t remember now. I am currently working on a longer term project that will be a history of Handsworth, the district of Birmingham where I live – which will involve local young people and new artists as well as myself and other professionals.

Lady Chatterley's Lover - Hunt Emerson
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Hunt Emerson

You’ll be revisiting Lawrence for Dawn of the Unread. What’s your process like for developing a new story?

These days it’s all about the deadline I’m afraid. I like writing my own stories, but I’m not consistent enough to write to order, regularly. So I work in collaboration with writers these days most of the time. Tym Manley has written Firkin the Cat for Fiesta since it started in 1980, and the Beano send scripts by different writers; currently Stu Munro is scripting Little Plum. I’ve worked a lot with Kevin Jackson over the past five or six years, firstly on comics about John Ruskin, then on Dante’s Inferno (where I wrote it, based on Kevin’s notes and advice), and currently on Phenomenomix for Fortean Times. For this latter, we are gradually producing a series of pages on “Great Occultists”, with the idea that there will eventually be a book. It’s Kevin who will be writing the D.H. Lawrence strip for Dawn of the Unread.

I still write Phenomenomix pages from time to time – I’ve written most of them for the strip’s lifetime – and I occasionally write other stories. I’m currently writing a Calculus Cat 7-page story, which will be for the volume I’m hoping to fund through Kickstarter. That strip – the Calculus Cat – is giving me the most fun. Writing a story like that is actually the best part of doing a comic. After it’s written, the rest is just work.

If I’m writing, it has to be done in silence, usually at night, at my desk staring at a sheet of paper. Ideas come, get scribbled down, changed and reworked, and I’m still making changes to dialogue and phrasing as I’m lettering the artwork pages. I don’t tend to do thumbnail sketches as I know what the visual part is like as I’m writing. I do some very rough frame layouts – figuring out which frames go where on a page – on a scrap of paper, then go straight to the drawing boards. I letter the pages, then pencil the pages, usually very loosely – sometimes the pencil work is barely visible – and then I ink straight on top of the pencils. For illustration work I do more preparation, and use a lightbox, but my comics pages are quite spontaneous.

I’m going to visit Kevin Jackson today to discuss the Lawrence strip. We’ll toss ideas around and talk about a general structure – Kevin is very knowledgeable about practically everything. Then he’ll write a script which will have too many words in, and I’ll take it apart, re-edit it without changing much, and basically turn it into a comic.

HUNT SCHOOL
Image provided by Hunt Emerson.

You’re doing some work in schools now. How did that come about, and what are you getting from it other than another source of freelance income? What’s the biggest surprise you’ve experienced working with children?

Most of us find ourselves doing workshops at one time or another, mainly to earn more money, but also because comics and cartoons are hugely popular with children, and they can learn a lot from manipulating images and materials to tell stories. It’s exhausting and keeps you on your toes, it’s absorbing and stimulating, and it’s usually great fun! Biggest surprise? I think that is the rapport I build up with students. I’m never entirely convinced by my own abilities and talents as a teacher, though to be fair, as I get more experience I seem to be a good teacher. I’m very patient, and that helps. Children seem to respond well to my attempts, and they are always surprising and FUNNY – especially the younger ones.

What is it like doing a Kickstarter to put your work out there, and is it something you’d do again?

Kickstarter seems like, and is, a great idea, but boy! It involves a lot of work and organisation! My campaign for reprinting my Calculus Cat book hasn’t run its course yet, but assuming we make the goal of £10,000, then it will enable us to put another book in the shops and to make some nice collectable artefacts and a deluxe hardback edition of the book (which will be exclusive to Kickstarter Pledgers). Your readers can help with the campaign by visiting this link

Calculus Cat
Calculus Cat. Image provided by Hunt Emerson.

Tell us more about Calculus Cat. 

Calculus Cat is a character I invented while talking on the phone and doodling. I drew a series of comics about him which were collected by Knockabout in an album in 1987, which has been out of print for years. Calculus Cat was always popular, and I’ve been asked many times – begged, even – to revive him. So I’m planning to reprint the book, with the addition of about 20 new pages. That’s what the Kickstarter campaign is about. The book, for Kickstarter pledgers, will be in a deluxe hardback format, and there will be a standard paperback version for general sale. As well as the new pages, I’ve also persuaded a whole bunch of other cartoonists to draw a Gallery of Calculus cat pictures, and I’ll be producing a t-shirt, badges, guitar plectrums (plectra?), and limited edition prints – all assuming we can make the £10,000 goal we’ve set ourselves on Kickstarter. So, I’d urge anyone and everyone to get into it, make a pledge, and get the deluxe edition of this daft book.

Calculus Cat spends his days running around with the Grin on his face, dodging rubbish and abuse hurled at him by the public. When he comes home at night all he wants is to slump in front of the telly and watch his favourite shows – mostly 1960s westerns, cop shows and cartoons. But the TV also has a job to do, advertising Skweeky Weets at him. They argue and bicker, the night is filled with cartoon violence, and Calculus has to drag on his Grin in the morning and haul himself out again to confront his hostile public. That is basically what the comics are about. They make me laugh; I hope others find the same amusement in them. If I can make my readers laugh then that is the greatest compliment there can be for a cartoonist.

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