Tongue and Talk – Pit poetry and Notts dialect…

Tongue and Talk is a three part series exploring dialect poets. It’s broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and produced by Made in Manchester. Episode 2 features an area that’s neither north nor south: Nottingham. 

When I was putting together Dawn of the Unread we were faced with an impossible task: Who do you include? We had a budget for 10 chapters and I managed to extend this to 16. But there’s 100s of authors from Nottingham who never featured. Many of these can now be found in the recent Five Leaves publication Nottinghamshire Writers, though there are many absences too. It’s an impossible task.

However, future projects currently underway are enabling me to address those that slipped through the net, particularly miners. Having grown up in a mining village I’ve witnessed the brass bands marching through the streets twirling batons and holding aloft tribal banners. I’ve heard the sounds of pit life, such as men quenching pay day thirst after a stint down below, looking like a collection of burly Goths with their eyeliner; playfully harassing each other with a quick-fired wit that comes from risking your life every day. But one thing I wouldn’t automatically associate miners with is poetry. This is based on the fact that I was hassled for reading where I grew up. It signified that I thought I was summat. Having said that, it was the eighties: Unemployment, Falklands, AIDS, Russia v America, and, of course, the Miners’ Strike. It didn’t take much to get people rattled.

Over the past six months I’ve discovered there were lots of pit poets within the East Midlands thanks to research by Natalie Braber and David Amos. Poetry served many functions, not least helping pass time as a cage lowered you five miles down into the bowels of the earth. Poetry was a way of making sense of the danger, the regulations, and the slow erosion of an industry that can be traced back to medieval times. It was also a way to reconnect with the world. More recently, poetry is helping to rebuild a sense of community, bringing miners together to share their experiences.

Al Rate and Bill Kerry

Al Rate (left) and Bill Kerry III

David and Natalie have hosted numerous public engagement events such as Songs and Rhymes from the Mines, whereby musicians such as Bill Kerry III are taking the thick dialect of pit poets such as Heanor’s Owen Watson and translating them into folk songs so that they reach new audiences. Al Rate (Aka Misk Hills) has penned new songs inspired by specific pit words, such as ‘powder monkey’ and ‘elephant’s tab’.

To celebrate this and other forms of dialect, I’ve recorded an episode for a BBC Radio 4 series called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets. It’s produced by Made in Manchester. The series kicks off on 13 May when Catherine Harvey returns to her roots in the North West of England to see if the dialect poetry of the cotton mills of the 19th century is alive today. In episode two (20 May), I’ll be discussing the local accent and then exploring ‘pit talk’ with ex miners, musicians and a new generation of poets inspired by life underground. The final episode in the series sees Kirsty McKay return to her Northumberland roots to witness the erosion of dialect and culture by the encroachment of urbanisation and influx of people moving into the area.

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Nottingham’s favourite mard arse DH Lawrence features in episode 7 of Dawn of the Unread.

Episode 2 of Tongue and Talk also features Al Needham (who wrote our Bendigo issue) and Andrew Graves (who wrote our 5th Duke of Portland issue). We also visit DH Lawrence’s former home ‘Breach House’ and discuss his dialect poem The Collier’s Wife (featured in issue 7) I also interviewed Norma Gregory, a historian and writer whose research focuses on forgotten (ignored) black histories. She featured briefly in the final issue of Dawn of the Unread when we told the story of George Africanus and George Powe. Recently she’s undergone a mammoth project called Digging Deeper whereby she’s recording the experiences of African Caribbean miners. But the interview wasn’t used in the end as the emphasis of the programme is dialect.

However, I am pleased to announce that Norma is one of the commissioned writers for Dawn of the Unread II: Whatever People Say I Am. This interactive graphic novel serial explores myths surrounding identity and so Norma will be able to tell the story of one of the many miners she has interviewed recently. I’ve been working on scripts for this for the past year or so. It’s coming soon, I promise.

DOTU Round logoDawn 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.

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#MondayBlogs Literacy – A Journey to Justice

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One year ago I attended a meeting at the Galleries of Justice with 25 people about a project called Journey to Justice (JtoJ). The day was planned with our partners: Sharon Monteith, Founding Co-director of Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R), Rosemary Pearce then of C3R and Bev Baker (Senior Curator and Archivist at GOJ), Tim Desmond (CEO of GOJ) and Midlands 3 Cities with PhD student Scott Weightman, JtoJ local organiser.

The remit of JtoJ is “to inspire and empower people to take action for social justice through learning about human rights movements.” This voluntary organisation initially focussed on the US civil rights movement, taking Dr. Martin Luther King’s timeless message of solidarity, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” as their mantra. The first major project of JtoJ was a touring exhibition that focussed on the principles of the U.S civil rights movement. This has slowly developed and spread around the globe, linking with other activists to promote and educate about issues that specifically relate to local communities.

We were shown case studies of how other cities had got involved and I was quite taken by the scope and ambition of the project, particularly the ease with which organisations were able to collaborate and promote various causes. Nottingham, as a former ‘factory city’ with a real mix of identities and ethnicities, has a long history of activism so we were pretty spoilt for choice when trying to find causes we could promote. Some of the issues raised were: Nottingham’s refugee history; Streetwise Opera – homeless and non-homeless performers; Sash (Salaam Shalom) a Muslim/Jewish weekly soup kitchen and food bank; October Dialogues – Black History; Polish homeless men project; History of the 1958 race riots and colour bar; Child Migrant Trust HQ in Nottingham; Radical Walks; Women’s History Group; Bread and Roses Theatre group; Creating a school and FE resource packs; Nottingham’s first UK Black Lives Matter chapter. I was there as a representative of Nottingham UNESCO city of literature and Dawn of the Unread.

When Dawn of the Unread was created in 2014 I positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse. Therefore, it is a human rights issue to me. It has been proven through countless research that an inability to read or write has profound effects upon a person’s life from their ‘trust’ in society to whether they become a home owner. Nottingham is below the regional and national average for literacy levels and so there is additional reasons to fight this cause.

Within the Dawn of the Unread comic serial we have championed other identity politics, from the Operative Libraries of the 1800s that empowered workers to self-educate and demands rights from employers to the #readwomen campaign that addressed gender inequalities within publishing. We explored the lack of representation of Black history in our final issue via George Africanus and George Powe, poiting our readers towards the work of Nottingham Black Archives (who were at the JtoJ) event as well as inspirational figures such as Norma Gregory.

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On Friday 24 March, Aly Stoneman  was invited by Bradley Phipps to host a workshop at Galleries of Justice. She was there as a representative of Dawn of the Unread and as a PhD student as part of Midlands 3 Cities. In issue 10 Aly explored the imaginary life of Ms. Hood, updating the Hood legend to a modern setting where activists are protesting at fracking and the greed of banks. Written as a poem, it takes inspiration from Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. Of her workshop Aly said:

“The idea was to present a poem and talk a bit about the context of the piece and how it links to present-day social justice issues. Ms Hood seemed a good match, as the poem explores how contemporary social, political and economic situations might create 21st Century ‘Hoods’ and how challenging inequality and marginalization of vulnerable people is as relevant today as it was a thousand years ago. Topics I addressed included authority and anarchism, war, land ownership and the feudal system, race, feminism, education, police brutality, and environmental crisis. Robin Hood may be a myth, but it’s what he stands for that counts: Truth, Freedom and Justice.”

The ability to connect and provoke conversations has been one of the greatest successes of Dawn of the Unread. We have offered small glimpses into the lives of Nottingham’s literary history, created awareness of other organisations through our embedded content, and then left other people to continue the conversations. At the time of Aly’s workshop Rebecca Goldsmith is drafting lesson plans so that schools across Nottingham can use Dawn of the Unread as a learning tool, our student placement James Wood is writing blogs for us and mentoring in schools, Connie Wood is developing and managing our Instagram account, and the recently published book by Spokesman Books has been sent out to libraries and schools across Nottingham as well as UNESCO cities across the globe. And in the background, over many cups of coffee and bus and train journeys, I’ve been putting together Dawn of the Unread II which will be called Whatever People Say I Am. Amelia Sharland has been assisting me with the research. Another journey will begin very soon …

DOTU Round logoDawn 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.

FURTHER READING

#MondayBlogs Alan Gibbons on National Libraries’ Demonstration 5 Nov 2016

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Alan Gibbons was our featured writer back in Issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread when he brought Robin Hood and his Merrie Men back to life for a tub-thumping protest at the demolition of library services. Now he’s urging us all to stand up and walk in protest at cuts faced by public institutions that are integral to learning.   

“Public Libraries and Museums remain the lynchpin of communities, offering access to learning, reading, history, art, information and enjoyment. Libraries are, or should be, trusted public spaces for everyone. They play a crucial role in improving literacy, in combating the digital divide and in widening democratic involvement. BUT, in the UK since 2010, we’ve LOST:

  • 8,000 paid and trained library workers (a quarter of all staff);
  • 343 libraries (600-plus including ones handed to volunteers); and
  • One in five regional museums at least partially closed.

We’ve also seen:

  • Libraries’ and museums’ opening hours cut;
  • Budgets, education programmes and mobile/ housebound/specialist services slashed;
  • An escalation in commercialisation and privatisation;
  • A 93% increase in the use of volunteers in libraries;
  • Income generation become the priority for almost 80% of museums.”

So say the organisers of the National Museums, Libraries and Galleries demonstration on 5 November  in London, PCS Culture Sector, Unite the Union, Barnet UNISON & Save Barnet Libraries, and Campaign for the Book have initiated a national demonstration to save some of our most treasured public services.

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Words: Alan Gibbons. Art: Steve Larder. From Issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread ‘Books and Bowstrings’

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Labour Party says: “I give my 100% support to this demonstration. The Tories have devastated our public services using austerity policies as justification. I promise that a Labour Government will act to ‘in-source’ our public and local council services and increase access to leisure, arts and sports across the country. We will reverse the damage the Tories have done to our communities in the cities, towns and villages.”

I will be there, marching alongside service users, staff and campaigners from around the country. Will you please join me?

When: Saturday, November 5th, noon.
Where: British Library, Euston Road, London.
Facebook page

DOTU Round logoDawn 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.

 

#MondayBlogs Nice to know you, to know you Mr. Nice

Back in Issue 3 of Dawn of the Unread Michael Eaton and Eddie Campbell told the story of the Victorian master criminal Charlie Peace. Michael recently got in touch to share a story about how he was once asked by the BBC to dramatise the life of Howard Marks, the notorious drug smuggler and author of Mr. Nice, who passed away on 10 April.

It was with some surprise and not a little sadness that I learnt of the death of Howard Marks.  Surprise because I was out of the country when he publicly announced he was dying from inoperable cancer; sadness because it brought back memories of an erstwhile relationship curtailed and unclosed – for Howard was the subject of yet another of my many unproduced screenplays.

In the late 1990s whenever I was on a train it seemed as if the only book students were reading was Mister Nice.  So it was that with not a little delight that I was summoned by Michael Wearing – then the great Head of Drama at the BBC – to adapt this best-selling memoir of a roguish international dope dealer into a four-part TV series.  Thus it was that I first met Howard in an axiomatically No Smoking office in White City where he cheerfully skinned up as his agent and my producer did the deal.

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This was a story where, as so often, Truth was not necessarily stranger but certainly less plausible than Fiction.  A Welsh-speaking lad from Kenfig Hill who had an illustrious Oxford career but who gave up Physics and the Philosophy of Science for the allure of smuggling – for him both an ideal and an adventure.  It was Howard’s sincere belief that everybody must get stoned.  His arrest was inevitable but what was entirely unpredictable was that he skipped bail and lived for six years as an outlaw with innumerable aliases whilst pursuing his avocation all the while periodically showing up at gigs to be treated as a folk hero by his grateful consumers.  When eventually recaptured his Old Bailey trial was a Dadaist triumph as an out-of-work actor was engaged to give evidence from behind a screen impersonating a Mexican agent who had employed Marks as an undercover infiltrator to expose Latin American narco gangs.  Verdict?  Not Guilty.  Thinking himself bullet-proof he continued to export massive amounts of his commodity, entirely unaware that a determined DEA officer was on his trail.  Deported from Spain Howard was sentenced to a punitive 25 years in the federal pen of Terre Haute, Indiana.  He was freed after serving years and returned to write a million-selling memoir.

How could I resist such an opportunity?  But it all had to be hush-hush.

In the following months after that first meeting we spent a lot of time together.  I stalked Howard on the campaign trail as he stood as a sole candidate for the Legalise Cannabis Party – for which he received a couple of hundred votes.  Subsequently Michael Wearing and myself spent a couple of weeks in Mallorca with Howard and his family.  Every day I would trawl through his voluminous archives checking every fact against his own account whilst Wearing sunned himself by Howard’s pool.  At the end of each day I was desperate for a drink – my own drug of choice, arguably more lethal than his.  For Howard, who had been smoking from dawn to dusk, remained fascinatingly coherent as he discoursed on current trends in scientific discovery.

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The Hemperor: Howard Marks (13 Aug 1945 – 10  April 2016)

It all went wrong when Wearing was ignominiously cashiered from the Beeb after making unguarded remarks about John Birt which an unscrupulous journo published.  From then on it was downhill all the way.  I had a call from a Sunday Times reporter who asked whether I thought it was ethical that public money should be given to a convicted felon.  My reply was that I had been hired to adapt a book which was Number One on his own paper’s non-fiction chart.

My disillusionment began to set in when I went to see Howard’s inaugural performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.  The gig was sold out and scalpers were flogging seats far above the ticket price.  Most of his audience could not have been born when he made his first connection.  They idolised him.  He bathed in their applause.  Howard Marks had achieved what he had always aspired to: Celebrity.  He had become Robin Hood.  If he could have held a tune he would probably never have had to engage in a profession which guaranteed a rock star lifestyle.

Howard believed in what he did.  He never, as far as I know, dealt in any ‘harder’ drugs.  He was a champion of free speech and freedom of action.  He had a fine mind.  I enjoyed his charismatic company much more than, I suppose, he tolerated mine. It’s criminal that some methods people choose to get off their heads are considered illegal whilst others are advertised, taxed and encouraged.  But whilst such absurdities prevail there is no such thing as a victimless crime.

DOTU Round logoDawn 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.

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#MondayBlogs I know what our writers did this summer

We’re currently working on a print version of the Dawn of the Unread serial and then I’ll be going into hibernation as I begin 6 months of research into a possible part II to our literary graphic novel. It’s tentatively titled Untold Stories and will give voice to those who dare not, or cannot, speak for fear of persecution. But more of this another time. For now, here’s a quick update on what some of our writers and artists have been up to. 

Kate Ashwin, the artist for our Byron Clough issue, achieved the first stretch goal of her kickstarter campaign in record time, waking the next morning to discover she’d reached her pledged goal of £4,000. At the time of writing she’s nearly doubled her original goal. The money will enable her to print the latest issue of her Victorian adventure romp Widdershins: The Green-Eyed Monster. She’s also dyed her hair blue.

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Nicola Monaghan (aka Valentine) explored the life of Alma Reville in issue 6. In addition to offering aspiring writers advice via trance tracks, she’s found a digital publisher in Blue Morpho Press. The Troll book 1 is out now and book 2 is due to follow any time soon. You can also read her first collection of short stories ‘The Night Lingers and other stories’ or sit back and enjoy her forthcoming film STARCROSS. Phew, that girl’s been busy.

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In Issue 8 Nick Wood gave us an insight into book adaptations. ‘First thing I do is skim read. Quick as I can. Finish. Close the book. Try and forget it. Let a week pass. Write down those things that come first to my mind. Somewhere, somehow, in that process I’ll start to get a feel for the book. What it’s about. And whether I want to adapt it.’

In the exclusive article, Nick expressed his desire to adapt Mick Jackson’s The Underground Man. It’s been a long time coming. It’s had to battle its way through round after round of arts cuts but thanks to persistence, cracking source material, and the support and determination of Nottingham Playhouse, Nick will be bringing this incredible story to the stage on 27 September 2016. It will be a co – production between Nottingham Playhouse and ajtc Theatre Company. After opening in Nottingham it will tour the region before spreading out nationally.

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Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves was the commissioned writer for Issue 8. Here he explored the life of the eccentric, subterranean Duke of Portland. Since then he’s had his second collection of poetry published (Light at the End of the Tenner) and is now preparing for his Arts Council funded spoken word show God Save the Teen which will initially tour the East Midlands. In it he recounts his past life as a council youth worker, offering tales of drugs, relationships, and the various mistakes that invariably become wisdom in later age.  Your best bet for catching him locally is at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio on 25th September 7.30pm – £5.

As a freelance writer Adrian Reynolds, author of our Gotham Fool issue, has his fingers in many pies. He’s currently waiting to find out if he’s writing a low budget American feature film, which is contingent on fee and contract. Fingers crossed. In October his science fiction short White Lily will finally be viewable, initially by Kickstarter backers, and hopefully at Broadway Cinema’s Mayhem Festival. Elsewhere he’s got another sf short about to shoot in London once some minor script revisions have been approved and his online comic Dadtown now has a publisher, Canadian indie outfit Under Belly Comics. But best of all, as far we’re concerned, his Press When Illuminated talk will be featured at Nottingham Playhouse as part of their upcoming Conspiracy season.

Aly Stoneman is the lady in green, to the right of the picture.

Aly Stoneman is the lady in green, to the right of the picture.

Alyson Stoneman wrote our Ms Hood story for issue 10 and recently won the Buxton Poetry Prize on 7 July. The theme was ‘time’ and the prize was judged by Helen Mort. Aly’s poem ‘Windfalls’ laments the death of her father, a man of his time, through the changing landscape of an apple orchard.

Windfalls

Father, you pelted our legs with tiny windfall apples
when we looked for you at dusk. You would not recognize
the orchard now; a storm felled the old Bramley and Pippin,
we lost Browns and Discovery to voles, root-nibblers,
that long cold year the Crimson King rotted, crashed down.

Hard green apples bounced like raindrops, raised
bruises as we chased and hollered. You knew where
the robin nested, prime locations of knots and hollows,
you lifted me up to see, it was you made me flinch.
You watched Exeter burn when you were five.

Father, you came from a time hard as windfalls,
territorial as birdsong. When we buried you,
Spring sunshine fell through bare branches,
sheep bleating in orchards beyond the churchyard walls.
If you walked in now, you wouldn’t know us.

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Wayne Burrows was our primary researcher and my first point of contact for odd and intriguing facts. I dubbed him Nottingham’s Stephen Fry for the arts years ago having worked with him on other projects. Wayne also helped write the biogs for our literary figures.

He’s just seen Black Glass go to press, which is effectively his greatest hits, poetry wise. The experimental collection Exotica Suite was launched at the New Art Exchange in July. The book is accompanied by a CD of the texts set to music by Paul Isherwood (The Soundcarriers). The launch events also included screenings. Crossing and merging art forms was a characteristic of Wayne’s editorial of Staple magazine. You can find plenty of copies of Staple at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, but be warned; they’re ever so difficult to put down.

But where’s Robert Holcombe these days…

belbin books

David Belbin, the author of our Stanley Middleton story in Issue 14, can finally put his feet up and concentrate on writing after successfully chairing Nottingham’s bid to be recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ve sat on those board meetings and there’s been some sweat. We find out the result on 11 December.

The Great Deception, the latest installment of his Bone and Cane serial,  comes out later this year.  In David’s words; ‘Sarah Bone is the Labour MP for the fictional, marginal constituency of Nottingham West. Nick Cane was her university boyfriend. He spent five years in prison for running a cannabis factory in a cave below his flat in The Park, but is now trying to shake off his criminal past. Through these two, I tell the story of Nottingham in the New Labour years. They’re mysteries with a serious undertow. The Great Deception features characters from the first two books but is also, in a way, the sequence’s origin story. It has three timelines – the sixties, the eighties and the nineties. There’s Sarah’s grandfather, who was a cabinet minister in Wilson’s governments, and her dad, who died of AIDS. There’s espionage and prostitution. Three prime ministers appear in the novel, along with one famous spy.  The overall story’s about how lies can resonate through generations and the past is never really past.’

And yes, I know I’ve missed loads of other stuff out but a blog has to end at some point and there’s those Untold Stories that need a voice…

DOTU Round logoDawn 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.

RELATED READING