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 (Right). Photos by James Walker.

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.

Nottingham’s favourite mard arse D.H. Lawrence features in Issue 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.

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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.



Image from Issue 16 of Dawn of the Unread

On Saturday around 40 or so people gathered in Market Square for #readablackauthor as part of #blackhistorymonth. It was originally meant to take place outside the Council House but we were moved on because there was a wedding and presumably the bride and groom didn’t want a bunch of eager readers’ photo bombing their special day.

I love events like this because they force me to think about my reading habits. Although I am increasingly listening to books on audio (I have to get a lot of buses) and reading on electronic devices when researching (because I can underline passages and then magically export these as a word document) physical books are still my favourite means of reading. Therefore my bookshelves are a good indicator to my reading habits.

The bookshelves in my front room are in alphabetical order. But they’re also classified according to genre. In addition to this I have two sections on Nottingham authors and one on Booker winners. So I was quickly able to gauge not only how many Black authors I had but where they fell in terms of these categories. In terms of the Booker prize there have been three Black authors who have won the prize since it was launched in 1969. These are Ben Okri (1991), Marlon James (2015), and Paul Beatty (2016). Of these three winners I have read and own a copy of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Killing. In terms of Nottingham authors I have three Black authors on my shelves. These are Panya Banjoko No Tears For Me My Mother, Norma Gregory Jamaicans in Nottingham and a couple of Arthur Ness collections by Wilf Morgan.

My access to wider Black literature has largely come about through the book group I’m in. It’s a real diverse mix of people and at one point included members from Italy, Germany, Scotland, France, Russia, and America. Consequently, I’m not only encouraged to see books from different perspectives but the books that I’m introduced to tend to be authors I’ve not heard from. But I should point out that none of the members of my book group are black.

Our selection for October is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) which deals with complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality and was written before the Gay Liberation Movement. But before reading this I’ve started on another of his novels, Another Country (1962), which deals with race, nationalism, sex and love in an era of ignorance, aggression and hope. There’s a real energy to it and I can’t put it down.

The minute I googled Baldwin I immediately recognised his face but I was completely unaware of how much he’d written and what a pivotal role he played in the Civil Rights movement. This then led me to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. He died before completing it and his publishing house McGraw-Hill took the unprecedented step of suing his estate to recover the advance they’d paid him for the book. The lawsuit was eventually dropped although the damage was done.

Baldwin is such an eloquent talker and frames the civil rights movement in terms that make most sense to me: The history of Black America, of slavery, is the history of America. You can’t separate the two. But getting people to recognise this is difficult and requires courage: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

When I created Dawn of the Unread my intention was to celebrate Nottingham’s literary history and to get people reading about their home town. However, this raised many issues, one of which was the lack of Black representation. This wasn’t through choice. It was a fact of history. There are very few Black Nottingham authors. Therefore our last issue was dedicated to George Africanus and George Powe and ended on a positive note, celebrating the contribution of organisations such as Nottingham Black Archive (NBA) who are helping to address this balance. The NBA were also responsible for the flash reading mob on Saturday.

#ReadaBlackAuthor was at 2pm on October 21st in Old Market Square, Nottingham.

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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.

Nottingham Black Archive

Last year I wrote a manifesto for “an interactive digital humanities project” for a conference at Durham University called Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities. The fourth point in the ten point manifesto was:

“Bring life to the archive. Archives when used in collaboration with social media can help build a collectively authored anthology of content that takes the conversation in new and often unexpected directions.”

Dawn of the Unread has helped bring to life some wonderful archives over the past 16 months, such as: the Feminist Library at the Nottingham Women’s Centre, the Ray Gosling Archives, the Manuscripts and Special Collections Department at University of Nottingham, The Sparrow’s Nest Anarchist Library and Digital Cavendish, an academic project in the USA.

George Africanus throws a mard when he realises diversity is missing from our literary comic
George Africanus throws a mard when he realises diversity is missing from our literary comic

Our final issue ‘Powe versus Africanus’ pays particular attention to race and is written by Panya Banjoko, one of the founding members of the Nottingham Black Archive. NBA was created in 2010 and, as the title suggests, aims to research, collect and preserve Black history, heritage and culture in Nottingham, from the earliest time to the present day. It has in its collection some of the earliest documents relating to the formation of black community organisations in Nottingham, including the ACNA Centre’s constitution, 14 full transcripts from the first generation of Caribbean elders to reside in Nottingham, photographs, articles, newsletters and political letters dating back to the 1960s. More recently it has added videos after employing local documentary maker Ioney Smallhorne.

Panya felt that BME identities were under represented in local museums and conducted some research into Attitudes and Perceptions of the African Caribbean Community at Nottingham Castle Museum in 2008. This revealed that African Caribbean people did not feel as though their history or culture was being represented in Nottingham’s Museums. One comment in her research was particularly revealing: ‘It seems that the only black history contained in museums is about slavery, and that’s not all of black history…I just don’t feel like they showcase some of the good in my history apart from that one big problem’.

NBA filmed 19 oral testimonines for the Common Land project
NBA filmed 19 oral testimonines for the Common Land project. Photo Nottingham Black Archive.

To counteract this the NBA has ran a series of community engagement projects. Of particular interest is The Common Land which explores the development of the St. Ann’s estate through the eyes of residents during the 1960s and 1970s. In total they recorded and filmed 19 oral histories, including Merlita Bryan, who would become Nottingham’s first female Black Sheriff. The recordings were then dramatised by Mufaro Makubika and performed at the Nottingham Playhouse during October 2012 at a sharing event.

The first generation of Afro-Caribbean settlers in postwar St. Ann’s would have experienced a wide range of prejudices, many of which led to the 1958 Race Riots. Journalist Norma Gregory has pointed out in her book Jamaicans in Nottingham that one common prejudice (after we had progressed from No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish) was the belief that Black people would bring down the value of housing in an area. Mortgages were also difficult for Black people to obtain due to an institutional prejudice that argued they were unlikely to live for the duration of the 25 year repayment plan and so were a poor investment.

But just as the person in Panya’s research was frustrated at Black culture being only known through a narrative of slavery, so too St. Ann’s has become a byword for poverty and destitution. This is largely due to the Race Riots, a 1969 Gimme Shelter documentary into ‘slums’ (see above video), Ken Coates Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman and more recently Lisa McKenzie’s Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.

This is something that particularly annoys Colin Haynes, who I work with at the Ray Gosling Archives. Colin was an activist in the 1970s and wishes more was said about the positive contribution of locals such as the work of Satra (St Ann’s Tenants and Residents Association) or the Chase Times newsletter which was written by local people and encouraged activism and skill sharing. Referring to Ken Coates book, Ray Gosling once told me, with a smirk, “I think people made a lot of money about books on poverty in those days.”

Nottingham Black Archive have gone some way to altering the parameters informing dialogue about race and community which is why their inclusion was so vital in our final issue. Elsewhere they are helping to give meaning to archives by bringing them directly out into the public, such as through their Community Capsule, a box containing books, children’s toys , war time cookery book, registration and identity cards, costumes, photographs and activities for children to make all relating to World War Two.

Perhaps the most shocking artefact in this collection is the Golly Flying a Lancaster Bomber. The Golliwog originated as a character in Florence Kate Upton and Bertha Upton’s 1895 book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls but has largely been deemed an offensive racist symbol. Although it is offensive to modern sensibilities it is a symbol that is a reminder of past attitudes and how with hard work and education, these attitudes can be changed.

I knew nothing about the Nottingham Black Archive until Dawn of the Unread and I hope that we’ve gone some way to raising awareness about an important institution that’s been created from below rather than from above. There’s still a lot of work to be done, in particular their website needs updating and more content should be digitised, but this is where you, dear reader, can step in and offer your support.

‘Powe Versus Africanus,’ the last issue in the Dawn of the Unread serial can be read here.

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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.