#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 …

FURTHER READING

#MondayBlogs Nottingham: City of Football, City of Literature

 

women can do it DOTUApparently 150,000 more women participated in sport this year. That’s an impressive rate of growth and largely due to government initiative like City of Football and This Girl Can, education and greater visibility in the media. We’ve come a long way from young women having to lie about their gender in order to play Sunday league football for their local team. But before I tell you about one woman’s incredible determination to play the sport she loves, let me explain how I met her.

I’m an avid bookreader and a director of Nottingham’s recently successful bid to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ve spent the last ten years or so promoting local literature in various forms. In 2014 I started an online graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread which brought back to life literary figures from Nottingham’s past. As I began researching, it quickly became clear that our literary history is dominated by white male authors. Women are conspicuous by their absence. As for Black female writers, forget it.

During my research I discovered an awareness campaign by Joanna Walsh called the Year of Reading Women. Drawing on research from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the campaign highlighted the lack of attention given to female authors and reviewers in the press. This discrepancy is odd, particularly given that women consistently perform better than men in literacy tests, as well as read more.

I decided to promote this campaign through Dawn of the Unread and commissioned the LeftLion poetry editor Aly Stoneman to retell the Robin Hood legend through a modern day Maid Marian. This paid homage to Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, a poetry collection told from the perspective of wives of famous men. Aly’s story sees Ms.Hood self-educate at a local library and so I began researching feminist libraries.

Feminist libraries really began to take shape in the 1970s when identity politics began to emerge. One opened in London in 1975 and a Feminist Archive quickly followed in Bristol in 1978. During this period one was opened in Nottingham thanks to Sheelagh Gallagher, Lorraine Meads and other members of the Nottingham Women’s Centre. It is the only one of its kind in the East Midlands.

The Library is still going today and has an incredible archive of zines and books aimed at self-education and empowerment. It recently gained prominence thanks to the WoLAN Project (Women’s Liberation and After in Nottingham). When I visited the centre and talked to people involved with WoLAN I was shocked, amazed and inspired to discover the story of a female football fanatic who was so desperate to play football for her local team that she stopped shaving her legs, cut her hair short, and selotaped her breasts tightly to her chest to conceal her gender. It worked for a while. But as she matured her body shape became more difficult to conceal and she was rumbled. Her football career was brought to a sharp end.

 

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As a ‘privileged’ white male I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for this woman to be denied playing the sport she loved on account of her gender. As a writer and reader I can’t imagine what it must be like to not have your words taken seriously on account of having the wrong chromosomes. But as a working class kid from a mining community, I do know what it means to fight.

Fighting for Nottingham to be taken seriously as a thriving literary culture is one of the reasons I got involved with the UNESCO City of Literature bid. I’m determined to help poets like Aly Stoneman and organisations like the Women’s Centre have a voice. It’s not breasts that need selotaping down in 2016, it’s our mouths. This is so that the ears, the only part of our anatomy that keeps growing, can listen to these incredible stories from women in culture, sports and the arts.

The next digital project I’m putting together is called Untold Stories. It will follow the Dawn of the Unread format but this time the emphasis will be on giving voice to people who have gone unheard due to prejudice, censorship and persecution. It will situate Nottingham as an international city and give voice to ten people from ten different countries who have settled here and share their incredible stories. For the last six months I’ve been in the process of collecting these stories and building up partnerships and sponsors. But if you know of a remarkable story or an inspiring individual, please get in contact.

This is an amended blog which was originally published on the City of Football website on 10 December, 2015

#MondayBlogs Nottingham: UNESCO City of Literature

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On Friday 11 December, Nottingham was accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. To celebrate this I’m hosting a new monthly literature podcast in association with LeftLion and NG Digital.

Dawn of the Unread was created on National Libraries’ Day 2014 as a reaction to some worrying literacy statistics that suggested a large proportion of teenagers found books boring. I was furious because there’s a strong relationship between social outcomes and literacy. For example, you are less likely to have ‘trust’ in society, marry, get a mortgage or vote if you have low literacy levels. It was yet another example of how working class kids are institutionally kept in their place.

My approach was to create a graphic novel that would not only create awareness of our incredible literary history but hopefully raise aspirations too. This was done by introducing a gaming element to the graphic novel whereby users had the option of playing Dawn of the Unread. They were set four tasks at the end of each issue, offering a more rounded approach to reading. Two of these tasks included visiting literary locations and uploading stories inspired by our featured authors. This was done through a bespoke APP that’s still available although some features are now redundant.

Since then Nottingham has gone on to be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. Underpinning our strategy (I am one of the directors) are two goals which were very specific to Dawn of the Unread: Nottingham’s grassroots collaborations and improving literacy levels. Dawn of the Unread was integral to our bid as an example of best practice and is a reminder that culture works best when coming from below. Making these goals visible was the start of a dialogue that I framed as a form of ‘child abuse’ in our manifesto. I am confident that we will be able to right these appalling literacy statistics now that we have so many organisations teamed together through the City of Literature team.

EMBEDS

Dawn of the Unread raised awareness of various local literary organisations through our embedded essays. To find these, click on a star in each issue.

For the past decade I’ve worked voluntarily at loads of literary organisations in Notts that’s resulted in our first city-wide literature festival in 40 years and seen the Nottingham Writers’ Studio exceed 200 members. This year I’ve added the D.H Lawrence Society and Ray Gosling Archives to the list. The motivation is simple: Know thy City.

You have to work hard to create the kind of city you want to live in. That’s how I ended up as the LeftLion Literature Editor. I moaned and moaned that there was no literature coverage in their mag until they eventually caved in. But there’s an art to moaning. You need to offer suggestions and arguments rather than simply bitch. From this the WriteLion brand was created and we now have at least three pages per issue dedicated to books. Which brings me on to the point of this blog…

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To celebrate Nottingham being both a City of Literature and City of Football I created my dream literary team in the latest issue of LeftLion.

About five years ago I started a literature podcast. It was basically an extension of the WriteLion books review page, chatting to featured authors. We were getting loads of hits and at one point received more than our music podcasts. But it died a death after ten broadcasts because there weren’t enough hours in the day to maintain it.

To celebrate the UNESCO accreditation we’ve revived the podcast and it’s now blossomed into an hour long radio show. And once more it demonstrates the ethos of Nottingham’s grassroots approach to culture. It’s produced in partnership by NG Digital and LeftLion, meaning both organisations benefit in various way. LeftLion does the nattering and promotion and NG Digital does the production and hosting.

We have three sets of presenters in order to broaden our audience and to share the workload. I’m looking at the writing industry and my opening interviews include: writing for computer games (Lynda Clark), kickstarting a comic (Adrian Reynolds), writing a crime serial (David Belbin), academic texts exploring American radicalism (Christoper Phelps) and how to produce a literary audio trail using fremium software (Lucy Brouwer).

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Mouthy Poets featured in Issue 16 of Dawn of the Unread as well as the Nottingham Black Archive

Our poetry section is hosted by Chris Mcloughlin. Chris is a member of the Mouthy Poets, a collective of 15 -30 year olds in Nottingham who write, edit and perform their own poetry as well as producing events, teaching poetry and helping each other to develop personally and professionally. He’ll be interviewing different members of Mouthy as well as sharing information on events and competitions. Chris emailed me to see if he could be the LeftLion resident poet. It was cheeky and typical of their ambition. We didn’t have enough space in the mag to do this and so made him our resident poet on the show instead. Pure serendipity, as always.

Our third set of presenters are from Nottingham Playhouse and were sourced from a callout on Twitter. I’m really excited about this collaboration because of the sheer diversity of our four presenters. They include Gareth Morgan who is a dramaturg (someone who works between writer and director in a production process); Two female directors in Beth Shouler and Tilly Branson. Last year Tilly’s production of Man to Man was at the Park Theatre in London and Beth has had work she’s directed performed at the National. The final host is Mufaro Makubika, a local playwright who recently had How To Breathe performed at the Playhouse and who is under commission to write another for the main stage. He was a BBC WritersRoom writer in 2014.

Producing large scale multi-collaborative digital projects like Dawn of the Unread and the Sillitoe Trail has taught me a lot about building audiences as well as the need to explore literature through different formats and mediums in order to lure in less confident readers. The WriteLion literature show is just the latest in a long line of attempts to make literature more accessible and to raise the profile of our East Midlands city that has been neglected for far too long. If you want to appear on the show come and say hello on Twitter to either @TheSpaceLathe or @dawnoftheunread. If you want to know why Nottingham is a UNESCO City of Literature then tune into our show. It will be broadcast monthly when LeftLion is published on the last Friday of each month.

You can listen to the radio show here.

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#MondayBlogs Ready, Steady, Book: Reading Flashmob 17 July

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On 8 February 2014 Dawn of the Unread embarked on a simple mission: To get people reading, generate an interest in local history, show a bit of support for libraries and bookshops and to do our bit to try and raise literacy levels. 16 months on and our graphic novel serial is finished, although there’s still a bit of work to be done. There’s a physical book in the pipeline, a public performance and book launch, and ideas for a follow on project tentatively called Untold Stories. This blog will live on too, though it will become fortnightly and then monthly, slowing down in its old age.

We didn’t realise it at the time but Dawn of the Unread has played a vital role in Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature bid, ticking too many boxes to list here. The bid was officially endorsed by the UK National Commission for UNESCO in early July and has now been officially submitted. We’ll find out the results on 11 December 2015. Councillor Jackie Morris, Nottingham’s Lord Mayor, wrote a letter of support to accompany the bid, which starts:

“Nottingham is a City of Literature in the widest sense, encompassing forms from playwriting to poetry slams, songwriting and storytelling to comic books and creating scenarios for video games. The last 25 years have seen an explosion of great novels, poetry, plays, spoken word and screenplays from our writers. We see literature, culture and creativity as the driving force behind the transformation of our city in the next twenty years to become a thriving international city. We want to use literature and associated literary activities to inspire the people who live in the city, as well as those who work here and visit. Partners from the public and private sectors, further and higher education, and the cultural sector in the city have come together to develop the vision, strategy and delivery plan for this bid. Our vision for Nottingham as a City of Literature is: One City, Many Voices.”

City of Literature Board: l-r: Victor Semmens, James Walker, Kathy McArdle, Henderson Mullin, Stephanie Sirr, Cat Arnold, David Belbin. (Photo © Graham Lester George)

City of Literature Board: l-r: Victor Semmens, me, Kathy McArdle, Henderson Mullin, Stephanie Sirr, Cat Arnold, David Belbin. (Photo © Graham Lester George)

I’m one of the directors of the City of Literature team which is a partnership between various local organisations such as: Writing East Midlands, Nottingham Writers’ Studio, our two universities, City Council, the Playhouse and the Creative Quarter. Therefore, I’ve decided to ‘donate’ the educational side of Dawn of the Unread to the City of Lit team. This is important as it ensures the legacy of the project while helping a new organisation achieve two of its core aims: Raising literacy levels in Nottingham and creating paid work for writers.

Another way in which the legacy of Dawn of the Unread lives on is through our very silent protest, a reading flashmob on 12 July 2014. One year on and the City of Literature team have organised a follow up event at 6.30pm on Friday 17 July in Old Market Square. This is to celebrate the launch of These Seven: a collection of seven short stories from contemporary Nottingham writers, including a rare Alan Sillitoe story.

If you want to get involved then please bring a book by one of the contributors (three of whom feature in our comic serial): Brick (John Stuart Clark), Shreya Sen Handley, Paula Rawsthorne, Alison Moore, Alan Sillitoe, Megan Taylor or John Harvey. Better still, grab a copy of These Seven from Five Leaves bookshop, which, incidentally, is the only independent bookshop to have opened this century.

Ready…Steady…Book.

I went to London and all I got was this lousy Guardian Education Award…

You know you've made it when you get cheese on a stick...

You know you’ve made it when you get cheese on a stick…

I’ve been so busy over the past couple of weeks that I’ve not had time to mention our good news from the beautiful south. On March 18 the Guardian made it official that we’re mint when we scooped the Teaching Excellence Award through our partnership with Nottingham Trent University. The event was held at RIBA on Portland Street which of course enabled me to make my first link with Nottingham thanks to William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the eccentric subterranean Duke who featured in Issue 8.

Earlier in the day I made two other Nottingham connections when I made a pilgrimage to Byron Villas in NW5, the former residence of DH Lawrence. (Thanks Secret Artist). Beardo lived here in 1915 when The Rainbow was declared obscene by London magistrates, but this was nothing to the uproar a certain book would cause in 1928 which would have to wait until Penguin’s victory in the Lady Chatterley Trial of 1960 before the public got their paws on it. You can read about that in issue 7.

'Tonk' is easily the best word we've used so far in Dawn of the Unread

‘Tonk’ is easily the best word we’ve used so far in Dawn of the Unread

My other visit was to the statue of Sherlock Holmes outside the Bakerloo tube station. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was of course responsible for the poem Bendigo’s Sermon, which is directly referred to in Al Needham’s street brawling adventure in issue 9. And come to think of it, my earlier visit to the British Library and the Magna Carta exhibition could be linked to our Gotham Fool issue where we touched on the unforgiving reign of King John.

Thanks to this project I’ve turned into a Nottingham propaganda monster, able to find the most tenuous of links to my home town. Or perhaps this is an occupational hazard of editing: you are constantly looking for connections, patterns and meaning.

Murray Pratt, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University, has been an absolute lifesaver. He has created a two-day a week secondment for me to work on the project which has led to talks at the British Library, Game City and Durham University, where we’ve debated issues raised by the project that will hopefully keep the conversation going long after our final comic is published on 8 June.

The award was mainly due to the way we were able to bring together all strands of the digital humanities and create placements for around 120 students as part of their Humanities at Work module. The numbers are still growing. They’ve been involved in every area of the project and I can’t imagine how we would have achieved our ambitious aims without them.

But Dawn of the Unread has also been used to enhance the curriculum. The two videos in this blog were both produced as third year dissertation projects by Media students after I wrote ten briefs for them to choose from.

An English student is now considering a dissertation thesis on the lack of representation of women in book review sections. This conversation started after I asked her to read Mary Howitt’s two autobiographies in order to create a Twitter profile for us. She had never heard of the Victorian poet and was unaware that Howitt not only translated the works of Hans Christian Anderson but was also one of the first people to write dietary advice for the working classes in her Howitt’s Journal. This then led to a conversation about the #ReadWomen campaign and the problems of institutionalised gender bias and why it is so important that Nottingham has a Feminist Library at the Women’s Centre on Chaucer Street. This is just one of many examples of how we have been able to use our comic as an educational tool for both our target audience (reluctant readers/Youtube generation) and aspiring students.

So this blog is dedicated to all of the Nottingham Trent University students who live inside subfolders on googledrive and who have helped put Nottingham on the literary map, for a few seconds at least…

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