#MondayBlogs DAWN OF THE UNREAD Nottingham: City of Literature, City of Literacy

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The following article was published in Teaching English, Issue 14: Summer 2017

Nottingham – where this summer’s NATE Conference will be held – has been named a UNESCO City of Literature. David Belbin explains how the project aims to boost literacy in the city, and introduces the digital comic Dawn of the Unread, one of the ways in which the city hopes to bring Nottingham writers to a new generation, and encourage other cities to celebrate their local authors.  

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David Belbin in issue 14. Artist: Ella Joyce

UNESCO’s World Cities of Literature is a prestigious network for cities that combine literary heritage with outstanding present day creative activity. An author and educationalist, I chair the company that Nottingham set up to bid for the status and run the organisation should we win. City of Lit is a permanent designation. Few of us expected us to achieve accreditation at the first attempt. Fundamental to our surprising success was the company’s commitment to an area where we acknowledged the city was failing: literacy.

One of our board’s first big decisions was to become an educational charity. Nottingham has lots of great writing and literary events but, partly because our council area consists largely of the inner city and former council estates rather than the wider city, it also has below-average literacy rates. A year ago, when I attended an annual get-together of world cities of literature, I asked the others how they tackled literacy issues. I was surprised by the answer. They didn’t. Those who’d considered literacy had come to the conclusion that it was just too hard.

Literature and Literacy

We won UNESCO status in December 2015, making us one of a total of 20 World Cities of Literature. Within six months, we had raised enough money (via a partnership between the city council and our two universities) to hire a director. The City of Literature quickly became involved in the city council’s mission to improve literacy. We are a small organisation but wanted to act a hub for the city’s literacy efforts.

Dawn of the Unread: the background

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The USP of our UNESCO bid was the city’s strength in digital innovation. In particular, our bid talked about Dawn of the Unread, an online digital project by James Walker and Paul Fillingham, which used comics to bring Nottingham’s literary legends to a new generation.

James is a focused force of imagination who, in addition to teaching and writing, is the literary editor of local free monthly paper, LeftLion. He came up with the idea of Dawn of the Unread, raised the money (largely from Arts Council England), then put together combinations of writers and artists who ranged from their sixties to their teens.

The comics featured fifteen stories, published in the traditional monthly fashion. Playwright Michael Eaton got the most distinguished partner, artist Eddie Campbell (best known for illustrating Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper opus, From Hell­). Campbell’s is one of a huge array of styles that range from former Judge Dredd artist Gary Erskine to illustrator Corrina Rothwell’s quirky figures and collages.

Sometimes James suggested the subject, but many writers chose their own. I, for example, wrote about my late friend and neighbour, the prolific novelist, Stanley Middleton, who won the Booker Prize for Holiday in 1974. As the story developed, I also included writers who had passed through Nottingham, like Graham Greene and JM Barrie, who found his inspiration for Peter Pan here. After his death, I inherited many of Stanley’s bookcases, and I ended the script with a set of shelves holding one book by every Nottingham novelist I knew of. Hence the title, Shelves.

James Walker paired me with eighteen-year-old Ella Joyce (daughter of novelist Graham, who I worked with on NTU’s MA in Creative Writing until his 2013 death), She did a fine, painterly job and is now studying Fine Art at Ruskin. Novelist Alison Moore (The Lighthouse) was paired with Corina Rothwell to portray Mary (The Spider and the Fly) Howitt. Nicola Monaghan (The Killing Jar) had her take on Hitchcock screenwriter (and wife) Alma Reville, illustrated by Judit Ferencz. Artist Conor Boyle drew poet Panya Banjoko’s story about George Africanus, Cartoonist John (Brick) Clarke came up with the art for his own story.

The Original Concept: Dawn of the Unread, libraries and reluctant readers

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Issue 11: Books and Bowstrings featured Geoffrey Trease and Robin Hood. 

Library closures were what inspired James to start Dawn of the Unread. Its first story was published on National Libraries Day in 2014. Paul Fillingham did the digital formatting. Dawn of the Unread’s website is, in part, an interactive experience. When you read the comic on a tablet or computer, you can go off on tangents, choosing your journey. There are embedded essays and videos, accessed by clicking on star icons that appear, together with web-links, on many pages. 120 students from Nottingham Trent University were involved with the project, which, in 2015, won first prize for Teaching Excellence at the Guardian’s education awards (it was also shortlisted by The Times education awards).

Underground legend Hunt Emerson illustrated DH Lawrence – Zombie Hunter. Zombies were there to draw the target audience (teenagers, and, in particular, reluctant readers) in. The series title Dawn of the Unread suggested that writers from the past are revived to help us in the present day. Zombies are used as a narrative conceit to raise awareness of what happens when people stop reading books. There were plenty of other sweetners. Poet Andy Croft, for instance, came up with Byron Clough, pairing two city legends, while Young Adult author Alan Gibbons managed to bring together our most famous children’s author, Geoffrey Trease, with Robin Hood.

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Taking the book into schools

While the stories were being published, James, along with some of the authors and illustrators, went into schools to talk about Dawn of the Unread. He was committed to producing a book of the stories which could get into schools and libraries. By the project’s end, however, there was little money left. Publishing a book, even if you have much of the content, is a time-consuming business. This is where the City of Literature came in.

James – a former City of Lit board member – gifted us the educational rights to Dawn of the Unread. He and I met with Spokesman Books, the Nottingham-based publishing arm of the Bertrand Russell Peace foundation. We agreed to jointly publish the book. The City of Lit devoted several thousand pounds from our Arts Council start-up grant towards printing costs. We also funded a development worker to go into schools, talk to teachers and look at how to use the book with students.

The book was published last November and free copies sent to all city libraries. We held back on sending it to schools until our strategy was in place. Rebecca Goldsmith’s brief was to develop resources for using Dawn of the Unread in schools and find ways to encourage schools and other places to make use of the book and website. We want to encourage schools to use the stories as a bridge between lessons, school libraries and independent reading. Teachers have been enthused about how the stories can act as a transition text from KS3 to KS4. We will shortly be producing a sample scheme of work with activity sheets, quizzes and interactive content that can be tailored to a school’s curriculum.

Using Dawn of the Unread

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Artwork Izaak Bosman 

Dawn of the Unread: the book provides all sorts of possibilities, most of which aren’t tied to its Nottingham content. It can, for instance, be used as a springboard for developing research into local landmarks and, indeed, dialect; as a starting point for discussions of language and register; and as a basis for numerous kinds of creative writing activity. The free availability of the digital version means that students can access it at home (with those additional starred embeds) and teachers can display it onscreen while students look at the book or a tablet.

Rebecca and Sandeep Mahal, director of the City of Literature, will be speaking at this year’s NATE conference in Nottingham. We hope to encourage teachers to use the book and its accompanying website in schools and give us their ideas about the best way to do this. One way, of course, is to get students exploring the literary heritage of their own area and create comics which use that heritage, with the DotU approach as a model. Students can make links with other cities of literature. We’d like to see DotU create paid work for authors and artists in schools.

Nottingham sums up its UNESCO mission in six words: building a better world with words. Part of that mission is to share work with the world. We have sent copies of the book to other cities of literature. We hope that our book will ensure Dawn of the Unread’s legacy: creating comics that celebrate literature, literacy, libraries and the written word.

Dawn of the Unread may be read online at www.dawnoftheunread.com. The Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature site is www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com. James Walker’s article on Dawn of the Unread and literacy can be found at leftlion.co.uk 

David Belbin is a novelist and Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. His website is www.davidbelbin.com Twitter: @DBelbin   

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#MondayBlogs Spoof adverts to promote reading

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For 12 years I was the literature editor of LeftLion magazine. It was an incredible experience, particularly the editorial meetings where it was compulsory for everyone to smoke and swear. The LeftLion attitude back then was not to take yourself too seriously, prod and poke at anyone who thought they were summat, and to find unique ways of saying stuff that had been said many times before. In local dialect this meant being chelpy.

It’s probably because of this that I’ve enjoyed creating these spoof adverts with help from a very talented English student called Izaak Bosman. A lot of the adverts below appeared in women’s magazines, many from a period in history when the only purpose of a woman was to look pretty, get a man, and do as she was told. You could say that we’re subverting meaning, that these appropriated adverts represent semiotic warfare, but the truth is we just like fannying about on a computer and this is more fun than tweeting me me me me me.

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We’ve all been in relationships where it suddenly ends and you have to start sharing out the possessions…which is why I’ve always insisted on keeping my books on my bookshelf so that none of them get pinched. To this day I am still fuming that an ex kept my first edition copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when we went our separate ways. The cover, its place on the bookshelf are so vivid I have nightmares still to this day. So the advert above is for all of those with a broken heart (and a stolen book).

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You want a man to kiss you? Get the right lipstick! But from our perspective the only thing that will put you both ‘on the same page’ is reading the same book. This advert was also an opportunity to promote Five Leaves Bookshop. At every opportunity Dawn of the Unread has tried to promote and support other organisations.

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We added the ‘what is she reading’ to this one. I can’t remember what ‘she’ should have been doing. It was probably something like ‘But what is she cooking?’

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“We Can Do It!” is one of the most iconic adverts in history. It first appeared as an American wartime propaganda poster produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric as an inspirational image to boost worker morale. The little brain on the lapel relates to one of the four tasks we set readers on our App and coincided with the launch.

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If you google ‘woman reading’ you’ll find millions of paintings. I particularly like this one by Charles Edward Hallé (1846–1914), an English painter of history scenes, genre scenes, and portraits. Expect many variations on this in the future…

#MondayBlogs The Literary Art of Cracking Comics at Lowdham Book Festival

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Matt Green, Jonathan Rigby, Sally Jane Thompson and James Walker (L-R)

John ‘Brick’ Clark was the artist in our Slavomir Rawicz comic. His passion for the medium is infectious and so I was delighted when he asked me to chair a panel discussion for Nottingham Does Comics. Here’s what he had to say.

Lowdham Book Festival recently hosted an extraordinary panel session of Nottingham Does Comics, extraordinary for featuring three guests plainly steeped in comics culture and a facilitator hungry to learn more about ‘The Literary Art of Cracking Comics’, the subject for discussion. James Walker of Dawn of the Unread was armed with all the right simple questions a public warming to the medium might ask of a creator (Sally Jane Thompson), a retailer (Jonathan Rigby from Page 45) and an academic (Dr. Matt Green from the University of Nottingham).

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The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had Page 45 oozing with compliments. 

Too often comics buffs gloss over basic questions like, ‘Which should I read first, the words or pictures?’ and yet therein lie the keys to a full appreciation of a literary form that, despite producing works of manifest sophistication tackling adult themes, is invariably and wrongly dismissed as strictly for the kids. Steeped in prose literature, James readily admitted he is immediately drawn to the linear form of the text before retreating back up the page to give the images due consideration. And why not, the panel suggested, if it works for you. There are no hard and fast rules. The medium has the power to control the eye and prioritise, and if any one page or panel doesn’t, that also is intentional in the best of works.

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Is it a comic? Is it a graphic novel? Artwork taken from Chasemagnett.wordpress.com

Prompted by James, the panel went further back to basics and clarified the terms – ‘comics’ is the art form, ‘comic’ or ‘comic book’ is the frequently serialized floppy magazine format, while ‘graphic novel’ is the uncomfortable term applied by the media to the spine-backed book format, encompassing autobiography, investigative journalism, historical works and everything factual, from academic treatises to comics cook books. Finally, ‘comix’ is the underground’s way of saying ‘Children Keep Out’. It’s good to know, but I would add ‘comics strip’ (a single line sequence) and ‘comics block’ (several tiers of the same, most frequently seen as a half page in an otherwise prose magazine or newspaper).

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Jens Harder: Alpha

Peppered with references to modern masterpieces like From Hell (scripted by Alan Moore, illustrated by Eddie Campbell), the discussion explored how writers and illustrators co-operate together. Sally made the point that writers tend to be protective of their words while illustrators are ever looking to bin as many as possible, aware that images can often speak the same louder or more sensitively. In the case of skilled writer-illustrators like Jens Harder (Alpha), it is evident the creative process leans towards the visual, paring down the prose to poetry, making every word count. For an auteur like the maestro Shaun Tan, words just get in the way of his mastery of visual poetry, exemplified in his wonderful The Arrival, about the great American immigration bubble.

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Ghost World

While everybody acknowledged similarities between comics and film (or maybe storyboarding is a closer comparison), the panel believed cross-fertilisation rarely worked in either’s favour. If Hollywood is presently filling off-shore accounts on the back of Marvel and DC, their industry is not doing our industry a great service. Jonathan considered Ghost World (based on Daniel Clowes’ sensitive account of adolescent angst) the best of the bunch, though Matt mentioned the excellent American Splendour, acknowledging the movie is more about its curmudgeon author, Harvey Pekar, than an adaption of Pekar’s actual memoire.

brides storyAway from the silver screen, Sally enthused about A Bride’s Story, a sumptuous historical romance by Japanese manga artist, Kaoru Mori. (Manga just means comics, only from Japan, just as bande dessinee are Franco-Belgian comics and manhua are Chinese comics. Manga and manhua are properly read right to left from back of the book, but many have now been flipped for the English-reading public, not always successfully.) Of Mori’s work, Sally said, “It is masterfully drawn and an absolute pleasure to read, but also beautifully composed, with an eye for smooth reading and clarity, despite her lavish attention to everyday details. She is willing to take time out of a larger story to dwell on a moment, so we experience it fully rather than hurrying from plot point to plot point. It’s soothing and uplifting, and an absolute comics masterclass.’ Plus, of course, Mori’s work gives the lie to suggestions that comics are a man-and-boy-thing.

makingFor some in the audience, the creative potential of specialist colourists and letterers to enhance a work maybe came as some surprise. Letters might just be code, but the look of the words can go way beyond standard fonts to imbue the text with significance and meaning. Jonathan referenced Brecht Evens’ hand lettering in his blindingly colourful The Making Of, and I would single out the mastery of the anarchic font employed in Wilfrid Lupano and Jeremie Moreau’s stinging anti-racist take on The Hartlepool Monkey. As to colourists and what they can achieve, our man from Page 45 positively oozed over the work of Elizabeth Breitweiser, specifically in the L.A. movie satire The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Sumptuous, flowing and precise for a 1940’s homage, there are pages where Elizabeth suddenly throws us a curve ball and renders a sequence in the block colours of a demented Mondrian.

Right now comics are such a rapidly evolving medium that an hour’s slot was never going to do justice to all the questions the audience needed answering. Though the turnout was small, it was evident the audience was excited and stimulated by what they heard. One couple cornered me with notebooks in hand and asked for the above recommendations again. Another member’s departing words were, “If I wasn’t already into comics, I’d be hammering down the door of Page 45 with an open cheque book!,” an appreciation that belied their age and escalating passion.

Nottingham Does Comics was at Lowdham Book Festival on Saturday 25 June (3.30-4.30pm) The panel was chaired by James Walker with Sally Jane Thompson, Jonathan Rigby and Matt Green. 

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#MondayBlogs:World Creativity and Innovation Week (15-21 April)

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Image taken from LLoyd Daniel. Not sure where the bollocks are from…

About 15 years ago I was going out with a girl who worked at a graphic design agency. I attended one of her work do’s and the company director came up to me and said: are you a creative too? I wanted to punch him in the head because I found the word ‘creative’ patronising. At the time I was working across hostels in Leeds so my day was a mixture of mundane paperwork and trying not to get attacked by the violent men I refused access into a womens’ hostel. Staying alive was the most creative thing I could do, something Thomas Hobbes would approve of . But I guess I also felt intimidated. Yes, I was writing that novel in my spare time and I’d had a few stories published. But there was no point mentioning any of this to this suited director. It felt like blagging. Besides, he was just making polite conversation until someone more worthwhile came along.

I mention this as I was recently approached by Norman Jackson to contribute to Creative Academic Magazine. He’d attended a talk I gave at a MESLIG: Digital Narratives Conference (8 Jan 2016) and wanted to feature me in their April issue (CAM 4) to coincide with World Creativity and Innovation Week (April 15 – 21) So I wrote a 2,500 word article on the creative drive behind Dawn of the Unread which you’ll be able to read in a week or so.

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I’m no longer inhibited by the word creative any more, though I still find it slightly pretentious. In fact, one of my part time jobs is as a Creative Industries tutor at an International College. So I’ve even got ‘Creative’ in a job title! But I guess it serves its purpose in defining a particular way of working or perhaps more accurately, being. Who’s being pretentious now…Ahem.

For the last decade I’ve been interviewing authors and asking them where they got the idea for their books from. Most just shrug their shoulders and say ‘dunno’. I did the same when Norman asked me to strip back the processes of my work and try to nail down the when, where, what and how.

Dawn of the Unread was born out of absolute anger at the appalling literacy levels in the UK and the way that working class kids are left to rot. It was born out of the frustration of watching libraries and bookshops close down. It was born out of living in the Midlands, that squeezed middle of land in the heart of the country that constantly gets forgotten in the news, and trying to raise the profile of Nottingham, the factory city that is my home. But it was also born out of an obsessive desire to fill my life with an endless array of problems that bring an unbelievable pleasure when solved. Problems evoke questions and these are usually answered with more questions, and so the process goes on and on.

But I am immensely proud of Dawn of the Unread. I’m glad that we’ve given young graduates such as Ella Joyce and Amanda Tribble the opportunity to feature in a comic with giants such as Hunt Emerson and Eddie Campbell. It is innovative: as far as I’m aware nobody else has used embedded content in comic panels to give contextual information and appeal to different levels of readers. And it’s been instrumental in helping Nottingham be accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. There’s other stuff too, but I don’t want to get all smug.

World Creativity and Innovation Week was first started in 2001. If you’ve not heard of it before that doesn’t mean you’re not creative. You’ve just not heard of it. But it’s good to know that it’s here and it’s lovely that fifteen years on I’ve somehow fudged myself into the discussions. Patience is a virtue, and all that.

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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.