Thumbs up for thumbnails

Design James Walker.

Our Dawn of the Unread YouTube channel has 63 videos. I’m pretty proud of this, especially given that we don’t have a studio, budget or team of paid employers. The videos have been created mainly in collaboration with students and have been filmed on everything from a fancy phone to borrowed cameras.

Our first upload was on National Libraries’ Day on 8 Feb 2014 and featured disabled performance artist Simon Raven crawling across the streets in a sleeping bag and mask pretending to be a bookworm. The film was originally created for another commission, but Simon kindly allowed us to use it to kickstart our project.

Over time, themes for the videos have developed – some strategic, others more random. We have a ‘how to make a comic’ series which does everything the title suggests. These were originally embedded at the end of each comic with the aim of encouraging aspiring writers and artists to do similar. Our ‘Nottingham Essay’ series explores literary figures from Hood Town and was created to help Nottingham in its bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

The rest are a mixed bag related to our core themes: books, libraries, bookshops, reading, comics, promotion and Nottingham. The most recent one is a trailer for our Ms. Hood comic and was created by Zachary Omitowoju. Again, I’d love to have a promo like this for all of our comics, but we’ll see…

Recently, I’ve taken a bit of time out from our current project, Whatever People Say I Am, to go back and tidy up old content. This has involved doing a bit of training in graphic design via training sessions on LinkedIn and learning new programmes such as Canva – a graphic design programme that provides user friendly templates for all social media platforms.

Screenshot of playlists.

This has resulted in new thumbnails for all our videos which make it easier for users to distinguish between content. I’ve also included our logo, a strong image, and a block of colour in the designs. I’m really happy with the results and hope that this helps attract a few more visits.

Dawn of the Unread was created for many reasons, most notable of which was to raise awareness of low literacy levels across the country – particularly in the East Midlands. But digital literacy is becoming equally as important – not least in our ability to distinguish between fake news, conspiracy theories, and the insidious incentives of algorithms. But another form of digital literacy is being aware of your own digital presence.

It’s too easy to just keep lobbing up content and moving onto the next project. Sometimes you need to pause and go back and perfect or update previous work. New platforms like Tick Tock and Instagram Reels have high production values and consequently, audience expectations are rising. The age of the amateur is dead.

Taking the time for a digital spring clean has been a priority and hopefully our account now looks worth a visit. We now have playlists to help distinguish between different types of video. If we want viewers to embrace the themes of our project and share in our love of reading, we need to be as professional as possible. I’ve also welcomed the opportunity to upskill and learn new stuff.

Further Reading

  • Linkedin Learning on YouTube (YouTube)
  • 25 Graphic Design Tips for Non-Designers and Beginners (Canva)
  • Time for a Digital Spring Clean (jameskwalker.co.uk)
  • Your Easy Guide to Making a YouTube Thumbnail (blog.hubspot.com)
  • Building A Brand: Why A Strong Digital Presence Matters (Forbes.com)

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.

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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.

RELATED READING

Joining up the dots…

In this guest blog, Izaak Bosman explains why he’s been fannying about on his laptop doing arty stuff to get you lot reading.  

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

There is a spectre haunting the city of Nottingham – the spectre of Dawn of the Unread. I find this phenomena fascinating, especially as a literature student who grew up in and around the town itself. But before I began studying at the University of Sheffield last September, I had largely neglected my local literary heritage. D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Alison Moore and Mary Howitt were names I recognised, of course, but not writers I had read myself. This has gradually begun to change, as I have since started to recompense for my negligence of Nottingham’s finest.

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

And so I welcomed the opportunity to get involved with the project itself, as I was commissioned to devise a series of digital artefacts by James to help promote local literature and its corresponding establishments. In essence, I was commissioned to create a set of spoof advertisements centred on the Pop Art of the 1960s. Collages, in effect, compiled from old cartoons, commercial posters, and other assorted items. In creating the images, then, I followed a methodical process. I began by creating a polka dot backdrop layer, playing with the hue to create different colour pallets, before imposing characters I had cropped out of advertisements or artworks onto it. Then I added the text. Speech bubbles and captions added literary twists as businesspersons spoke with the Nottingham dialect and schoolchildren looked up to D. H. Lawrence as though he were a superhero. These punchlines replaced outrageously sexist remarks, as women went from being hung up about hair and makeup to being far more interested in their personal book collections. Satirising convention, then, was essential to the creation process.

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

I suppose there are parallels between the digital artefacts and the Dawn of the Unread project itself. Both are reminiscent of bygone days, and both seek to explore the past from a modern perspective. This reimagining makes literature accessible, relatable even. And that is the way it should be.

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

@IzaakBosman 

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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.

Dawn of the Unread – Nottingham: City of Literature, City of Literacy.

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Picture: Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature.

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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Photo Paul Fillingham.

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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Design Paul Fillingham.

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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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

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.

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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Artwork: Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature.
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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.

Spoofing sexist adverts to promote reading

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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

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.

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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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

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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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.
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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.
what is she reading
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

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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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

“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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Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

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…

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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.