International Women’s Day: Comic to imagine a future that’s ‘safe’ for women

Changing Minds comic: Words James Walker. Artwork Kim Thompson.

In 2020, during lockdown, I wrote a script for a comic called ‘Changing Minds’ which aimed to raise awareness of everyday misogyny. The script was based on research by language and criminology experts Louise Mullany (University of Nottingham) and Loretta Trickett (Nottingham Trent university).

Their Nottingham Misogyny Hate Crime work has recently influenced police and government policy, including the Upskirting Bill. In 2016, Nottinghamshire Police became the first force in the UK to make misogyny a recognised hate crime. The researchers hoped that this would become a national policy but on 28 February, MPs voted to scrap a proposal to make misogyny a hate crime in England and Wales as part of new public order laws.

For ‘Changing Minds’, Mullany and Trickett conducted a survey, focus group and interviews with 679 participants. The participants were asked about their experiences of harassment in Nottingham between April 2016 – March 2018. Their findings included:

  • 94% of respondents had either experienced or witnessed street harassment.
  • 75% of people who experienced street harassment reported that it had a longterm impact on them.
  • Only 7% of victims reported the incident to the police.
  • 94% of people considered street harassment to be a social problem

My job was to take this data and condense the findings into three pages of a comic. The narrative also had to contain a positive message to men to ‘call out’ offensive behaviour; include a diverse range of women; demonstrate how women experience misogyny in a wide variety of settings. This was quite a lot to fit into three pages, but constraint is the essence of creativity.

Changing Minds comic: Words James Walker. Artwork Kim Thompson.

My solution was to take one statistic from the report and use it as a framing device for each page. This meant that pages could ‘stand alone’ (and be printed out separately) while also providing context for the narrative. Given the density of the research, this helped to split the story into three parts and create a narrative arc.

The reason we were approached to create the story is because of our current project Whatever People Say I Am. This is a series of online comics challenging myths around identity. We haven’t included it on our website because the comic is too small at three pages. In terms of commissioning an artist, I spoke to Steve Larder who suggested Kim Thompson.

I mention this today, on International Women’s Day, as I’ve just given a talk with Loretta Trickett about a forthcoming comic we’re working on which will revisits some of these issues to imagine a world that’s safe for women. To do this, we’re asking women to come forward and share their experiences and ideas as this research will inform the narrative. One person this morning mentioned how her running route is determined by how well lit an area is and if there are other people around rather than a route that’s more aesthetically pleasing. Another person said she used to share her running route through an app until she realised this made her routines knowable to strangers. It’s these type of everyday anxieties we want to address in the comic.

Our intended publication date is the end of June. If you would like to get involved, please get in contact.

References

  • BBC. 28 February. Crime bill: MPs reject proposal to make misogyny a hate crime bbc.co.uk
  • Kim Thompson New Art Exchange Takeover nae.org.uk
  • A comic strip to fight misogyny hate crime ntu.ac.uk
  • A comic strip to fight misogyny hate crime nottingham.ac.uk
  • Changing Minds Report: The real impact of street harassment nottingham.ac.uk
  • Changing Minds educational resources nottingham.ac.uk

Beautiful Libraries: National Library of China

The National Library of China is an absolute whopper! Home to 37 million items, open 365 days a year, and the front looks like the deck of the SS Enterprise. I visited it in 2016 and have finally got around to sharing the experience.

Beijing is the third largest city in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Sheltered on three sides by mountains and a certain wall, it’s been the political centre of China for most of the last 8 centuries.

People visit Beijing for various reasons. It’s home to 91 universities, the Forbidden City, and the bird’s nest stadium, created for the 2008 Olympic Games. Then there’s Tian’anmen Square, where citizens can see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, although I remember it for the man armed with two shopping bags, who stopped a tank in 1989.

But what I wanted to see most during my visit was the National Library of China, home to 37 million items – with an additional million items added each year. Fortunately, it’s open 365 days a year, although to get to it you need to cross an 8 lane highway that’s pretty chocker. Tranquil gardens calm you down at the entrance, but solitude is soon lost to the honking cars in rush hour traffic. Air pollution is a real problem in Beijing. Fortunately, there was no red warning during my visit in May 2016 as there would be towards the end of the year when a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city for five days.

The library is divided into levels. The base level contains the contemporary library with reading rooms and reference works. Its oldest collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the Oracle Bones. These date back 3,000 years. But you can also find epigraphs and rubbings, ancient maps, documents in 123 foreign languages, and dissertations prescribed by the State Council.

Above this is a digital library whose resources exceed 1000Tera byte. This number is increased by 100 Tera byte each year. One digital element that stands out is the China Memory Project, which collects visual historical data and other new types of literature on major modern events and important figures in China. But if you do visit this, have a read of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years – a dystopian narrative that you won’t find in any Chinese library, and which addresses a different aspect of Chinese memory – collective amnesia.

The long glass fronted top deck of the library faces the highway, making it stand out to passing traffic, presumably to lure you in. It’s a bit like the front of the SS Enterprise, with an earthquake-proof steel canopy keeping you secure.

Although the design is sleek, it’s defining characteristic is functional – presumably in order to accommodate the 12,000 visitors it receives each day. Everything in China is huge, and so too are the reading and research rooms. This is epitomised by the central study area as you enter the building. Books, file cabinets and draws adorn the outer perimeters, with seating areas out front looking down into the abyss. This is then repeated on descending levels until you reach the basement where rows of tables are perfectly aligned and constrained. It is basically an inflexible grid, a slave to mathematics and functionalism. If we are all products of our environment, then this environment demands discipline, logic and conformity.

As I made my way up the escalator to film the library I was immediately followed by some guards. But nobody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Presumably, I looked like an excited tourist and hadn’t broken any laws. Sometimes at iconic locations in China random people will come up to you and take a photograph whether you like it or not. Many are tourists themselves from other provinces and have never seen Westerners before, and so you find yourself a bit of a novelty. But in the library, people were only interested in the books. Always a good sign.

Libraries started to take off in China around the turn of the 20th century against the backdrop of reform, with the government of the Qing dynasty sent on diplomatic missions to Europe to understand the value of these intellectual spaces. Prominent exile Liang Qichao was particularly impressed by readers who did not steal books they had borrowed. I wonder what he would make of some British libraries today, who have adopted the attitude that if someone steals a book, they must really need it. Punitive measures are a waste of time.

The Metropolitan Library was established in 1909, with the Qing government realising the opportunities to promote national culture. Situated in the Beijing Guanghua temple, it was opened to the public on 27 August 1912, receiving its first legal deposits of publications in 1916. It would later be known as the National Peking Library, then Beijing Library, before it was moved to north of Purple Bamboo Park in Haidian District in 1989. It was renamed the National Library of China on 12 December 1998. Today it’s the third largest national library in the world, covering 280,000 square meters, costing 1 billion 235 million dollars to complete.

If you fancy visiting, get the subway unless you want to sit in traffic for hours. Lines 4 and 9 will deliver you calmly to this gigantic, beautiful modern library.

OTHER BEAUTIFUL LIBRARIES WE’VE VISITED

Rebel Writers: Alan Sillitoe

Design James Walker.

Notts Rebels, the new weekly series made in conjunction with the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, celebrates stories of fighting injustice and acts of rebellion from Nottingham’s history. Originally published on LeftLion, our contribution explored the rebellious and anti-establishment themes in the work of Alan Sillitoe, who died ten years ago on 25 April.

“For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, but Arthur was following government advice and social isolating.”

If Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been written today instead of 1958, it would not have started like this. Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s most famous creation, would be the kind of knobhead who’d be getting lathered in the park, racing his mates through the empty streets, and absolutely hammering Tinder, probably claiming you can’t catch Covid-19 from a blowjob. The fact that I can vividly imagine Seaton’s reaction to events 70 years since he came clattering onto the page is testament to Alan Sillitoe’s skills as a writer.

Sillitoe didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He left school at 14 to work at the Raleigh factory. Like many people of his generation he was self-educated. This meant reading a lot of books and figuring things out for himself. This is why his characters are so authentic; they are chiselled out of experience and imagination rather than following literary blueprints. It’s for this reason that he refused corrections from editors, retaining, like his characters, uncompromising independence.

Growing up in abject poverty, the act of buying a book was itself a rebellious act. The Sillitoe’s were moved on from place to place during his childhood and his father was imprisoned at one point for being unable to pay for what he had bought on tick. This is why Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is so authentic, it captures the rawness of place, warts and all.

“Generators whined all night, and during the day giant milling-machines working away on cranks and pedals in the turnery gave to the terrace a sensation of living within breathing distance of some monstrous being that suffered from a disease of the stomach.”

1950s Radford is a brutal, violent world where “women with battleship faces and hearts as tough as nails” have to be won over, but “you could try all you liked to be kind to them, but they wouldn’t have any of it”. It’s no wonder a local councillor wanted the book banned at the time, fearing it would damage Nottingham’s reputation forever. This is why Sillitoe is a rebel writer. Instead of serving up a sanitised version of working class life that were palatable to middle class sensibilities, he dolloped up something offensive: truth.

Alan Sillitoe, author of that novel. Design James Walker.

Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator in the Raleigh factory who grafts hard in order to quench payday thirst down his local, the White Horse. When he’s not puking up over people or having drinking contests with a sailor, he likes to craftily latch his arms around the waist of any woman daft enough to fall for his patter.

Sillitoe argued that Seaton had no spiritual values because he was a product of his environment, and therefore his own survival was all that mattered. This is best exemplified when he gets a married woman pregnant and persuades her to have a ‘gin bath’. While she is doing this, he gets it on with her sister, reflecting, “Never had an evening begun so sadly and ended so well.” I can’t imagine any writer daring to pen such selfish (and honest) sentiments today, particularly given the speed by which we are held accountable by the Twitterati.

Colin Smith is another classic Sillitoe anti-hero, appearing in the short story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1960) Like Seaton, Smith comes from a tough background. His father is dying, and the family are poor. He escapes his dire circumstances by getting involved in petty crime which invariably goes horribly wrong. While incarcerated in Borstal, he takes up running which acts as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape his problems and be temporarily free. But the governor recognises his talent and has other plans, putting him forward for a cup race. Winning the race would give the governor prestige and make Smith’s life comfortable. But he’s not interested in an easy life, there’s more pleasure letting the governor know he’s not for sale. His individuality is the only thing they can’t take from him and so he deliberately loses the race, stopping at the finishing line.

“I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there, and he’ll never know what’s there because he’s stupid. I suppose you’ll laugh at this, me saying the governor’s a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He’s stupid, and I’m not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me.”

Alan Sillitoe didn’t choose to be a rebel writer. He would have hated this label as much as he hated being called an Angry Young Man or a Nottingham writer. Like Colin Smith, he was nobody’s puppet. He happened to write 50 odd novels because he was pensioned off from the air force at 21 after contacting TB. This afforded the time and opportunity to write. His novels, however, are rebellious and anti-establishment by nature. Sillitoe was born into unimaginable poverty which meant he had to fight every day to survive. He was writing what he knew. Or as Seaton puts it:

“Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, and income tax offices rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death.”

This article was originally published on 22 April 2020 on LeftLion as part of their Rebel Writers series.

Beautiful Libraries: Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

IMG_20180609_142236134
Photo James Walker.

in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro… (Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book)

The first library at Oxford University was a room above the Old Congregation House in 1320. So if you haven’t returned your books yet, expect a very hefty fine. If we skip forward to the 15th century, a chap called Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester pumps in a bit of cash as well as his personal collection of 281 manuscripts, meaning larger premises are required. Humfrey was the younger brother of King Henry V, so he had a bit of clout. But although plans to erect a new library above the Divinity School had been banded about since 1424, work only really began in 1478. If you’re getting excited about seeing these incredible manuscripts, don’t. From the 1550s onwards, various kings and queens destroyed any texts that didn’t conform to their own religious viewpoint.

bod
Photo James Walker.

It’s at this point that our hero enters the scene, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 – 1613). Bodley had done the obligatory tour of Europe, gulping down as much culture as his elastic guts could contain, as well as diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I between 1585 – 96. Bodley wasn’t short of cash either having married a wealthy widow, and so he pumped all of his energy and cash into creating what is now known as the Bodleian Library. This would see 2,500 books added from his personal collection as well as from donors. There’s no point making influential contacts if you don’t use them.

This was to be a proper library, and so a librarian, Thomas James (1572/3–1629), was appointed. The doors opened on 8 November 1602. This was swiftly followed by the first printed catalogue in 1605. But the real stroke of genius came in 1610 when Bodley entered an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London which ensured a copy of every book published in England would find itself into the collection. This still exists, with the library receiving an average of 2,500 texts a week.

When Bodley died in 1613, his death was suitably commemorated when work began on the building of the Schools Quadrangle the day after his funeral. This was a project he had pushed for, wishing to replace ‘those ruinous little rooms’ with something more fitting for scholars and book lovers. His will would see additional money left for what would become a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England. The last addition to this incredible library came between 1634-7 when an extension (Seldon’s End) was completed. This would enable the storage of valuable manuscripts and scrolls, making the university an absolute must for any scholar worth their salt.

But what marks this library out from all others isn’t the grandiosity of the buildings, nor that it would be the setting for the Harry Potter films, but the observation of a tradition that dictates nobody is allowed to loan books out of the library! Even King Charles I was rebuffed in 1645. Given that heating wasn’t installed until 1845, and proper lighting didn’t arrive until 1929, you had to be a pretty serious reader to visit.

I recently went on a tour of the library (£6 – make sure you book in advance) and it was a mesmerising experience. The ancient texts are chained to shelves, and are right weighty boggers. They’re catalogued according to when they were received and are shelved back to front so that the spines face the wall. This isn’t some fashionable whim, but a necessity to help preserve them. Therefore they are numbered, meaning you always have to ask a librarian where a book is – a useful tactic to ensure a librarian keeps their job.

IMG_20180609_145345232
Photo James Walker.

Oxford oozes history, none more so than in the main entrance to the library tour. The ceiling contains the initials of scholars who had passed their masters, back in the day. This would entail a three hour debate at a pulpit in front of the public, while being constantly interrupted and interrogated by your lecturer. And just to spice things up a bit, you were expected to switch between Greek and Latin. Given that you couldn’t take books out of the library you would be expected to memorise religious texts, along with the rest of your cohort. But as there was only one copy of each, and these were chained up and only accessible during opening times, you had to be pretty patient and pretty good at remembering stuff.

Readers of this blog will know that I was put on this earth as a Notts propagandist and so here’s your six degrees of separation to Oxford: Geoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998), author of 113 books.

Trease excelled at Nottingham High School under the careful guidance of his English master Garry Hogg, a kind man who gave him access to his personal library and who encouraged Trease to plump for an Oxford scholarship over Cambridge due to the literary emphasis of Classics at Oxford. Trease did as advised but found Oxford an unpleasant experience, dropping out after his first year in 1929. In his autobiography Trease writes:

trease
Artwork issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread.

“I could not go on. I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life”

Despite the disappointment that things hadn’t worked out, Hogg was on hand to offer alternative support to his favoured ex pupil. He had an aunt who ran a settlement in the East End of London who could put him up for a while. Trease took up the offer and found himself at Kingsley Hall, which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory”. Here he met Muriel Lester, an extraordinary woman who was the antithesis of his dull academic peers. Writing in his notebook at the time he recorded “she never spoke ill of anyone. Her praise was ready and frequent, her blame rare but terrible…she was amazingly human, loving songs and good company”.

Trease took up a series of jobs that ranged from cleaner to youth worker. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters. He transformed children’s historical fiction by avoiding the jingoism of the era, such as sidling with the superiority of the victors, and instead emphasised the universal needs of people. To turn your back on Oxford took a fair bit of courage and is one of the reasons we celebrated Trease’s life in issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread.

Source: Bodleian Library Souvenir Guide by Geoffrey Tyack

RELATED READING

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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.

Beautiful Libraries: Municipal Library Central Santa Cruz de Tenerife

tea
Photo James Walker.

Santa Cruz is absolutely gorgeous; brimming with tapas bars and city parks, it’s an urban delight that feels like real Spain. It’s in stark contrast to Los Cristianos in the south, the Wetherspoons of Tenerife. But my reason for visiting the joint capital of the Canary Islands was to see the Municipal Central Library.

There’s two ways I would recommend accessing it. If you walk along the Puente Serrador Bridge you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the city and the North Atlantic Sea. Eventually you’ll see an orange coloured building whose architecture harks back to colonial rule. This is the Mercado Municipal Nuestra Senora de Africa. Inside is a bustling market, the hub of the city, where the locals come to grab food from various stalls and kiosks before relaxing with a Barraquito Especial (coffee, condensed milk, milk, cinnamon, lemon and liquor). The library is before the Senora de Africa, on the left as you pass over the bridge.  Viewing it from this vantage point enables you to appreciate the simplicity of the architecture, the way it blends into the environment, and the sheer scale and sleekness of this magnificent design.

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At the end of the Puente Serrador Bridge you’ll see the Mercado Municipal Nuestra Senora de Africa. The photo on the right with the curling sculpture is taken outside the library. Photos James Walker.

The other option is to head below the bridge and aim for the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre on Calle Fuente Morales. A quick right turn reveals the front of the library and trees shading the beginning of a path that runs between the adjoining buildings, connecting the old quarter of the city with the modern zone. If you want a library to be a focal point of the community then location is everything. This ticks every box.

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You can see the bridge in the bottom right image. Photos James Walker.

The building was designed by the architects Herzog & de Meuron in cooperation with the Spanish architect Virgilio Gutierrez, and aspires to be a reflection of contemporary art, influenced by new technologies. The exterior is thick minimalist concrete, reminiscent of the interior of the Nottingham Contemporary, with high glass panels flooding light into the large diaphanous spaces. The walls are patterned with long thin cut out shapes, like someone has blasted a row of Space Invaders, neatly scattering pixels along the surface.

Light is absolutely central to this design, making it such a tranquil space to work in. The ceilings are so high it’s easy to feel like you’re outside while inside. Dripping down from the ceilings are lights in glass baubles. The delicacy of the design makes them feel like a work of art in their own right, offsetting the neat symmetrical rows of the Opal Shelving System below. These shelves are painted white and without end panels to allow light to flow through them. Needless to say every table is occupied, with people reading, working on laptops, or filling tables with scatterings of documents. I suspect as many people are here for the tranquillity as they are for the books. Disability access is excellent as is the WI-Fi.

white desks
Photos James Walker.

The library occupies an area of ​​6470 m2, of which 4670 are for public use and the rest corresponds to the office area and warehouses. On the ground floor are 36 computers, 300 reading posts and shelves that accommodate about 100,000 volumes of books. There’s plenty of CDs and DVDs too. The first floor is dedicated to children and youth studies, with playgrounds and activity areas, 6 computers, 150 reading posts and 20,000 books to choose from.

The Library has a long history, having been inaugurated on April 2, 1888. The 7,000 books it housed back then were mainly from the Economic Society of Friends of the Country and from the private library of Francisco de León Morales, who was the first municipal librarian. It started off life in the premises of the former convent of San Francisco, then in 1932 moved to José Murphy Street. By 1999 it grew in size by swallowing up the buildings of the old courts. In 2008 the library moved to its present location, joining forces with the headquarters of TEA-Tenerife Space of the Arts. TEA is a multi functional exhibitions centre which combines different spaces and activities for social interaction and aims to promote artistic creation and thought on contemporary forms of art and culture, mainly by housing the museum of modern art. There’s a great little shop at the top entrance, selling arty clothing and jewellery, and a well stocked café downstairs.

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I can’t contain my grin on discovering such a beautiful library. Photo Aly Stoneman.

I’m always interested to see what kind of events libraries put on as one question we asked in Dawn of the Unread was ‘how can libraries become a focal point of the community?’ Santa Cruz is doing this through a diverse range of workshops. During my visit there was a comics’ book making workshop in the Children’s Room with Carlos Miranda for 7 -14 year-olds. Fabio González held an illustration workshop that explored basic concepts of illustration and visual language with games that put these concepts into practice. There were sessions for adults, such as the ‘Naked words’ project, as well as an annual programme of oral narration sessions held on the last Thursday of each month. The library also hosts a reading club that’s been running weekly since 2012. But most intriguing for me were adverts calling for submissions to the Julio Tovar Poetry Prize, thereby making the library a regular point of call for those feeling inspired to write after attending various events.

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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.

OTHER BEAUTIFUL LIBRARIES WE’VE VISITED