Comic exploring student experiences of lockdown

The latest comic in our Whatever People Say I Am series explores student experiences during lockdown. This video includes some of the interviews that helped identify themes for the comic.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a comic about student experiences during lockdown. The idea was to create a space that would provide a creative outlet for students and as a means of building community during a difficult period of their lives. This is important to me, particularly in academia, where too often research does not involve the people it purports to represent.

This was done in a variety of ways, but I’ll focus on one for now. I contacted Catherine Adams who runs a third year PR and Journalism course and provided her students with a client brief to work on as part of their assessment. For this, they created a one-minute promotional video and interviewed a student during lockdown. The original intention of the interviews was to have them appear in a block of flats on a page in the comic. You would see the drawing of inhabitants and then click on the still to generate the vox pops. But this didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.

The interviews served an important purpose still in that they helped identify key themes students were experiencing during lockdown which then helped inform the narrative of the comic. There were lots of other focus groups and interviews with students, but more of that another time.

I wanted to do something with the original interviews as these were important first-hand accounts of the pandemic. But the overall quality wasn’t good enough. This is because the interviews had been shot in different ratios, and in different styles – some included music and others included subtitles. This meant I couldn’t edit them together into one short video as it looked disjointed. Instead, I found some pictures of old TVs and ipads on Pexels and put the clips inside of them. This helped differentiate between the varying content styles and gave the video better production values. Now instead of looking like something cobbled together it looked like each clip had been filmed for a specific picture (see below). I then included shots from the comic to break up each interview and to demonstrate how the viewpoint had informed the narrative.

Image by Anete Lusina at Pexels,

I’m really happy with the end result, particularly as all of the students who helped produce the interviews now have a tangible outlet for their work and have a more meaningful presence in the project.

Watching these interviews again, I’ve noticed lots of new details that I didn’t pick up on at the time, such as the nervousness of the Cypriot student and her inaccurate view that most students are asymptomatic. There is no scientific evidence that a student is asymptomatic but perhaps it was reassuring to think this during the pandemic because stories of younger people suffering side effects was rarely discussed. For example, the first findings from the world’s largest study on long covid (NIHR) has found that up to one in seven children and young people who had COVID-19 may have symptoms linked to the virus 15 weeks later. Lead author Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said: ‘There is consistent evidence that some teenagers will have persisting symptoms after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. Our study supports this evidence, with headaches and unusual tiredness the most common complaints.’

The comic exploring student experiences of lockdown is called Degrees of Isolation, a title suggested by David Belbin. The artwork is by Lauren Morey, an NTU Creative Writing graduate who worked on it during the final year of her degree. It is currently with Paul Fillingham who will be designing the cover and giving it the necessary digital makeover so that it can be read on our website. It should be available in December 2022. 

Literary Leicester: Graham Joyce 

Graham Joyce press picture. Design by James Walker.

The following article is a rough outline of a talk I gave at Literary Leicester on how writers inspire us to make a difference. My chosen writer was Graham Joyce.

Graham Joyce was born in Keresley, Coventry on 22 October 1954. But Leicester was his adopted home.

I first encountered Graham at The Writing Industries Conference in 2010 where he delivered the keynote speech, warning writers that the days of a hefty advance for their novels were over. Anyone serious about becoming a professional writer needed to diversify their output. Digital technology and social media were transforming the literary landscape. Best get involved than be left behind.

Graham was good to his word. He helped develop storylines for computer games, scripted the short film Black Dust, and cowrote song lyrics with Emilie Simon. He was eclectic with genre, writing horror, ghost stories and a form of speculative fiction which defied classification. Some see this as magical realism; I prefer to think of his words plucked straight out of the hedgerow. He described his work as having ‘the flavour of dreams’ but his novels are also grounded in family, relationships, and an infectious zest for life.

Despite his reservations about the financial rewards of novelists, he was incredibly successful. As well as winning the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for The Facts of Life, and collecting an O’ Henry Award in 2009 for the short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen, he was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times. If he was a football team, his dominance of the genre would make him a Man City. A Pep Guardiola. Graham would appreciate this metaphor, but not the team. He was a Coventry City fan, occasionally writing for fanzines. He also played in net for the England Writer’s Football Team which he detailed in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.

Talk at Literary Leicester on 26 March. Photo: Aly Stoneman

So, why was he such a successful writer?

To answer this, you need to look at his life. He grew up in a mining village, worked at Butlins in Skegness, and spent ten years as a youth worker in Leicester where he believed the three R’s would get anyone back on track: Respect, recognition, responsibility. Each of these jobs and environments required an ability to connect with people. It’s this humanity which greets you on the page.

Graham was very much a writer who you could enjoy a pint with. He loved the energy of people and enjoyed sharing tales. He had courage and charisma about him. It’s this that led him to start an arts magazine in Leicester in 1980 with Sue Townsend who published a short diary entry about a certain ‘Nigel’ Mole. It was this that led him to quit his job as a Youth Worker in 1988 and drive to Lesbos with his girlfriend Sue, later to be his wife. They lived on a shack on the beach with no water or electric. But what he did have was the freedom to think and the time to write. One year later, his first novel, Dreamscape, was accepted for publication. Aspiring writers out there take note…   

Graham was awarded a PhD by publication from Nottingham Trent University where he taught creative writing from 1996 up until his death. As fate would have it, I now teach parttime at NTU and occupy his former office.

In 2013 I began work on Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel series celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Graham was one of the commissioned writers but soon afterwards was diagnosed with lymphoma and unable to complete the work. He passed away on 9 September 2014.

The following year I was in Leicester with Lydia Towsey who I had commissioned to host some writing workshops. During the break I popped outside for a fag and got chatting to a young woman and her mother about the project. When I explained that Dawn of the Unread was a celebration of dead writers and aimed to bring them back to life by encouraging people to read their books, the young girl, then seventeen, said, ‘My dad was a writer, his name was Graham Joyce, have you heard of him?’

To cut a rather lovely and long story short, it turned out that Ella Joyce – the seventeen year-old women I was talking to – was about to start a Foundation in Art. I asked to see an example of her work and was absolutely blown away. I gave Ella her first commission and she illustrated the ‘Shelves’ comic in Dawn of the Unread.

I know that Graham would love the symmetry and peculiarity of this story. But he would also appreciate that youth had been given an opportunity. The commission gave his daughter respect, recognition, responsibility. We have since gone on to collaborate on Whatever People Say I Am, a series of comics challenging stereotypes.     

Ella’s artwork in Dawn of the Unread issue 14.

I’ve not read all of Graham’s nineteen or so novels. And this is deliberate. Books are precious. You can’t binge watch them like the latest series on Netflix. They need time to settle. I treat myself every three years or so to a new one. This year I will be reading The Year of the Ladybird.

In the last blog published on his website, Graham writes about the Anglo Saxon heritage of Wistow and how Charles Ist once galloped past here seeking refuge in Leicester. As he courts ghosts of the past, the Sence gently bubbles away on its way to meet the River Soar. He talks about his own mortality and ‘the shocking clarity that cancer brings’ only to discover later that a missile has randomly downed a plane in Ukraine and killed 300 people. This has more resonance today, given the current political climate. He then asks, ‘why anyone would want to die?’

It’s at this point a dragonfly whispers in his ear, ‘I have inhabited this earth for 3 million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries. Just cherish it all.’

And then his old friend, the heron, appears, and asks: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’

Let’s make this our mantra today. To inspire each other as Graham Joyce and other writers have inspired us.

Literary Leicester is an arts council funded festival that ran from Wednesday 25 March to Saturday 26 March. The above talk was given during the festival closing event, Mi Duck: Writers Changing Leicester

Wanted: Student experiences of lockdown

Whatever People Say I Am is an online comic series challenging stereotypes. It is the follow-on project to Dawn of the Unread. We are currently working on a comic about student experiences during lockdown and need your help to write it.

Artwork Lauren Morey. Words James Walker.

If I believed everything I read in the press, during lockdown students were all having parties, getting fined £10,000 each weekend for breaking rules, and were solely responsible for the spread of coronavirus. This makes me angry because it’s very different to the experience I’ve witnessed working at Nottingham Trent University and Nottingham Trent International College.

The students I’ve spoken to have spent their 21st birthday behind closed doors, missed out on graduation, never met other people from their modules face to face, and feel anxious not just about the virus but what this means for their future.

It’s with this in mind, that I’ve spent lockdown listening to students from different cities and countries. I’ve discovered that in Cyprus you have to carry a card around with you proving that you’re allowed to leave your house during set times; in Manchester, students have had security guards knocking on their dorms to check there’s nobody smuggled inside; I’ve spoken to students who have remained in student accommodation because they don’t want to go home due to family problems; and some international students who have come here for one term as part of an international placement and spent it entirely inside their room.

I want to address these representations in the next comic for Whatever People Say I Am, a series of online comics challenging stereotypes. The artist for the project is Lauren Morey, a Creative Writing student in her third year at Nottingham Trent. Lauren draws people without faces which seemed apt for a story about a group of people whose fears and anxieties have been largely overlooked by the media. There will also be some embedded videos in the comic. But more of this another time…

As part of the project, I’d like to include eight ‘pen portraits’ by students. Very simply, I want them to share their experiences of lockdown – whatever that might be. These will be published on the ‘Features’ section on the website which provides context to the comic. I witnessed some wonderful strategies for keeping sane during lockdown, from live streamed fancy dress parties in the bedroom to a silent disco on the balcony of flats. If there was anything positive to come out of our enforced solitude it was how vital our imagination is.

If you have a story of how you coped as a student during lockdown, please do get in contact. You don’t need to have sky dived off your balcony or learned how to speak dolphin. You just need to be honest about what you did and be yourself, sentiments which are alluded to in the extract from the comic above.

You can contact me here    

Comics addressing refugees, migrants and asylum seekers

Comic available at

‘I’m Only Happy When it Rains’ is our fourth comic to challenge stereotypes and features a Hungarian migrant. The comic is based on research into new and emerging communities and aims to provide a better understanding of why European migrants come to the UK to work and the possible barriers they face. It will be available on our website on the 6 May to coincide with the Police Crime Commissioner elections.

For the past three years we have been working in collaboration with Dr Loretta Trickett of Nottingham Trent University to create two comics that address the issue of new and emerging communities. One key area of her research is barriers faced by migrants and refugees as they integrate into the host country. She is also interested in ways in which understanding of migrant communities can help reduce Hate Crime. These sentiments bode well with Whatever People Say I Am as we try to address stereotypes through comics. Our other reason for collaboration is to help make academic research more accessible. Often, it’s hidden behind expensive paywalls and read by a privileged few. The comic format allows us to distil the essence of this research and frame it in a format that will reach a broader audience.    

This has been a slow process for numerous reasons, the main one being that we have interviewed lots of people to find the best story to address the issues. I originally set out with the intention of featuring Roma people as I think modern life makes it increasingly impossible to live a simple nomadic life and I was eager to represent such issues in a comic. Similarly, the beautiful colours associated with the culture lent itself to visual representation. But as is often the case with research, the focus changes the more people you meet.

Words James Walker. Art Ella Joyce. From comic What is Coming.

In the end, we featured Syrians in our first of two comics addressing this issue. This made sense as some had settled in Nottingham as part of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme – and so we had a strong local link. But this created its own problems, such as which of the 20 or so Syrians we interviewed do we make as the main narrator – particularly given that they all had such incredible back stories. In the end I opted for a teacher called Maamon as through his adult classes we could introduce the lives of some of the other Syrians.

Since then, we have been working on the second comic addressing new and emerging communities. This features a Hungarian migrant who comes to work in Nottingham post-Brexit referendum. I was drawn to this story because it was so positive and features an independent woman with a strong work ethic who has no fear of integration, believing hard work can help you settle anywhere – she had previously worked in other countries too. I won’t give away the premise of the story other than to say it’s called ‘I’m Happy When it Rains’. The weather plays a significant part in the storyline and was also an opportunity for me to give a nod to my adolescence via The Jesus and Mary Chain.

This is the first comic that Paul Fillingham and I have worked on together. It’s been a very slow process because Paul has had to fit this in around his day job (running Think Amigo) as well as teaching himself new skills, such as 3D modelling. But I’m really glad we’ve had this opportunity to properly do something together. We’ve worked together for nearly ten years now, so creating a shared story together is a lovely way to celebrate this.  

Design James Walker. Picture of Paddy Tripping provided by PCC.

The comics are partly funded by Paddy Tipping, the Police and Crime Commissioner. In an article for the comic, Paddy reflects on his tenure as PCC and said: “Britain is more diverse than ever before. Nottinghamshire is a rich mixture of races, cultures, beliefs, attitudes and lifestyles. I want it to be the most welcoming county in the country, a place where people can be who they are without judgement or fear.”

He is genuinely committed to ending hate crimes of all sorts and recognises the importance of getting this message out in a way that’s befitting of the people and issues it addresses. It’s hoped that we will be able to put printed copies of the comics in public spaces – libraries, community centres, etc to trigger debate and discussion. It will also be used as a resource in schools. The comic will be available on our website by the end of the week.

Until then, the Police and Crime Commission elections are happening up and down the country on 6 May. In Nottingham the candidates are:         

  • Paddy Tipping (Labour)
  • Caroline Henry (Conservative)
  • David Watts (Liberal Democrat)

Please take the time to research the candidates and vote. We know who we will be voting for…

Dawn of the Unread explored Nottingham’s literary history and was created to raise awareness of low literacy levels in the UK. Whatever People Say I Am is our follow-up project and challenges stereotypes.

Further reading

Building a better world with comics

Artwork What is Coming at

We’re three issues into our new comic serial Whatever People Say I Am which aims to introduce a bit of complexity back into life by confronting stereotypes. Our latest comic, ‘What is Coming’, explores the lives of Syrian refugees. It’s drawn by Ella Joyce (who we worked with on Dawn of the Unread). Here’s why we think the project is important and why it took ages to write.

I’m worried about the world we live in at the moment. From Brexit to Covid to the US elections, we’re becoming increasingly fragmented and tribal. These divisions are amplified by social media platforms which were meant to enhance democracy by giving voice to everyone. But now that we can all speak; we’ve forgot how to listen. The world has become a very noisy place…

It’s for this reason, I’ve spent the last three years working on a comic series that aims to dispel myths around identity. Each issue has taken around two years of interviews and research. This is good old-fashioned s-l-o-w journalism, offsetting the immediacy of social media. If we want to challenge stereotypes, prejudice and simplistic thinking, we need to listen.

Artwork Ella Joyce. Words James Walker.

The project is called Whatever People Say I Am (yes, another nod to Sillitoe, gawd bless him) and each issue focuses on a particularly theme – the elderly, refugees, the unemployed, the lonely – and of course everything you presume to know about these types of people – that’s what they’re not.

The aim is to take the reader from birth to death (the last comic in the series is with someone who works in a funeral parlour) but at present, the comics are lobbed up online as and when myself and Paul Fillingham get a chance to finish them. We have three issues so far. The project has been funded by the Police Commissioner, City of Football and Kaplan College Inc (as well as the goodwill of me and Paul). But we’ve nearly run out of private investment so it will soon be time to continue with the Arts Council Grant form I started three years ago and gave up on.

Artwork Ella Joyce. Words James Walker.

This week we published ‘What is Coming‘ – the story of Syrian refugees who have settled in Nottingham. Some arrived here via the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme (VPRS). Others through sheer will and determination. They are ordinary people living ordinary lives doing ordinary jobs who gave everything up for one thing: To live.

None of us know what is coming, which is why this project is so important to me. It’s not just about writing stories. It’s about changing perceptions and helping to ‘build a better world with words’. I want these stories to make a difference. As with the Dawn of the Unread format, we have included embedded essays so that readers can gain deeper context to the stories and learn more about the people involved.

Artwork Ella Joyce. Words James Walker.

These first three stories also have another function, to utilise research by Dr Loretta Trickett and make her findings more accessible to a wider audience. I work part time as a senior lecturer in digital humanities at Nottingham Trent University and I want the incredible work that goes on here to have a deeper impact on society to help bring about meaningful change. There’s no point hiding it away in journals that only a privileged few have access to. Therefore, we have taken her research into new and emerging communities and, along with the interviews, drawn out important themes to shape our three stories.

Now, get reading the comics!

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This is an abridged (and tweaked) version of a blog originally published at Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on 4 November 2020