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.

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.

DOTU Round logo

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.


Superman vs Muhammad Ali

At the moment it feels like there’s some kind of celebrity Reckoning with Muhammad Ali taking his place alongside Prince, Victoria Wood, David Bowie, Terry Wogan, et al. But there’s a lot simpler explanation: we’re witnessing the deaths of the first generation of stars from the Golden Age of Television. Now that we live in an era of 24/7 television broadcast across 1000’s of channels, they’ll be breaking news of a ‘celeb’ dying every second once the Reality TV Generation start to kick it.

But Muhammad Ali was a proper celebrity. A courageous, charismatic, outspoken individual whose tongue was as powerful as his fists. We have two links with Ali in our comic. The first is with Brian Clough, the equally charismatic and outspoken football manager. Clough features in Issue 5: Booked where he becomes fused with Lord Byron to become Byron Clough – a hybrid with more rattle than a Brewers Fayre.

In 1970 Clough was manager of ‘them lot’ down the A52, but he was also gaining a reputation for his verve and wit as a TV football pundit. The ever so quotable Clough was compared with Ali, and so the boxer recorded a special message for Old Big ‘Ead which you can see above. Clough’s response? ‘I want to fight him.’

A more explicit link with Muhammad Ali came in Issue 9: Bendigo versus Nottingham. Here, Al Needham, the writer of the issue – and someone also renowned for his gobbiness – explains how a comic featuring the boxer inspired the narrative of his story. The below extract was originally published as an embedded essay within the comic.

“The Lord Mayor of Nottingham is reading a DC comic published in the spring of 1978, where some alien mentalist started on planet Earth and said that if their planet’s champion battered ours in a fight, he would blow it up. Superman offered to sort it out, but Ali chelped off at Superman and said that he wasn’t from round here, so they agreed to have a preliminary scrap on Horrible Alien’s home planet – which had a red sun, so Superman wouldn’t be able to throw trains around and that.

Ali proceeded to give Superman a right panning, but the youth from Krypton managed to stay upright for ages until the ref stopped the fight on a technical knockout. Ali then went on to mash up the alien champion in four rounds, so they got a mard-on and decided to destroy Earth anyway. Luckily, Superman – disguised as Ali’s trainer – got his powers back and gave them a proper seeing-to, which is why you’re reading this today.

cover bendi
The ‘stars’ in the above screenshot are links to embedded content. The two council bods are reading Superman Vs Muhammad Ali. Writer: Al Needham. Artist: Rikki Marr. From issue 9 Bendigo v Nottingham.

On the cover, we see a ton of famous people of the era at ringside, including the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Columbo, Donny and Marie Osmond, Wonder Woman, the Jackson Five, John Wayne, Andy Warhol, Kurt Vonnegut, Racquel Welch, Richie Cunningham, Jimmy Carter, Batman and Pele. We didn’t have time to do our own cover, but it would have featured Brian Clough, Jesse Boot, Su Pollard, Lord Byron, DH Lawrence, Robin Hood, Arthur Seaton, Alvin Stardust, the 1978 Nottingham Forest squad, Paper Lace, the Fat Slags, and assorted randoms about town who we owed a favour. And the Fish Man.”

DOTU Round logo

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.


The (un)making of Bendigo v Carl Froch

When I started to pair up writers and artists for Dawn of the Unread there were some that I thought would be perfect marriages and others with the potential to blossom into loving long-term relationships. One relationship that I thought would be a marriage made in heaven was that of Al Needham and Rikki Marr (the video above was filmed months before they started work). There was an obvious rationale to this: both had worked together numerous times on LeftLion, when Al had been the esteemed editor. But, it turned out to be one of the most difficult partnerships of all and felt like I’d gone 12 rounds with Froch. There are numerous reasons for this and I hope that they don’t mind me sharing this on the blog as their end result was outstanding. It was just a very difficult process getting there.

Firstly, Rikki suffered a very close family bereavement which absolutely knocked the stuffing out of him. He stopped answering emails and phone calls and completely went off the radar. It didn’t help matters that I was unaware of what had happened and so my terse emails didn’t help matters. When I finally discovered what had happened I was able to change tact and insisted on meeting him face to face so that I could gauge his mental state. As much as I was desperate for him to be in Dawn of the Unread I didn’t want him to feel under any additional pressure. This also meant searching out and drafting in a possible replacement if he wasn’t up for it. Needless to say this was equally difficult as I was basically asking another artist to be on back-up to create artwork at very short notice and put other commitments on hold.

Carl Froch meets Bendigo for the first time
Carl Froch meets Bendigo for the first time.

Both Al and I have lost a parent in the last year and so when we were all able to finally get together it was a bit of self-therapy session, though knowing how someone feels is never consolation for loss itself. Al Needham absolutely adores his family. It is virtually impossible for him to go one sentence without injecting ‘me mam’ or ‘me dad’ into a conversation, and talks about his parents with a passion I’ve never witnessed before. So, perhaps our combined personal circumstances, and the fact that we’ve all known each other for quite a while, did go some way to repairing those gaping emotional wounds.

Prior to our meeting, communication had been via sporadic text messages, something which is completely unacceptable for a project with this level of complexity. This meant that Rikki was working on drafts of panels without editorial input and so the narrative was getting lost and replaced, instead, by beautiful, but ultimately pointless, artwork. Al Needham is the best writer in Nottingham, bar none, and to lose his voice in a story would be unforgivable on my part.

My favourite panel in the comic. Incredible 3-D effects from Rikki Marr to get across a good lamping.
My favourite panel in the comic. Incredible 3-D effects from Rikki Marr to get across a good lamping.

Another difficulty was that neither have written for a comic before. Their previous collaborations had generally been front covers or illustrations for LeftLion. In this instance – when the artist starts to ignore briefs and gets all creative – you can pretty much tweak the text or emphasis to fit the drawing. You can’t with a comic.

Rikki, bless him, was knocking out drawings and sketches as and when he felt emotionally up to it, hoping that they would somehow fit in. They didn’t. Consequently, lots of drawings had to be cut back to create space for text which was frustrating for him after all the effort he had put in. Telling someone they are wasting their time when they aren’t up for drawing in the first place, doesn’t go down too well.

Al and I got a taxi over to Rikki’s and sat down and went through panel by panel. My role was mediator, and although things got a little heated at times as the changes were slowly, and it has to be said, begrudgingly, introduced, a very beautiful, witty comic started to emerge.

Raw sketches detailing Bendigo's rampage through town. Fight dialogue is inspired by Adam West's Batman.
Raw sketches detailing Bendigo’s rampage through town. Fight dialogue is inspired by Adam West’s Batman.

Rikki’s particular style is that of a ‘live artist’ which means he likes to draw from the gut and go with rough sketches, rather than polished perfect drawings. Al is completely and utterly anal about detail: this is a man who buys a ‘leaves blower’ when he is skint because he can’t stand the mess of autumn on his driveway. Consequently, there were inconsistencies around Rikki’s drawings of Carl Froch and Bendigo that demanded he go back and redraw minute details, such as Froch’s nose. This was the last thing he wanted to do when he wasn’t particularly up for drawing. To compound matters, it went against the integrity of his style. But in a comic consistency is imperative as it signposts the reader, albeit mostly on a subliminal level.

It’s worth noting here that Rikki has a lucrative career as a live artist and is regularly flown out abroad for corporate meetings where he sketches boardroom debates and visualises issues. So we were asking him to do something that more or less went against the ethos of his style and the very reason we had selected him as an artist.

As Bendigo goes on the rampage through Nottingham, Twitter goes mental.
Al Needham imagines Bendigo’s rampage via Twitter.

But my God, isn’t the end result beautiful? Every page is drawn differently yet it has the consistency of character to be recognisable from the rough sketches to the 3-D effects. And Al Needham’s voice comes bellowing out of the page, so that you’re absolutely drenched in spittle.

I think they have created an absolute masterpiece and I do hope that as time passes they are able to work on a longer version of the story as they have absolute gold on their hands. Part of my incentive for commissioning writers and artists who had not worked together in this medium before was the hope that it would lead to future projects. Bendigo must not be left to rot as a footnote in a larger story and I urge readers of this blog to let these two know that you, dear readers, demand more.


Al Needham: Ray Gosling’s natural heir

Al Needham is one of the most gifted writers on the planet. His bawdy, irreverent observations of life in Nottingham have entertained listeners on BBC Radio Nottingham as well as readers of LeftLion magazine over the past decade. But like many talented writers he has the occasional pangs of self-doubt. This seems to be a particular affliction of freelancers who spend far too much time locked away in the garret peddling for work, without even a miserable Christmas do to look forward to.

When Al is not peddling for work he can be found pruning his many Bonsai trees, polishing his Golden Cock with wings (he won this for Todger Talk, the sex blog of the year), or watching episodes of Top of the Pops pre-1984. He believes that culture effectively stopped after 1984 (nothing to do with the book, telly just went rammel) so don’t be surprised to find TV Guides with Jim Bowen and Bullseye scattered around the house. He’s bought them off eBay. You’ve not entered a time portal.

Al exudes charisma and along with Andy Croft, is one of the funniest people I’ve met. Therefore he was born for the Bendigo chapter. William Abendigo Thompson was a flamboyant bareknuckle boxer who would taunt opponents with verse. He turned to prize fighting to provide for his family after the death of his father at fifteen and to save his mother from further time in the workhouse. When he retired he would turn to drink and find himself committed 28 times to the House of Correction.

Previous to Dawn of the Unread I commissioned Al to write about another hard-drinking icon of local legend, Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). This was for The Sillitoe Trail which was published on BBC/Multimedia platform The Space.. In the novel, Arthur falls down the stairs of The White Horse pub after a skinful of ale and collapses in a heap at the bottom. I was interested in how Arthur would perceive modern day Nottingham, if, on awakening with a sore head, he found himself in the murky present. Al captured this beautifully in four short essays.

James Walker, Adrian Reynolds, Al Needham and Rikki Marr at an editorial meeting on Valentine's Day...hence the prop.
James Walker, Adrian Reynolds, Al Needham and Rikki Marr at an editorial meeting on Valentine’s Day…hence the prop.

In addition to this he also wrote an extended piece about his life story told through pubs. He visited the pubs of his youth, many of which had been frequented by previous generations of his family, and discovered that nearly all of them from the past 21 years had disappeared; becoming Tescos, playing fields, carpet shops and flats. It was an incredibly moving piece that showed how quickly the symbols of his life – the 18th birthday, the wedding reception, the wakes – had been completely eradicated.

This led to a similar commission with Inside Out which is broadcast tonight (BBC1 7.30pm, 17 February 2014) where Al examines the role of pubs in binding communities together. If you watch this short documentary you’ll notice Al’s ability to engage with ordinary people, make them smile, and getting them to talk about things that are important to them. It is a quality that has long since been missing on the screen since the passing of Ray Gosling, of whom Al is his natural heir. I just hope that some commissioning editor out there recognises this because it would be absolutely criminal to let his talent rot, though I’m sure the Bonsai tress won’t complain…

For Dawn of the Unread, Al Needham and Rikki Marr will be bringing Bendigo back to life for a fight with Carl Froch in the spirit of DC Comics Superman vs Muhammad Ali (1978) The chapter is released on 8 October 2014