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

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

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

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David Belbin in issue 14. Artist: Ella Joyce

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

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

Literature and Literacy

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

Dawn of the Unread: the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking the book into schools

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

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

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

Using Dawn of the Unread

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Artwork Izaak Bosman 

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

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

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

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

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

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#MondayBlogs I know what our writers did this summer

We’re currently working on a print version of the Dawn of the Unread serial and then I’ll be going into hibernation as I begin 6 months of research into a possible part II to our literary graphic novel. It’s tentatively titled Untold Stories and will give voice to those who dare not, or cannot, speak for fear of persecution. But more of this another time. For now, here’s a quick update on what some of our writers and artists have been up to. 

Kate Ashwin, the artist for our Byron Clough issue, achieved the first stretch goal of her kickstarter campaign in record time, waking the next morning to discover she’d reached her pledged goal of £4,000. At the time of writing she’s nearly doubled her original goal. The money will enable her to print the latest issue of her Victorian adventure romp Widdershins: The Green-Eyed Monster. She’s also dyed her hair blue.

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Nicola Monaghan (aka Valentine) explored the life of Alma Reville in issue 6. In addition to offering aspiring writers advice via trance tracks, she’s found a digital publisher in Blue Morpho Press. The Troll book 1 is out now and book 2 is due to follow any time soon. You can also read her first collection of short stories ‘The Night Lingers and other stories’ or sit back and enjoy her forthcoming film STARCROSS. Phew, that girl’s been busy.

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In Issue 8 Nick Wood gave us an insight into book adaptations. ‘First thing I do is skim read. Quick as I can. Finish. Close the book. Try and forget it. Let a week pass. Write down those things that come first to my mind. Somewhere, somehow, in that process I’ll start to get a feel for the book. What it’s about. And whether I want to adapt it.’

In the exclusive article, Nick expressed his desire to adapt Mick Jackson’s The Underground Man. It’s been a long time coming. It’s had to battle its way through round after round of arts cuts but thanks to persistence, cracking source material, and the support and determination of Nottingham Playhouse, Nick will be bringing this incredible story to the stage on 27 September 2016. It will be a co – production between Nottingham Playhouse and ajtc Theatre Company. After opening in Nottingham it will tour the region before spreading out nationally.

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Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves was the commissioned writer for Issue 8. Here he explored the life of the eccentric, subterranean Duke of Portland. Since then he’s had his second collection of poetry published (Light at the End of the Tenner) and is now preparing for his Arts Council funded spoken word show God Save the Teen which will initially tour the East Midlands. In it he recounts his past life as a council youth worker, offering tales of drugs, relationships, and the various mistakes that invariably become wisdom in later age.  Your best bet for catching him locally is at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio on 25th September 7.30pm – £5.

As a freelance writer Adrian Reynolds, author of our Gotham Fool issue, has his fingers in many pies. He’s currently waiting to find out if he’s writing a low budget American feature film, which is contingent on fee and contract. Fingers crossed. In October his science fiction short White Lily will finally be viewable, initially by Kickstarter backers, and hopefully at Broadway Cinema’s Mayhem Festival. Elsewhere he’s got another sf short about to shoot in London once some minor script revisions have been approved and his online comic Dadtown now has a publisher, Canadian indie outfit Under Belly Comics. But best of all, as far we’re concerned, his Press When Illuminated talk will be featured at Nottingham Playhouse as part of their upcoming Conspiracy season.

Aly Stoneman is the lady in green, to the right of the picture.

Aly Stoneman is the lady in green, to the right of the picture.

Alyson Stoneman wrote our Ms Hood story for issue 10 and recently won the Buxton Poetry Prize on 7 July. The theme was ‘time’ and the prize was judged by Helen Mort. Aly’s poem ‘Windfalls’ laments the death of her father, a man of his time, through the changing landscape of an apple orchard.

Windfalls

Father, you pelted our legs with tiny windfall apples
when we looked for you at dusk. You would not recognize
the orchard now; a storm felled the old Bramley and Pippin,
we lost Browns and Discovery to voles, root-nibblers,
that long cold year the Crimson King rotted, crashed down.

Hard green apples bounced like raindrops, raised
bruises as we chased and hollered. You knew where
the robin nested, prime locations of knots and hollows,
you lifted me up to see, it was you made me flinch.
You watched Exeter burn when you were five.

Father, you came from a time hard as windfalls,
territorial as birdsong. When we buried you,
Spring sunshine fell through bare branches,
sheep bleating in orchards beyond the churchyard walls.
If you walked in now, you wouldn’t know us.

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Wayne Burrows was our primary researcher and my first point of contact for odd and intriguing facts. I dubbed him Nottingham’s Stephen Fry for the arts years ago having worked with him on other projects. Wayne also helped write the biogs for our literary figures.

He’s just seen Black Glass go to press, which is effectively his greatest hits, poetry wise. The experimental collection Exotica Suite was launched at the New Art Exchange in July. The book is accompanied by a CD of the texts set to music by Paul Isherwood (The Soundcarriers). The launch events also included screenings. Crossing and merging art forms was a characteristic of Wayne’s editorial of Staple magazine. You can find plenty of copies of Staple at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, but be warned; they’re ever so difficult to put down.

But where’s Robert Holcombe these days…

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David Belbin, the author of our Stanley Middleton story in Issue 14, can finally put his feet up and concentrate on writing after successfully chairing Nottingham’s bid to be recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ve sat on those board meetings and there’s been some sweat. We find out the result on 11 December.

The Great Deception, the latest installment of his Bone and Cane serial,  comes out later this year.  In David’s words; ‘Sarah Bone is the Labour MP for the fictional, marginal constituency of Nottingham West. Nick Cane was her university boyfriend. He spent five years in prison for running a cannabis factory in a cave below his flat in The Park, but is now trying to shake off his criminal past. Through these two, I tell the story of Nottingham in the New Labour years. They’re mysteries with a serious undertow. The Great Deception features characters from the first two books but is also, in a way, the sequence’s origin story. It has three timelines – the sixties, the eighties and the nineties. There’s Sarah’s grandfather, who was a cabinet minister in Wilson’s governments, and her dad, who died of AIDS. There’s espionage and prostitution. Three prime ministers appear in the novel, along with one famous spy.  The overall story’s about how lies can resonate through generations and the past is never really past.’

And yes, I know I’ve missed loads of other stuff out but a blog has to end at some point and there’s those Untold Stories that need a voice…

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Some Kind of Fairy Tale: The Magic of Graham Joyce Lives on…

Ella Joyce and David Belbin discussing their forthcoming chapter at Bromley House Library

Ella Joyce and David Belbin discussing their forthcoming chapter. Picture taken in the attic at Bromley House Library

I’ve got some good news that I’ve been desperate to share. But it starts with some sad news first.

Graham Joyce was originally commissioned to be one of the writers for Dawn of the Unread. There were many reasons for his inclusion, not least the ridiculous amount of times he won the World Fantasy Award, but because of his keynote speech at the 2010 Writing Industries Conference when he talked about writers having to become more adaptable and writing across mediums if they wanted to make a living as a writer. Dawn of the Unread is a combination of videos, social media, and essays all held together through a graphic novel, made available across media platforms. This made him perfect for the project, in addition to being one of my all-time favourite writers.

Graham passed away from cancer earlier this year and a packed memorial was held for him on Saturday 22 November in Leicester. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building. But now I’m smiling because I can share my happy story, one which I know would make Graham very proud.

A few months ago I was in Leicester for the launch of a poetry collection and a mini graphic novel that was created in collaboration between ourselves, NHS, Bright Sparks and Everybody’s Reading. We took the format of Dawn of the Unread and expanded it to Leicester.

During the break I was stood outside and a woman came up and asked me what Dawn of the Unread was all about. I explained how we were bringing dead writers back to life in support of libraries and bookshops and celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. A young lady overheard the conversation and said ‘my father has just passed away and he was a writer from Leicester. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him but his name was Graham Joyce’. I said ‘of course I’ve heard of Graham Joyce!!!!’ and then told her about how he had been one of the commissioned writers. Her name was Ella.

The lyrics in the above song by Emilie Simon were edits that didn’t make it into Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

We got talking and Ella said she was an artist about to embark on a Foundation Course in Art. At this point my brain started going mad with possibilities. ‘Can I have a look at some of your work?’ I said, and she showed me a book cover she had drawn for one of her dad’s short story collections. It was outstanding. Ella then explained how Graham had submitted the drawing to his publisher but hadn’t said who drew it. They were blown away and accepted it.

Artwork by Ella Joyce

Artwork by Ella Joyce

I then asked Ella if she would like to be an artist for Dawn of the Unread as this would be a fitting legacy to her father and mean that Graham still had a presence in the project. She burst out crying, we had a quick cuddle, and then began devising a plan.

Ella will be working with David Belbin, who used to share an office with Graham at NTU, to help illustrate the life of Stanley Middleton, the only writer from Nottingham to have won the Booker prize. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture that has absolutely made this project for me, and the kind of layering of meaning that is so essential to us editors.

We met up again this Monday and David and I took Ella around Nottingham, showed her some key locations in the script, and discussed how to approach illustrating Stanley’s Middleton’s life given that Ella has never worked on a graphic novel before. I’m not going to give anything away here, but Graham will feature in the story.

There was always something special about Graham Joyce. He was one of the most charismatic writers I’ve ever met and someone who absolutely loved life. It is, perhaps, not such a coincidence that his last three books should have been dedicated to his immediate family; this was a man who would leave candles out in his back garden for the fairies before going on holiday, while his wife Sue sorted out the passports and luggage! Graham adored his children and was always very proud that they had turned out to be so creative (his other son plays classical music), not bad for the son of a miner. Graham’s writing always suggested that things weren’t quite as they seem and I like to think that Ella’s commission is testament to this (as well as her immense talent) Like his magical stories, this is turning out to be some kind of fairy tale…

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