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.


Don Juan, Cosmic Trigger and other stuff from our writers…

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood at Pexels.

Here’s what some of our writers have been up to when not wrestling with Nottingham’s unread…

Adrian Reynolds, our resident panel beater, will be taking part in a celebration of mystical prankster Robert Anton Wilson on 17 May at The Corner, Stoney Street. Pulling Your Cosmic Trigger will feature Daisy Eris Campbell whose adaptation of Cosmic Trigger will hit the stage later in the year, KLF author John Higgs, storyteller and performance coach Anna Reynolds (no relation, just a weird coincidence) and Nottingham improv comedy outfit Missimp.

Adrian’s chapter about the Gotham Fool is released 8 June 2014

Alison Moore’s second book The Pre-War House and Other Stories has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award which is announced on 15th May at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. You can also catch Alison reading at the launch of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio new premises on 16 May.

Alison’s chapter about Mary Howitt is released 8 March 2015
Join Andrew ‘MulletProof’ Graves at Five Leaves Bookshop on 12 May and you can hear him reading from his forthcoming poetry collection Light at the End of the Tenner (Burning Eye Books)

Andrew’s chapter about the 5th Duke of Portland is released on 8 November 2014  

Andy Croft has asked 20 poets to write 50-100 stanzas each to create a modern interpretation of Byron’s epic Don Juan. In the original, published between 1819 and 1824, Byron took a swipe at Willy Wordsworth and various others so we’re wondering who will fall foul in this eagerly awaited updated version.

Andy’s chapter on Byron Clough is released 8 July 2014  

James Walker (Ahem) joins Geoff Dyer, Henry Hitchings, Katherine Jakeways and Dominc Dromgoole for five fifteen minute essays In Praise of the Midlands on BBC Radio 3. James’ essay explores Nottingham’s history of defiant individualism through Alan Sillitoe’s fictional anti-hero Arthur Seaton.

James’ chapter about Alan Sillitoe is released 8 February 2015

John ‘Brick’ Clark has received some glowing endorsements in the Independent for his forthcoming graphic novel anthology To End All Wars. It offers an alternative to Michael Grove’s jingoistic WW1 centenary celebrations by focussing on the “personal stories of men, women and animals caught up in the horrific cataclysm… our selection is principally focused on the psychological impact of this most extraordinary and unique conflict”

Brick’s chapter on Slavomir Rawicz was released on 8 April 2014
Paul Fillingham has freed himself from the digital lathe to do his bit for the miners. He’s produced A History of Mining through Ten Objects and is also part of Clipstone Colliery Regeneration Group who have some ambitious plans for reusing the huge headstocks at the former colliery.


Opening Comic features Mike White, William Booth and Edith Slitwell

Dawn of the Unread’s opening chapter is done in the style of American 50s horror comics, which according to campaigner Fredric Wertham were responsible for corrupting young minds. The psychoanalyst outlined his theories in a book, Seduction of the Innocent, which was substantially full of lies. What better genre to open our collection with? The aim is to play about with people’s expectations of what a comic is. The colours for the story are directly sampled from an old issue of one of those comics, and the tradition of having a narrator to introduce the story is followed too. Rather than a cryptkeeper or ghoul, ours is a take on literary heroine Edith Sitwell. We choose Edith for three reasons: 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death, her incredible angular features make her a joy to draw and our chapter was released on 8 March, on International Women’s Day. Rumour also has it that she occasionally slept in a coffin…

This is my first attempt at a graphic novel/comic and I can’t begin to express how utterly demoralising and frustrating the process is, and I’m smiling as I write this. There are so many people involved in the chain that important information gets lost in translation and what you were expecting turns out to be a completely different beast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted with what we’ve created but it’s been a big learning curve and consequently there has been a dramatic overhaul of processes and how information is communicated. Fortunately this documentary on the BBC called ‘What do artists do all day?’ has helped put it all into context.

The artist for the chapter is Mike White and the fantastic video of him at the top of the page was put together by students studying at NTU (thanks to Daniel Finnerty, Natalie Lau and Hannah Barker for this). Mike is an incredible artist and very kindly offered to illustrate this for free. This is part of a deal I struck many months ago and will result in us commissioning students at Confetti and their media team (Loops). Rhianne Murphy is our colourist for this chapter and will be followed by Jess Parry who will be debuting on 8 April.

me leftlion
Me reading. Artwork from Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

Nottingham very rarely gets credit in the wider media and so it is pivotal that we are ambassadors for our ‘duck’ speaking brethren. This led to an interesting debate about one panel where I’m reading LeftLion but the front page was drawn on the right hand side instead of the left. This didn’t seem particularly relevant to Mike as I guess it did its job and ‘signified’ LeftLion, but I don’t want to give anyone the chance to pick holes and so gave him the option of redrawing it correctly or erasing it. He chose the former. I don’t want people accusing us of being slack and considering that Eddie Campbell will be illustrating our third chapter, I want everything perfect. What these kind of debates highlight is the differing priorities of writers and artists. As with any good marriage, both sides, in their own way, are right.

hood in eye
Home Ales Guzzler. Artwork from Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

These issues may seem trivial when you see such beautiful artwork but I think comics are such an emotional journey that it’s difficult not to become obsessed. The lesson to be learned is roughs need to be approved before full blown drawings are finished so that you can add extra details. But this is easier said than done. Time was really against us with the opening chapter but fortunately my partner in crime Paul Fillingham, who in addition to being a technological genius has a background in fine art, was able to make a few tweaks to the completed artwork, such as putting the Robin Hood symbol in the eyes of this ugly looking get. Small details such as this make me smile on the rare occasion my head hits the pillow.

The digital versions of the comic will be released on 8 April. We’re a bit behind on this front because getting things passed by Apple is a right pain in the arse. But I’ll save this particular gripe for another blog. We’ve also got a very special video being made that celebrates that famous Tunes ‘Dottingham’ advert that we will embed into the App version. It relates to this panel here with William Booth, who’s got quite a bit to say about our project…

William Booth. Artwork from Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

Dawn of the Unread has taken up my every waking hour for nearly a year now and it’s so very difficult entrusting this vision to so many people, no matter how talented, but I’m slowly getting there. I’m learning to let go, honest. I do hope that you like it and sign up to follow us on our 14 month adventure into Nottingham’s incredible literary history.