William Booth celebrated on LeftLion front cover

Illustration for LeftLion article in Issue 69 by Alix Verity
Illustration for LeftLion article in Issue 69 by Alix Verity.

To celebrate the Salvation Army’s 150th birthday the front cover of issue 69 of LeftLion features a mock-up of William Booth’s religious Utopian vision In Darkest England and the Way Out.  The Sally’s CV includes providing humanitarian aid across the globe, radically transforming perceptions of the poor, and a charismatic leader with more hubris than Tony Blair. With such an incredible story it was no wonder William Booth was the first literary figure in Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

William Booth was born on 10 April 1829 at 12 Notintone Place, Sneinton. He learned his trade at the Wesley Chapel, opened on Broad Street in 1837. This six pillared colonnade was an imposing structure on the local community and cost £11,000 to be built – a fortune back then. Here he encountered celebrity preachers such as James Caughhey, who would swoop down from the pulpit in a black cloak, a bit like a religious Batman, playing on the fears of his congregation. His histrionics infuriated the conservative members of the religious establishment but Booth was transfixed, realising that the performance was as important as the play.

This attitude is perhaps unsurprising given Booth’s utter contempt for theological study, dismissing the intellectualisation of religion as “egotistical introspection”. As Roy Hattersley notes “William Booth was by nature a soldier, not an intellectual. He wanted to fight the good fight, not study the battle plan.”

In Issue 1 William Booth appears in our remake of the classic Nottingham Tunes advert 'Second class return to Dottingham'
In Issue 1 William Booth appears in our remake of the classic Nottingham Tunes advert ‘Second class return to Dottingham’

Despite his aversion for reading and study Booth found time, with a little help from W.T. Stead, to outline his masterplan for salvation in In Darkest England, and the Way Out. Drawing on the popular travel book by Henry Morton Stanley he made the simple observation that the “foul and fetid breath of our slums is almost as poisonous as that of the African swamp”.

This chart is a pictorial representation of the benefits envisaged from the application of the Salvation Army’s scheme for dealing with the social problems of `Darkest England’, as described in William Booth’s book “In Darkest England and the Way Out” (first publ.1890). See British Museum fmi.

Booth sketches an utterly depressing view of the slums as a drink sodden world inhabited by vice, crime and starvation. A bit like a city in Grand Theft Auto. Over 200 pages are dedicated to the way out of Darkest England which centre around three self-sustaining but overlapping communities. The City Colonies offered basic support and temporary employment for those who had messed up; Once hope had been installed they would return back to society as fully functioning individuals. Those unable to progress to the next level were shipped off to the Farm Colonies, where comfy cottages and a slower pace of life awaited. Acquiring useful skills in cultivating land and self-containment prepared them for potential new lives in the Overseas Colony.

This was an early draft of the cover
This was an early draft of the LeftLion cover.

The LeftLion cover gave Paul Fillingham and I the opportunity to take a tongue-in-cheek look at contemporary Nottingham via Booth’s ideology. The city has received a lot of funding and investment recently through the Creative Quarter who’ve made an incredible impact, helping to regenerate derelict areas and transform them into independent hubs, such as Cobden Chambers. At a strategic level they are the people leading Nottingham out of creative darkness.

The downside to this is culture is reduced to a neatly packaged postcode, which, as has happened in places such as Leicester, can push up rental prices so that the locals can’t afford to live there. But there is definitely a real buzz at the moment and consequently new businesses are investing in the city, such as the recent opening of Rough Trade Records on Broad Street. But for every Rough Trade there are at least ten Poundlands. Let us forget the ‘Uncreative Three Quarters’ at our peril.

There have been various attempts to ‘salvage’ Nottingham over the years. In Booth’s Utopian vision the fallen are drowning in a sea of illicit temptations. In our version the fallen are drowning in banality. This is represented by ‘intu’ the British Real Estate Investment Trust who are flatpacking shopping centres so that every city is identical. They have the keys to the Broadmarsh and Victoria Centre, and Derby’s Eagle Centre up the A52. But nothing sums up our lack of imagination quite like the ‘Slanty N’ (rebranded City logo), where we officially declared we were a generic bland provincial town without an ounce of history or individuality. 

slanty n
LeftLion cover.

The message on our front cover is don’t believe the hype. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Nottingham remains a factory city but without any factories. Perhaps the Creative Quarter’s purpose is to create digital lathes? Or perhaps the only industry we can rely on is the education sector, given every new building is converted into student flats.

student flats
LeftLion cover.

Nottingham has a rich history of defiant individualism and being a bit rowdy. Our character is shaped out of endless struggles. We flattened our mayor with a cheese in 1766, burned down our castle in 1831, and smashed up our most famous invention in 1811. William Booth was a rebel who was incapable of considering he might be wrong about anything. Basically, he was ignorant; something Nottingham can’t afford to be.

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.


A Second Class Return to Dottingham, Please

Nottingham’s had a fair few labels over the years. In 1811 we were a rebel city thanks to the exploits of the mythological Ned Ludd and the Frame Breakers which led to an impassioned maiden speech in the House of Lords by Lord Byron. In 1984 we were known as Scab City on account of some our miners refusing to come out on strike. If you want to learn more about the truth of this particular event then read Look Back In Anger by Harry Paterson. In 2006 we were voted Worst City in Britain by some random media poll and gained some imaginative punnage as Nottingun and Shottingham. This led to my all-time favourite LeftLion front cover when we went for the headline ‘Another Shooting in Nottingham’. We were referring to our thriving film industry rather than sporadic urban shootings.

But for those of us who actually live in the Queen of the Midlands, we lovingly refer to ourselves as Dottingham after a 1980s television advert for the cough sweet Tunes. In this, the actor Peter Cleall attempts to buy a train ticket with a blocked up nose and delivers the immortal line ‘I’d like a second class return to Dottingham, please.’

To celebrate Peter Cleall’s 70th birthday (he was born on 16 March 1944) I’ve brought this advert back to life and given it a books related twist. This has been uploaded to our YouTube channel and will feature as embedded content in our opening chapter when Dawn of the Unread will be made available as an iPad, iPhone or Android download on 8 April.

The video was edited together by Loops who are a student company based at Confetti Institute of Technology. I’d recommend them for anyone who needs any video editing or similar work as they charge roughly 1/10th of commercial prices. This is a massive saving for anyone working on a tight budget while also supporting a new start-up trying to bridge the gap between study and work.
I did contact the Wrigley Company who own Tunes to make them aware of what I was doing but never heard back from them. I’ve taken the view that as our project is educational and the comic is available as a free download then the adaptation falls under ‘fair use’ and so shouldn’t invoke copyright issues. If they do get the hump then we’ll just have to take it down.

William Booth buys his ticket out of the after life
William Booth buys his ticket out of the after life in Issue 1.

The ‘Dottingham’ reference also features in our opening chapter which is written by myself and drawn by Mike White. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, is buying a ticket out of the afterlife to come and see what we’re doing and, as you’d expect from a workaholic evangelical, isn’t best impressed by our intentions. You’ll just have to download the chapter to find out why.


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.


Introducing Edith Slitwell

Portrait of Edith Sitwell, by Roger Fry, 1918 at wikimedia.

For nearly a year now I’ve been putting together the mechanics of Dawn of the Unread. Thinking through the process, putting together the right editorial team, selecting writers, researching literary figures, building partnerships, and reading a ridiculous amount of graphic novels to immerse myself in what is essentially an unfamiliar medium. This weekend the fun started. I wrote the introduction.

We decided to bring back to life an archaic librarian as our host, drawing on 1950s style horror comics. This was partly to prod at people’s pre-conceptions of what a comic is and to mess with their expectations. I spent Friday night watching the opening two minutes of all 92 episodes of Tales From the Crypt for inspiration, which was originally aired from 1989 – 1996, and conveniently uploaded to Youtube.

The Crypt Keeper introduces each episode and is a master of ghoulish alliteration. In homage to this my librarian figure is called Edith Slitwell and is inspired by the eccentric poet Edith Sitwell. I chose Sitwell because 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death and for more pragmatic reasons, she has a magnificent face that lends itself to illustration. So distinctive are her angular features that when her father commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint a family portrait he requested that the artist smooth out her crooked nose. Sargent did as instructed but took revenge by adding a crook to his nose.

I also want Edith to have long nails like Glodean White (Barry’s missus), that curl all over the page. Librarians are often portrayed as meek and I really liked the idea of a slightly embittered woman who wasn’t happy with what has happened to her profession.

The purpose of the introduction is to explain why the Unread have come back to life but it was also an opportunity to say hello to some of the literary figures that haven’t made it into the book. These include William Booth, Graham Greene and J M Barrie. I’d originally included Charles Dickens (who visited Nottingham four times) as well as Music Hall star Billy Merson, but I had to drop these two in the end.

The initial feedback on my first draft from Adrian Reynolds, our script editor, was brutal but perfect: stop trying to be a smart arse.

“Think less in terms of journo-style info-rich content and more in terms of a dramatic narrative. The political and satirical element is fine, but at the moment is weakened by the sheer density of references, many of which will be lost on the intended audience. And given that this is the intro to the whole, we want them to feel excited about reading more, not baffled by something that’s presenting as a comic but sounds like Radio 4 in disguise.”

With journalism and fiction I’ve always had relative freedom to say what I like. There’s always space to edit and perfect a point or slip in another paragraph. A comic is a different kind of beast altogether. It works on a smaller scale. You have to think about the relationship of each panel on the page. When you start to think of content in terms of a single page or a double page, the narrative instantly becomes more focussed.

Cartoon panels
Draft one. Coffee not compulsory. Photo James Walker.

I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write as you can’t just interject a new idea or point without having to go back and change everything. It’s incredibly frustrating and requires discipline, as well as a lot of coffee. Breaking content down into units in turn helps develop suspense and clarity. After doing this I’ve certainly gained a greater appreciation of other forms of expression, such as poetry where every word counts.

Another thing that helped with the second draft was drawing out the panels so that I could better visualise the role of the artist in the narrative. When you see a small square panel (1/6) you realise you can’t cram too much in and so question what exactly it is you need to convey and how. This was how I got my initial draft of 70 panels down to 40. Next stop, the artist.