About James

James is the Literature Editor of LeftLion magazine. He is also an academic and a writer who has been published in various magazines and books. This means he spends most of his time in front of a computer screen writing about life instead of living it. Therefore, do not trust a word he says.

The Knife Angel: A lecture without words

Many years ago, Nottingham was labelled as Shottingham. We became an infamous ‘crap town’ and got unfairly hammered in the press. It was at this point that LeftLion set up, determined to draw attention to the positive aspects of city life. I got involved for 13 years as the literature editor. I quit my role in May 2017 when Jermaine Jenus hosted a BBC 3 documentary called ‘Teenage Knife Wars’ because I could see history repeating itself and I no longer had the fight in me: “Too poor to afford guns anymore, youth from Nottingham have now turned to knives”.

The thing is, Jenus was right. Nottingham does have a knife problem despite some excellent intervention and education programmes in schools. Nottingham’s Police Commissioner, Paddy Tipping, reports that “a recent knife amnesty and week of action by Notts Police took more than 1,000 knives out of circulation”. Things may be slowly improving but there was a 10% rise in knife offences reported in Nottinghamshire between 2017 and 2018. With 900 reported knife offenses, we are now the only police force outside London to have a dedicated knife crime team – itself an intervention method. We can add that alongside our other titles: City of Literature, University of the Year, Knife Crime Team of the Year.

You would think that this would warrant a visit from the 27ft Knife Angel statue that’s been doing the rounds across the UK? Oh no. Former council leader Jon Collins turned it down, believing money was better spent elsewhere. This is understandable given the pressures on local government. But I wonder if there were other reasons. Firstly, it might draw negative attention to our knife crime stats and we don’t want to put off students – one in six people in Nottingham is a student. If education goes tits up, Nottingham will implode. Secondly, perhaps they were worried that the statue, comprised of over 100,000 blades, might get dismantled…

On a more serious note, it demonstrates how completely out of touch the council are with this problem. I went to Derby at the weekend to see the statue. It is terrifying, beautiful and prescient. It looms high above the crowds, forcing everyone to look up and confront the ugliness of violence. But most importantly it gets people talking. I watched numerous people writing notes and attaching them to the barrier around the statue. I heard people sharing their own experiences of violence. Grandparents gripped grandchildren, parents hugged children, groups and gangs of teenagers looked uncomfortably at one another and shared stories. It touched people in a way that I’ve never seen before with public art. It was a lecture without words. And this is why Jon Collins was wrong to turn it down. It is more than just a piece of public art. It is a conversation starter. The UNESCO City of Literature slogan is ‘building a better world with words’. Please don’t deny Nottingham the opportunity to talk.

PS: A kickstarter campaign could raise funds for it come here if we’re that skint. I’ll donate £100.

Alan Sillitoe Writing Workshop at Radford Care Group

This is the second of three blogs originally published on the City Arts website for Words for Wisdom, a project which aims to bring older and young people together through literature. During my commission we explored Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which is why we had to host some of the sessions in Radford.

When thinking about possible locations to host writing workshops for the Words of Wisdom project, Radford was an absolute must. This was the setting for Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Karel Reisz’s 1960 film adaptation staring Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton would feature the family home of 5 Beaconsfield Terrace, with neighbours and family appearing as extras.

Born in 1928, Sillitoe grew up in abject poverty and squalor. The family lived an itinerant existence, moved on as the area underwent slum clearances. On one occasion the family of six occupied a single room in a building. They weren’t the only ones. Always on the brink of starvation, Sillitoe’s mother was forced into prostitution to help feed the family. “We were in a class of our own,” observed Sillitoe’s brother Michael “it was impossible to fall any lower.”

Sillitoe failed his eleven plus and ended up in Radford Boulevard Senior Boys’ School, leaving without qualifications. Like everyone else in the area, including his father, he ended up doing a stint at Raleigh. Given Sillitoe’s personal circumstances it’s little wonder he has Arthur Seaton declare “I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda”. Yet despite these awful conditions, Sillitoe avoids ‘misery lit’ in his writing. Instead we find a defiant individualism in his characters, epitomised by Seaton’s personal mantra of “don’t let the bastards grind you down”.

I found a similar attitude in my sessions at Radford Care Group where four women aged between 70 – 80 shared stories that were Seatonesque in their cunning and charisma. One woman, Brenda, grew up on Salisbury Street, a few doors down from the Sillitoe family, and brought in a photo of Sillitoe’s mother Sabina on the street. You can see the Raleigh factory in the distance. This was particularly poignant as Brenda explained her ex husband burned all of her photographs except a treasured few. She also shared a letter from Brian Sillitoe, who kept in contact over the years.

When we discussed dialect in the novel, Brenda introduced me to words from her childhood like ‘chumping’ – which is where you collect wood for a bonfire stack. Streets would have competitions to see who could make the biggest bonfire, meaning she would sneak out at night and steal debris from her neighbour’s stack. Presumably they were doing similar, so there was no point feeling guilty. Another favourite word was ‘guzunder’ as in ‘it goes under’ referring to a bed pan that goes under the sheets.

When I turned up for our sessions the group were usually intensely working on a ‘word search’, whereby they had to search through a grid of letters to find hidden words. “Keeps me brain working, duckeh” one of them explained. So, when we met up next, I created a word search that included local dialect and phrases from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, such as: White Horse, Gin and Orange, Blackberryin, Notnum.

The group were really grateful for the sessions because it helped them remember things they’d long since forgotten, such as the US Army billeted at Wollaton Park during World War II. Some of the stories I was told would make Arthur Seaton blush! Although Brenda was too young for a romantic liaison, it didn’t stop her from taking advantage of the ‘Yanks’. Instead, she promised soldiers a date with her sister if they gave her some gum. The scam worked, but much to the chagrin of her father when he had to chase away various soldiers who came knocking at the door for the promised date.

One thing I didn’t expect from these sessions is how it would make me feel. I struck up a real friendship with these septuagenarians and writing this I realise how much I miss our Friday conversations. They made the best of adversity and had a positivity that was infectious. “We had nothing growing up” one told me. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

While in the Care Home I also bumped into a man called Harry. He used to repair watches in Victoria Market and is a family friend I have known for 25 years. I sat down and said it was so lovely to see him, that I hadn’t seen him for ages. But he couldn’t remember me. He looked really confused and I realised he had dementia. He died a few weeks later.

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