Animating graphics for Sillitoe project Cheap Gossip for Retail Later.

This is the third 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 and uncovered an incredible artist called Paul Warren who illustrated the animated graphics for the project: Cheap Gossip for Retail Later.

Whenever I complete a commission there’s that moment where you sit back and reflect on what went well and what you would do differently. Working with City Arts has taken this to another level, clarifying what it is I’ve been doing all my life: I basically find excuses to talk to people.

Journalism is all about navigating a city through the minds of locals, discovering the weird and wonderful things that people get up to – the woman who sends the Queen a teddy bear every year, the puppeteer who wants to cover the Council House in felt. I’ve met them all over the years. I’ve always believed that my digital projects were a celebration of literary heritage, but really they’re an excuse to collaborate with a broad range of disciplines and people. The Sillitoe Trail explored the enduring relevance of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning through a beatboxer, jazz bands, a historian, memoir, actors, writers and many more. Dawn of the Unread enabled me to promote organisations I strongly believed in – Sparrow’s Nest Anarchist Library, The Nottingham Black Archives, The Women’s Centre, the Bertrand Russell Foundation. For Words of Wisdom I’ve met people I wouldn’t have come into contact with otherwise, some of whom I now consider as friends.

In the 20 sessions we hosted across four venues in Nottingham, we used Sillitoe’s writing to reflect upon our own experiences. Some people were uncomfortable with writing, others were unable to write on account of their physical health – such as Brenda at Radford Care Group, who has such severe tremors she joked ‘imagine what it’s like when I try and eat me dinner’. Instead, they shared their memories verbally. The purpose of these sessions wasn’t to force people to write, rather to express and share ideas – whatever that may entail.

During one session, a participant who had served in the army from 1961-4, said he was more comfortable with drawing than writing. He was very dismissive of his art, but agreed – after a little encouragement – to send over a sketch later that evening. His email would change the entire shape and format of the project. His name is Paul Warren.

Paul’s sketch, drawn on an ipad, was of a group of drunken men. The style is reminiscent of a watercolour due to the texture and brush strokes, with some aspects given more emphasis than others. This created the feeling of the characters being both present and absent. Paul explained that he was influenced by the concept of Impressionism, drawing glimpses of moments rather than the completed pictorial composition. I personally loved his characters long flowing limbs which created a sense of inebriation – you could feel the alcohol running through their limp bodies. It felt like they could collapse at any time. His work reminded me of Paul Waplington, the Nottingham artist who captured the liveliness of people and places through his rhythmic paintings.

I had originally intended to create a YouTube video for the project output but instead opted for a series of vignettes to be animated by Paul’s artwork. Each one would include a framing quote from Sillitoe, and then an audio of a participant’s story. At first, Paul couldn’t see the value of his work. He felt he had underachieved in terms of an art career, perhaps because his working life had not afforded the time to perfect his craft, but me and Kate Duncan took a different view. He’s an incredible talent, and we wanted him to be the fulcrum of the project. He later gave us access to his dropbox account where we unearthed hundreds of portraits of people.

This is why projects like Words of Wisdom are so important: They allow space for creativity. They place a value on self-expression. They provide validation to hidden talents.

Better late, than never at all…

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here 




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.