My Digital Life with D.H. Lawrence

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A digital storyteller is someone who makes content available across media devices. This could be videos on a Youtube channel, an App that gets you to perform tasks, or via a website. The content usually has an interactive element to it, meaning that the reader, or perhaps more accurately the user, needs to engage with the story in some capacity.
Whether we like it or not, reading has changed. Younger audiences now expect content to be presented in a wide variety of formats and in bytesize chunks. They read on their mobile phones, their iPads and those laptops that get smaller and lighter each year. To accommodate these changes my digital projects conform to a simple ethos: If the 20th century was about knowledge, then the 21st century is about experience. Therefore I’m always looking at ways to bring people into the conversation.

My specialism is in cultural heritage trails, exploring the lives of key Nottingham writers. I do this in collaboration with Paul Fillingham, of digital agency Think Amigo. Our first project together was The Sillitoe Trail (www.sillitoetrail.com) which explored the enduring relevance of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Very simply, this was an App which navigated you via GPS to key locations of the novel. At each location you would be provided with pictures, facts, quotes, audio and an essay. These in turn were created by different artists. My aim was to make literature more accessible by providing different ways of understanding the story, with the hope that our readers may then go on to read the book. More recently we created Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel serial celebrating’s Nottingham’s literary history.

Now Paul and I have turned our attention to D.H Lawrence. Lawrence was a controversial writer who championed sensuality in an over-intellectualised world. In the 1920s he embarked on a journey of self-discovery known as his ‘Savage Pilgrimage’ which took him across Europe, Asia, Australia and Mexico. Accompanying him on his journey was a travel-trunk, which we encountered at the recently closed down Durban House, Eastwood. We were intrigued by the object, its construction, its floral decoration and internal drawers; which in addition to housing Lawrence’s socks and undergarments would have contained manuscripts, sketches and stories, documenting his travels around the globe.

We want to develop Lawrence’s personalised travel-trunk as a Memory Theatre. Memory Theatres, very simply, were filled with rare and expensive artefacts and once used by the aristocracy to convey cultural capital and status. But whereas only selected guests got to view them, ours will be available to all.

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Lawrence lived a nomadic existence, travelling the world in search of Rananim – a utopian community of like-minded people. But he would never find it. In essence, he enjoyed the journey, rather than the final destination. In the opening chapter to Sea and Sardinia he talks of a desire that “comes over one” that is an “absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” Rather than writing yet another book on Lawrence we want to capture this unsettled aspect of his personality by creating a moveable object.

Our Memory Theatre will be a beautifully crafted work of art in its own right, to be explored and admired, stopping off at key locations in Lawrence’s life. The drawers will contain artefacts that capture the essence of his personality. So for example, in 1918 Lawrence sent Catherine Carswell a shoebox containing 20 varieties of wild flowers with their roots intact, all carefully placed inside damp moss. In her biography of Lawrence she explains “With my box of Derbyshire flowers there was a small floral guide, written by Lawrence, describing each plant and making me see how they had been before he picked them for me, in what sorts of places and manner and profusion they had grown, and even how they varied in the different countrysides.” One of our drawers will contain a book of 20 pressings of flowers from Derbyshire. When the Memory Theatre arrives in Sardinia we will arrange for a local guide to add 20 more, and so on. As the Memory Theatre travels in physical and digital form, its aesthetic and emotional value will grow, accumulating its own savage history and provenance.

The Memory Theatre will include digital screens to give context to the artefacts. It will also have a virtual presence for those unable to see it in the flesh. Users will be able to virtually ‘open’ drawers with content geared towards the capture and sharing of the users’ experience.

The internet is all about collaboration, and at times it can bring the best out of people. If nobody uploaded videos, shared knowledge on Wikipedia, or stopped tweeting their opinions it would effectively be a technological void. I wonder whether Lawrence would approve. He was always seeking a small community of like-minded people. He certainly wanted followers. But I doubt he would approve. If he thought industrialisation dehumanised people, goodness knows what he’d make of the Youtube Generation, all gawping into screens.

I’d like to think of our D.H Lawrence memory theatre as a form of digital literary criticism in that we’re trying to create an artefact to represent and encompass the personality and body of work of a prolific writer. I want our students to look differently at stories, and the modes through which they can be told. Lawrence raged his way across the globe, his work was constantly censored, he wrote about sex, pit villages, he knew every flower off by heart, he was a prude, prickly, the greatest DIYer the literary world has ever know, he deplored money but was fastidious with it, and he had some very weird ideas about submission. How do we make this artefact look, smell and feel like Lawrence?

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To help Paul and I think through the project, we’re working with three students from NTU for one year. Rebecca Provines, Richard Weare and Stephen Tomlinson are helping us think about the artefacts, reading and researching through Lawrence’s work, and figuring out costings and audience engagement. Then we’ll start to build it and map out our journey.

If you want to follow the progress of our digital savage pilgrimage then please visit our website. Lawrence was an avid letter writer and we’re paying homage to this by sharing our progress in a weekly blog. Better still, why don’t you leave a comment and join in the conversation?

This article was originally published in the Southwell Folio, November 2016.

Graphic Novels and Literacy

ipadpaulThe following article was originally published in the August issue of the Southwell Folio. This is a magazine edited together by Penny Young which will sadly cease publication at the end of December.  

In 2014 I created an online graphic novel serial called Dawn of the Unread. The narrative conceit is that, incensed by the closures of libraries and low literacy in 21st-century Britain, Nottingham’s most famous dead authors return from the grave to wreak revenge. It’s at this point I should make a confession: I am not an expert in graphic novels. In fact, prior to the project I didn’t even read graphic novels. But it was the right medium for my target audience: reluctant readers.

As far as I’m concerned, illiteracy is a form of child abuse. And Britain’s never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The study involved over 166,000 adults and went as far as to suggest the potential threat of “downward mobility”, whereby the younger population is less well educated than the older generation. Not what you’d expect in the ‘Information Age’.

Literacy is a particular problem in Nottingham. Recent figures suggest six out of ten teenagers leave school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths. We were recently ranked worst in the East Midlands for level two SATs results with 77 per cent gaining a level four or higher, below the 79 per cent national average. It’s a right mess and it makes me furious which is why I decided to do something about it. But we’re getting somewhere. Dawn of the Unread was vital in Nottingham being accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature and was used as an example of best practice in how to engage youth through digital technology. The City of Literature has now become an educational charity, with improving literacy their number one goal. I’m proud to have helped contribute to this conversation.

There’s been much written about the diminishing attention spans of our ‘youtube generation’ so thrusting ‘complex’ books on them isn’t going to help. If teenagers reading levels are already low, Shakespeare will only frustrate them further. Instead, I’ve tried to create a thirst for knowledge. To tease, tantalise and inspire by creating a series of 8 page comics which offer snippets into the lives of our incredible diverse and rebellious literary heritage. By using a wide variety of styles (reportage, poetry, fiction, gallows ballad) and combining different writers and artists, I hope that one of the stories may appeal. And if teenagers go on to the library to get out books, it will be because they want to learn more.

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So what is a graphic novel?

The term ‘graphic novel’ was first coined by Richard Kyle in an article for Capa-Alpha in 1964. But to be blunt, it’s just a means of making a comic sound more respectable. There is a prevailing attitude that comics are a form of dumbing down reading and that they are somehow inferior to literature with a big (or little) L. But having edited together 16 issues of Dawn of the Unread I can assure you that comics are anything but simple.

A comic is a kind of creative production line which involves: a writer, artist, colourist and letterer. The writer and artist are co-authors of the text and it’s vital that both get to express themselves equally. Therefore a writer must not be over descriptive as a broad range of ideas can be illustrated by the artist. The style of the artist can also reflect the theme of the story. I selected Carol Swain to illustrate the life of Alan Sillitoe (issue 12) because she draws in rough crayon on textured paper. What better way to subtly reflect the gritty realism of Sillitoe’s writing?

Each page of a comic consists of a limited series of panels (frames) which function to create a sequential pace to the story. This helps you feel the action unfolding and is similar in purpose to a storyboard. How characters react in frames offers a further layer of meaning too. The Gotham Fool (issue 4) is the tale of a group of people who feigned madness in order to avoid building a highway for King John. At the time madness was perceived to be contagious. Labels are a means of reducing identity to one fixed point, so we reflected this in the art by the way characters are not constrained by panels. They break out into the gutter (the space between panels), suggesting a degree of freedom.

05-01Colour is also an important signifier of meaning. When we created the charismatic hybrid Byron Clough (issue 5) we used bright colours and thick black lines, just to stop verisimilitude and reinforce that he was imaginary. Likewise the use of font (letterer) can capture the essence of a character. In issue 11 we explored Geoffrey Trease’s debut novel Bows Against the Barons which features Robin Hood. The font is sharp and crisp, as you would expect from a master archer.

By making Dawn of the Unread available online I was able to utilise the potential of digital technology by including embedded content. This means that when you click on a star icon within a panel it provides contextual information, such as essays. This helped facilitate more insightful discussions for more confident readers who wanted to go deeper into the text. As far as I’m aware nobody has done this before.

Finally we created an App that enabled users to ‘play’ Dawn of the Unread. This consisted of a series of tasks, bringing in a gaming element to our project. By using a wide variety of styles and storylines, making the comic available across media platforms, and providing different narrative routes through the text, I hope that there is something for all types of readers.

There will be a book launch for Dawn of the Unread as part of Nottingham’s Festival of Literature on 11 November (7.30- 9pm) Antenna, Beck Street, Nottingham. Tickets are £5 but you get £3 off a book.