The Conversational Dinner

When Theodore Zeldin’s was made professor honoris causa of HEC Business School he outlined three questions driving his research: How can a person look to find more inspiring ways of spending each day and each year? What ambitions remain unexplored, beyond happiness, prosperity, faith, love, technology or therapy? What role could there be for individuals with independent minds, or who feel isolated or different, or misfits?

He was in Nottingham on Thursday as part of the Being Human Festival, an innovative and inspiring celebration of the humanities. Random people from Nottingham were invited to a ‘conversational dinner’ whereby they were asked to sit opposite someone they had never met before and have a good old natter. We were informed that there were people here from a wide variety of countries, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to diversity as these people could all be from the same background. But it was an attempt to bring different people together.

To help direct the conversation and ensure there were no embarrassing silences, we were all issued with a conversational menu. This consisted of six courses, each with a variety of questions to choose from. The starter questions were: How have your priorities changed over the years? What are the most decisive, enjoyable or difficult conversations you have had? How have your background and experience limited or favoured you?

I was sat opposite a 49 year-old lady who had three children and had been married for 29 years. I won’t go into the specifics of our conversation but by the end of the meal I felt as if I knew someone quite intimately. In fact, I felt a little sad to say goodbye. It was reassuring to hear someone express similar fears for their children in an increasingly volatile world and how our priorities change as we get older. But what I loved most about the conversation was the privacy. This was an open discussion between two people that will remain unknown by anyone else. No validation on social media. No likes. No retweets. Just two hours of harmless chatter.

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There are many ways you can approach a conversational dinner and we opted to ‘choose’ courses for each other. As we learned more about each other, this helped direct the selection of questions. Personally, I’ve always found it a lot easier to be open with a stranger and really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my parents, both of whom passed away a long time ago. They surfaced when I was asked what parts of my life had been a waste of time. None of my life has been a waste of time. I don’t regret anything because every experience has shaped me, even working on the production line in the dog food factory. This outlook, I realised, is because I had incredibly positive minded parents (mum was a typist, my dad ran his own business). When I told my dad I was going to become a parent at twenty he didn’t shout or lecture me. He kicked me in the shins and said ‘you’re fucked’ and started to laugh. We went for a pint, he drew up a spreadsheet detailing how much I now needed to earn a month, and then shared some stories of when I was born and how he felt.

There are two people in particular who need special thanks for this inspiring event. Sally Bowden is one of those brilliant people you’re probably not aware of who silently conducts affairs from a distance and makes things happen. The other is Amber Forrest. I met Amanda a year ago when I was on the board of UNESCO City of Literature. She had a brilliant idea called ‘Portrait of a City’ whereby individuals write up their experiences of life and these are ‘framed’ in a gallery for people to read. These conversations feed into this, so hopefully the dinner will be a starting point for bigger things.

Many of us now will be dreading the obligatory Christmas dinner, or worse, the annual ‘team building’ exercise whereby your reward for being treated like shit for the year by a faceless employer is to be forced to go on an assault course at Go Ape or similar (I always book this day off or throw a sickie). The conversational dinner, however, has the potential to genuinely repair broken relationships, and bring the ‘human’ back into your work colleagues.

When I left Jamie’s Restaurant I felt genuinely uplifted. This was an evening which mixed philosophy and self-help with casual conversation. But then reality came flooding back. A few yards down the street a fight broke out in Carluccio’s and two police vans came steaming down the cobbled street, blue lights cast shadows over orange autumn leaves and the inner thoughts of a 49 year old woman were replaced with one syllable Saxon insults. These are the people we really need to be talking to.

Being Human Festival (17-25 Nov) This review was originally published by LeftLion

Selected books of Theodore Zeldin

  • Happiness (novel) (1988)
  • An Intimate History of Humanity (1994)
  • Conversation (2000)
  • Guide to an Unknown City (2004)
  • Guide to an Unknown University (2006)
  • The Hidden Pleasures of Life: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future (2015)

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.