What the literature community can learn from Sherwood Art Week


Sherwood Art Week (18-26 June) has become a regular fixture in my diary for the simple reason that it happens every year at the same time. It’s now in its eighth year which means even those of us with a sieve for a brain know that we should be doing something around this time. This means I can add it to google calendar and set it to repeat yearly, so that I get a notification reminding me what that something is when I inevitably forget.

My favourite part of SAW2016 is the way that it brings an entire community together, often through very simple touches. Each shop along Mansfield Road has artwork in the window by an individual artist and a bit of blurb about who they are. This means that the minute you get to the main hub (this year it was The Secret Garden Craft Fair and Music Festival at Sherwood United Reformed Church on 18 June) you have a pretty good idea of who to look out for. This also serves another function: it enables punters to view work from a distance without any social pressures. Quite often we get all shy and scared to approach a craft store through fear of being asked a question or being pressurised into buying something.

The festival is well marketed too. There’s a couple of hashtags (#SAW2016 and #artforeveryone) a phone contact and email address and a very ugly but functional website. But you can’t beat print media for marketing, so there’s a handy little brochure that slips easily into your back pocket. These have been distributed across the city in the usual cafes and bars. The cover for the brochure is designed by the ridiculously talented Corinna Rothwell, who I had the pleasure of commissioning for Issue 13 of Dawn of the Unread. You can hear her nattering about arty stuff in the video below.

Literature events need to be better joined up through all of the processes mentioned above. In particular, wider and longer events need to find some kind of identity that brings organisations and spaces together. It’s very easy to do this through art because it’s visual. It’s very easy to do this in one space such as Sherwood. But if any of these principles can be adopted, we might get more bums on seats.

There’s two significant events about to hit Nottingham. Towards the end of the year there should be a literature festival which has been rebranded to tie in with the UNESCO City of Literature. This is a very good start and I’m optimistic. I was one of the founding directors of the original Festival of Words, the first city-wide literature festival in Nottingham in 40 years. It got things started but it was done out of sheer determination and sweat. Grants, project leaders and some kind of themed curation will inevitably improve the first small steps we laid back in 2013.

Bookmarks by The Forgotten Library at #SAW2016

Another key event is Journey to Justice, a kind of community-led initiative which is snaking its way down the country having stopped off previously at Newcastle and Sheffield. I attended a preliminary meeting at the Galleries of Justice on Monday and have lots of ideas about how this could work but I’m doing my best to avoid being on any boards or steering groups at the moment. I’ve done my time. But it certainly got my attention…

The mission of Journey to Justice is: to inspire and empower people to take action for social justice through learning from human rights movements and the arts. Nottingham has a shed load of history which could be incorporated into this such as: Reform Riots of 1831, Cheese Riot of 1765, Operative Libraries (which I explored, via Arthur Seaton, in issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread), Ned Ludd and Bob Hood, our trinity of rebel writers (Lawrence, Byron and Sillitoe), etc, ETC! I’ll hopefully be doing my bit with Dawn of the Unread part II and bringing some of these social justice stories to life via the graphic novel medium. Hence why I was having a nose.

Journey to Justice will stop off in Notts for about 3 months early next year, so it would be great if we were able to brand and link events with the same cohesion as Sherwood Arts Week. This could be done very simply by hosting events at different locations each week so that the audience has a sense of direction and purpose, rather than just cobbling together as many events as possible. Quality not quantity is what Nottingham is absolutely crying out for. But a curated journey heading in a particular direction can be a logistical nightmare. Organisations might not want to be shoe-horned into certain dates either. But it’s worth thinking about. As for visualising these stories, well the pen has always been mightier than the sword. Perhaps we could prod and poke a few people by putting words on the street, in windows, next to art. So many possibilities, so little time. I’m not getting involved. I’m not. No way…

Sherwood Art Week (18 – 26 June). For more info see their website. 

Ta-ra, Festival of Words

Photograph: Nottingham Post

About three years ago at an AGM at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio we asked members what things they would like to see happen at the studio and within the wider community. Quite a few members, such as John Lucas and Michael Eaton, mentioned their desire to see a city-wide literature festival. To our astonishment, we realised there hadn’t been one for over thirty years.

Plans were quickly drawn up and in 2013 we put on the inaugural Festival of Words in collaboration with Nottingham City Council and Writing East Midlands and the two universities. The festival had many flaws in that we had over programmed, events competed with each other, and we were simply a little too ambitious. But this was hardly surprising given how long we had had all waited. There was no funding, either, which meant we ran completely on goodwill and the incredible effort of many volunteers.

2014 was a completely different beast. We went for a more devolved approach whereby both universities planned and coordinated specific events that saw the likes of Ali Smith and Will Self on the streets of Nottingham. We received a grant from Arts Council England (up to 15k) and at the very last minute additional funding came through to put on an international series of talks from writers from afar afield as Hungary, China, and Afghanistan.

It was an incredible week (with additional fringe events that are still going on, such as Judith Allnatt talking about her WWI novel The Moon Field) and was generally very well attended, which the first festival was not. In between the meetings and emails there was also time to be creative. For the first Festival I did a literary walk with Michael Eaton and for this one ran a game of Masterbwainz, whereby we brought back dead writers from Nottingham’s past to raise awareness of local literary history.

There were teething problems with the festival which were inevitable given the small turnaround in which we had to structure the programme and market events, but overall I think it was fantastic and something I feel very proud to have been involved with. There are still areas in which we need to improve; in particular defining roles and how we communicate internally and externally. Agreeing on the identity of the festival and its function is important too, but we’re nearly there in that we are a Festival of Words rather than a Literature Festival. And the website desperately needs tarting up so it has a bit of magic. These things are possible with time, the thing all of us are chasing.

I stepped down as a director of the Festival on Wednesday because I feel as if my work is done. Although stepping down doesn’t mean I’m free. There are still ways in which I will be involved but not at the forefront or in an official capacity. More of a gobby backseat driver.

The Festival is in great shape and with a bit of preening here and there will become a handsome devil. NWS is already represented by Anne McDonald so there is no need for two of us to be involved. At NWS I have slowly tried to devolve roles for the Board and Anne’s role has been working on the Festival, so it makes complete sense for her to carry on in this capacity. And she has done an incredible job and deserves full credit, alongside Jacqueline Gabbitas, Sarah Dale, Pippa Hennessy and many many others. Nottingham, you don’t know how lucky you are.

There are quite a few reasons for stepping down, which I expressed with a few people prior to the festival. Firstly, I am worried that the local literary scene is getting too incestuous. I have too many ‘hats’ on and this could create the impression the literature scene is closed off. It’s not. You get sucked into a lot of things through being the Chair of NWS. Secondly, wearing too many hats can create a conflict of interest which can lead to miscommunication. Thirdly, the devil is in the detail. It is simply not possible to give things your full attention when there is so much else going on. My priority is now with the UNESCO City of Literature bid – which is something that, in many ways, has been born out of the festival as it helped to bring organisations closer together. And lastly, I’m sick to death of emails and meetings and so need to trim these away a bit to concentrate on my two very needy children who I love dearly. They are Dawn of the Unread and Being Arthur (The Sillitoe Trail: II).


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