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 

 

 

 

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.

Cheap Gossip for Retail Later is launched on 12 November. You can book tickets here.