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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing workshops with ArtSpeak

I’ve just finished a commission for ArtSpeak which gave me the opportunity to nose into the lives of retired and elderly people across the city. My brief was to find out what arts activities people are interested in and where they would like to see these take place. The research would then help ArtSpeak develop a series of Creative Cafes. The research was conducted during two-hour writing workshops at Strelley, the Meadows, Clifton and Bulwell. From these sessions I created pen portraits of participants to demonstrate the different ways in which the arts fulfil needs, particularly in terms of health and mental wellbeing.

I got this commission after giving a talk at the Nottingham Contemporary about my contribution to The Bigger Picture, a multi-collaborative research project exploring the impact of intergenerational arts programming on minority communities in Nottingham. Sharon Scaniglia and Hannah Stoddard of the Radford Care Group were in the audience and approached me afterwards about their ArtsSpeak project. I mention this because as lovely as the internet is, nothing compares with getting off your arse and meeting people in real physical space. This is how I get most of my work. It was also nice to work with Sharon again. We had previously worked on the board of directors for Festival of Words.

I began each ArtSpeak session with some literary or historical link to the area. This was partly to see how much people knew about their home turf and as a reminder that artists are ordinary folk from ordinary places. This led on to a series of writing exercises from a pre-set list of questions. You can’t predict how these sessions will go or how participants will react, so the questions were a loose guide that could be adapted as and when. Similarly, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another.

Folk from Bulwell were absolutely on it. They were self-motivated, well-organised, and had a good infrastructure in place to keep themselves busy. Their complaint, and one I heard repeatedly, was not having enough time to do the things they wanted to do. Therefore, anything that took them out of their busy schedule had better be worth it. I have featured one person from this session (Joy Rice) on my Whatever People Say I Am Instagram account as she confessed to knocking out the first brick of the now defunct Broadmarsh carpark. How dearly I would love to meet the person who one day gets to knock out the first brick of the Broadmarsh shopping centre …

When I began creating Dawn of the Unread in 2014 I was highly skeptical of one stop libraries. I was deluded by the aura of books, believing the presence of any other service within this space would trivialise the experience of reading. I was wrong, and Strelley library typifies this. Opened on 14 November, 2018, after £1 million of investment, Strelley library acts as a cultural hub for the wider community. It’s also a very inviting space, with light pouring in through the glass fronted windows. Above the library are 37 one-bedroom independent living flats, run by Nottingham City Homes.

The participants for this workshop came from the flats, one of whom was really grateful that Hannah Stoddard had knocked on his door twice to encourage him to join in. He said he wanted to answer the door but didn’t have the confidence, so appreciated her perseverance. He was introverted, anxious, and uneager to get involved at first. He said he’d not undone his curtains in two weeks and was very ill. But once we’d won over his trust he became really animated, sharing an incredible life story that had taken him around the world and in a variety of public facing service jobs. He temporarily forgot about his illness and our session overran by an hour. This validated the objectives of ArtSpeak. It was a pleasure to meet him and I felt genuinely sad to say goodbye. I felt as if I’d known him all my life rather than for three hours on a Thursday afternoon.

The Clifton session took place in a less inspiring library, but this didn’t bother participants. Cost and access were the factors that seemed to matter most, rather than aesthetics. Clifton library is on the bus and tram route. I met a man who took The Beatles’ ‘All you Need is Love’ as his personal mantra, travelling to India in a clapped-out van. On his way he stopped off in Afghanistan and fondly recalled that they were the kindest most hospitable people he’d ever met and how much it saddened him to see what we had done to the country in the aftermath of 9-11. I would love to tell his story as part of the graphic novel element to Whatever People Say I Am and may do so if I can find additional funding.

Participants at the Meadows were exactly as I expected – vocal, proud and heavily involved in their local community. Again, I encountered incredible stories of ordinary lives – from a woman whose best friend is a parrot to a man who copes with bereavement by growing food in his allotment and sharing it out with his neighbours. This group all wanted to learn how to write ‘properly’ so that they could write their memoirs to pass on to their grandchildren. I recommended The Accidental Memoir by Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper as a good starting place for getting their ideas down.

ArtSpeak is an arts strand of The Radford Centre. Read their blog about the project here. Website: www.artspeak.org.uk