Lord Biro Has Left the Building

Lord Biro left the building on 4 December 2022. He was a Nottingham legend, campaigning on everything from free neutering of cats and Boris Johnson to impeaching Tony Blair for war crimes. The above video is a celebration of his life via artefacts found in the Ray Gosling Archives and from his website.

For years, I would bump into Lord Biro in Forest Fields, out on the campaign trail. He would have massive Elvis ‘Las Vegas’ glasses on, greet you with an ‘uh huh,’ and be armed with a plaggy bag full of flyers he’d had photocopied down the nearest community centre.

On the surface, his campaigns seemed a bit puerile – a poem in rhyming couplets and a drawing that looked like it had been knocked out in a few seconds. But beneath the puns and euphemisms he was fighting serious social issues – both local and global – many of which were in collaboration with Ray Gosling.

In May 1963, Ray Gosling stood as an Independent Liberal in the Lenton Ward, inviting people to ‘Vote for a Madman. For just once in your life. Vote for a madman’. He got 475 votes and it would pave the way forward for people such as Screaming Lord Sutch. However, a criminal record would later prohibit Gosling from standing again which is the point at which Biro stepped in. Together they formed the ‘Bus Pass Elvis Party’.

As a member of the ‘Bus Pass Elvis Party,’ Biro and Gosling fought the cause of the elderly. Gosling did this on TV via his Inside Out documentaries addressing issues such as poverty and loneliness. He also paid the £500 retainer required to stand for election, knowing full well that Biro was unlikely to obtain the specified proportion of votes that would guarantee the refund.

Biro stood in various elections up and down the country. In 1997 he went up against Neil Hamilton in the Conservative stronghold of Tatton. Hamilton was at the centre of a ‘cash for questions’ row which would eventually see him lose his seat to Martin Bell, who was running as an independent MP. If you want to read more about this, see John Sweeney’s excellent book Purple Homicide: Fear and Loathing on Knutsford Heath.

In 2014 he reaped a success of sorts in Nottingham City Council when he received 67 votes, beating the liberal democrat candidate, Tony Marshall, who managed a measly 56 votes. Biro campaigned for a 30 percent discount in brothels for OAPs, later it would be free condoms for OAPs. But beneath the silliness was a serious question: What were the council doing to provide for the elderly. This would see him campaigning against the lack of public toilets, and the right to use your bus pass at any time.

One social issue he was particularly vocal about was the Bedroom Tax. This was a provision of the British Welfare Reform Act 2012 whereby tenants living is social housing could lose benefits for having a spare room. The policy was intended to evict people from their homes – no matter how long they had lived there. The implication being they should be grateful for whatever they were given. Biro was ‘all shook up’. It’s one of the few times I witnessed his humour give way to anger.

In 2014, when I began putting together Dawn of the Unread – a series of online comics celebrating Nottingham’s literary history, I wanted to include a nod to Biro’s campaigning and so included his flyer ‘Elvis Wouldn’t be Seen Dead in Tesco’ on a pub wall in Issue 12. Again, this campaign was raising a really important point about the homogeneity of city centre planning or as the Militant Elvis Anti-Tesco Popular Front (one of the numerous names his party went under) put it, our aim is to ‘overthrow the Corporate Capitalist State which turned Elvis, a man of immense talent, into a fat media joke’.

We tried to interview him for LeftLion numerous times, but he wasn’t interested in discussing his upbringing or his working life as a painter and decorator. He just wanted to do the fun stuff. In 2010 we worked together at the British Art Show at the Nottingham Contemporary where he read some pithy poems slagging off art establishment celebrities. One of these was Damien Hirst, who in 2007 spent £12 million sticking 8,601 diamonds onto a skull he called For the Love of God. Appalled by this vulgarity, we nipped into Toys R Us, bought a medical skull toy, and covered it in jelly tots. Unfortunately, nobody bought it.

Dave Bishop ‘left the building’ on 4 December at the age of 78.

The above article was originally published on LeftLion. I chose the title Return to Sender for this as it is the greatest headline never published. It was the original headline for Elvis’s death in The Sun (I think) but was pulled at the last minute out of respect. 

For more information on Lord Biro see grumpyoldelvis.co.uk

Comic Ethnographies: Graphic Narratives and Social Justice Research

Top: ‘Dunkirk Jungle’ Bottom: ‘What is Coming’

Recently I took part in an online discussion for ‘Comic Ethnographies: Graphic Narratives and Social Justice Research’. The event was organised by the Centre for the Study of Inequality, Culture and Difference.

My talk was called ‘A Tale of Two Comics’ and explored the different approaches to two comic series I have edited and produced. The first, Dawn of the Unread, celebrates Nottingham’s literary history. The social problem it addressed was the gradual lowering of literacy levels across the UK and the value of libraries and bookshops as hubs of civic action.

The comics were published on the 8th of each month in 2014 to coincide with the launch of National Libraries’ Day and ran for sixteen issues. A comic is a complex creative production line with many roles required to assemble the completed digitised version. It’s a bit like setting off 16 rows of dominoes at overlapping times and watching them slowly fold into each other. In addition to the comic was a reading flash mob, a smartphone app, a literacy pack for schools, various talks at festivals, placements for over 200 students, a book, and using the project as a case study for Nottingham’s successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. There was more but it’s exhausting just trying to remember everything we did. When the comics were finished, I spent a year staring out of the window.

Whatever People Say I Am is a series of online comics challenging stereotypes. It was created in response to our very fragmented times whereby dominant narratives such as Brexit, Covid, and Trump have split communities in two. People are no longer complex and contradictory individuals but either with you or against you. To compound matters, these supposed divisions have been amplified by social media. The grammar of digital communication encourages us to scroll rather than dwell and so there is a danger of simplifying complex social issues. The aim of this project was to put a face to statistics. To create a space for refugees, migrants, the retired, and dementia suffers to share their view of the world and explain what it means to be them. To accommodate this, the comics extended to 20 pages, whereas Dawn of the Unread were limited to eight pages.

The comics take roughly two years to produce. They are drawn from extensive research and focus groups, with many of the participants involved in the co-creation of the comics. If Dawn of the Unread was about speed, Whatever is firmly about delayed gratification. I much prefer this way of producing comics because you get to know your subject intensely and this leads to long lasting relationships.  Writing has always been about community building for me. Researching storylines is an excuse to stop and chat with people and get to know them better.

The other panelists discussing their work included Hugh Goldring and Nicole Burton of Petroglyph Studios. Based in Ottawa, Canada, they have been adapting scholarship into comics since 2014. Their comics cover a broad range of social issues ranging from policing to refugees. Their most recent publication is?Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of the Living Skies, a history of psychedelic psychotherapy in midcentury Saskatchewan. You can see their work?here.

Edmund Trueman of Junk Comix has been creating and self-publishing underground comics for the last decade with a keen interest in the refugee crisis and the squatting movement. In 2021 he co-created the comic?Dunkirk Jungle?with Alejandra Pajares, based on interviews with residents of the Dunkirk refugee camp. In 2022 his first long-form graphic novel was published –Postcards from Congo.

Alejandra Pajares has conducted anthropological research on urban conflict and gender in Turkish Kurdistan, and identity formation at Greek and French refugee camps. Alejandra is currently collecting people’s stories on the effects of gentrification in Barcelona.

You can watch a recording of Comic Ethnographies on YouTube here.

Further Reading