City Arts Commission: ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’

Over summer I’ve been running writing workshops in the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group, and the Marcus Garvey Centre, gathering stories inspired by Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The commission was for a City Arts project called ‘Words of Wisdom’ which aims to bring older and young people together through literature.

Anyone who has ever stumbled across this blog or my work (with Paul Fillingham) will know how important Alan Sillitoe is to me. I explored the enduring relevance of his debut novel in a commission for The Space called The Sillitoe Trail, brought him back from the dead in ‘For it was Saturday Night’, a comic in my literary graphic novel serial Dawn of the Unread, and presently I’m working on a new graphic novel called Whatever People Say I Am, which aims to dispel myths around identity and give voice to those deprived of the right to speak. He’s popped up elsewhere, but you get the point.

For the City Arts project I broke Saturday Night and Sunday Morning down into four areas: Work, Factory, Community, Relationships. Groups were provided with relevant quotes and extracts which we read and analysed together. These then served as inspiration to reflect on our own lives. The stories that came out were incredible. Here’s a few from our work themed sessions: Life as a pig farmer and the sadness of befriending one animal and discovering the next day it was off to slaughter; a young female locking herself in a toilet to avoid the advances of a lecherous boss; knocking on doors to inform people they had contracted a sexually transmitted disease and having water thrown over you; working at the Greyhound Stadium and hiding tips in your blouse; physiotherapist in a rehab unit working with miners with head injuries; hungover female bitumen workers grafting every hour of daylight; a textile worker who kicks his wife in his sleep because he still dreams he’s sat at his machine working the pedals.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the hard drinking, anti-hero at the heart of the novel. But for this project I wanted to give Mrs Bull a bit of a focus. She may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard where she is known as the “Loudspeaker” or “News of the World” for “her malicious gossip” which “travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”. Mrs Bull watches people head to the Raleigh factory in the morning and afternoon with one main purpose: “to glean choice gossip for retail later”.

Gossip is a contentious term. Did Mrs. Bull serve an important social purpose in keeping her community in check or was her gossip malicious, with the intent of feeling superior over others? This was perhaps one of the most interesting discussions to come out of our sessions, particularly in light of recent feminist debates about being heard and supporting each other, such as #Metoo

In Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Silvia Federici has traced the origins of gossip and found it originally meant godparent, “one who stands in spiritual relation to the child to be baptized”. Later it referred to companions in childbirth, then a term for female friends with strong emotional connotations. It is only recently that it has been used as a derogatory term.

We decided to call this project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as a nod to women like Mrs. Bull who’ve been given a hard time over the years but also because this is what we were doing in our sessions: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, listening and talking, evaluating and questioning our respective experiences to create a sense of togetherness through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

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 






The Bigger Picture Project – arts and inclusion

For the past year I’ve been working with Loretta Trickett on research for The Bigger Picture which explores the impact of intergenerational arts programming on the experiences of exclusion and isolation within minority communities in Nottingham. This is a multi-collaborative project that includes researchers at the University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and Bright Ideas Nottingham. Together we have been looking at cultural institutions such as National Justice Museum, New Art Exchange, and Nottingham Contemporary as well as many others.

Loretta has held focus groups with various retired people to try to identify possible barriers to the arts and how local organisations can make themselves more inclusive and accessible. Her research has found strong correlations between the arts and health and mental wellbeing. A lot of the retired people she interviewed stated that the arts fill an essential gap in retirement by essentially providing stimulation and building community. One interviewee talked of the arts being a ‘cultural trigger’ that led to obsessive behaviour. He stated that being intrigued by a painter could lead to him reading books about the artist, visiting countries related to the artist, or learning to paint himself. Other people talked about having no time during their working lives to pursue personal goals and then being busier in retirement than they were at work. Over and over again the research reinforced how important the arts were to individuals on numerous levels, not least in providing a sense of self now that work no longer defined their identity.

My role in the project has been finding ways of disseminating the research so that it’s more accessible. This was done through a visual narrative and a graphic novel.

The visual narrative was created by Paul Fillingham, Richard Weare and me. This 35-minute film condenses hours of focus group meetings. The aim was to find recurring themes and categorise experiences so that viewers could get an overall feeling of how the retired felt.

I like the idea of a continuous multi-authored narrative and first got the idea when I worked at LeftLion magazine. The editor at the time, Al Needham, wanted to tell Nottingham’s version of Hillsborough but was cautious given the sensitive nature of the subject matter. The best way to do this was to piece together first-person experiences in one article, thereby allowing self-representation. Two years ago, I helped put together a similar project for the East Midlands Heritage Awards whereby Richard Weare and me conducted interviews with heritage professionals and then sutured these Vox Pops together to create Heritage Confessions.

The graphic novel is for Whatever People Say I Am, the follow-on project to Dawn of the Unread. I held writing workshops with a group of retired people and together we identified key issues they faced on retirement. I then gave them a series of questions (‘what do you miss most about work?’ ‘what is the most important thing to you in retirement?’ etc) and compared their responses to try to narrow down themes and find common patterns. Then we worked on a narrative arc and eventually produced a multi-authored script. This was really important as it enabled the focus group to create something tangible and experience the joys (and frustrations) of writing a script rather than having one imposed on them. If they enjoyed this process, hopefully they would carry on writing…

The script is currently being illustrated by John Brick Clark. Brick is retired (born in 1949) so he was the most appropriate artist for the commission. John was one of our previously commissioned artists for Dawn of the Unread. I don’t want to give anything away, so keep your eyes on the Whatever People Say I Am website. Our aim is to publish this first story for April.

I’m also working on another story for this project about a care home. It involves a Lancaster bomber pilot, a woman with a male horse called Princess, and an 87 year-old taxi driver from London who read his first poetry at 86. More of this in another blog…

On Friday 1 February Loretta and me presented our findings at the Nottingham Contemporary in what was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve ever been to. Karen Salt (University of Nottingham) produced a pack of cards that ask various questions and enable arts organisations to understand their aims and objectives in relation to participation. These act as triggers for critical conversations, and had everyone talking in a way that wouldn’t usually happen in a conference.

Bright Ideas, led by Lisa Robinson, took feedback to another level, putting on a performance in which arts organisations were asked to take a health check. The play was performed by a community of researchers who had not met prior to the project and was funny, inciteful and clever. They addressed some difficult issues in a very thoughtful way and I’m sure the organisations in question learned a lot more about their practice than they would from the dreaded feedback form.

Too often academic research is cold, stale and so far up its own arse it (insert witty comment here). This led Geoff Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage, to conclude of academic criticism that it kills everything it touches. ‘Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.’ This was not the case on Friday. Together, we produced some innovative and engaging approaches to research that were fun, informative and accessible.

The Bigger Picture is a collaboration between Nottingham Contemporary, New Art Exchange, National Justice Museum, Bright Ideas Nottingham, University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and Midlands4Cities. Funded by Arts Council England. Nottingham Contemporary’s public programme is jointly funded by Nottingham Trent University and The University of Nottingham.