When I first read the brief I must admit my eyes glazed over. Recreating De-Industrialsed Places? What could be further from my field of interest? But then the stubborn streak which makes me a highly-motivated writer kicked in. Two principles of mine rang out: I am a writer and I can write about anything. And, wherever you live is interesting. Then I re-read the brief and I realized (sound of penny dropping) that it did intersect with my own interest in psychogeography and narratives of place. I had just completed two collections of folk tales, recording obscure stories of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, and that illustrated to me that there are treasures everywhere waiting to be unearthed. They are not just in picturesque villages. I was all too aware of that, having grown up in a depressingly de-industrial Northampton (where I was to write my first novel, inspired by my research into the history of the town). I had taught myself the history of where I grew up because I wanted to know why it was like the way it was. Its architecture, its town-planning, its genius loci, had a very real impact on me, growing up, as it still does on all who live there. Phenomenologically, it influences quality of life on a daily basis. It’s the Affect, stupid.
There was something about Leicester’s red-brick factories that reminded me of my ‘dirty old town’ – so that, in itself, was a way in.
I can’t recall when or how I first alighted upon the idea of exploring the graffiti-culture of the Cultural Quarter, aka St George’s. It probably happened, like a lot of my ideas, in the white heat of a black coffee-high, in the snow-storm of my daily online work. I probably read the brief while scanning emails in a coffee-break. I must have let it digest while I munched on a chocolate digestive and then, ping, like a microwave ready-meal, there it was. I would write about marginalized voices – graffiti artists – those who ‘write in the margins’ of our urban landscapes, below the radar of the commerce-mainstream, out of sight of the CCTV cameras.I quickly wrote the proposal, while the fire in the head was with me, and fired it off.
It got commissioned. So all I had to do was write the thing. Gulp. But, trusting in the powers of research, all things are possible (or writable), I set to work.
Initial field-research went thus: I simply walked around St George’s with my eyes and ears open, oblivious to its history, avoiding any apps or maps, or guidebooks. Next, I went round it again listening to the excellent St George’s app. This revealed to me many things I hadn’t noticed – and re-framed the ones I had. Then I walked around some more until the walls began to speak. I pressed my head to the brick and ink oozed out…
I followed this up with a visit to the Leicester Mercury archives. Housed in the University’sRaiders of the Lost Ark-like special storage warehouse, they would prove invaluable. I was helped enormously by Simon Dixon, Digital Humanities and Special Collections Manager, who quickly located the relevant files amid the acres of musty shelving. I scanned the clippings about the city’s graffiti subculture, noting how its reporting turned from depicting it as a ‘problem’ to a source of local ‘pride.’ To bring it up to date, I visited Izzie, the proprietor of HQ – the fab Graffiti ‘centre’ on Charles Street. She told me of ‘official sites’ and sent me links of some recent photographs.
Armed with a whole wadge of notes, photographs and photocopies I retreated to my bat-cave to turn the chaos into some kind of sense. I came up with a framing narrative that pushed the boundaries of the creative and critical modes of writing. This was ‘historicalnarrative non-fiction’ after all, so I felt behoven to tell a story. And that is what I set out to do – placing myself in the picture, as the wide-eyed researcher exploring the zone with the help of a ‘Trickster’ guide figure, in the form of Elephant Head, a Ganesha-esque skateboarding graffiti-artist … and that’s when the fun really began.
Originally published here: