Brunel 200 Legacy Bristol Libraries 'Writing Brunel'.
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Writing Brunel

Bristol libraries wanted to use the legacy of Brunel to inspire creativity today and to encourage new creative people. To encourage new writing in the city, they decided to run two projects to celebrate Brunel’s 200th birthday.

Creative writing

The first was a short story competition on the theme of Brunel, supported by creative writing workshops to help people develop their creative writing skills. The workshops were led by local authors and were held at a good selection of libraries across the city:

Bristol Central Library with Glenn Carmichael
Bedminster Library with Jeannie Johnson
Fishponds Library with Pip Granger
Westbury Library with Patricia Ferguson

Bristol Libraries - Writing Brunel.

All the workshops were well attended, with a total of 45 aspiring writers turning up.

“I would like to thank the library for running the writers’ workshop I have just attended. It was very inspiring to work and learn with the author Jeannie Johnson. She was practical, informative and encouraging. Her criticism was to the point and she was generous with her knowledge of writing and publishing. I do hope the libraries will run more of these workshops. I have been greatly encouraged by them and I now want to learn more.”
Mary Dainton, workshop participant

In addition there were drop-in open mic sessions at the Central Library in the café area, for writers to try out their stories aloud. These turned out to be less popular, a surprise in view of the popularity of the regular open mic sessions held for poets in conjunction with Poetry Can. However, all the writing workshops also included this element, so there were other opportunities for writers to obtain this kind of feedback.

The main part of the project was the competition for stories of up to one thousand words on the Brunel theme. Prizes were:

First: £150 plus the story read by a literary agent
Second: £100
Third: £50
17 runners-up prizes of a £5 book token

132 entries were received, including one submitted in Gujarati. The entries were judged by a panel of representatives from local reading groups, chaired by Tom Sperlinger, Lifelong Learning Officer for Humanities, University of Bristol. The winners were announced at a prize giving ceremony held on 6 May at the Central Library, when the prizes were presented by Andrew Kelly of Brunel 200.

To round off the project, the twenty shortlisted stories were published in a booklet, with the winning three stories illustrated by local artist Simon Gurr. Copies are held in all libraries.
  Writing Brunel booklet cover.
Graphic novel workshops

Three graphic novel workshops for young adults were held during the half term holiday at the beginning of June, in Bristol Central Library, Henbury Library and Bristol Prison. Simon Gurr, illustrator of the Brunel graphic biography published by Brunel 200, led the workshops.

The aim behind the workshops was to involve young people in a creative process and, through this, enable them to learn more about Brunel and his work. Simon showed the young people some of the work he had done and took them step-by-step through the process. They then each produced a cartoon story, which was made into a page of a comic. Staff at Henbury Library reported that the young people thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and the library later staged a display of their work.

Bristol Libraries - Writing Brunel.

Feedback from Alison Duffy, Prison Librarian at Bristol Prison:

“The prison library shared in the Brunel 200 celebrations on 15th June with an all-day graphic art workshop run by Simon Gurr. It was supported by the education department's art teacher and attended by 10 prisoners. Simon talked about comics in general, about the history of comic strips and different comic styles, and about working as a graphic artist. The participants each thought up a story line, illustrated it and produced a comic strip. We hope to make these into a simple booklet.

It was a new experience for everyone and much enjoyed by all who took part – Simon included! They were also each given a copy of the Isambard Kingdom Brunel graphic biography.

Thanks to Cynthia and Chris for including the prison in this project.”

Bristol Libraries - Writing Brunel.

Simon added:

“I took two workshops at the prison, on the practical process of making comics. Both sessions were with the same group of prisoners who were all members of the art class. For me the workshops were an extremely valuable experience, an opportunity to visit a place most people never see and to meet some very interesting people. I was made welcome and greatly assisted by Alison Duffy, the Prison Librarian and Pauline Palmer, the art teacher. Alison showed me the prison library, where the collection of graphic novels is very popular with prisoners, but the workshops themselves took place in another part of the education block.

The people who took part in the workshop ranged in age from late teens to forties and were from varied backgrounds. I used the same structure for their workshops as I had done with the other library sessions, so the differences were clear. There was a lot more humour in the prisoners’ work, they cared more about the technical finish to their artwork and the stories they wrote tended to be more autobiographical than those of the younger participants in the other workshops (who often incorporated TV characters into their narratives). Subjects included life in prison, life after prison and football. In fact, the second workshop had to run to a very tight schedule because England were playing in the World Cup that afternoon and I promised not to overrun. As the kick-off drew nearer the prisoners became slightly distracted but nevertheless they managed to produce a fantastic set of comic strip pages by the end of the session.”

Library feedback

Library staff involved in the project are delighted by how it has gone. The success of the creative writing workshops was particularly gratifying and we see this as an area where there is clearly a lot of scope for more work. We hope that the project will lead to sustained activity in this area. At Bedminster Library there is now a permanent writing group.
Having a series of workshops across the city involved a large number of staff in the project and made them feel part of the Brunel celebrations.
Writers borrowed books about Brunel and were keen to learn more about him for their stories.
We have strengthened our links with local authors and illustrators, and developed new links in the community, such as Community at Heart.
Library staff were invited onto Radio Bristol to talk about the project.
The open mic sessions were less popular than anticipated so we reduced the number and diverted the cash to an extra graphic novel workshop at the prison.
We received one entry for the competition in Gujurati, which was translated.
The judges were impressed by the number, the variety and the high standard of the short story entries – and the winners were all local. There were some popular themes but also some strikingly original approaches.
The graphic novel workshops were received enthusiastically and again we see scope for further activity with young people in this area.

Winning entry: The Sphinxes who wouldn’t sit still
by Benjamin Tucker

“Have you tried rivets?” shouted the short man in the stovepipe hat.

“Rivets, chains, everything!” cried the navvy, exasperated, mopping his brow.
“Nothing will hold them!”

“Why won’t they just sit still!” demanded the man in the hat, whose name was Brunel.

“I don’t understand it”, said the Italian, shaking his head and stroking his wiry black beard. “In Egypt, all they ever do is sit still”.

“Well they’re not sitting still now!” exclaimed Brunel, gesturing wildly to where a group of labourers were struggling to stop two winged creatures from taking flight. Each creature had, as well as a pair of red wings, the body of a lion and the head of a man. Around the neck of each creature was a rope and on the end of each rope a half dozen men fighting to keep their feet on the ground.

“What did you say they were called again?” asked Brunel, who was an engineer.

“Sphinxes” answered the Italian, whose name was Caviglia. He had brought the twin creatures at no small expense all the way from Egypt in Africa to Bristol in the west of England. He had uncovered them while excavating the Great Pyramids at Giza. Right now the pair stood, if not exactly still as statues, on a grassy field atop a limestone gorge while around them groups of workmen shouted and waved their hands. It was first light and in the darkness a river the colour of oil and tar snaked far below.

“Well Mr Sphinx” growled Brunel, rolling up his sleeves, “Let's see how tough you really are”.

Determinedly, the engineer strode towards the nearest tug of war. Reaching the contest, he took hold of the rope that tethered the creature and, with one swift jerk, brought the face of the sphinx down level with his own. The creature stopped struggling, narrowed its eyes and focused its attention on the figure before it. Face to face, whiskers apart, man and sphinx studied each other intently for some moments. Then, as if deciding he had the measure of the other, the man in the tall hat spoke.

“My name is Isambard Kingdom Brunel” he declared, the stub of a cigar clenched between his teeth. “My Great Western Railway is the finest work in England and runs from London to Bristol through a tunnel two miles long cut from solid rock. I have engineered the largest and most powerful steamships ever built, carrying passengers and cargoes from the Old World to the New. My train tracks bear locomotives from Ireland to Bengal and beyond. This bridge (continued the engineer, indicating to an unfinished tower behind him) that I have fought long and hard to build will, when complete, span the Avon gorge and you, my obstinate friend, and your companion will sit atop its towers and watch over those who cross it”. And with a ‘humph’ of cigar smoke Brunel fixed the sphinx with a stone hard stare as if to say “I dare you to answer me back”.

Impassively, the Sphinx considered the man for a moment. The creature was completely still but for the slow, gentle beating of its huge red wings. The draught from its mighty feathers fanned the end of the engineer’s cigar so that the glow from its embers caught the features of the man’s face. Then with an enigmatic smile and a voice as dry and ancient as sand the Sphinx replied:

“I know who you are Isambard Kingdom Brunel and I know of your achievements. I understand better than you how your feats of engineering will affect the lives of every man and woman on this planet. For better or worse you have made this world a smaller place, young man”. And with this the sphinx exhaled and Brunel caught the scent of the Orient and felt the heat of the desert sun against his face. He felt giddy of a sudden, not a sensation he was familiar with, and then darkness and water cold all around him and the sound of men screaming. “You are a great man Brunel” cried the Sphinx in a voice like the sound of a tomb being sealed, “the finest engineer of this era. But my twin and I are millennia old and we have met many great men, known many engineers”.

And with that the Sphinx shook itself and the rope slipped from out of Brunel’s hands. The noble creature took one step back and with a gracefulness its size belied bowed ever so slightly before the man. Brunel, shaken, returned the honour. Then with a single bound the Sphinx was airborne and away, rising high over the gorge and the river and the city below.

Seeing this the labourers struggling with the second Sphinx shrugged their shoulders and let their captive go. With one mighty sweep of its wings the second creature took flight, soaring to catch its companion who was already disappearing into the eastern sky and the rising sun.

Heading back to where Caviglia stood, Brunel lifted his hat and scratched the top of his head.

“I think”, said the engineer wearily, “that we could all do with a break”.

Brunel did not live to see his bridge completed. Construction stopped in 1845 and did not start again until after his death in 1859 when the Institution of Civil Engineers decided that the completion of the bridge would be a fitting memorial to the great engineer. The finished bridge still spans the Avon gorge to this day but without its pair of Sphinxes which were omitted from the final, revised design due to ‘lack of funds’. If you are lucky enough to visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo you will see lots of Sphinxes all sat entirely still. None of them have wings, which might explain why they’re still sat there.

Photography: Mark Simmons.