I read a lot of comics and graphic novels, so was absolutely MADE UP when I realised there was one entirely dedicated to celebrating the city of Sunderland and all it’s inspired (Gotham is, unfortunately, not a county in the UK, nor is the unnamed town in Ghostworld – more’s the pity). I bought a very tattered copy of Alice in Sunderland: the nice kind of book you can tell has belonged to someone else before you, full of post-it notes and thumbed pages. It’s a hefty tome and is, I imagine, the product of months – if not years – of work by its author Bryan Talbot. And it’s a wonderfully immersive, weird book. All graphic novels are slightly odd, to an extent: when you open a traditional 300-words-a-page novel, for instance, you’re greeted by things you know even as the style changes from book to book. The story is contained by words on a page, however various and different those words might be. No such confines exist for the graphic novel – how a writer/illustrator chooses to present the story – stark monochromes/splashes of colour/uses of font and positioning of speech – all these differ widely from the opening title to the last panel. I’ve yet to find a comic that uses the media available to it as broadly as does Alice. It’s a visual feast with a mixture of photography, collage, illustration, posters and maps, a lovesong to the northeast and a fascinating historical account.
This Alice takes place in the Empire Theatre, and the thread of performance and oral storytelling runs throughout. A man wanders through the city centre and becomes the sole audience member in the building’s auditorium, watching as a lone actor dips and dives through the city’s history, its position in the county and in England on a wider level, the story of the Empire and its many stars, before landing finally on Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, a self-professed “child of the north” who knew the city well. [Oxford tries to claim him for its own, writes Talbot, but with 28 weeks of the year given over to that university’s vacation time he escaped as often as he could, and frequently to Sunderland.] Carroll died on this day, January 14, in 1898.
The northeast, writes Talbot, “with some of England’s wildest unspoilt countryside, is rich in history and legend, battles, ghosts and dragons, heroes and villains, saints and sinners”. We’re taken on an aerial view of Sunderland’s position, alongside other northeastern places and icons: Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne, Robin Hood, Barnard Castle, the Cottingley Fairies and, of course, Hogwarts. “It has more castles and ruined abbeys per square inch than any other place in the UK – a concentration of the stuff of myth and legend.” Talbot splices images of Catherine Cookson’s novels, the Angel of the North statue, and the characters from Newcastle’s Viz mag. We zoom in closer, to the famous Empire theatre, “a place of Varieties built when Edwardian Sunderland prospers with the fruition of the Industrial Revolution, and gushes with civic pride”. There are reproductions of photographs and crisscrossing stories – almost too many for the eye to take in.
The theatre served as a morale-booster during wartime, with its own particular brand of “music-hall humour”. The lone man in the stalls heckles for the story of George Formby, and we learn about the father-and-son who both played at the theatre, about the father’s childhood poverty and the hacking cough – a symptom of the tuberculosis that killed him – he worked into his routines. “All great northern comedy is drawn from tragedy,” writes Talbot. A full spread is given over to Sid James, the Carry On star with the dirty laugh who died onstage during a performance at the Empire (the stage manager’s call to the audience, asking frantically for a doctor, was assumed to be part of the act).
Talbot draws the reader from the theatre and into the city itself. We’re taken through its Victorian streets, and past the wealthy houses of shipowners into the city centre. Talbot peers into every nook and cranny, digging deep into the foundations from when “trilobites ruled the earth” to the Ice Age glacier that created the River Wear (“rhymes with Near”), and the swamps and forests which eventually formed the peat that became Durham’s coal seams. He explores the history of famous statues, such as that of the heroic, and ultimately tragic seaman Jack Crawford, and searches for the ghost which is said to haunt Building Hill. The Victoria Hall stampede is one of the most moving spreads – in 1883, at the end of a children’s variety show, entertainers announced that ticketed prizes were being handed out. Children in the gallery rushed down to the stalls door, which had been opened inward and bolted – those at the front were crushed by the surge behind them; 183 were killed. The image of a girl carrying her dead sister home jumps out across the page of reproduced newspaper headlines. The Victoria Hall remained in use until 1941, when it was destroyed by a parachute bomb – Sunderland’s shipping industry was targeted heavily during the second world war. We also learn about George Orwell’s wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who attended Sunderland High School and while there wrote a dystopian poem set 30 years in the future. She was a great influence on her husband, and nothing encapsulates this more than the image of that poem’s title, spread across the page: End of the Century, 1984.
The figure of the heckling man in the stalls acts as an accelerator at moments when the author’s own passion and knowledge of the city run wild across the pages. Having moved so far outwards, the focus shifts back to Carroll, his early life in idyllic parsonages in Cheshire and North Yorkshire, his miserable years at boarding school and his early love of nonsense writing, which he’d present to his 10 siblings in homemade magazines. So how did Sunderland inspire Alice?
Although Carroll first met Alice Liddell at Christ Church, Oxford, her family had strong northerneastern connections, and Carroll often visited the Southwick area of the city after his sister married a local reverend. In Whitburn, it’s said he met a carpenter on the beach and, later, saw a stuffed walrus in town, inspiring one of my (and a good number of other people’s) all-time favourite poems. The shields at Hylton Castle, north of the Wear, may well have influenced Alice’s chess moves in Through The Looking-Glass. Talbot charts the relationship between Carroll and the Liddell sisters sporadically, presenting them – and the photographs Carroll took of them – alongside famous chapters in Sunderland’s history. He offers differing viewpoints as to why Carroll broke off contact with the family in June 1863 – from the writer’s supposed courting of the children’s governess, his supposed attraction to Lorina, Alice’s elder sister, and his supposed offer of a later marriage to the then-11-year-old Alice herself. The entry for the day of the rift in question was torn out of Carroll’s diary (high drama), so speculation is likely to remain just that – speculation. [According to Talbot, some critics have also argued that Carroll was Jack the Ripper. Sure, why not.]
Most interesting, I think, are the comparisons Talbot draws between Carroll’s style of writing and description (“minimal, and sometimes nonexistent”), and that of comic strips in general – “the words and pictures come together to form a whole”. Carroll delights in entertaining, in telling a story: the great thing is that these stories need not always make sense. How do you gyre and gimble in the wabe? What is a tulgey wood, a beamish boy? What’s a borogrove, or a frumious bandersnatch? Who cares? It’s nonsense, it’s fun, it’s a linguistic playground.
“Before Carroll, Victorian children’s stories are dire educational tracts, or tales to instil obedience and moral codes,” writes Talbot. “Wonderland seeks ‘only to delight’, its anarchy and lack of moral instruction create the form of modern children’s fiction.” This interpretation of Alice joins the canon of Carroll-inspired work, but creates a wonderland all of its own by the River Wear. I loved it.
**One last thing I learned – John Lennon was a big fan of the Alice books, and Lewis Carroll appears in the third row of the cover art for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I think LC would’ve liked that.
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