I don’t think people often think of Swindon as being a hub of the arts – yet it most certainly is – and in one small way I can prove it.
Yesterday, on BBC West‘s Inside Out programme, a film I’d made with colleague and friend Graham Carter about an almost forgotten poet and author, Alfred Williams, was aired. It was the result of work dating back to autumn last year when we decided to attempt to get a commission about this man’s work. He was a working-class writer who achieved a degree of national recognition in his life-time but who is barely remembered by the majority of people in Wiltshire and beyond. Yet, his most famous book Life in a Railway Factory, is a gem for glimpsing life in a Victorian factory.
When I saw it aired, if only in our region, it was thrilling and yet sad in some ways. Sad because that project is now over and secondly because there’s so much more we could do on him and his travel writing! What an interesting man he was. Born just outside the town in South Marston he went into the railway factory – the Great Western Railway works – to earn a better wage as Swindon boomed. But it was a drudge of a life, six days a week, 12-hour shifts in a hot, noisy, unforgiving environment. Even today, we are reaping the consequences of not caring enough for our men who worked in the railways – with asbestos-related deaths. But would we have made the same choices as Alfred?
Once he’d walked the four miles to work, done a 12-hour shift, walked home, said hello to his wife, he would sit down and write, delighting in the world around him. He was a master observer of his community, its characters, its quirkiness and its beauty. He recorded his travels around local villages – probably done on his one day off each week (I’m sure his wife didn’t get much of a look-in).
We re-created a very small part of his journey in 1912, which was recorded in one of his books, Villages of the White Horse, and yes, it can still be bought on Amazon.
What surprised me is the local media interest in the film – so if an lesson can be learned in terms of PR, it’s that you can never tell when something will generate interest.
It could have been a slow news day, considered light relief from heavier news, or it could have been a combination of those facts plus the one really important point – LET PEOPLE KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! Apathy is such a major factor when it comes to getting your good news out there. Never think that what you are doing isn’t of interest – make the effort. Sometimes it will fall on deaf ears, but at other times it will lead to surprising results.
When BBC Wiltshire asked me to go up for a short interview to talk about the film, I jumped at the chance and re-arranged my plans to do so. It only took ten minutes but those were minutes well spent. Graham had been up earlier in the day so there were at least two radio interviews in the county yesterday about this poet. That was on top of a strong page lead in the local Swindon Advertiser as well as social media snippets all day.
The publicity, by association, also advertised a musical, The Hammerman, about Alfred and his life which is being staged in the town later this month and yes I’ll be going. We interviewed the composer John Cullimore in the film along with other contributors.
Making this film has been an absolute pleasure and I’m now ordering other Alfred Williams’ books for my birthday so I can learn a bit more about this town, and its industrial and rural heritage.
For more details about Alfred Williams, try www.alfredwilliams.org. uk and if you want to see how interested my children were in my BBC Wiltshire radio interview, here’s the link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXozWZq4sZU