Great Britain

Writers and artists get creative with 26 Characters project

ROALD Dahl, Nick Drake, Jamaica Inn, The Foundling Museum, World War I - these are just a few of the things that Bradford author IRENE LOFTHOUSE has written about for the award-winning 26 Characters Ltd collective.

It’s a project that, says Irene, “puts a spotlight on important stories that may have been forgotten or overlooked.”

She continues: “That’s what chimed with me from the start, being a writer who uncovers and performs hidden histories and secret stories. But so too was the quirky approach to re-imagining well-known stories, responding to music, to designs, to arts.

“The opportunity to collaborate with writers, artists and designers from across the world, all volunteering to put the projects together, was also exciting.

26 Characters tells stories about people, places or objects that writers have been paired with, told through sestudes (62 words), centenas (100 words), sometimes a haiku (poem), or longer pieces and pictures. Each project is featured on the 26 website; sometimes there’s an exhibition, a talk, a walk, book collections or anthologies.

“Each project is challenging. All include research: some may be physical, like my walk from Rock to Seahouses for 26 Steps; or familial like 26 Memory Maps and 26 Armistice. Paring down drafts to 100 or 62 words has also been challenging for someone like me who writes reams and reams. But the discipline has really honed my writing skills in both poetry and prose. What has also been invaluable for me is that projects are run on a tight schedule, with specific deadlines - and all writers need deadlines!”

As well as being a writer on projects, Irene is an editor on a 26 Weeks, a project where ‘26ers’ chat with friends, relatives, colleagues, and writing up the conversations. The project highlights how people have been coping with the pandemic and lockdown. One of the people Irene has been talking to is Lynn Harrison, a midwife working at Bradford Royal Infirmary during lockdown.

“This project will have a wide range of experiences from across the world, making it a valuable repository reflecting an historic period,” says Irene, who is also an editor and one of eight writers-in-residence at this year’s Bloomsbury Festival in October for the 26 EYE:SPY project, the second year she has been involved. Depending on social distancing guidelines, she planning to lead a family-friendly walk based on her research.

“I’ve so enjoyed my involvement in the projects and have been awed by the brilliant poetry, prose and pictures of collaborators; I’ve been moved to tears more than once,” says Irene. “For some writers, a project has been the basis for expanding their research through arts funding. For me, having work featured in anthologies The Understory and Armistice 100 Days has been a real pleasure. “Even more so was the delivery of a pear tree from the Woodland Trust as part of the 26 Trees project. The tree is growing well on a refugee allotment in Bradford.

“But I think my crowning glory has been ‘personating’ Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate at the time) at London’s Foundling Museum for the 26 Pairs of Eyes launch, as Andrew couldn’t be there.

“There are more projects in the pipeline which will be looking for collaborators for. The ‘26’ writers come from all walks of life. Many, like me, work with words for a living, as writers, language specialists, editors, designers or publishers.

“However, 26 is open for anyone to join who cares about words, is curious, likes discovering hidden stories or being involved in innovative experiences.

“Why the name 26 Characters you may have been wondering? Simple answer - there are 26 letters in the alphabet!”

l For more about 26 Characters Ltd go to 26.org.uk. For more about Irene’s work go to [email protected]

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