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News focus: Curioser and curioser – Bryan draws on Alice

The Sunderland Partnership's Proud of Sunderland campaign – backed by the Echo – is all about the things that make our city special. Each week we bring you reflections on Sunderland from some of our best known citizens and ambassadors. This week it's the turn of someone who has brought the city's literary heritage to a worldwide audience – BRYAN TALBOT, author of Alice in Sunderland. More information on the Proud of Sunderland campaign is available from public buildings, tourist at

Bryan Talbot might just be the finest artist to draw his inspiration from Sunderland since LS Lowry.

Relaxing over a glass of wine at Eauzone, in the city's upcoming Sunniside district, that's a notion the modest and unassuming Talbot is quick to dismiss, suggesting that accolade belongs rather to sculptor Colin Wilbourn, creator of Sunderland's Sculpture Trail.

Wilbourn's trail actually features in Talbot's extraordinary graphic novel, Alice in Sunderland, in which Talbot draws himself, walking the sculpture trail with crimewriter Chaz Brenchley.

While Salford-born Lowry is more readily associated with his pictures of Lancashire cotton mills than with than his fine North East seascapes, Talbot – born just up the road from Lowry, in Wigan – is putting Sunderland firmly on the map with his Alice book.

Alice in Sunderland is nominated for best novel at the British Science Fiction Association 50th anniversary awards on Saturday. Should it win, it will be the first graphic novel to take the prize.

It is also nominated at the world's premier comic awards, the Harveys, in Baltimore in September, and for an Eagle award in the UK's top comic industry awards, at Bristol, in May.

Success in any of these will surely add to what Talbot is already calling Alice Tourism – the steady trickle of Lewis Carroll fans the world over who are heading for Sunderland to see the places that inspired the author of the Alice books and the nonsense poem Jabberwocky, drawn – says Talbot – from the legend of the Lambton Worm.

Curiously, fate needed two goes to get Talbot to Sunderland to make sure he found the inspiration to create his tribute to Carroll, which is now in its second edition and third print run in under 12 months, having sold more than 14,000 copies. And that's before you count its sales in five other European languages.

Talbot's first brush with Sunderland was as an aspiring young artist, looking to get into college. But his portfolio of abstracts – completed pretty much against his will at the behest of his tutor – failed to impress and Talbot headed back to Lancashire to do graphic design at Preston.

By the time his wife, Dr Mary M Talbot, took up a job in the Media Studies department at Sunderland University nearly 10 years ago, he had all but forgotten his earlier visit.

"I left Wigan at 17 to go to college in Preston but in 25 years I never formed a great attachment to it. Even so, I didn't want to move to Sunderland because of the preconceptions I had.

"Then I got here and here was this city with a beautiful park right in the centre, and a rich history. And I really like the way the city turns into a holiday resort with all those lovely beaches."

The Talbots set up house near Mowbray Park and then fate played its hand again, establishing a link between Talbot's passion for Lewis Carroll, the Alice books, and his exciting new home city.

"I read Alice as a child and I can't remember a time when I didn't know the illustrations," he recalls. "I saw a copy of A Town Like Alice's in the window of a remainder bookshop in Fawcett Street. Then when Mowbray Park reopened, I saw the Walrus and I thought 'Aye up, what's this here?'."

A Town Like Alice's turned out to be the work of Michael Bute, who had done a PhD on Lewis Carroll and how he had drawn inspiration from Sunderland. "He did all this primary research and was an adviser to me – he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Sunderland's history."

Talbot began his own research on the Sunderland Alice links. "The local studies library on Fawcett Street is fantastic – tons of books, old stories of Sunderland, history. Local history is very popular in Sunderland and the local history section of the library is always packed – mackems seem to be very proud of their history.

"Local pride stems from the history of the place – there are not many places that can boast of the Venerable Bede, the father of history who established AD and BC. That's pretty unique!"

There's a place for the Venerable Bede and lots of others from Sunderland's heritage in Alice in Sunderland and, says Talbot, it's outsold at the city's Waterstone's only by Harry Potter.

"This guy said to me 'You're Bryan Talbot: can I shake your hand? You have put my pride back in my city'.

"Pride is a hard thing to describe, but I came to Sunderland not expecting to like it and was very pleasantly surprised how pleasant it was – the countryside around, the parks. And there are not many places overlooked by a Greek temple."

These days, Talbot regards Sunderland, not Wigan, as home and has watched developments like the Mowbray Park renovation, the Metro, the bus station, software city and thinks people should look positively to the future. "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be," he says.

"There's a lot of regeneration going on but Tesco have single-handedly held up the regeneration of Sunderland – the arc plan will draw in visitors and tourists."

Alice is drawng in visitors, too. Talbot has learned of visitors from America adding Sunderland to their UK itinerary just to take in Lewis Carroll history. And they too are pleasantly surprised.

"The people of Sunderland are its main asset, but so too is its position. There is a certain quality of light, especially in the mornings, that I think is remarkable. The air is so clear. There is hardly any pollution. One of my neighbours moved here three years ago and within three months the asthma he had suffered all his life had finished.

"Lowry liked the pier and all its activity but he also liked the countryside that surrounded Sunderland and this became his second home."

For Talbot, the city became his home too.

Film-star city

ALICE in Sunderland is not to be confused with Malice in Sunderland. The latter is proposed film in which an American student is knocked over by a London black taxi and wakes up confused in Sunderland. In it, Mischa Barton, former star of Channel 4 teen drama The OC, has to negotiate a macabre underworld of latterday Lewis Carroll characters. No firm date for filming has yet been set.

An illustration of talent

BRYAN Talbot's Alice in Sunderland is published by Jonathan Cape. His portfolio also includes work for such iconic titles as Judge Dredd. His own books include "the UK's first graphic novel", The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (soon to be republished by Dark Horse); Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright (just republished by Dark Horse); The Tale of One Bad Rat (to be republished by Jonathan Cape in August) and Brainstorm.

He is working on Granville. "It's like Sherlock Holmes meets Sin City with animals, all in fin-de-sicle Paris in a fantasy vision of the belle poque," he says.

Sunderland facts

Park Lane is the most-used public transport interchange after London's Victoria.

Sunderland hosts the biggest free international kite, music and dance festival in the country.

The city has some of the best school dinners, with free salad and vegetables.

There are 624 listed buildings in Sunderland.

 
 
 

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