Saturday, 14 July 2012

I GOT THE ENDING YOU WANTED - Dennis Hamley

Julia's blog on Monday The Duck, the Hippo and the Goblin, moved me very much and I couldn't help sending in a comment about the extraordinary privilege that writers have to be able to work directly with their readers and perhaps help make a difference for them.  But when I thought deeper about Julia's account I felt that I couldn't possibly match anything so immediate, so direct, so possibly life-changing.  'Oh, you've only got mouldy old creative writing courses to talk about,' I thought and crept into a corner to mope.

But not for long, 'What was so mouldy about them?' I thought.  The answer came.  'Nothing.'  I recalled the memories they brought, the extraordinary work the kids produced, beyond anything they -  or we - could have expected, the insights they expressed about the whole experience.  And I also keenly remembered the shared happiness, the feeling of common endeavour, however singular the work each child wrote.  So, not for the first time in these blogs, I'm going all nostalgic.

I'm talking specifically about the creative writing courses I founded in Hertfordshire back in 1985, which mentioned in a previous post.  I took the last line of my favourite poetry quotation, the one from Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi, which expresses so powerfully what I feel that all art is, and used it as a generic title.  The Lending Our Minds Out courses.

How did they start?   I was County English Adviser for Hertfordshire at the time  and already  running  my Teachers as Writers courses.  But I was really quite worried about the way the stories and poems were being used in primary schools.  In some schools, where the ethos was encouraging and the teachers were positive about reading and writing beyond the merely functional, things were fine.  In too many others, I was disappointed: the kids, I knew, could - and wanted - to do so much better.

Then  one day I was told there was a little-known pot of money around for work with gifted children.  'But I want to work with all children,' I protested.  'Use it or they'll take it away,' my powerful informant told me.
To be handed a tidy sum to do whatever I wanted brought on a heady feeling pretty well unknown in education today.   But I knew I had to make it count.
The course had to be residential.  I called my good friend Phil Levy, who ran the Pearse House Conference Centre in Bishops Stortford.    LEA courses were often held there.  We realised that Pearse House would be ideal.  It was - still is - basically a very large Victorian house, once privately owned, then for a while the boarding house of the Herts and Essex Girls' School in Bishops Stortford (the Head was Miss Pearse, thus the name), and, after that, a County in-service centre.  From outside it still looks the same but inside it's gone all posh, because it's now a smart  hotel and wedding venue as well as a conference centre.  The rooms even have en-suites, so no more lonely, shivering walks to the freezing loo on the top floor.


Pearse House
Then I sounded out Primary heads.  There was an enthusiasm which was really quite gratifying.  Yes, some were happy about sending up to four pupils between 8 and 11 (nowadays we'd say Key Stage 2, years 5 and 6) for a course which would begin on Tuesday evening and end at lunchtime on Friday.  Poetry or stories.  The kids could take their pick


But who was actually going to teach on it?  I needed tutors I knew and trusted.  I knew some likely children's novelists not far away.  However I wasn't so sure about poets.  So I turned to two local poets, who both happened to be Heads of local schools (I fancy they wouldn't want to be Heads now),  John Cotton and Wes Magee.   Both were/are superb poets (John  wrote Old Movies and Kilroy Was Here, both Poetry Book Society choices and Wes had written Urban Gorilla and Flesh, or Money).  But both were poets for children as well (John The Crystal Maze, The Exeter Ridles and Oscar the Dog and Wes Witch's Brew and The Phantom Phan-tastic Show).  But I knew they were also superb teachers.  They both suggested I should ask Moira Andrew as well, herself a Head, who by then had written poetry for adults (Light the Blue Touch Paper and for children, Marbles in my Pocket).  So there was my poetry team.


Who for novels?    I chose two living nearby: Patricia Miles (If I Survive and the Gods in Winter, a long out-of-print but I think absolutely brilliant, near perfect, transference of the Persephone myth to the Derbyshire Peak District) and Nina Beachcroft, who once drove through the Hertfordshire village of Cold Christmas, thought 'what a wonderful title for a book' and went straight home to write it.


So there was my team.  We worked to a very simple plane.  Each evening, two writers read from and talked about their work and on Sunday morning, the kids all came together to read selections from their own work over the course.  And the rest of the time was in close-knit groups, where the kids had uninterrupted contact with successful published authors and were able and free to experiment with anything they liked.  And when it was over we turned it all into a book.

Creativity at work
The first course was hugely oversubscribed and so were all those which succeeded it.  We had to run  consolation days in the summer for those who didn't get on.   The courses took place each January.  Outside, rain beat, snow fell, frosts bit, gales blew.  Inside, all was dedicated consolidation.  When, some years afterwards, the County Evaluation Team came to assess the course, one boy, when asked what the best thing was about it, said, 'We have time.  We can think about things and finish them.  That doesn't happen in school.'


The courses took place in their old form until 1992, when, fed up with everything in education except them, I asked for and thankfully got early retirement.  Both courses disappeared when I left, Teachers As Writers because it 'wasn't relevant to the National Curriculum' and  Lending Our Minds Out because it didn't seem to lend itself to the new world of Key Stages and SATs.  But LOMO lived again.  We ran them commercially,  from Pearse House but not taking place there.  Instead, we hired Youth Hostels all over the country.  By that time I had more tutors: David R Morgan, Mick Gowar, Linda Newbery, Nick Manns, Steve Bowkett, Fred Sedgwick, Dennis Pepper, Gina Wilson, Penny Dolan and Rex Harley (who both first learned their trade on Teachers as Writers) and several others.   And so the courses continued, year after year, until 2004, when at last the cost became too great for school budgets  to bear or parents to pay.


I still have an ambition to start them, or something like them, again.  I have a possible venue, and if that falls through there may be others.  They probably wouldn't be residential because we can't run before we walk.  But it's one of the little ambitions that still twinkle away at the back of my mind.

Who said boys can't concentrate?
Anyway, what actually happened on them?  I haven't got much of the work with me any more: a move from a big house to a little flat took care of that.  But of what I do have left, here is an example.  My group of six children and I had been talking about stories, about how so often they follow lines which are the same but which don't seem poor imitations but seem somehow universal, so they don't irritate us, they move us.   We talked; then I suggested they wrote and brought me the results next day.  They all did except for Helen.  I'd found out two things about Helen.  One, she was crazy about gymnastics.  The other, she was seriously into ghost stories.  Well, I'd never heard of a ghostly gymnast so perhaps now was my chance to read about one. We had another talk about how some endings seemed inevitable but somehow not corny.  And then Helen said, 'I'm going away to write now.'  An hour later she was back, finished and happy. 


In Helen's story, the magnificently realised teacher Miss Belford-Ringer is training her girls for a gymnastic competition.  Natalie is the talented but wilful star.  In practice, she swings on the parallel bars with no adult present, falls and severely injures herself.  The rest of the group continue, now hopelessly, to train for the competition.

After two days, they heard that Natalie had three broken ribs, a broken leg, a fractured thigh, a severely sprained back and a brain haemorrhage.  It was six days until the competition.  Miss Belford-Ringer had entered everybody.  They had a complicated sequence to do.  No-one could do it except Lisa.
       The day of the competition was dreary and clouds hung overhead, promising rain.  Five girls in raincoats plodded to the gym.  All the other groups looked fit and agile.  Everyone was very nervous.  Miss Belford-Ringer was getting flustered.
        Just before their turn, Kate yelled, 'Look!'
         All the girls turned to see Natalie walking towards them.  They all rushed over to her.
        'Look,' she said when they had told her their troubles. 'Do it for Miss Belford-Ringer.'
         Melanie checked her digital watch.  It was 11.42.
         'We've got to hurry,' she cried.  'Our turn is in three minutes.'
         In their turn, everybody concentrated very hard and were delighted when no-one made a mistake.  As soon as they finished they rushed to find Natalie, but she had gone.
         '...And the winners are...' droned the loudspeakers, 'The Gym Girls, Lisa Smith, Jody Brown, Kate du Barry, Melanie Campbell and Amy Richie.'
         'Ye-es,' cried all the girls.
          Miss Belford-Ringer hurried up and said, 'Well done girls, you did very well but I have some very bad news.'
          'What?' gasped Amy.
          'Natalie, I'm afraid, died at 11.42 today.'


As a structure and an ending I think that's just about faultless.  Yes, I know we've guessed the ending several paragraphs before it arrives but that doesn't matter.  It's still satisfying, though we've often seen it hundreds of times before, in Homer and Virgil, in Chaucer  and more  writers since then than you can shake a stick at, including me, several times.  And it always seems to work.  Does it tap into an obscure human need? I don't know.  But what made Helen's story a complete joy to me was the fact that at the bottom of the page she had scrawled in triumphant capitals, I GOT THE ENDING YOU WANTED!


And pretty well everything else the kids gave me, during all those years, was a complete joy as well.


Well, what about Teachers as Writers?  This was at Offley Place, once the  main County residential centre, now, inevitably, another posh country hotel and wedding venue.  For these courses I kept a settled team.  
For the novel, besides me,  Jan Mark, Adele Geras and Robert Leeson.  For poetry, John Cotton again, John Mole and, from Canada, Chris Wiseman (who has just been awarded the Order of Canada for services to poetry and creative writing education.  I didn't see much mention of either on this year's UK honours list.  By the way, Cally and John, Chris started the creative writing course at Strathclyde University back in the 60s.  I expect that's disappeared with the demise of the English Faculty).  


And here, to end with, is a photograph the like of which can never be taken again.  A sort of fitting farewell to the whole thing.

To the right, the poet John Mole.  To the left, the late, great Jan Mark.

6 comments:

John A. A. Logan said...

The Lending Our Minds Out courses...a fine title indeed!
A creative writing course at Strathclyde in the 1960s must have been something to behold too...
GODS IN WINTER, Patricia Miles' rendering/modernising/localising of the Persephone myth...
And that superb photo of Jan Mark and John Mole in front of the hay field.
There's a lot to chew on here Dennis, thanks...a window into a world I wish I'd experienced...tangible as you describe it here and even with the photos as evidence.
And the implications, cultural/political of these things that are lost, gone...because of systems, political factors...and certainly replaced with nothing to compare.
But I can already hear Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, yelling at me across the ghostly veil: "'Twas always so!"
Hopefully, there are still Teachers as Writers/Writers as Teachers out there, surreptitiously...perhaps not on the syllabus...but quietly lending out their minds to children and encouraging them to write/think/create here and there...even now...perhaps even some of those teachers were children once on one of your own courses?

Susan Price said...

Great post, Dennis! And, if you get those new courses started, I'm applying for a job! I've got experience - I did a few years in Sandwell's Ingestre Hall residential course. I remember it as utterly exhausting and wonderful!

CallyPhillips said...

Hi Dennis - firstly, you are unaware maybe how big the scots contingent of AE actually is now (maybe I shouldn't say!) as we now have me, John, Catherine C, Chris Longmuir and Bill Kirton (all scots based and self defining as scots writers!)
Secondly, it occurs to me (if I'm reading it right and its weekend so I may have switched my brain off) that these courses are a sort of Arvon for kids?!? I only mention it as a left field thought for collaborative endeavour setting them up again? But I maybe off the mark entirely. Good to hear Joslin 4 is out. We'll need to get the review team swung into action pronto!

julia jones said...

I agree I agree I agree about working with all children - and that's been the joy of the Kessingland experience BUT I can also remeber (becuase it was so totally memorable) just how good it was, even once, to be picked out and to go and do something in an utterly congenial and like-minded group. I bet those little bands of children remember their courses to this day - almost as fondly as you do.
I think your twinkle of an idea could well turn into a blaze.

Dennis Hamley said...

Cally,that's brilliant. Arvon for kids? That's exactly what they were. Why don't we do new ones ouselves as an AE activity? God knows we've got the tutors. Arvon did kid's courses once. I don't know if they still do. John Cotton tutored on them. That's where he got the Exeter Riddles from: the kids arrived not knowing what they had to do and with no way of getting in to writing that he could see, so, at Totleigh Barton, he hauled them all off to Exeter Cathedral, where they saw the real Exeter Riddles and they spent their time writing new riddles! It was a huge success. John did his own and later published them as a collection.

Sue, you're on! You too, Julia. And if this ends up as a real goer, so I hope are the rest of you. Cally, I know there were so many other Scottish writers, but it was late at night, I was nearly finished and you and John were the only ones I could think of without looking everyone up, and I just didn't have the energy left to do it! So I say sorry to all the northern Celts. It's all right for me to say that: I was married for forty years to a western Celt.

Jan Needle said...

just got back from a hard day's boating, dennis, and this was just what i needed. i think the first time i met you was at a writerly thing in hertfordshire, but i could well be wrong. we'd heard at about one in the morning that bob marley had died, and me and a friend called loretta sat up drinking rum and listening to all his records in a flat at clapham common. then, at about eight, someone from deutsch picked me up and drove me out to the gig. i was still up when they called, drinking and listening and mourning. i hope i wasn't too bad speaking, but i must have niffed a bit. still, not every day one of the world's greatest musicians dies, is it? tell me if you remember this. it might have been another occasion, but i don't think so. it was also the last time i tasted rum. and teachers and so on used to think i was the wrong sort of person to write for chidren! how dare they....