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.
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 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?|
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.|