This has been my third year as writer-in-residence at Cranford Community College, Hounslow, so I’m used to driving west from Hammersmith on Wednesday afternoons, out past the Fuller’s Brewery and the GlaxoSmithKline offices and the Heston services where rooms at the Travelodge start at £19 a night, wondering just what stories and characters and memories the members of the Cranford First Story group might have up their sleeves today.
I’m thinking of that afternoon last autumn, already dark outside, when we all met for the first time – more than twenty students, a barrage of new names I never thought I’d remember. We closed our eyes and tried to forget the bustle of the school day and dreamed ourselves back into being ten again and then talked about what we remembered. Aniq said the sound of being ten was dogs barking on the outskirts of Lahore at night while his uncle revved his motorcycle; Crystal said the taste of being ten was the fried turkey tails the old woman sold outside the school gates in Accra, Ghana; Amarpal remembered how warm the paper was when it came out of the photocopier; Fatima described the day horses escaped from the farm in Feltham and appeared in people’s front gardens, nibbling the bushes. We were off. The room was full of images. Nobody had written anything, but already all the students round that table were writers.
We talked a lot about voice – the idea that everyone has a voice, their own voice, and this is something to be valued and celebrated. So I loved hearing their stories and the range of the voices and the variousness of experience behind them. Ghana, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, Florida, Hounslow, Southall. Stories taken directly from experience, like Faizan’s evocation of a childhood fear and Resham’s account of the school fashion show, or from the imagination, like Ahmed’s ‘Mrs Kazuya’ – I’d been encouraging him to write something about growing up in Newcastle, and he comes back with this story set in rural Vietnam in 1945 …
Katie Waldegrave and I set up the charity, First Story, in 2007 to arrange and pay for other writers to work as writers-in-residence in state schools across the country. We decided to focus on schools where at least 30% of pupils were eligible for free school meals. We saw First Story as a way of celebrating and fostering creativity, literacy and talent in young people. We’d both been excited about 826National, the project established in America by the writer Dave Eggers and others to empower children in disadvantaged areas through writing. We shared Philip Pullman’s belief that ‘writing – real writing, not the artificial exercises produced for tests and examinations – can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.’
This year, eleven other First Story writers – Raffaella Barker, Kate Clanchy, Helen Cross, Salena Godden, Romesh Gunesekera, Peter Hobbs, Courttia Newland, Tim Pears, Marie Phillips, Betsy Tobin, Louisa Young – have led workshops in schools across London and Oxford. Next year, First Story will be welcoming nine new writers to the programme, and working in around twenty schools, including three schools in Nottingham.
Each group of students has its own character, and its own set of challenges. But each one shows the imagination, the wit and the sheer joy in stories that I experienced at Cranford. After each meeting I thought I understood what the American poet Richard Hugo was talking about in The Triggering Town: ‘When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don’t matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do. A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.’
Photograph © Maxwell Hamilton