I had the most wonderful time yesterday during my visit back to my old school, South Hampstead High School. (On the left is the poster they put up about my upcoming talk). I wrote to them when I saw they on the school's website that they had a Creative Writing club, something that hadn't been there in my time (a phrase I came to overuse considerably during my visit!).
We arranged that I would come during lunch break and talk to a group of 14- and 15-year-old girls (it's an all-girls school) about... well, I decided I would ask them what they wanted to talk about! I have to admit being a little nervous about how it might be going back to my old school, a place that wasn't chock full of happy memories. But, frankly, either my memory is so bad or the school has changed so radically - I barely recognised a single corner! I met with Barnaby, the teacher who had set up the meeting, and he took me and the girls into the library where we sat around a table, and lunch - including Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers, what is the education system coming to?? - was brought.
We were joined by more and more pupils as time went on...and after a bit, we decided that instead of eating lunch and moving me to the more formal section of the library, where chairs had been set up for my "talk", I'd just talk here and anyone could ask questions. They wanted to know how I became a writer, so I told them all the lengthy tale, from age 6 (voracious reader, etc...), through the sidetracked-into-science years from 13 to 23 (A Levels, University degree in Maths and Physics, MSc in Philosophy of Science), science journalism (1994-2007) and the joys of meeting scores of optimistic entrepreneurs and scientists who believed they would change the world, and then the return to fiction, slowly, slowly. Ending up with: the book. I told them how it was a meeting with a friend of a friend in Jerusalem who had published a number of short stories that showed me that "real" people wrote fiction, it wasn't for some exalted few, who had studied English at University, who knew the right people, et...Meeting him showed me that maybe, maybe, I could do it too.
The night before, I had heard neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield talk at Jewish Book week (blog post coming soon) about her fears for the younger generation that staring at a screen instead of reading books would turn them into thrill-seekers with no regard for the consequences of their actions, instead of "contextual" people who could see connections between events. Well, meeting this wonderful group of pupils certainly disproved that theory. They were thoughtful, attentive, curious, calm. (There was no texting going on, no yawning, no giggling...they assured me they weren't there just because of the free lunch and Chocolate Fingers). They were delightful.
I read them one of the shortest stories from The White Road and Other Stories, Plaits (click on the link for a video of me reading the story), which is a page and a half in length. It goes down well generally, it's a good example of flash fiction. And I was so impressed when they asked me questions about parts of the story, how did I choose certain things. I explained that when I write, it isn't a conscious experience, I am in some kind of "zone" and I do feel it comes through me instead of from me. They asked if I wrote anything else apart from short stories, so I mentioned that I'd adapted two stories into short plays, and that I had an idea for a film script. They asked what my next project was and I said probably it would be a flash fiction collection. But I stressed that what I realised after the book was published was that for me it is all about the writing. As long as I am writing, I'm happy. And that writing is like a muscle - you have to keep it toned, keep it flexible, by writing as much as possible.
At the end, when they really had to go off to History, I was thrilled when several of them asked if they could buy a copy (of course, I'd brought along a few just in case... not sure whether lunch money would stretch that far!). I signed the books for them and they left. Then Eleanor, one of the two librarians (the pic below is of her and Sarah, the other librarian), took me on a tour of the school just to see if there was anything that rang a bell.
Nothing looked that familiar (I don't remember much of my childhood, that's why I like to say I make stuff up), but I was stunned by what the pupils were doing. I did O'Levels, I was one of the last years to do that exam at age 16, and in the classrooms the cry that was most often heard was "Will this be on the exam? Do we need to know this?". How different things are now! GCSEs, AS Levels... Below are the clothes some of the pupils (14-year-olds) made as part of their courses:
The atmosphere at the school was relaxed, creative, stimulating. The teachers had a lovely rapport with the pupils. In my day, from what I do remember, we were always being told off for something, whether it be our behaviour or or clothes (the uniform rules were pretty rigid). We didn't make anything, we weren't given free rein to express ourselves, there was no Creative Writing Club.
And we certainly didn't have writers and artists visiting to talk about the process of creating (novelist Naomi Alderman and poet Danny Abse are just two of the recent visitors). Had I seen at the age of 14 that "real people" can be writers, artists and poets, how might that have changed my life? I don't regret anything I have done over the past 30 years, certainly not studying science, which I love, although I could never be a scientist. But to be shown so many possibilities, so many different ways of being and doing in this world, must open young minds to all that they could be... and more. I left feeling that I had learned as much from them as they might perhaps have learned from me, and that rather than it being a traumatic return to school, it had been a joyful sharing of creativity and excitement about short stories and writing.
PS That night, back at Jewish Book Week, I found this in the bookshop, run by Foyles, something I never would have dreamt of in my wildest dreams at the age of 14: