Saturday, 7 December 2013

Why were the royals weeping? by T. M. Alexander

Despair at the lack of spontaneity, creativity and inspiration in education thanks to the straitjacket it's forced to wear had no place last Thursday at the Deer Park Hotel (the only place I've ever encountered men in breeches that were neither hunting nor scrambling up a crag).

Deer Park Country Hotel
For the fifth year I was the judge of a children's short story competition run by the Honiton Writers Group. For the fifth year I was blown away by the inventiveness and enthusiasm of young minds, the eloquence and courage. The event is so happy and feel-good that it's not just the kids that go away beaming - everyone from the hotel staff to the grandparents have only praise for the initiative that has grown every year. And me, I bask in the positivity of it all.

This year there were 400 entires, from 5 to 15 years. The youngest winner was 6. Can a 6-year old write a story worth reading? Yes. Loretta's idea was about the Mona Lisa coming to life, leaning out of the frame and finding she had no bottom. I hope you're laughing. In the younger age groups humour is common, whereas by 12 the submissions are mostly bleak. (Think back to your teenage poetry - or was that just me?) Bucking the trend was Sarah, who wrote a touching story of a hat waiting to be bought. The hat's joy at finally leaving the shop was brilliantly conveyed. The desolation when the wearer returned it, unbearable. (Don't worry, she came back for it.)

My favourite line was by Harriet, aged 8, who started her story with 'why are the royals weeping?' That became my mantra for the evening, and I tweeted it. A close second was 'there was a large sign saying "Bowels"' - a perfectly appropriate statement given that Sophie's story was called 'Lost in the Body.' Harrison wrote an edge-of-the-seat drama that seemed bound to end in carnage but he was fooling with the reader as I found out when the terrifying event turned out to be a death slide at the local pool. He was also a winner in 2011 and hadn't looked back since, completely changing his attitude to putting pen to paper in all subjects. As we all know, a little encouragement can go a long way. While we tucked into the buffet, several of the children came to tell me their ideas for next year. I'm looking forward to reading about Lady Lalum already.

Winners in the 5-8 age group
I asked the winners for permission to use snippets of their work in this blog. 'Come and find me afterwards if you don't want me to,' I said. This lot in the photo waited until after the buffet to come up behind me en masse and shout 'we don't want you to!' I nearly fell for it.

I was on the M5 North when I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died. Unlike Obama, protesting against anti-apartheid wasn't my first political act - I'd been to Greenham Common with my mum and sister carrying a WI-type basket of food including a Victoria sponge. It was however the cause that, thanks to my sister, was a big part of my coming of age. She became secretary of the Anti-apartheid group in Walthamstow and I went along whenever I could. We marched through a London estate where the pavements were full of National Front types and scary dogs, were there at the Free Mandela concert, learnt to sing the beautiful Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica - Lord Bless Africa, which always makes me cry, sold T-shirts, mugs and tea towels at every fair that would have us, and celebrated when he was freed as though we knew him in person. Memories of those years came back clear and bright - Cry Freedom, Joe Slovo, Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Trevor Huddlestone . . . as I drove, listening to Jacob Zuma on the World Service and then Radio 4's epitaph. 
I was pleased when I got home, red-eyed, to find my 16-year old still up and about. He was indignant at a post by one of his friends on Facebook, seconds after the news, dissing all the RIPs that would now appear. My son called him an unrepeatable word, which in the circumstances I approved of. The cynic took down his post shortly afterwards. The friends were reconciled, something 'Africa's greatest son' would have approved of.


Penny Dolan said...

Good thinks to remember - a children's writing event now and your days then with a banner in Walthamstow.

Well done, that tweeting son!

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this post - warming in so many ways!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

As a South African I've been totally overwhelmed by the world's response to Nelson Mandela's death. Perhaps the most eloquent came from President Obama. He has a similar ability like Nelson Mandela, to be able to speak wise words off the cuff. Mandela seems to have touched the world more than any other person In modern times. His smile says it all. I feel privileged to say I once shook his hand or rather he shook mine,.. as that's the sort of man he was.