The writing class that transforms lives
The late playwright John Osborne was expelled from his boarding school after lashing out at his head teacher who had chastised him for listening to Frank Sinatra.
His only qualification was a school certificate and when he went home to live with the mother he detested, he was not in education, employment or training. He was a NEET.
After a few years he drifted into theatre, writing his masterpiece Look Back in Anger in just 17 days. At the time he was living on a houseboat on the Thames and boiling nettles for soup.
The play seemed to capture the spirit of the age. Osborne was branded the original “angry young man”. It transformed English theatre not least because he believed that theatre was a weapon that could break down class barriers. He was the inventor of the “kitchen sink drama”.
By the 1980s Osborne was living at Hurst, a splendid 19th Century mansion nestled in the rolling wooded hills of Shropshire. He lived there until his death in 1995.
Today the house is owned by the Arvon Foundation which runs residential creative writing courses across several centres in England.
Osborne’s story is proof that people who leave school with next to nothing can achieve greatness.
And so it seems both fitting and inspiring that for several years Start360 have been sending groups of young people on Arvon courses thanks to funding from the McGrath Charitable Trust.
Start360 has just put online an anthology of writings from this year’s group which can be accessed here. This year’s group were at Arvon’s Centre at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, formerly the home of the late poet laureate Ted Hughes.
Some of the work is astonishing, especially when it is remembered that the authors were effectively written off by the education system and often come from challenging, chaotic backgrounds.
Much of it is moving, some funny, all of it revelatory.
Consider this astonishing passage by one of the young writers:
“Beth was one of six, she lay forgotten in her family tree, not a black sheep, they just didn’t give a shit as long as she didn’t bring the police or the social to the door. They decided one day she was thick and if your parents think you’re stupid you will think the same. She was far from thick but I don’t think anyone had ever told her that. Dyslexia affecting her school work in a black cloud, just another dropout. I remember there were times when they asked me to put electric in the meter, or get bread and milk so at least the young ones could eat something. Then there was me. Crisscrossed with scars that looked like pink slugs oozing over my skin. My ma and da were great. But being touched too many times without my permission poisoned and twisted my mind. Full of self-hate and loathing. I pumped myself full of every mind-altering substance I could get my hands on and tried to forget I was broken.”
This is powerful by any standards. It has authenticity. The anthology is full of remarkable writing which speaks to the heart.
On the courses the young people learn to find their voice, this helps them make sense of their past and improves self-confidence. All through the magical process of writing.
Not surprisingly Start360 reports that the impact is transformational. Carmel Kernahan, Essential Skills Tutor on the Switch into Employment programme said: “On their return from the residential they are able to see and think clearly for the first time in a long time on how having aspirations to achieve literacy qualifications is not out of their reach. “
Here are just a few comments from course participants:
“It gave me the opportunity to express and face issues I thought I wasn’t ready to, ” Rachel
“Believe in yourself. If it’s on your mind write it down for it can lighten the weight in your mind.
Write with the door shut. You don’t have to show it to anyone its just for you, “ Victoria
“Even in the darkest days there is always light and if you can’t find it light a candle for yourself,” Carrie
“Don’t think I could explain to anyone how amazing it’s been. Just amazing, “ Jean
“I think some of us need to see the bottom before we get to the top,” Luke
Young people who have had difficult pasts are all too often demonised and written off. The Arvon Start360 experience suggests that there is innate potential in every one of us. What is required is the space and time and help for people to express themselves effectively, make sense of the world and find their place in it. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe another great writer will emerge from this inspirational course.
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