Friday, 20 September 2013

First Story Festival, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Malorie Blackman: children's laureate
Yesterday was the First Story Festival at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. I walked up to Norham Gardens in the early morning mist from the station, meeting memories at every turn, and ready for a day of workshops and talks. There was an inspiring address by the young poet Caroline Bird, who talked about writing as being a gift to somebody - all writing, she said, may help someone understand something about themselves in a way that they hadn't before. Which is a very nice way of putting it. Some First Story alumni spoke about their experiences, and the work that First Story does (including one of my own, from St Augustine's, which made me proud), which was very moving.

William Fiennes interviewed the children's laureate, Malorie Blackman (or Marjorie, as Kate Fox later accidentally called her): she spoke warmly and enthusiastically about her love of reading, and what led to her becoming a writer. She received over eighty rejections, but kept going - a fine message of resilience. It was very revealing to hear her talk about her career: when she was at school, she wanted to be an English teacher; she wanted to do English and Drama at Goldsmith's, but was told that "black girls" don't read English, they become secretaries. I found that immensely shocking - it was perhaps only twenty or thirty years ago, and it made me wonder how much of that sort of thing still goes on. In any case, it gave her the will to wish to succeed; after going into Computer Sciences, she began to write, and has now produced over sixty novels - including the best-selling Noughts and Crosses series. I think she'll make a fine laureate.

I did two workshops, with a boys' school from Bradford, and my own school, St Augustine's in Kilburn: both produced some fine and interesting work.

In the afternoon, the magnificent Kate Fox (poet and comedian: see her website here) whipped up the crowd of 600 students into a roar of appreciation ("imagine One Direction in your bathroom giving you a private concert", which caused equal and opposite reactions). There were readings from students, and a final exhortation from Malorie Blackman to read, and write.

Many writers took part in the workshops, including Charles Cumming, Frances Wilson, Raffaella Barker, Mark Haddon, Betsy Tobin and others; the train home to London was particularly merry.

It's an exciting start to another year of First Story fun and wonder. Well done to all who took part.

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