Young writers show what they’re made of

Pupils at Allerton High

I’ve just finished a short story writing project at Allerton High School in Leeds. I started working with a dozen or so Year 10 students in the summer term and the project ended, now they‘re in Year 11, just last week. It was fabulous to see, on my final visit, the finished anthology of short stories and witness how each of them had developed and grown in confidence as writers over the five months we worked together.

At the heart of the collection is the demolition and rebuilding of the new school which was well under way when we started. In the early workshops we talked about this theme, but also looked at issues of plotting, character and setting. Our first sessions were in the old library of the school and our final two took place in the sparkling new building.

All the fictional characters in the stories had some connection to Allerton High, either as pupils or staff, past and present, and it was fascinating how differently each young writer tackled their short story. Some are witty or laugh out loud, others touching and full of feeling.

It was a real privilege to work with these young writers, brilliantly supported by librarian Anne Walker and Head of English, Martin Clark.

The anthology ‘A Change of Seasons’ is available from the school, price £2.50.

Autumn / Winter poem

Just found this poem again; it was written after a train journey from Headingley to Harrogate where you travel through beautiful Yorkshire countryside. It sums up quite a lot of my feelings about the turning of the seasons and the changes that come with age.

Winter berries
My hands are bark and twigs,
while warm flesh and muscle
glove your fingers.
I can feel the pulse,
the summer movement of blood through
the root of your thumb,
see it beneath your skin.

We stand in an open doorway,
while outside
leaves like rusty terriers tumble
under white boned birches,
quarrelling at their tips,
and bushes are clotted with
crimson berries and scarlet hips.

And through the pewter of an autumn sky.
in a temporary torch-beam of sunshine
I see fruit, like yellow light bulbs,
flickering amongst the half-stripped silver leaves
of an apple tree, nearly over.

But you have to go.

Stay a moment more with me,
warming my hands in yours,
before, howling, I blow into winter.

Editing and redrafting – the essence of good writing

One of the things I am always stressing in writing workshops is the importance of editing and redrafting, and how difficult it can be, sometimes, to get pupils in schools [and adults] to move from an entrenched position of, ‘it’s done, and nothing needs to change’, to looking at their work again, realising that it’s only a draft, and deciding what it is they are trying to say, and if they are saying it as well as they can. I always show them the first draft of my poem petals and its final published incarnation.

If you look at the two versions below, you will see how the first draft is carved and shaped, and very much cut down, to get to the final version. I also found a new stronger, starting point for my poem, and made it move from a purely autobiographical to a more universal [I hope] meaning. It took a month or so of thinking, considering, and generally playing about, to get it to its final form. See what you think of the two. Many, many young people in schools prefer the first version!!

Petals – first draft

I am trying to find a way to tell you I still think of you,
sitting here, peacefully in my house.
We were together for a long time,
and I pick up the old cornet you gave me all those years ago.

It is beautiful as an object,
I have it hanging on my wall.
And though I have never played an instrument
and neither did you,
we played a kind of music together
in the house we used to live in.
We spent time together doing things we loved,
whether it was gardening, or watching the birds which came to our bird-table
Do you remember all the things we used to do?

But the garden is untidy, and though birds still come to feed,
The music has stopped and the cornet no longer
has the piano to accompany it.
A long time has passed, and the cornet hangs like a brass rose on the wall with the other horns and instruments
like a complicated radiator.

But I still hear the music we played,
though there have been other tunes between,
and I always will.


Remember the music we used to play?
The instruments still hang on the wall,
a trellis of brass roses
or an exotic vine with bugle flowers.
Like plumbing but not joined up,
and silent now.
And the lid of the piano is down.

The tunes still prickle in my blood,
and though blooming less
each successive year,
have kept a scent of you.
And the truth is
that I have grown older and loved others,
but I shall always carry some notes of your music
in my pockets, like petals,
wherever I go.

© James M Nash [Deadly Sensitive, Grassroots Press, 1999]

English teachers of the future

A few weeks ago I gave what has become an annual lecture at the University of Leeds where I talk to about seventy graduates, who are training to be English teachers in high schools. I was never an English teacher myself as such, [spending much of my career working with children with learning and behaviour difficulties] and I always feel a pressure about giving this talk which I don’t normally experience when I’m working in schools, performing or hosting literary events.

And yet what is it I’m trying to do in this lecture? I suppose I’m trying to give them a flavour of my professional writing life, and to talk about what I do with pupils in schools to help them develop confidence in their writing skills, and to learn some useful techniques in a variety of genres, from poetry to journalism.

The students at the university turned out to be, as always, a lovely bunch who good-humouredly had a go at the writing and performance exercises I gave them, whether it was writing a poem about a plastic decoy crow [pictured] or working as a team to bring a poem to life, from a small collection I had given them. These little performances of Spike Milligan and Stevie Smith poems were remarkable. I was utterly blown away by several groups choosing to do my poem, male bonding from Coma Songs, and was genuinely astonished, and humbled, by what they found in the poem to illuminate.

The following week I met one of the students I had lectured several years ago at the university working in a Halifax School, who told me how she had tried out some of my ideas in the classroom and how well they seemed to have worked. Phew, that’s a relief!!