Dylan Moore makes the case for a national reading and writing revival
A bright evening in June. Down the M4 in Cardiff, Manic Street Preachers are playing the castle the Romans built, the Normans kept and William Burges pimped in Neo-Gothic splendour. Here in the ‘white box’ minimalism of Cwtsh, Newport’s former Stow Hill Library, Jon Gower quotes the band’s most famous lyric: ‘Libraries gave us power’.
It is a slogan, he reminds us, inspired by the inscription over the entrance to another former library, just down the road in Pillgwenlly: ‘Knowledge is Power’. It is a reminder that Wales used to be a country that prided itself on being home to the Miners Institutes and Sunday Schools, a nation where education was not only valued and teachers revered, but where it was organised from the bottom up.
‘Stutes were run by the workers for the workers; they inspired both intellectualism and collectivism. Sunday Schools were not a Welsh invention, but Robert Raikes’ drive to provide literacy through the Bible became an essential characteristic of Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were, however, pre-dated by Griffith Jones’ eighteenth century ‘Circulating Schools’; in modern parlance, these were ‘pop-up’ initiatives in rural communities, where dozens of men, women and children were exposed to the Bible as holy scripture and reading textbook simultaneously.
By 1737, just six years after they began, there were 37 such schools in existence with over 2500 pupils or scholars attending the classes. By the time of Jones’ death in 1761, over 200,000 people had been taught to read and a bookish strain had been enshrined in Welsh culture. Just as Wales – and almost everywhere else – now looks to Finland for educational inspiration, in 1764 Catherine the Great of Russia commissioned a report to try to learn lessons about how, with scant resources, a poor rural country could have developed a literate majority at a time when this was incredibly rare. Wales was a world-class beacon of education.
It is a far cry from our current situation, where a literacy gap has opened up between Wales and England and Estyn reports that the Welsh Government’s flagship strategy – the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) – is only making a ‘modest’ impact, primarily due to a lack of time and support for schools. Meanwhile, libraries continue to close. In Newport, where we hold our meeting, community activist John Hallam updates us on the situation: Maindee Library, which serves the Victoria Ward, one of the city’s most deprived pockets and already suffering a dearth of communal hubs, is to close. It will be joined by the Carnegie Library on nearby Corporation Road in the council’s bid to meet this year’s £18m shortfall in funding. Next year it will need to cut £28m.
Pessimism would be an easy response, and so would blame. The ravages of austerity are everywhere, and ‘culture’, it seems, is a soft target. The number-crunchers and short-termists have no time for the five-year-olds who will grow up in a country without libraries. That much is clear. But this is no ordinary gathering, rather an extraordinary ecclesia of ambition and optimism that is nevertheless grounded in the pragmatism you might expect from a group that includes teachers, writers, community activists and cultural philanthropists.
Discussion was marked by deviations and peregrinations; by steely, well-intentioned interjections and robust well-considered responses; by a lack of pretension, a lack of jargon and an absolute absence of the kind of top-down strategising that has had teachers’ innate creativity and hard-won resourcefulness undermined for so long by box-ticking bureaucracies that betray a fundamental and unfounded lack of trust, by a rolling programme of often confusing change, and by endless data analysis.
This summer, in a Wales PEN Cymru initiative supported by the Education Achievement Service, a group of Lead Practitioners of English from across South-East Wales (Jemima Bartley, Tracey Neale, Kate Madden, Jane Thompson and myself) will be piloting a writers-in-schools scheme with a difference. Based on The Arrival, the graphic novel by Shaun Tan, the series of day-long workshops will explore issues of emigration and immigration as well as inspiring students’ own stories.
In a National Theatre Wales inspired ‘immersive experience’, pupils will be taken on a journey of discovery. Starting at a mocked-up airport Arrivals hall and stripped of their identity, they will take nothing through ‘security’ and ‘passport control’ other than themselves (the additional benefit being a rare day without mobile internet access: another issue, perhaps, for another time). Issued with mysterious identification documents and a passport for the New Country, they will undertake a variety of activities and games to inspire talk and play, creative thinking, creative reading and creative writing.
Led not only by teachers but also by a published writer and community guests including asylum seekers and refugees, they will gain not only confidence and skills in literacy, but new understandings of identity and community cohesion; in some cases, we hope, they may even gain a new perspective on self. There will be no ‘explicit learning objectives’, but the implicit aims will be clear: expand your imagination, walk a while in somebody else’s shoes, enjoy, have a go.
The initiative is the product of my long-held desire to bring something of the spirit of Dave Eggers’ Valencia 826 to Wales. In San Francisco, the American writer and philanthropist set up a writing centre to fire young minds and promote literacy in under-resourced communities. Crucially, the project does not seek to be an add-on to school, but seeks to support and celebrate teachers’ as well as pupils’ achievements, returning the kind of respect the profession used to enjoy in Wales, while recognising the fact that teachers – all of us time-pressured, struggling under the weight of bureaucracy and often stressed by the everyday demands of the job – need support in order to be inspirational. It also helps that Valencia 826 pairs its writing rooms with a Pirate Supplies Store.
So successful did that project prove that the US now has equivalent centres in New York (the Brooklyn Superhero Supplies Co.), Los Angeles (the Echo Park Time Travel Mart) and Boston (the Bigfoot Research Institute) amongst others. Nick Hornby and others founded the Ministry of Stories in London on a similar premise of inspiration combined with clever, kid-friendly gimmickry. Roddy Doyle set up a children’s writing centre, Fighting Words, in Dublin. Why don’t we have one in Wales?
San Francisco has pirates, London has spies; in Wales, I propose we have travellers. Every story is a journey, the theme is versatile and there is a particularly rich and evocative imagery surrounding travel and writing. The contents of suitcases, passports and identity papers all hold potential for a vast range of creative reading and writing activities, as do the ‘between’ spaces of departures and arrivals. Not only that but travel broadens horizons, changes perspectives and inspires – and the writing centre can be ‘packed up’ and transported in microcosm to schools!
By the end of the evening, our impromptu thinktank had arrived not only at a clear proposal for a flagship children’s writing centre in the mode of Valencia 826, but also the ambition that every child in Wales should be a published writer, creating a new kind of Library of Wales. After all, what is Wales if not three million stories? Jon Gower told the story of how ‘Tommy Tomatoes’, his now-nonagenarian primary school teacher had given him a book of essays he had written as a ten-year-old. George Gumisiriza, English teacher at the Sanctuary Project for asylum seekers and refugees in Newport, reminded us of the important role stories might play in bridging the sometimes cavernous gap between home and school, and in connecting generations. How wonderful if every person in a future Wales had access to the stories of their parents and grandparents, as well as their former selves!
The symbol of The Journey Project is the humble suitcase, harbouring its battered remnants of other lives. This summer, across Gwent, hundreds of children will open extraordinary suitcases to find all manner of objects inside, objects we hope will release imagination and unlock potential. The blue sky of our thoughts on this evening in June concluded with the idea that every AM should be presented with a suitcase, to use when visiting schools perhaps, or just as a reminder that policy-makers too will have a unique and special story.
But the idea I loved the most was that each of Wales’ 223 secondary schools should be granted a writer-in-residence to share with their primary cluster. These would be long-term, ongoing relationships where the paperwork would stop at the CRB check. Teachers could be left alone with poets, critics, novelists, dramaturgs and screenwriters to plan their own programmes for their own contexts. Many of the writers might wish to form relationships with their own alma maters; and each and every connection would be a story in itself, one in which the central message might be: words change lives.
If, as a nation, we can pull all of our resources together: not simply money, but time – to talk, to deviate, to discuss, to tell stories, to read books, to listen carefully – in addition to the qualities our teachers already have in abundance – energy, dedication, passion – then we really will have handed our children a passport to a new country.