At the chalkface: Another England

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

This terrific department isn’t a one off. Many English departments do this. Poetry is the heart of the subject and children are natural poets.

Just when most things are looking so grim along comes something that blasts away all gloom. It’s called England: Poems from a School and is written by pupils from Oxford Spires Academy. It’s an absolute tonic. Magic. It’s fresh, original, lyrical, complex, unpretentious and technically very accomplished.

“Great by any standard,” Philip Pullman observes.

It has been brought together by writer-in-residence and editor, Kate Clanchy, and the school’s English department, whose teaching is clearly phenomenal and full of tender, forensic attention.

The pupils come from a poor part of Oxford. They are not especially “academic”, neither rich nor privileged – 20 per cent are White British, 80 per cent from all over the world. Many are refugees from conflict and poverty. There are 30 languages and 50 dialects. There is no dominant culture and no “cultural silencing”. The result is writing which is urgent, charged, necessary and as serious as your life – not a fluent hobby of mere privilege.

The over-riding theme is of memory, lost homes, lost mothers, lost mother tongues, changing languages and the silence between languages – “silence itself was my friend”. Something magical happens.

Kate Clanchy calls it a capacity to “sing an image”.

This terrific department isn’t a one off. Many English departments do this. Poetry is the heart of the subject and children are natural poets.

My school had 85 languages, a very rich mix. Our class magazines teemed with brilliant creative writing from all kinds of pupils. They didn’t know they couldn’t do it. They just did it. It was better than the syllabus. It was all that it wasn’t. We used similar methods. Hard work and lots of redrafting. Kenneth Koch’s Teaching Children to Write Poetry was a gem. Poetry is, as Seamus Heaney shrewdly observed, “useful”.

I live near Grenfell Tower. The neighbourhood is presently covered with blossoms of green and graffiti and snatches of poetry – inchoate anger, unassuaged rage, a way of somehow dealing with the unbearable.

“The only ghosts are us.” It stops you in your tracks.

At a time when public discourse has become so cheap, closed, emetic and fake, this anthology is full of passionate and open poems, on the cutting edge of change. This is England. This is the England I want. This is surely the New England, Blake’s Albion of a thousand voices. It is surely growing. The other England is tired, nasty, thanatoid and surely going. This wonderful anthology should be in your school library (see http://bit.ly/2KuuB8m).

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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