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Young Writers Festival

by on 25 March 2021

Little Gem of Empathy and Escape

Young Writers Festival 2020-21

Arts Richmond, publisher’s release on 28th March

Review by Thomas Forsythe  

If we stand back and take a look at ourselves objectively, isn’t it clear that the pandemic has affected everyone’s state of mind?  This is no less true for the younger members of our families. 

Arts Richmond, the umbrella charity that promotes the arts in Richmond-upon-Thames, runs an annual competition to celebrate the many talented local writers who are still of school age.  The current competition, which closed at the end of December, just before the second wave lockdown, attracted over 400 entries. 

Having had opportunity to preview this year’s published work of the best of these young authors’ work, your reviewer notes that the mood has changed.  Gone is the humour: tragedy reigns.  The pieces are more introspective than previous years, and oddly many have a surrealistic feel.   But then again, haven’t we all become more introspective, living in a world, undermined by coronavirus, that looks more surreal as the weeks go by.

The booklet, Young Writers Festival 2020-21, which is to be published during the last week of March, comprises twenty-six pieces of poetry and prose from the finalists, nominated by a panel of Judges.  It is launched to coincide with the Festival itself, which takes place on 28th March at The Exchange theatre in Twickenham, when the pieces will be performed by the professional acting company, The Stage Company.  This year the event is a joint venture between Arts Richmond and Exchange Twickenham (the theatre’s managing company, which is owned by St Mary’s University).  Following the performance, the winners in each age category will be announced and a Junior and Senior Laureate appointed, in the presence of the Mayor of Richmond, Cllr Geoff Acton. 

So what can we look forward to?  What themes are tackled in the twenty-six published pieces?  Well, coronavirus and Covid 19 feature significantly, as might be expected, and another world-wide, and world-altering, subject, that particularly exercises our young people, climate change.   

On the pandemic, the titles Imogen Bishop’s My Life in Lockdown and Galia Martin’s Missing Friends tell us all; and these are perceptive seven and eight year-olds telling us with a mixture of melancholy and blessings counting. 

Ten year-old Isabelle Edwards though a bit more sanguine in her verse Coronavirus:  “Coronavirus, coronavirus what have you done?

Coronavirus, coronavirus you’ve spoiled all the fun.” 

Rosie Lever (9), though, borrows from Thomas Hood’s poem November, in her poem No, cleverly parodying the despondency of Hood’s two hundred year old poem, as the next batch of restrictions kicked in that month.

In the senior categories, Chloe Yun-Jen Chen (15) takes a more quirky look in her Oh Dear Lord.  Around a poolside in Florida, some gods relax, Lucifer, a Zeus look-alike and a lycra-leggings clad god (could it be Bacchus?) reflect on their plans.  Satisfaction is shattered by the realisation that Lucifer has by mistake put the works of the devil destined for a whole decade all into the last twelve months.

Through Your Eyes by Avni Ladwa (14) uses a free verse form to underline the different viewpoints on climate change taken by people of different ages.  Put into the voice of an empathetic older person, who apologises “for making you spend your lives rectifying our mistakes”, it draws attention to the future.  How can these mistakes be rectified?  The problem is “unless you change the human heart you cannot save the human race”. 

More skilful verse in Arctic Villanelle, in which Tilly Downie (12) points out that “The polar bears are now the only snow / There is nowhere for all of them to go”.  Tilly boldly chooses the villanelle, a notoriously difficult fixed verse form, five tercets and a quatrain, nineteen lines, a formulaic repetition of two lines and a draconian adherence to a complicated rhyming scheme.  It is a tough call, yet very successful.  

Ten-year old Theo Skottowe’s rhyming couplets beautifully describe The Forest before pulling us up with “all this wonder could disappear” because “The end of the forest could be near / Lights and gases are ending lives / It’s even worse than guns and knives”. 

The Forest is one of a charming trio of scenic descriptions.  Eight-year old Lara Ozdalga weighs in with Bournemouth Beach which paints a vivid picture in rhyming couplets of the seaside, swimming in the sea, enjoying a peach ice-cream or watching dolphins.  “I feel this day couldn’t have been any better”, she concludes.  Neither could I, Lara; I could almost feel the sunshine.

Celia Grace Skingley(10) takes along the coast a few miles to Corfe Castle, where a group of children have an adventure in The Journey, a finely written prose story of a day scrambling on cliff paths, getting stuck in the mud and generally having a fine ol’ time.  Very much Famous Five circa 1953 in feel, great stuff.

Younger children all seem to have a great empathy with animals.  At just six years’ old, Alba Spencer-Brown is the youngest of the writers, but the theme of her Wolves , is very pertinent in these uncertain times, overcoming fear.   She is in snowy forest, gathering firewood; is that wolves howling?  Eyes are watching her, she climbs a tree to escape, but … all is well thanks to some surprising saviours.  (An aside for gardeners, looking at my ravaged spring garden, I am not sure that her rescuers are any less destructive than wolves!)

Wolves have a bad press, but Max Wilkinson (8) in The Polar Bear’s Mission puts an arctic wolf in a much better light.  Amongst the cold, and more snow, an abandoned polar bear cub overcomes his fear and finds a friend in wolf cub.   Courage is personified in a strange character who emboldens him, and wolf and bear go on to work for a better future.

Also eight years old, Layla Farr writes a tender story, The Owner, about a dog she adopts and thinks she has lost, compact and compelling.

A magnificent animal, “a mare, black as midnight with a mane and tail of creamy white” features in The Midnight Horseman.  Anna Wilkinson (10) tells us that her story is inspired by a scene in A Tale of Two Cities, “where the mail coach encounters a horse and rider emerging slowly through the eddying mist”.  Anna’s thrilling mini-mystery is well written with good use of language and leaves us with a question mark.

Some of the works are piercingly personal.  Two pieces bravely and candidly written are nine-year old Henry Phillpot’s What Makes Me, Me with my Autism and ADHD and ten-year old Eloise Poland Bowen What It Feels Like to Be Eleven and Dyslexic.  Both are thoughtful and thoroughly honest.   Henry’s is more introspective and requests our comprehension, while Eloise takes a hopeful, positive stance.   These pieces demand to be read more widely to increase the understanding of the many people like Henry and Eloise.

Still on a person level, and again bravely written, is Leah Ash’s How Much of It Was Lies, which bitterly spells out the pain of a romantic betrayal.  The fifteen-year old’s poem is a heart-wrenching lament to trust undermined. 

In a completely different mood, Saskia Hanson (11) has a personal outlook to share in Why I Love Science.  She owes her life to a formula feed which saved her when she developed an allergy to natural milk as a tiny baby.  Conscious of the growing involvement of women in scientific fields, Saskia interest in science had burgeoned.  She speaks with an infectious enthusiasm as she warms to her subject.  My feeling is that here is a young lady who has much to offer the world of science, as well as that of writing.  I will watch out for her first article in the New Scientist

Portraits of people really work when you know they are (or could be) real.  Catherine James’s poem One Hundred and Three is the voice of a man 99 years older than she is, written in the first person.  This is the great granddaddy we would all like to have, spritely and happy, think Captain Tom.  As he looks back on his life there are no regrets: he counts his blessings.  He’s tech-savvy: he knows how to work his “new TV sound box/ And smart-view doorbell”.  His green credentials are exemplarity, even down to planning his own funeral.  I learnt all about resomation! And the clear love for his late wife is so touching.

Equally touching is the eulogy Audrey a simple but beautifully constructed poem by Lara Diana Antelo Miles.  Eight lines say it all “We will look back at her memory;/ Of a green thumb and brioche bread!”  If I had been Audrey, then this is an epigraph that I would be proud to have on my grave.  Twelve year old Lara is a consummate poet who knows her craft.  She has had two pieces nominated.  (I should point out that all the entries to the Young Writers competition are judged blind.  The judges are unaware of the authors’ names or schools.)  Lara’s poem Fabric poses the premise “If all the world were fabric”, going on to expound the qualities which make fabric a good metaphor for the good things in life.  Then the contrast with reality, “It can be harsh, stiff, starchy and brittle”.

The world cannot be more harsh than when it is at war.  War seems to be a recurring theme in the work of young writers and no only in a year with the stress of the pandemic.  This year’s booklet has two very powerful examples.  Peace at Last by Zakariyya Aziz is a remarkable piece by a ten year old, a first person account of the death in battle in the First World War.  The solider suffers the privations of the trenches, the gassing and the bombardment, before being struck by a lone sniper bullet.  A lump formed in my throat reading as the soldier slumps down, “Grateful, at last,/The bombs were … silent”.

The poignant, moving prose of Uma Cizmic, only eleven years old, however, had me in tears reading her The Necklace, an account of the tragic reality of everyday life during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, when bitter conflicts ripped art life in the Balkans.  The first-person speaker is a girl about Uma’s age who watches her beloved elder sister go off to a celebration of her leaving school.  The kiss on the cheek, “I wiped it off.  Now I wish I hadn’t”.  A few hours later, “We found her in the ashes.  Her eyes still open.  Hands still warm.  Gaze still blue”.  Uma’s is another remarkable piece of prose. 

The horror of violence is sometimes best expressed when hinted, as in The Fog and Ivy by fifteen year old Nicco Bargioni.  Writing doesn’t come much edgier than this piece of again first person narrative, more Hitchcock then Hitchcock himself could have done.  Everything is hinted at, everything is cold blood.  The speaker is coolly detached from the acts he describes, always obliquely, himself (or is it) doing.  This is not just a gangster, here is a psychopath.  Murder is by an act of arson, clearly enjoyed, and engineered by two (real or imagined) accomplices, “Victor” and “the Ghostmaker”.  The writing has the keen edge of a honed cut-throat razor, gripping and shiver-inducing.

As with The Fog and Ivy quite a few of these pieces of young writing have a surreal element to them.  A good example is In Lost by thirteen years old Anna Fibbins.   The protagonist find herself in a chalky white deserted Trafalgar Square, having left her alter ego asleep, where she meets strange but very beautiful girl, whose “eyes shimmered in an invisible light”, who informs her that the place is called “Lost”.   We had been informed at the beginning to “Say the right thing at the right time and you’ll travel, wherever the strange faultless universe wants to take you”.  Moreover, the “real key to the universe is a simple object”.  It would be a spoiler to tell you what the object is.

For some very sophisticated writing though, we must go another teenage author, Nia Ivanova Videnova, whose nominated piece is Heron, which is set in Bushy Park.  It is a study in ennui, the tone cynical.  Again there is a slightly surreal air about it.  On the surface, it just describes a walk in the park.  Passer-by are met and commented on.  Sarcasm reigns.  It took me several readings before I linked in the title, the girl of the story is personified in the heron, often seen in Bushy Park, still and waiting.

It is customary to say what I found outstanding, but in truth there is so much in this slim booklet that is worth reading, and re-reading.  It is available by mail order at Arts Richmond.

The Young Writers Festival was live streamed from the Exchange Theatre on Sunday 28th March. 

This year’s Young Writers Festival Competition has reflected the spirit of times during the latter half of 2020 when they were written.  Many touch on escape, on fear of the unknown and on introspective thoughts, but there is empathy, hope and humanity there too.  The pandemic is brought down and packaged in this little gem of a booklet.

Thomas Forsythe, March 2021

Photography by John Bentlee, Doug Lindstrand, Ben James, Daphne Drakesford and Derek Winterburn.

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  1. Young Writers by a Young Writer | Mark Aspen

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