Page Turner: How the toffs and the cons wrote a book
Sunday 03 May 2009
There are glamorous and not so glamorous places to be a writer in residence. Ian McMillan has tried most of them, as poet in residence for Humberside Police, Barnsley FC and Northern Spirit Rail Network. Fay Weldon checked into the Savoy in 2002, where the beds were reportedly so comfy that she hardly got any work done. Shoreditch House's literary salonista Damian Barr has the enviable role of reader in residence at the Andaz Hotel. He qualifies owing to his dulcet tones and his stripy pyjamas. But none of these has yet been brave enough to go to jail for their writing.
Unlike John Row, an old-fashioned, silver-bearded storyteller who has added prisons and young offenders institutions to his regular beat of festivals, arts centres and museums. Mr Row is now the writer in residence at HMP Highpoint. His residency at HMP Wayland made him the most famous storyteller there since Jeffrey Archer – though Mr Row's stories prove to be the more successful in reducing reoffending. He can next be seen next weekend at the Cambridge Storytelling Festival, and then at the Strawberry Fair in June, but his latest project was put together in less fairytale-like surroundings.
Outside In, published by Bar None Books (£4.95), is the result of Mr Row's stint as a storyteller in residence at Portland Young Offenders Institution. Inspired by an idea of Billy Bragg's, it was put together by a group of sixth form students from the prestigious Bryanston School and a group of young offenders at Portland, who met for a week of intensive writing. Aside from a general idea that being at school is pretty much the same as prison, the youngsters didn't initially think they had much in common, as a poem by Charlie, "The Person I Never Met", shows: "I know your type/ I've seen you many times before,/ Born with a silver spoon believing your s**t smells sweeter than perfume..."
As Row says, some of the writing in this small volume is "quite inspired", and the editing, which uses only first names and does not distinguish between con and toff, leads to some surprises. None greater than Charlie's when he meets the sixth formers. His next poem, "The People I Did Meet", ends: "I think it's about time I met some people that haven't been corrupted by the ends./ I don't know your type/ I've never met people like you before." Sometimes, poetry can make even public schoolboys seem human.
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