The Incredible Microphone-Eating Man

6 October, 2015

Mr Perks, Calder House's Director of Studies,  describes taking Calder House’s Young Writers to the Bath Literature Festival.

I cannot help it . . . no, really, I can’t.  Despite pushing forty-four years of age, I still wake on the morning of school trips with a funny wee glow of expectation in my stomach.  I sleep even less than is usually the case.  Despite this, I am not grumpy.  Oh, no.  I am a million miles away from ‘grumpy.’  This is the same sensation I experience on the morning of going to collect a newly released hardback from my bookshop.  And so it was on the 2nd October: the day of English 1 and 2’s trip to see the author and screen writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce.  For those of you not ‘in the know,’ Mr. Cottrell-Boyce has written Carnegie Medal-winning children’s books, whilst also screen writing Doctor Who, Coronation Street and films such as The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth.  Oh, and he was also responsible for writing the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics.

Why all the fuss?  It was just a trip to see a writer.  But, teachers are a funny lot.  We know that describing things as ‘just’ anything is usually a mistake.  There is no ‘just’ for children (and there is still more than a little of the child in me, I am afraid): the world is a big, exciting place. 

Words have power.  And since books usually have lots and lots of words inside them, I find books . . . well, magical.

It isn’t just me, though.  The look on our children’s faces said it all: they felt the magic, too.

Did you know that the word, ‘grammar’ has magical ancestry?  Well, it does.  The words grammar’ and ‘glamour’ (meaning ‘spell’) share origins.  And in ancient Alexandria, booksellers were highly valued members of society: they were seen as almost magical for their level of knowledge, as librarians ought to be today.

So, there we were . . . in the minibus on the way into Bath to catch Frank Cottrell-Boyce talking about his inspirations for writing, and his latest book, The Astounding Broccoli Boy.

When asked the obvious, but always interesting, question: ‘What do you use to help you write?’ he responded with, ‘Real life and other people’s stories.’  Now, I have heard this answer many, many times, at many such events, yet  - every time – I am grabbed by the wisdom inherent to it.  Back in the days of my A-Levels, I had a terrific History teacher whose mantra for good essay writing was: ‘Always state the obvious.’

And this is precisely what Cottrell-Boyce was doing here, for English 1 and 2.  There is – as I say – an awful lot of magic around words.  Perhaps, too much.  This can convince our young writers that they could never be authors.  That kind of ‘magic’ can discourage children.  So, I love it when some famous writer helps to de-mystify writing, and reduce it to its core ingredients.  I try to do this all the time in my English lessons, but I am no substitute for Frank Cottrell-Boyce.

Mr. Cottrell-Boyce read to us from his book, giving written words life.  I have heard many writers read their work, but this man was ace at cutting words free from the shackles of the paper.  Facial expressions; body-language and superb work with the microphone (at one point he seemed to quite literally be eating the microphone, so much so that – upon re-emerging – I was convinced the process of gastric digestion had already had time to take hold, for there appeared to be less of the microphone than had been the case at the beginning of the show).

This is what Reading and Story are really intended for: it is back to the days of humans around campfires, sharing stories to see off the fears that come with shadows and darkness.  People tell stories, and things take on a life of their own.  Think about the word ‘story’ buried within ‘history’).  Our learners seem to instinctively know that stories survive forever.  This was apparent in the enthusiasm with which Calder House students shots arms in the air whenever Frank Cottrell-Boyce invited questions from the audience.

Then there are the social benefits to events such as this.  We often speak of the ‘empathy’ our children demonstrate towards each other.  Well, it shows during trips, too.  We are a ‘family’ when we travel away from school.

But, we learned something else, too.  The protagonist of Boyce’s book (the ‘Broccoli Boy’) is green, like The Hulk.  But, unlike Hulk, he is small and ordinary in most ways.  Yet, he becomes something of a hero.  Having read the book, I would invite all Year 5s and 6s to have a go at reading it.  Because what it teaches us is the power of hope.  That ordinary boys and girls (and grown-ups, too!) have the power to shape their own stories: we are the authors of our lives.  You don’t have to be an award-winning author (or super-hero) to do that.

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