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New book exposes ‘genius and madness’ of Acland Burghley School pupils

09:00 25 July 2014

Students from Acland Burghley launch an anthology written by the First Story group at the school. Pictured front are Year 7s, Alex Lutman, Connor Brimelow and Phoenix Bergman. Picture: Polly Hancock

Students from Acland Burghley launch an anthology written by the First Story group at the school. Pictured front are Year 7s, Alex Lutman, Connor Brimelow and Phoenix Bergman. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

Travel to somewhere between genius and madness and you’ll find the pupils at Acland Burghley School.

That’s at least according to the title of a new book showcasing the students’ poems, short stories and, as they describe it, “general nonsense”.

The annual anthology, published by literary charity First Story and now in its third year, is the result of six months work which has seen pupils between the ages 12 and 16 meet in the library after school every week to learn how to write.

With the Duchess of Cornwall as its patron, the charity specifically targets those from deprived backgrounds, sending acclaimed authors to teach youngsters how to build self-confidence and self-esteem with words.

The resulting anthology called Somewhere Between Genius and Madness, launched at the school earlier this month, represents an eclectic mish-mash of prose and poetry.

As readers are introduced to one student’s account of “Margaret Thatcher Jr.”, a struggling witch unable to feed herself, they are taken to another’s adopted persona, “Charlie”, an alcoholic moth struggling under the weight of a dead-end job, low pay and a psychotic boss.

Diatribes on war, prose on time travel, and meditative six-word stories appear in-between other short stories that give humorous and at times bizarre insights into the minds of Camden’s schoolchildren.

Poet Shauna O’Briain, the school’s writer-in-residence for this year’s group, introduced the book by writing: “Dedicating a Tuesday afternoon, after school, at the back of the library, our group bared their souls, travelled to other dimensions, and had golden tickets to a bright future. Tears have been in my eyes, my heart has been touched, my very being moved by these powerful young voices.”

While praise is high, the school has had a tough time in recent months.

Ofsted reports have criticised the “casual” dress sense of teachers and “scruffy” work of pupils, while students have also been accused of not showing pride in their school.

But the book launch saw the budding writers show they were more than the sum of an inspector’s report.

Accompanied by guest DJs, the young authors performed each of their works to their parents and peers - “bearing their soul”.

Sarah Walcott, the school’s librarian, who has been working most closely with the youngsters over the past two terms, said the whole project had taught her “never to underestimate young people”.

“Reading the work they’ve produced you can see them using their writing to fight their own fights and get their voices heard,” she said.

“The kids have been coming in their own time to these classes and there’s such a mix in the kind of minds we have.

“It offers a completely different kind of space offered in normal classes.

“We just let them take control of what they want to do.

“Sometimes we would give them a poem - perhaps something by Robert Burns - and we would discuss it, while other times we would let them be and they’d come up with just pure creative nonsense.

“Reading the amazing work they produced, it’s taught me to never underestimate children.”

The book features the work of 18 pupils who have written almost 60 different pieces. It can be bought in a few weeks time from firststory.org.uk.

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