On a rainy day in January, First Story and University College London combined forces to hold a creative-writing afternoon for six London secondary schools. Working with acclaimed First Story writers, the students wrote an array of excellent poems and prose inspired by UCL’s varied museums and collections.
The pupils from King Solomon Academy were assigned the wonderful writer Anthony Cartwright. Bridget, their UCL volunteer, took them through a labyrinth of streets and buildings, up flights of stairs and through silent libraries, to reach the Special Collections room. Two rare and precious fifteenth century editions of The Nuremberg Chronicles and Dante’s Divine Comedy had been taken from the depths of the college’s vaults and placed on display, especially for the group. With the guidance of Tabitha and Gill, curators of the Special Collections, the students were shown pages from the books and told about their history.
In The Nuremberg Chronicles, the group saw strange and wonderful woodcuts depictingcreatures ‘on the edge of the earth’. Some looked like humans with only one giant leg and foot; others had no heads, instead with faces upon their chests. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the students were shown vivid and surreal images, including a mountain of writhing snakes, and images of hell with eerie shadows and light.
Anthony discussed a short story from The Paris Review, about a young man who takes a summer job every year for six years, watching for forest fires in a vast American landscape. Alone at his look-out post, the young man describes the views of the land that he can see, stretching out around him from the east to the west. Anthony then asked the students to describe in detail a journey they often take; perhaps seeing a red curtain in a window high above a street or rounding a corner into familiar sounds and smells.
The pupils from King Solomon Academy took these elements of the everyday and the fantastical and transformed them into magical stories. Some of the students’ pieces were read aloud at the end of the day, where they were met with cheers of enthusiasm and loud applause from the audience.