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Home truths

Inspired by young people's contributions to the Our Town Story displays at the Millennium Dome, we asked students to give us a journalistic portrait of their home town in 2020, with the best entries winning their authors the chance of a residential writing course. 'TES' arts editor and competition judge Heather Neill presents extracts from the six winners (below), and (overleaf) reviews one group's performance at Greenwich.

What will your town be like in 2020? Hundreds of young people aged 14 to 18 from all over the United Kingdom took up The TESMcDonald's challenge to use their imagination and answer this question. Each sent us 1,000 words in journalistic style, with the six deemed best winning the chance to take part in a residential course to hone their writing skills further.

Final judging was carried out by Caitlin Moran, the Times columnist whose own career began when she won a competition, and Caroline St John-Brooks, until recently editor of The TES.

At a presentation lunch at the Times offices in October, the winners were announced, three in the 14 to 16 section, and three aged 16-18. They were taken on a tour of Times and TES parent company News International and presented with letters from the Arvon Foundation, which runs creative writing courses at centres in Devon and Yorkshire. The winners' week-long courses will be funded by McDonald's Restaurants Ltd.

Here is a taste of the winning pieces. You can find them in full on The TES website:

* The winner of the under-16 category is Sangeetha Venugopal, aged 15, from Oxford. Her entry is a clever fictional Day in the Life column by the imaginary Marie Taylor, 36-year-old chief designer of Oxford's new Virtual Reality Museum, who lives with her husband, daughter Carrie, aged seven, and their dog, Cheesecake.

I only go to the Museum three days a week. I can do a lot of work from home, but I usually need to see the spaces first-hand to decide where everything goes. We live in a Hi-Tec house about half a mile from the city centre. It's got all the modern conveniences (clap-on lights, auto-vacuum, radiator walls etc.) which are superb and a great novelty for me. We are really lucky to have got the house because Oxford is very popular at the moment. It's always been very cosmopolitan, because of the University, but now it's compared to London and Edinburgh as the cultural capital of Britain.

...In 2017 Britain was the first country to try education through computers. However, it was a disaster! None of the children were motivated to work at all and psychologists reported that it could cause social problems in the future. The idea was scrapped, but schools still use amazing amounts of technology. Carrie's just started learning HTML as her modern language rather than French or Spanish!

...The VR museum is really amazing. I am so proud to have been a part of it. It's basically just a museum, but it doesn't actually have many solid artefacts in it. It's a huge database of everything ever discovered, sculpted or painted in the world, from the Rosetta Stone to "Sunflowers" by Van Gogh. The VR centre is filled with computers so you can virtually recreate the artefact in front of you. You can walk around it and see it from all angles. Another advantage is that you can compare pieces in front of you, without travelling halfway around the world. It's mainly students at the University that are using this tool, but we're adding attractions to make it more family-orientated. For instance, The Virtual Reality World Experience opens in a month.

...The big craze at the moment is Fibre-Optic Clothes. They're pretty cool I must admit. Basically they're just tiny fibre optic cables all joined together, but with just one flick of a switch you can change the colour of your dressshirtjeans etc...

* Max Howard, aged 16, from Glossop, Derbyshire, was the runner-up in this section. He imagines heis writing his regular column in the 'Glossop Chronicle' and concentrates on the effect of flooding on the countryside. His entry, received and judged long before the recent storms, has an eerie prescience.

I thought now would be as good a time as ever to review the events over the last two decades, after all so much has changed and yet so little. I wonder how many citizens back in the 20th century thought we would be hovering about in "hover cars" and commuting to work on the moon? I know I expected the year 2020 to be a little more spectacular than it is! My home town is still here though a lot has changed! Luckily it escaped the devastation of the floods and still remains safely above water, I suppose there is a lot to be said about living on high ground. It certainly saved my neck. I was only young when the first towns started to get absorbed by "mother nature" and I remember vividly the first images of small Southern coastal towns all up to their ankles in water. Glossop survived though luckily and is now part of a somewhat smaller island than it belonged to before.

I don't know about you but I have always hated the new architecture that was built to accommodate the homeless after the ice caps first began to melt. To me it appears immensely ugly and I find it a personal tragedy that so many fine Victorian houses were demolished to find room for these high rise flats and immense underground bunkers. Now none of our heritage remains, in Glossop at any rate. I know we needed them to support the refugee input but now every town resembles a jungle of concrete, no green remains. Every morning I look out onto the hills that I knew so well as a child. I remember so well walking over the moorlands and through the Snake Pass at weekends. Now the hillside is covered with monolithic dwellings, springing at every inclination from the hills, stretching from here to the sea, every square foot taken up. And from what I have seen of the other islands, they are much the same. Immense metropolises, the whole population of the world crammed into roughly quarter the space if that.

...Personally I wish back for the old days, when instead of these nifty hovercrafts and boats that you now see skimming the gaps between the islands that litter our earth you had good honest cars that stuck to the ground. You may have had traffic jams and pollution, but at least you avoided storms and gales and they got you from A to B at an unprecedented rate. But, I suppose it is unavoidable, what road network could span over the immense flooded flatlands that once made up so much of old England? How I wish we had taken note of the scientists and environmentalists and not just dismissed them in our quest for even more profit. Global warming proved it could be deadly.

* The third place in this category went to Nora Thurkle, aged 14. She has managed to give Catford, an area of south London, a sense of identity - more difficult to achieve for a suburb of a city than in a self-contained town. Nora hopes to be a professional writer, perhaps of children's stories.

This town hasn't changed too much. I remember leaving it, almost 20 years ago. I was 15, and at the time it seemed outrageous to think that I'd be away from my friends, my house, the place called Catford that I was so familiar with. But things changed, as they inevitably do, and I had grown to like my new life. My house was larger, as was my bedroom, and it was a marginally more scenic area. I had made new friends, and slowly the sense of loss faded and disappeared.

But not forever. Nothing is very different - there are no towering silver buildings, no moving escalator-like pavements, no monorails speeding across a futuristic skyline, in fact no futuristic skyline at all. If you had visited Catford in the "millennium year", left and returned now, you wouldn't notice. But I do.

...There was always a bakery, but the company name emblazoned over the windows is different, and it's one I don't recognise. I go in and buy a sandwich for my lunch. It's one of the shops that employ a quick-buy system, which I hate. I place my purchase, barcode down, into a little box, which promptly closes, meaning that I have to remove my hand at top speed. pound;3 please, demands a cold voice from the machine. Into the slot I push a pound;3 coin - released only recently - and the little box opens, raising its contents triumphantly and beeping as though awaiting thanks. I take it, loathing the hostility of the system. The only human in the shop is a woman slightly older than me. She is on the phone. Nobody bothers to check for shoplifters any more. The prices are so high it wouldn't matter.

...Sometimes new things are good, and sometimes they can replace the old without too much being lost. But old things can be worthwhile too. They can be made better, and the future can include a little bit of the past. I don't see anything wrong with that.

* The winner in the senior category is Harry Thompson, aged 18, with his bleak report of the last days of King's Lynn in Norfolk. He is at Nottingham University, and already active in student radio journalism.

Historically King's Lynn used to be the third largest town in England after London and Bristol. A port that dealt with a large amount of trade, typically wool and grain, and travellers through to the rest of the country. However after its marked initial success, there began a period of steady decline as trade began to either turn away or change its form. Later, in more recent history, the surrounding area has been largely controlled by conservative landed gentry, a tradition that was maintained right up to the end of the twentieth century, leaving the area a large picturesque farmland with isolated pockets of frustrated working-class humanity, such as was the case in King's Lynn.

It was unsurprising that the late 1990s King's Lynn had one of the highest crime rates in Britain, higher even than central Manchester, as the sense of isolation and lack of social outlets caused the frustrated working class people to turn towards crime. Muggings and even more violent attacks became increasingly common in places such as the Walks, which during the day was one of the most pleasant areas of grassland in Lynn. This was a trend that was seen to continue right through the early decades of the twenty first century.

By around 2010 most of the middle-class people had left while they could due to a lack of jobs and the increasingly poor conditions. Unfortunately, due to its lack of ruralness and its reputation, King's Lynn was unable to capitalise on the sudden increase of AFCIT workers (the slang name for the people who not only worked from home but far away from the city as well, who were frequently attracted to quaint surroundings).

If by 2017 things were starting to look quite bleak for the town things were only going to get worse. With the exponential increase in world population and a consequential increased fuel usage, which outstripped any expectations, global warming took effect far earlier than the 60 years later predicted in the 1990s. This was particularly noticeable in King's Lynn and the surrounding low lying wash area. Where the townsfolk witnessed a rapid encroachment of water upon their territory which came, contrary to people's expectations, as a gradual seepage up through the floor, rather than as a tidal wave. This made it less noticeable and all the more dangerous.

* Runner-up was 16-year-old Sarah Dolman, who has already published a front-page story in her local newspaper during work experience. She writes about a revolutionary system of living in the small town of Burwell in Cambridgeshire, where she lives.

I have been sent out to report the facts of this "operation"; the bare outline. But as soon as I arrived here, I realised that this was no harebrained plan or a 5-minute wonder. This is an amazing blueprint for what could be a totally remodelled way of living for every single person on earth.

So what's all this about, you ask. Well, it started when one woman was so fed up with pitiful attempts at conservation mainly carried out because they were "fashionable" that she decided to set about changing the world. Her plans include changing buildings, roads and every other convention that we take for granted on a daily basis to become more efficient and - dare I use the cliched phrase - "environmentally friendly". Over the next few months, Burwell will become completely self-sufficient and independent through energy-saving methods and a community spirit that is to be greatly admired and envied around the world.

Every house, amenity and commercial building has been fitted with solar panels and revolutionary heating systems in a bid to ease the fuel crisis currently being debated. Other changes to the town include the building of super-efficient wind turbines in strategic places to maximise wind energy, and the construction of recycling and growing centres.

It may seem excessive or even unrealistic, but the preparations for this day have been in operation for the last 12 years; this is no whimsical publicity stunt.

The scheme is the brainchild of local townswoman Louise Turner. She's an average woman who has led an ordinary life, but one that has extraordinary visions, and whose forethought and insight into modern life is a breath of fresh air in a world ruled by politicians who cannot think beyond the next General Election.

"Something needed to be done," she explained. "Past attempts at conservation were fashionable whims prone to doing more harm than good. Somebody needed to do more than just talk, and that person was me. But I'm not a politician, a would-be God or a madwoman. I'm just trying to protect the world and my children's futures."

Louise's plan relies on a community spirit from every possible angle. Every homeowner will have the opportunity to contribute to the community, either by giving care, labour or special skills.

"Even those who are unskilled will have jobs," explains Louise. "Every single person will have to contribute something: everybody will be equal. The unemployed will be given training to work at the recycling centres or will be working to grow food for the community."

Her idea covers every aspect of life. There are strategic plans for every eventuality: disease epidemics, food shortages, even war. The plan is based on communism but everybody will have the freedom to be their own person, and to receive their just rewards.

...But this seemingly idyllic system has not been without its teething problems. Civilians not wishing to take part in the pilot scheme were given a special area on the outskirts of the town near the neighbouring city of Cambridge in which to live. One such person, John Redmill, has lived in Burwell for the last fifteen years, but does not agree with the planned changes. "The scheme would be an invasion of my privacy," he said, "and although it would help the environment I could not justify the upheaval to my life for benefits that I might not live to see."

* Seventeen-year-old Victoria Price came third in this category. She has an apocalyptic view of the future of Chester-le-Street in County Durham. Her report of events in unstable Britain is from a French newspaper.

Today, a member of unstable northern town, Chester-le-Street, was sentenced to death by hanging after a recent article criticising new government legislation was released.

Her publication entitled "The New Sexism of Fundamentalist 'Socialism'" was given front page status in a regional black market publication. It openly ridiculed the government on both a local and national basis, in particular their decision to sterilise 30 per cent of female residents from the town of Chester-le-Street in order to combat the overpopulation of the area.

This follows the failure of last year's proposal which forced home owners who have less than three people sharing a bedroom in their homes to provide space for the homeless. They intended to house 600,000 inhabitants in buildings which cater for only 250,000.

Local authorities, despite ample funding, are unable to extend the town walls due to the current unstable relations with banished ethnic communities. The town, isolated from external food sources and refused state assistance, has been under siege by ethnic groups who were born in England or emigrated to Britain before 2009 and are protesting against their deportation. Victims of the racist British Republic National Ethnic Cleansing Agenda (BRNECA), many of those residing in these towns have moved north to avoid the violent methods of persecution used by BRNECA forces in the south.

Now the little space that would be used for housing development in Chester-le-Street is dedicated to providing food and water for those trapped inside the city.

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