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Speaking words of wisdom

Heather Neill eavesdrops on some erudite conversations at the Better English Campaign's jamboree in Covent Garden. While in Northumberland, a new generation of poets was hard at work.

There were words everywhere, upstairs and downstairs at the fashionable new Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. Inspiring, funny, stange, even rude words in the mouths of poets, novelists and teenagers; TES Young Poets' words on the walls; thoughtful words on note-pads and polite, appreciative words written in red Biro on the Post-it note graffiti board ("Valuable and important; the language must be allowed to live and grow"). The Better English Campaign's literary dimension got underway in London on July 3. The next day, there were other word-juggling activities in Morpeth, Northumberland.

Trevor McDonald, the BEC's chairman and promised star turn, was in Moscow to cover the Russian elections ("And finally, where's Trev?", read a Post-it) but students and teachers from 12 schools braved the showers and stepped it out from mainline stations (it was the day of the tube strike) to reach the Poetry Society's headquarters on time. They had travelled across London and from as far away as Bristol, the Midlands and Leeds.

Why did they come? The campaign has, on the whole, been welcomed by business, the education establishment and literary figures, but as it was set up by Gillian Shephard at the Tory Party conference in October and is run by the DFEE it is not surprising if some teachers feel this is yet another implied criticism of their professionalism.

Designed for teenagers in their last years of compulsory schooling and young adults, its stated aims are "to raise awareness of the importance of accurate and effective communication in English for success at work and in other practical situations" and "to promote the enjoyment of the English language for its own sake." While this could be read as an attempt to compensate for poor teaching, or to lean too heavily towards the utilitarian, imaginative English and drama teachers have wasted no time in turning the campaign to their advantage, seeing in it a reinforcement of what they are doing anyway through the national curriculum. All last week's participating teachers are active members of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

The campaign's slogan is "Language is Power" and the presence last week of 11 writers widely different in background, writing style, accent and approach to their audience quickly undermined any lingering fear that stultifying standardisation was at work. These were all people whose written language is powerful, whose mastery of language accords them status and respect. The ability to communicate clearly brings confidence and may even help you get a job. Making the language your own, playing with it, exploring your feelings in it, experimenting with it brings pleasure (and incidentally that sought-after confidence).

And that was what was being celebrated at the Poetry Cafe: effective English in all its diversity. I found myself wishing for more ears, one pair on the equivalent of a periscope, so riveting were the catches for an eavesdropper. Here was Brian Patten, tapping his foot to a swift, humorous, conversational piece of his own about jealousy, delivered in uncompromising Liverpool tones. He'd left school at 15, he said, unable to spell and (amazingly) become a newspaper reporter. He recommended Rochester and Catullus ("only half seriously; they're quite filthy") and said that as a teenager he'd found the French poet Rimbaud particularly relevant.

Across the room, having read a very funny passage about a disastrous parents' evening from her novel My Family and Other Natural Disasters, Josephine Feeney, a former teacher, was encouraging diary writing and the recording of overheard conversations on buses. She helpfully acted one ("I've not been well; I'm under the doctor...") in tones straight out of Coronation Street. When her editor excised as "irrelevant" an example from Truth, Lies and Homework she was cut to the quick, she said. This led to a heart-to-heart about teachers who do similar things.

Meanwhile, Brian Patten described how Adrian Mitchell had surreptitiously answered an exam question on a poem of his own - and came 27 out of 31. Creativity and assessment have not always been easy companions, but Patten himself is quite happy to be a "set" poet.

Anne Harvey, the popular anthologist, had begun the day by describing her initiation into poetry by her French grandmother's spirited performances of such warhorses as "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck". By 11 or 12 she was making private anthologies, carefully copying out favourite poems into exercise books. After drama school in the early 50s she set up a summer theatre company in Cornwall where the actors (Eileen Atkins and two future headteachers among them ) slept on borrowed army beds in a school hall. Twenty-two years of drama teaching followed. This talk, without notes (except for the occasional pertinent poem) was a perfect example of how to speak simply and clearly. Everyone can be a storyteller; everyone has a life-history. An exercise followed in which young people, who had not previously met, described the significance of their names to each other.

And then, enter James Berry. His journey from Brighton had been difficult. He apologised for being late but instantly radiated star quality and in seconds was celebrating the diversity of English in multi-cultural Britain with a poem of his own in the language and rhythms of the Caribbean. He spoke Creole at home in Jamaica. His father never read a book. "I decided to speak like my teacher, like a book. Now I have two voices."

John Hickman, who had brought a group of 13 and 14 year-olds from Forest Gate in London added that young people "use different registers; kids do slip in and out of formal expression - and this isn't recognised enough." Tony Millward, who had travelled from Newark with his charges, said they had been writing poetry all the way down on the train and would produce a booklet as a result of the day's activities.

Meanwhile, downstairs at the Cafe, Nina Bawden was discussing novel writing with students from Sheffield, Leeds, Newark and Oldham. Carrie's War had begun as an adult book about wartime evacuation, she said. Nearby, Philip Pullman was describing, with the help of armfuls of drafts, how his narrative decisions are made. Despite planning, there has to be room for surprise: "I don't know what I'm doing 'til I've done it". Urgent notes to himself keep the story under control: this character needs a reason for this action; such and such a conclusion must be reached in this scene, and so on.

At lunch time the guest poets arrived to lend moral support. Roger McGough, Kit Wright, Alan and Sandy Brownjohn, Grace Nicholl, John Agard and dozens more became a press of talent in the small dining space. Convivial laughter and loud words filled the air - a few too many perhaps for the comfort of the afternoon sessions beginning downstairs. Matthew Sweeney led a poetry workshop which was so stimulating that the three photographers present nearly got involved. Words were, of course, the starting point: familiar words, exotic words, portmanteau words. Half a dozen were chosen and poems and stories emerged all containing "fridge", "dog", "didgeridoo", "water" "anorak" and "builder". Highly individual voices were discovered in weird and wonderful, often matter-of-fact fantasy.

Meanwhile Nigel Hinton, author of Buddy's Blues, mentioned that he'd watched Bob Dylan for the 73rd time, in Hyde Park the previous Saturday and advocated seeing clearly in your head what you want to describe rather than setting out to be clever.

Upstairs Lindsay MacRae was encouraging the invention of chat-up lines while Bernard Ashley got people thinking about the different kinds of English required for different kinds of writing and speaking. This is at the heart of the campaign and was the obvious answer to an inflated story in last week's papers about MacRae's supposed advocacy of swearing. Effect in a poem or in private conversation is one thing; formal situations require correct expression, and a wide vocabulary in any circumstances is preferable to thoughtless repetition of expletives.

Within minutes MacRae's wooing exercise had led to Yeats and Neruda; Ashley was telling an anecdote about meeting the Lord Mayor. Too few ears again.

Philip Ridley led the last session of the day, a philosophical encounter with teachers and students from two London schools. Is there such a thing as absolute meaning? Is the reader'slistener'sspectator's res-ponse really always entirely subjective and emotional? The author of The Krays screenplay also had pertinent things to say about shocking for effect (but without contrivance), something he had begun at the age of eight in a brilliant fable, about a vain prince and a peacock, which he read out.

News from Morpeth has come down the line. Bernard Cleary has been getting students to write distinctly original football poems and Michael Donaghy has enabled people to imagine how fear, peace, pain, death and love smell and where they live. Best of all, Ruth Moore, the teacher on the steering committee of the campaign, came across two boys reading their poems to each other without any compulsion to do so and without embarrassment.

In London there had been about the whole day an exhilarating sense of controlled anarchy as groups jostled on the narrow stairs, collected their complimentary copies of the WH Smith's young writers' anthology, Electric Full Stops, posed for photographs with "their" writer and had the doors of their imagination opened. It was a suitable metaphor for the ideals of the campaign: English too should be organised to best advantage, its behaviour different in the street, in the classroom and at leisure, but with plenty of scope for innovation and surprise.

Other events and workshops will take place in schools. For information about the WH SmithPoetry Society Poets in Schools Scheme, ring Lois Beeson: 0171 824 5456. The Royal Society of Literature's writers' workshop with Victoria Glendinning and Russell Hoban, will be on July 17. Details: Maggie Parham 0171 723 5104. For information about the Poetry Cafe: 0171 240 5081; about Young Book Trust: 0181 870 9055 and about the Better English Campaign: 0171 404 9911.

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