A story without end

5th January 1996 at 00:00
Reva Klein uncovers the writing of a Cold War plot which didn't quite go according to plan.

Jimmy's old friend Henry turns up at Venice airport soliciting his help. This is a bit odd, since he was reportedly found hanged in a closet of a Moscow hotel just after the Cold War ground to a halt over a year before.

But the very much alive Henry, a fishmonger, explains to his journalist friend that he had to fake his death for security reasons. Being an altogether loyal type, Jimmy agrees to help Henry, who unfolds his story.

The fishy Yorkshireman had, as it happens, been a former KGB agent who left the service but was now being pressured into entering its successor, a "sinister renegade force out of the control of the government".

His refusal to join, he tells his old friend, has put his life in danger. But as he hands Jimmy an envelope with vital information that he wants him to publicise, he is seized by chest pains. Before he dies, he utters a Russian-sounding name. And that's only the beginning of the story.

Welcome to the "Neverending Story", the product of six Surrey secondary schools, writer and film-maker Bryan Forbes and no doubt memories of a few dozen James Bond movies. In reality, the "Neverending Story" does indeed have an end - and a middle, too.

The story, somewhat evocatively entitled You Only Die Twice, could be subtitled "Six Schools and a Telephone Line". It was created as part of Surrey Literacy Week last October and is the brainchild of Gillian Inkson, co-ordinator of Surrey's two-year Reading Project.

You Only Die Twice was as collaborative a project as you can get. Bryan Forbes, who lives in Surrey, kindly donated the opening paragraph and from there, the story was elaborated on, paragraph by paragraph, by the six schools. The intention was for the schools to communicate and work together on the Internet, using the Microsoft School Server that they had been given by Microsoft and had yet to be used in the school. But things didn't quite turn out that way.

Nigel Edwards, IT co-ordinator of Rodborough School, one of the six schools involved, says: "There was the grand idea that the document would exist on the Internet and that schools would log on to the Net Server, add to it and then put it back.

But it was a bad idea because there was no structure to the exercise. So we tried to e-mail it on to the next school with instructions as to what to do.

"That would have been OK but nobody had central control, so there was no one to say 'This will be in your mailbox at 9am, please send it back to us at 5pm.' And if it was sent to the mailbox of a staff member absent that day, it wouldn't come back."

Because of the lack of co-ordination and structure, schools wound up faxing the story to each other after adding their paragraphs.

Given the very difficult time factor - each school had one period, 50 minutes, in which to write their contribution, have it read by their English teacher and then have a selection made, usually involving the splicing together of two students' passages - faxing turned out to be the most expedient way of getting around the problems that the schools only realised they had once the story was under way.

But it was anything but a write-off of an exercise. Nigel Edwards says: "We learned valuable lessons from our mistakes. Next time, we'll mailshot people, then put a timetable up on the service. The structure will be put firmly into the control of one person."

Rodborough English teacher Ros Fisher would also like to have more time next time around, rather than the one English period in which to do it all.

There will be a next time, too. Gillian Inkson intends to run the story project again next year, buoyed by the high quality of the writing and the enjoyment of the participants.

Nigel Edwards, for one, would like to see a broader spectrum of people collaborating in the story.

"It would be useful if there were people outside Surrey involved, so that there was a wider social mix, he says. "The schools we worked with are all middle-class Surrey schools with similar perspectives on issues like the Cold War. If we could work with schools in Australia or Los Angeles, we'd have wider possibilities."

Even with the narrower parameters, the key stage 3 pupils at Rodborough enjoyed it. One 16-year-old has found inspiration in the story for her GCSE English coursework.

She will be completing the story without having to collaborate with anyone, whether sitting next to her or on the Internet.

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