Days of death and discos

11th June 2004 at 01:00

The TES Write Away competition, now in its seventh year, celebrates the literary talents of pupils by encouraging them to produce a short autobiographical essay. Here we publish the four winning pieces

Places evoked so well that you believe you have been there, people described so vividly that you are sure you have met them, hilarious family gatherings, anguished family break-ups, obsessions, a sense of mortality - no subject is too big or too small for students entering Write Away.

Writing of a remarkably high standard - humorous, poetic, deeply felt or direct - continues to come in from young people all over the United Kingdom and from international schools in other countries. This year, there were more than 7,000 entries from key stage 2 and 3 pupils, and choosing the 20 winners has been as much of a challenge as ever.

For the seventh year running, teachers in groups organised by the National Association for the Teaching of English gradually whittled the number of entries down to about 70. These were read by a panel consisting of representatives of NATE, The TES and McDonald's Restaurants Ltd, which once again generously sponsored the competition. From this shortlist, 20 pieces were chosen to be read by our celebrity judges, two of Britain's favourite authors, Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson. They have selected the four pieces, a secondary and primary winner and two runners-up, for publication.

Read them for yourself on the following pages.

The young writers were inspired by newly commissioned pieces by well-known authors Neil Arksey, Pete Johnson and Jan Mark, all published in a pull-out section, funded by McDonald's, in TESTeacher magazine last September. Neil Arksey wrote vividly about a funny-scary incident in which he inadvertently risked his life for a joke; Jan Mark described a mysterious place in her childhood; and Pete Johnson produced an account of how to deal with bullying that must have rung bells with many young readers.

Yesterday, the 20 finalists, each accompanied by a teacher and a parent, attended a prize-giving ceremony, followed by the matinee of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe in London. The winners and finalists received books signed by the celebrity judges, and the teachers of the four published students each received pound;200 in book vouchers; those of the finalists received pound;50 each. The finalists' schools each received pound;200 towards a writer's residency.

Jacqueline Wilson says: "I thought they were an exceptionally interesting bunch of stories this year, with children writing very naturally, openly and directly." Michael Rosen agrees: "All the finalists' pieces were good, interesting reads and it was a sheer delight to remember that one of the most important things that school can do is provide a space within which children can talk and write about things that matter to them. Why or how did we ever get to a point at which this idea could be devalued or ignored?"

This year, perhaps more than ever, there was evidence of thoughtfulness, of mature reflection, to add to the youthful exuberance and originality we have come to expect from Write Away. See if you agree. All 20 finalists will be published on

Heather Neill, former arts editor of The TES, is organiser of Write Away

Secondary winner

Brendan's Cottage By Arabella Currie, 13, Oxford high school For three weeks of every summer, Brendan's Cottage was home. It was a time filled with French cricket on the beach, extended games of Scrabble by the fire, of seal watching, pony trekking and, most of all, rain! A wild, unforgiving, unstoppable rain, which lashed the windows and rattled the roof.

Brendan's Cottage was a tiny, tumbledown building which seemed to grow out of the ground as natural as the nettles which overflowed the miniature garden. It stood on the edge of Mannin Strand, a white sweeping beach like the wing of a gull.

As for Brendan, I never really found out who he was, just the man we sometimes saw tending his craggy cows. The man we went to when the gas ran out, or that memorable time when the sewage rose up into the bath. He was unbelievably chaotic and never did today what could be done tomorrow.

One year, there was a scribbled sign above a window which read "Careful With Catch" and the next year was replaced with "DON'T Open Window!" There were mouldy mattresses, moth-eaten rugs and blankets which smelt of old, wet dog. And sand. Heaps of sand. A fine dusting covered everything: the bath, the beds, our clothes, everything.

In the cottage was a little peat fireplace which we called "The Beehive".

Here we toasted marshmallows till we were coated in sticky, pink goo, and sat in the hearth to get warm. Once we cooked fresh mackerel wrapped in tinfoil on the open fire, and ate them in our fingers, piping hot and full of tiny bones.

But we spent most of our time on the beach, climbing rocks, playing hopscotch and rounders and making endless sandcastles with moats which we tried to fill from the sea but always remained dry. Or we explored the pools hidden among the rocks, we searched for shrimps hidden beneath the weeds and we cooked them and ate them fresh.

Once I saw an eel, in a turquoise pool we called the Mermaid Lagoon. It was wriggling on the bottom, like a fat, grey worm and when I saw it it grinned, flashing its little, pointed teeth at me and then disappeared with a plop and a flick of its tail.

Or (if we were brave enough) we swam in the sea. It was the Atlantic Ocean and it was freezing cold. A cold which knocked the breath from you and whose icy fingers chilled your very bones. But it was beautiful - a blue-grey sparkling mirror which left Ireland and stretched ahead of us, never to see land again till the shores of North America. We only ever stayed in for a few minutes watched by the seals with a look of mild scorn and interest on their round faces. And then we splashed as fast as we could out, back on to the sand, and ran along the beach, teeth chattering, fingers numb and blue, to get warm.

It was a peaceful, rambling sort of life, occasionally broken by mini adventures and excitements. Like the time we saw a porpoise or when we couldn't find the house key and Brendan got it for us from the milk churn.

And when I found 92 salmon-pinks in one go, tiny, fragile shells, like babies' fingernails.

I loved Connemara, and I still do. But it belongs in my memory. If I went back tomorrow, the sea would seem too cold, the sand too wet, Brendan's Cottage too simple. I may go back there in time, but for now it shall stay a childish picture in my mind - sparkling, clear, so beautiful.

Brendan's cottage was a favourite place for Arabella, her younger brother and older sister, and she has already used it as the setting for a ghost story. She would like to be a writer or actor, plays the violin and will be Dr Grimwig in the school production of Oliver! She loves reading, and says:

"I'm working my way through the top 21 of the Big Read at the moment."

This is the fifth year her teacher, Mari Girling, has entered students for the Write Away competition and the second time the school has produced a winner. "The materials are great," says Mari, who has built up a stock of them. Arabella's class became editors of each other's work, reading scripts anonymously and making suggestions.

Secondary runner-up

Over the Top

By Camilla Moser, 11, La Chataigneraie International School of Geneva It was a hot summer's day and my family and I were visiting Pembrokeshire in Wales. We had been to many beaches in Pembroke, but none of them quite as beautiful as this one. It was a National Trust beach and was kept clean and litter-free. It had lovely white sands and sparkling blue sea. Wales is normally wet, damp and foggy, but this day was gorgeous!

Before we set off to the beach for lunch and the rest of the afternoon, my mum made me put on absolutely gallons of sun cream. This was very embarrassing, as I had so much cream on that I was white all over. It looked like I came from Alaska and had never seen proper sunlight in my whole life!

This was not true though, as I lived in England and England often has sudden heatwaves!

My family and I sat on the beach all afternoon, sunbathing, swimming and looking in rock pools. We watched the tide go in and out and watched the people come and go. We also saw paragliders come down off the cliffs, circle around the sea and then land back on the cliff top. It was fun to see these people gliding like birds over the sea. I sat and watched them, with their bright pink wings and small, tiny bodies. It was quite relaxing watching the world float by.

As it was getting late, my mum, dad, brother and sister and I packed our belongings and went to the steep steps up to the car park for some ice cream. I sat on the bench overlooking the beach to watch the paragliders, as they went one after another running off the cliff and then gliding over the sea. From where I was sitting I had a clear view of them and every time one went over the top I'd close my eyes as I always thought they looked suicidal and it scared me to see them just jump.

When we were about to leave, the last paraglider flew off the cliff. I closed my eyes and kept them shut. All of a sudden I heard a loud gasp. I opened my eyes to see that the paraglider was falling head over heels off the cliff! Everyone on the beach stopped and just stared in horror. We were absolutely mesmerised. Nobody did anything but stare. The man finally came to rest on a small plateau covered in grass, which was sticking out of the cliff. You could see from where I was sitting that he was badly injured.

His legs were sticking painfully out in all directions. Then I heard a voice talking in the background; it was the ice cream man, who was on the phone to the coastguard. Everybody stayed where they were, still staring at the spot where the man had fallen.

Within five minutes, a yellow helicopter appeared and lowered a man down on a rope on to the small overhang. He strapped the paraglider on to a stretcher and then the pilot winched both of them up into the helicopter.

The whole beach burst into a mixture of talking and tears at the sight of the man.

Later I found out from a local newspaper that the man had died. I had seen a man fall to his death in just a couple of seconds.

Heather Neill writes: The terrible accident that Camilla describes in her essay happened on her first visit to Pembrokeshire with her older brother and younger sister. "I often think of it," she says.

Everyone speaks French in Geneva, and Camilla has been learning since she arrived there in August. She likes reading autobiographies, writing her own stories and playing jazzy music on the piano. Claire Wood, Camilla's teacher, says that La Chataigneraie, a mixed secondary school, has 850 students of 98 nationalities, and a separate primary section. Students work towards international exams and may be taught in English or French.

Creative writing is popular, so there were 50 possible entries for Write Away and she submitted them all.

Primary winner

John's World

By Rachel Culloty, 10, Peterborough high school

My brother means all the world to me. He's six and I'm 10, but really I'm like another mum for him. You're probably wondering why I want to write about my brother. After all, aren't they supposed to be a pain in the neck?

John, however, is just a tiny bit special. He is mentally handicapped because of a condition called autism. But he's as sweet as pie; as cute as you can get. He's got beautiful green eyes that gleam when he gets excited, and soft, big black eyelashes. Dad calls them "girly eyelashes". He's got thick, curly golden locks of hair and he's slim and tall. He's still got his soft "baby skin", just like an angel, even though he's really a monkey!

I wish I looked like him. I have dark eyes, thin lashes and freckles on my nose. I've got nice hair, but I'm really short for my age. I'd be OK without the freckles, I think.

Everybody loves John because he looks so gorgeous. He finds lots of things difficult, so it's good that he's cuddly.

John will not always speak to people, although I can usually make him talk to me. He likes to run up and down the corridor at home, and makes weird noises while he does this, flapping his arms up and down. His face goes funny, too. His mouth turns into a big O, as if he's going to scream, and his eyes widen.

My friends wonder what's making the funny noises. It will be John, running and shouting. He goes up and down the hall like you used to see the bears do in the zoo. We used to get sad when he did that. We did not know how to make him stop. Even I can't make him stop when he does that. Then one day the doctors said that we shouldn't worry about him doing his running and flapping. They explained that this was the way that John relaxed.

Now I run with John sometimes. The doctor said that was a good idea because he was enjoying himself. It freaks the cat out, though!

At Christmas, Mum, Dad and I went to see John in his school Christmas play.

They did The Little Fir Tree. John had some lines to say on his own, and he said them at the right time. Best of all was his dancing. In the play, John was a forest creature. The forest creatures had to get on the stage and do a groovy dance. John loved it and he kept looking at us in the audience to check that we were watching him. John did lots of waving to us at the end of his dance, because he was very happy. His teacher wasn't happy though, because teachers never like it if you wave to your family when you're in the school show.

Sometimes it's hard having a handicapped brother. He gets up a lot at night and wakes us all up. We have to do things that he likes at weekends because he gets cross and bored if we go to the shops, which is what Mum and I like doing. He likes steam trains and we go on the Nene Valley Railway a lot.

Mum says it's hard on all of us, but we have to remember that the person it is hardest on is John. I don't really mind. I'm always going to look after my brother. He can have a house at the bottom of my garden when I'm grown up. I love him to bits. He says he loves me to bits too, even though when he's cross he says, "I don't like you TO BITS!!"

Rachel has told John she has written about him. She loves ballet and has auditioned for the Royal Ballet School. She plans to try again when she is 11. She likes reading JK Rowling but is also a fan of Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen and is delighted to be able to meet them. She is writing a complicated email story with her cousin, called Crisis in Canada. Rachel's teacher, Anne Harvey, runs a lunchtime writing club and uses Write Away materials throughout the year. She says Rachel's piece is moving, gives an insight into her relationship with her brother and is one of several that "sent a shiver down the spine".

Primary runner-up


By Jonathan Moore, 9, Potley Hill primary school, Yateley, Hampshire Girls! What do you think of them? I realised I first liked girls when I saw "her". Before I met "her" I was just like all the other boys, playing football at playtimes, going around each other's houses, but now I was changed. Now, I was playing with her at playtime and instead of going around my friend's house I would text "her". We met through a word search.

We were racing to finish and unlucky for me she was much faster.

Most of the boys were afraid to ask a girl out in case they said no, even if they really liked them, and I was afraid as well.

Every term there was a disco at our school and, as most people did, I loved them! I would get ready three hours early; I had to look my best. Each disco we got to pick the songs (within reason) and someone always picked a slow song to dance to. Everyone paired up with their boyfriend or girlfriend and danced with them. I wanted to be, just for once, a brave boy and ask a girl to dance but I could never bring myself to say it. When the slow dance came on I would sit down and watch everyone slow dancing wishing it was me. After every disco I would go home and think to myself, why didn't I do it? Why didn't I ask her to dance?

It was Thursday. I remember waking up and realising it was the school disco today. I went to school as usual but I couldn't concentrate. My mind was bopping like a pop tune. It was coming to the end of the school day and I was very excited.


The bell rang and I rushed out to get home as quickly as I could to get ready. My dinner was waiting on the table and I was ready at six-thirty. I had to be at school for quarter to seven, so I brushed my teeth and we set out. We arrived at ten to seven so I played with my friends until we were allowed in. The first song that was played was Busted.

Everyone loved them; they rushed to the front and started dancing. I managed to edge my way through so I could dance next to "her". Everything was perfect. The disco ball was gleaming; the DJ was great, and best of all everyone was happy. Especially me.

The disco passed really quickly and before I knew it, it was the slow dance.

Once again, I could not bring myself to ask "her" to dance. But guess what, I didn't have to because she asked me! We met in the middle of the hall and started to dance. It was the best three minutes of my life.

It turned out that girls are not as scary as I thought they were. I never got to ask a girl out but I'm sure my chance will come one day.

Writing stories is Jonathan's hobby. "I watch people, see what they do and put them in stories. I write all kinds - I don't want to bore people by doing the same thing all the time- and I love reading. I have a lot of favourite authors. I like Jacqueline Wilson." Jonathan also plays the saxophone in the school orchestra, is in the football team and, of course, enjoys discos.

Anne Fletcher, head of Potley Hill, used the Write Away materials with a writing group of a dozen or so able pupils from Years 5 and 6, including Jonathan, for an hour a week over eight weeks. She says: "We looked at features of the writing, the authors' techniques, how each begins and ends.

They worked for an hour at school and spent 40 minutes at home redrafting.

It is quite difficult for children, in an interesting way."l How to inspire students to write: see this week's TES Teacher magazine, page 6

* Write Away 2004: the other finalists


Daisy Fletcher, Bute House preparatory school for girls, Hammersmith and Fulham Lorna Ilves, Sutton High junior school, Sutton

Shoshanna Krasner-Macleod, Heathfield school (junior dept), Harrow

Holly Limbrick, Stanley junior school, Teddington, Richmond upon Thames

Jack Skeldon, Norton primary school, Stockton-on-Tees

Sarah Tiernan, St Joseph's Catholic primary school, Surrey

Michaela Wheelwright, Highfield junior school, East Sussex

Isabelle Young, Bute House preparatory school for girls, Hammersmith and Fulham


Helen Bailey, Barnard Castle school, Durham

Mimi Clare, Clyst Vale community college, Devon Nancy Haldenby, Waldegrave school, Richmond upon Thames

Matthew Kaye, Kettlethorpe high school, Wakefield

Danielle Murphy, Norwich high school, Norfolk

Alexa Pritchard, James Allen's girls' school, Southwark

Nikki Tomkins, Clyst Vale community college, Devon

Alice Zylberszac, Bancroft's high school, Redbridge

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