The gifts of fine writing
The best moment of the Pushkin Prizes, says novelist Margaret Elphinstone, chair of the judging panel, is seeing the faces of the young writers. "We've been reading their work, but actually meeting them is like opening a present. You suddenly find out what's inside this parcel you've been examining."
Inside this year's parcel are 12 first and second year pupils from secondary schools from Tain to Ayr and from Gairloch to St Andrews, and two pupils from English medium schools in St Petersburg. The winning pieces range from an epic poem about the discovery of Tutankamun's tomb to an account of looking after a disabled five-year-old.
The winners' creative writing was chosen from entries submitted by 402 pupils from 66 Scottish schools and a similar number of pupils from 37 English-speaking schools in Pushkin's hometown of St Petersburg.
The Pushkin Prizes project was started by Lady Butter, a great-great-granddaughter of the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), as a means of celebrating his achievement. Lady Butter, who lives in Perthshire, piloted it as a creative writing competition in Tayside secondary schools in 1988 and they became so successful that a charitable trust was founded in 1992. Now it is an established feature of English departments in schools across the country.
The competition is open to S1 and S2 pupils, and this year the organisers have developed a Special Endeavour category for pupils with reading and writing difficulties. They submit two to four pieces of writing, of any style and subject, though they are encouraged to write about what sparks their passion. They are assessed by three Scottish literary names - this year Ms Elphinstone, journalist and novelist Jamie Jauncey and director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival Catherine Lockerbie - and three Russian judges.
Every year the Russian winners visit Scotland for a week for the prize-giving and their Scottish counterparts spend a week in St Petersburg, all expenses paid. It is an extraordinary link that has resulted in a meeting of minds and exchange of ideas between young Scots and young Russians.
In the ornate surroundings of Archer's Hall in Edinburgh, this year's successful pupils, their teachers and parents collected last week to meet each other and hear readings of the winning entries. It was a rather formal affair with speeches and lots of handshakes but perhaps, for the children, all the more memorable for that.
The most moving part of the awards ceremony was the reading of Russian first prizewinner Ivan Okhten's essay "The Blue Bream". He had written about the village in the Pskov region where he spends his summer holidays. His memories of children playing in the big bird-cherry tree and of silver-blue fish in the lake spring off the page, at once foreign and familiar.
"What the judges were looking for," says Ms Elphinstone, "was a certain spark, a twist at the end of the tale or an unexpected but perfect adjective. The possibilities of words are endless. That's why working with language never stops being exciting."
Both Ms Elphinstone and Lady Butter commented on the achievement of the Russian children and their impressive grasp of the nuances of the English language. "It shows us," says Ms Elphinstone, "that being monoglot, like so many English speakers, is a disadvantage. The Russian entrants show what could be possible in Scotland."
The first prize in the new Special Endeavour category went to 13-year-old Roisin Kearns of Madras College in St Andrews. Her two poems, "Jungle Description" and "Colours", are packed full of effervescent images.
"I quite often get ideas for a poem but I don't have a pen and paper with me. But this time I did. So I just wrote it down and showed it to my mum," she said.
"I think when I'm older I'll write a book, but at the moment I haven't had enough experiences."
Her mother, Michelle Johnson, was full of praise for her daughter's teacher. "Winning this prize is down to Roisin's achievement and to her teacher, Andrew Lindsay. It's about his genuine care and real commitment."
Pupils at Queensferry High, in Edinburgh, have featured among the top entries for several years, gaining a "highly commended" this year. Tony McManus, of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of Language and Literature, and assistant principal teacher of English at Queensferry High, says: "The particular attraction of the Pushkin Prizes is that it encourages actual classroom work. It's giving national recognition to what is being produced in Scottish schools, demonstrating that we are producing quality work and that we have talented children in state schools."
At Queensferry High the whole English department gets involved in choosing entrants and the staff organise writing groups at lunchtimes to encourage pupils to complete their folio of work.
Mr McManus feels the competition can make children realise the value of what they are doing at school: "Work in a core subject is seen to be of importance to other people. It shows them that these subjects matter and that they can go some way to emulate the best of what they are reading."
For further information, contact Janet Smyth, director of the Pushkin Prizes, tel 0131 229 0227. Full texts of the winning entries are on www.pushkinprizes.net
2001 PUSHKIN PRIZEWINNERS
Ivan Okhten, 14
School 606, St Petersburg
for "The Blue Bream"
Maria Mitrofanova, 15
School 209, St Petersburg
for "To Break the Wall"
Lucy McIver, 13
Wallace High School, Stirling
for "The Punishment of The Killer"
Claire Lamont, 12
Belmont Academy, Ayr
for "The Picture" and "New Arrival"
Ewan Hemingway, 12
Charleston Academy, KinmyliesInverness
for "Tutankamun, The Discovery"
1st prize Special Endeavour
Roisin Kearns, 13
Madras College, St Andrews
for "Jungle Description" and "Colours"
"The Blue Bream" An excerpt by Ivan Okhten, aged 14
It's October now and cold outside. I am sitting in my room in warm clothes and my thoughts are far away in Lyublevo.
When I was a little boy I thought that it was always warm, sunny and exciting there. Now I realise that it isn't like that during the whole year.
It is beautiful there. I could paint our house. It's a log cabin. When my grandad first arrived in the village there was nothing there but a small house but he built a new room and a verandah on to it and turned it into what it is now.
I loved my grandad very much and the house always reminds me of him. We used to dry mushrooms and herbs on the Russian stove and, therefore, it had to be heated all year round, even on warm summer days. Now I have to heat it by myself.
I watch the firelight dancing on the wooden walls and throwing flickering shadows around the room. The fire mesmerizes me, but I can't paint that either. How can I draw the thin air and burst of sparks along with all the feelings and the memories that I have deep in my soul?
"The Punishment of The Killer" An excerpt, by Lucy McIver, aged 13
General Crouch flexed his black, cruel claws: a killing machine. A slow crooning growl, a mutated purr spread for a few seconds. Killing. Killing was good.
General Crouch travelled among the trees quickly. His sadistic mind pined for the feeling of quashing life. It was not long before he reached open grassland. He felt all the familiar eagerness for the hunt. He made for a river. There was a shallow place and he waited there, among the reeds.
He waited; still, patient, watchful. Six or seven hours elapsed, perhaps longer, before he heard it. The sound he had been longing to hear. His heart quickened in excitement. He anticipated the look of shock, terror and desperation in the eyes of his prey and smiled inwardly.
The herd of buffalo reached the water's edge. Aware of their vulnerability, many of them flicked their ears and sniffed the air but the tiger scent was nearly a day old and General Crouch was almost completely submerged.
The leader began wading across. Crouch waited, his tail waved, swish-flick, swish-flick, swish-flick. More buffalo followed. Swish-flick, swish-flick. Only half the herd was left. Swish-flick, swish-flick. The herd was divided; one third on each side, the rest in the water. Crouch pounced. His hind paws pushed up and out from the rock firmly wedged in the riverbank. He landed hard on the back of the first beast, its legs buckled under it, he ripped out its throat and leapt again before it sank under. The taste of blood was in his mouth. The tiger body so beautiful, awesome and perfect.
"Jungle Description" by Roisin Kearns, aged 13
I am walking through the jungle,
I hear the whisper of trees,
The scuttling of the badgers and the moles.
I see the owl on the tree
Tooting like the midnight sky.
It is wonderful.
I feel the branches breaking under my feet,
And the soft wind brushing my face.
I walk past a berry tree,
They look just right
So I taste them.
It's like a party in my mouth,
And everyone is invited.
I smell the flowers blossom.