Cassandra Hilland took her sixth-form students for a trip on the London Eye. It gave them a new perspective not just on the city but on their writing
One of the best things about group educational trips is their ability to enable students and staff to see life from new perspectives. Students learn in a new environment, confidence is gained, and new friendships are formed. Everybody benefits.
We took "new perspectives" as our theme when we took sixth-form students - and poet Matthew Sweeney - to "fly" (as British Airways calls it) the London Eye. Students had to take a closer look at the capital by describing their thoughts on seeing the city from a new angle, using the most vivid imagery and description they could.
Their starting point was the introduction to the 1996 Faber anthology of contemporary poetry edited by Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott, Emergency Kit. (Both writers are former TES Young Poet critics.) In this, they argue that poetry can change the way we look at the world by "making free with the boundaries of realism".
So, a group of sixth-formers, their teachers, a photographer, a poet and an Australian guide (the Eye uses Antipodean students as guides) filled a pod on the London Eye, ready for a fresh look - not just at London but at life.
On the train from Farnham the group of 17-year-olds had a mixture of feelings - excitement, trepidation, but some clear ideas of what they were expecting to see from their "pod perspective". Kieron Dalton and Nicky Higginbotham wanted to visit both the Dome and the Eye, pointing out that both monuments are there for a limited period - "we should visit them while we have the chance."
Emma Billington said: "It's not every day that you get the chance to see things from above."
Liz Corner was looking forward to seeing the Thames from a new viewpoint:
"When we're above the river, we should see most of the bridges that span it - it'll look like the credits at the start of EastEnders."
Actually, Liz, it doesn't. The river bends. The Eye doesn't give the soap's eye view of the river. As Sweeney and Shapcott say in their anthology: "TV, tabloids, movies, virtual reality, the Internet - all these have encouraged us to take the extraordinary for granted."
And the purpose of this day was to unpick this, to see the extra-ordinary again, for what it is - extraordinary. Or, as Matthew Sweeney said, quoting Robert Frost as our pod made its slow ascent: "poetry should be a fresh look and a fresh listen".
After their flight the students had a writers' workshop with Matthew in the Voice Box at the Poetry Library (upstairs at the nearby Royal Festival Hall and well worth a visit). First, they talked about what had struck them most. Kieron Dalton said the Eye gave him the ability to "send London into new and twisted forms". He had to reassess its size and location - he had to make a new "map". "Everything had moved."
He wrote about London waking up: "From up here the face of London changes as it wakes from its heavy sleep. The Houses of Parliament opens its tired eyes. The bent Thames' spine straightens, it stretche its arms as Battersea stretches its fingers. London yawns as the wind blows through the trees revealing grey rooftops aligned like old stained teeth. The face of London changes, squinting its eyes and poking out its tongue."
Sometimes students used political imagery. The new MPs' offices had black roofs - "all pointy like witches' hats", according to Kieron. Zo Pittaway compared the rows of City office towers with stacks of green and white bank-notes.
Others were playful with words. Eliza Cubitt said that Cleopatra's needle was "needle-sized." Nicky said that Big Ben seemed a misnomer. And everyone agreed with Chris Sykes when he said the trains were Hornby sized. Students were impressed by the way the Eye challenged perceptions of architecture - familiar buildings were revealed in a new light, whereas landmark buildings no longer dominated the horizon. Many were surprised to find Buckingham Palace "just seemed to blend in" - it was the striking green squares of Lord's cricket ground and Embankment Gardens that caught their attention.
Many students were impressed by the smoothness of the ride. Dan Poulton said (rather wistfully) that originally he had been "expecting to hang upside down". He had liked the way the Eye seemed like a giant cog driving the river. Afterwards he described it as: "a child's windmill; a hamster wheel turning in its London cage driving a belt of grey."
Many wanted to return at night to see the city in another light. The language they used to describe their new perspective on London was rich and varied - "childlike" imagery of toys and dropped sweets, and "industrial" imagery of tarmac and concrete. Often the most inventive metaphors had the ring of truth: the ironic imagery of political offices resembling witches' hats, stacked-banknote office blocks, and the carnivalesque city swirling with coloured cars and swarming pedestrians.
The Eye reveals London in concave microcosm - at once sharply realistic and fantastically surreal. Yet so much is left unseen. As Eliza Cubitt put it:
"The Eye reminds us how restricting it is to have eyeballs the same shape as the pods."
For those students studying literature, the next step will be to incorporate their writing into coursework. Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Kafka's Metamorphosis were set as holiday reading - more new perspectives.
A workshop on the London Eye is to be recommended. Take the whole school and fill the whole wheel, why not? Because the Eye is so popular you need to book several weeks in advance (use the group bookings number - it's the only one where you get to talk to a real person). We took a poet. But you could take a cartographer, a musician, a filmmaker, an environmentalist, an artist, a photographer, a trainspotter, a planespotter...
And the flight is only half an hour so you need to go somewhere afterwards. We booked the Voice Box. But there's the whole of the South Bank to explore, including the Tate Modern.
London Eye: group bookings 0870 400 3005. The Poetry Library and Voice Box room: 020 7921 0664Cassandra Hilland teaches at Farnham College, Surrey