Winged messenger;Creative writing

9th April 1999 at 01:00
The Angel of the North, the controversial sculpture that overlooks the A1, has inspired pupils on a poetry-writing trip. Bernard Adams reports on their creative efforts

We're on a coach gliding through the misty morning, somewhere above Gateshead. Then, The angel looms up A battered war machine...

or, if you prefer, The mysterious angel emerges Mournful in the mist...

The "angel" is Anthony Gormley's huge, and still controversial, metal sculpture towering over the motorway and the town. The occupants of the coach are 25 Year 4 pupils from Sele First School in Northumberland. The lines above are from the poems they wrote when they got back to their classrooms after visiting the Angel.

When it was first constructed, The Angel of the North was greeted with grumbles (too expensive, too shabby, why do we need it anyway?), but also with delight and appreciation.

It has been there since the spring of 1997 and is a resonant part of the landscape. But how do children see it? What do they make of its local associations? Will they be influenced by adult opinions of what is one of the largest pieces of modern sculpture in Britain? Will it trigger fluent poetry-writing?

These are some of the questions in teacher Paula Thompson's mind as she takes her pupils on the half-hour bus ride to see the statue. Sele is a 400-plus primary (and an OFSTED Beacon school, recognised for good practice in literacy, management, special needs and assessment) in Hexham, one of the prettiest towns in Northumberland.

She has primed the children with some facts - how big the Angel is, how far down its base goes, how its wing-span is the same as a jumbo jet's, and how it is built on top of an old coalmine.

"We also read poems such as 'Ozymandias', and the Happy Prince story, and we used a thesaurus to arm them with plenty of vocabulary," she says. She has put the children in mixed-ability pairs - often matching an able writer with an imaginative, but less able one.

Close up the statue seems smaller than you expect. Its colour - "smooth rust" would be the best description - is a surprise too. Parents on the trip draw out the children's reactions as we walk. Some pupils are hooked on previously perceived images - it isn't like an angel, they complain, the feet and wings are too big, and where are its eyes and its halo?

Then comes the question of the statue's sex: its legs are muscular and male, but the body has a strong suggestion of female curves. Most children think it's a woman.

Paula Thompson urges the children clustered around its base to touch, smell, feel and listen to the statue. They do that with gusto - some licking it, just to be sure they don't miss out on all five senses - and a few do some impromptu sliding down the giant's insteps.

The sun comes out and the Angel casts a huge shadow. "It looks as if another angel has fallen down from the sky," says Sean Hanning - a thought which, sadly, does not make it in quite that form in his final poem (see panel).

As the pupils unfreeze their fingers and write on clipboards, I read their notes. Alastair Middler says it is an "earthly sort of angel", and you can't disagree. To him it is "powerful and trustworthy".

Stewart Tait feels it is "lonely", Amy Hunter sees it as "the guardian of the town". She also measures it and says it smells of cheese. Jenny Cook likens it to a "rusty, brown, glider" and measures the wings at 36 "giant steps".

This isn't the first, and won't be the last, visit to the Angel from Sele school. Headteacher Maggie Anderson believes out-of-school visits challenge and motivate pupils in their curriculum work.

"Seeing the Angel," she says, "has allowed the children to express in a creative way a first-hand opinion on a local monument."

A Sele school visit to the Angel will be featured in the Channel 4 series "Schools at Work", which will be transmitted on September 20 at 9.55am and on January 19, 2000, at 10.10am.

POEMS FROM A DAY OUT The golden sun shines on the watching sentinel, Towering over lengths of grass and houses.

Giver of light and gatherer of darkness, Its giant wings looking like a jet, Rippling ribs running down its body, A hard, cold silent form.

Earth, blood and clay all moulded into a sharp, pointed shape, The messenger of Gateshead...

Jessica Cusworth and Hannah Barrett The Angel looms up A jumbo jet taking off The wings are radars, The Angel looms up, A prisoner breaking free From the bonds of another angel.

The Angel looms up.

Daniel Woodhouse and Stephen Miller The Angel casts its own shadow It is rich in colours, brown and rusty red, Now it is clear to human eyes, The Angel rotates to face the sun, Feeling proud of itself...

Emma Douthwaite and Sean Hanning

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