From a school in one of the country's most deprived areas comes a critically acclaimed magazine produced by young rebels with a cause. Madeleine Brettingham listens to the teenagers not afraid to speak their minds
If you leave the underground at Plaistow Station in east London and wend your way through a maze of low-rise local authority blocks, past Costcutter and a pub called the Lord Stanley, whose windows bear painted-on England flags and the anachronistic legend "Happy 2005," you'll arrive at Lister Community School.
The building, a jumble of Victorian red brick screened from pedestrians by a modern concrete extension, serves one of the most deprived areas in the country. Half of the pupils qualify for free school meals and the borough has one of the highest murder rates in London. Six under-18s were fatally stabbed or shot in the area last year.
But from an English classroom on the first floor of this rather stark building, pupils are producing one of the liveliest and most talked about school magazines in the country. Benjamin Zephaniah, the poet and novelist, has called it the best school mag in existence, after picking up a copy at a local bookshop. And Michael Rosen, the children's laureate, said it left him "amazed, thrilled and fascinated" after being sent a copy by the team.
So what has produced this work of editorial genius? Beautifully typed English essays? State-of-the-art printing equipment? A* pupils? Nothing could be farther from the truth. For Carbolic, named after the acid spray pioneered by Joseph Lister, the surgeon and school namesake, is raw, rackety and definitely not for parents. It's produced on a peppercorn budget by a team of frequently rebellious pupils, and the scheme was inspired by a collective act of disobedience at the predominantly Bengali school - the 2003 pupil walk-outs over the Iraq war.
"Feelings had been building for some time," says Roger Silverman, the English teacher and former left-wing activist who launched the magazine. "Pupils needed somewhere they could openly and freely discuss their views."
And so later the same year Carbolic was born. It was produced initially in black and white on the school's printers by pupil volunteers. Today it has matured into a 20-page colour publication, thanks to a pound;1,500 donation from the Jack Petchey Foundation, which funds a twice-yearly run of 600 copies from the local printers.
The magazine's appearance is not its main attraction, although the latest issue, which broaches the topic of teen knife crime by reprinting the photos of the youngsters who have died in London over the past year, is striking.
The real revelation is the content - the Iraq war, the London bombings, the hijab (from both a Muslim and non-Muslim perspective), gay rights and poems written in the visceral and feisty style that characterises teenage verse. Articles cover everything from love and sex to absent fathers and racial identity.
In the words of Michael Rosen, Carbolic gives you access to views you couldn't read about anywhere else. "I need a magazine like this to remind me that the world isn't the way the newspapers paint it," he tells pupils. "It reminds me of another world, where young people are active, thoughtful, sensitive and creative."
The key is that school leaders, and even Roger, have little say over what goes in. "You need an enlightened management that is prepared to risk controversy," he says. "The reason we've had such a huge response to our request for submissions is because pupils know it's not an official organ.
"Teenagers are so full of emotion, ideas and thoughts that they don't need much encouragement to write them down. I try not to turn anything down, especially if it's controversial. I make sure there's nothing personally offensive or pornographic, just the absolute basics."
Roger's efforts have clearly paid off. Lister poets - given confidence by their freedoms on the magazine - have gone on to win the London Teenage Poetry Slam, and Louis Antwi, an ex-pupil, runs a regular poetry showcase at Camden's prestigious Roundhouse Theatre.
When The TES Magazine attended an editorial meeting, the contributors were fizzing with ideas and keen to emphasise how much they valued the opportunity to speak their minds.
"It's the voice of youth," says Shahmaan Ahmed, 16. "These are the issues young people are talking about," adds Louis.
The teenagers are proud of Carbolic's willingness to tackle controversial topics. "People have a right to say what they like," says Hana Khan, 18 and a former pupil. "If you don't like it, you can reply to it," chips in 15-year-old Yousuf Hussain.
There's no doubt the magazine has broached sensitive subjects. One 16-year-old gay pupil who has been punched and spat on because of his sexuality decided to tackle the issue of homophobia head-on in the latest Carbolic, with an article entitled, "To love is to die."
In the same issue, MacCarthy Anamoo, 16, protests against his treatment by a BBC Panorama documentary crew, which came to his youth club to make a film about young people's lives and ended up turning him into the unwitting star of a hard-hitting show about knife crime. "I saw it as an opportunity to let people know about my music, but they didn't show any footage of me doing any good," he says. "I was angry. In Carbolic, I could put what I wanted to say."
The constantly shifting editorial board of half a dozen members and a dozen contributors see themselves as representatives of an intensely politicised generation. "Young people are more politically aware," says Hana, an A-level student and aspiring architect.
As well as their energy, intelligence and charm, the most noticeable thing about this eclectic bunch of young people is their keenness to preserve Carbolic's independent voice. "I hate it when people say we're nice," says Charlie Schofield, 16. "It's not about being nice. It's about making our voices heard."
A TASTE OF CARBOLIC
"The track tumbled left to right ... the train horrifically braked sharp ... We were struggling to open the windows ... black clouds filled the carriage ... were we going to die?"
Raj Waghela describes being caught up in the July 7, 2005 London bombings
"Has anyone ever had the audacity to tell you that you're wrong? Now imagine just for a second how I must feel to have that person tell you that you yourself are wrong ... as a human being you are a mistake, an anomaly."
One pupil tackles homophobia
"Everything God has made valuable in the world is covered up and hard to get to. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell."
Majeda Begum defends the hijab
"... my doormat says welcome in four different languages: in Ghanaian, in Somali, in Bangladeshi and Persian.
And to be honest it bothers me.
... So I wipe my feet on the face of tradition, leave Plaistow on the carpet, step inside and I smile."
From "Their hearts beat in mine," the poem that won Lister pupils the 2005 Teenage Poetry Slam
HOW TO SET UP A SCHOOL MAGAZINE
- Approach people in class and ask them to contribute. If you ask, you'll be amazed at what you get.
- Make clear this is not homework. You want to know what they really think.
- Never put any school work in the magazine. It's important that it's independent.
- Allow controversy, with minimum editorial control from teachers or school.
- Ensure nothing racist or personally offensive goes in.
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