Writing with style, ye ken?

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

There doesn't seem to be an institution these days that does not have an artist-in-residence. It's not always a painter, of course, sometimes it's a poet, a playwright - or a writer.

The other day, I heard a discussion on Radio 4 about eight secondary schools in London which are going to have writers-in-residence to inspire and encourage the pupils to write more creatively. Universities and colleges have travelled down this road for many years but, for schools, this seemed an entirely new development.

The hope is that they reveal their experiences and stories in a way that previously they had never conceived of doing. Writing it down in English! A fine idea - and the example of work a young pupil read out was lovely and would make any parent (and teacher) proud. It did get me wondering, though: if it were in Scotland, which writers?

Would Leith Academy ever consider, likesay, usin Irvine Welsh? The old Leith Central loco shed that I did indeed trainspot at is no more (replaced by a typical municipal monument of the Eighties - a swim centre where there are no places you can swim a straight line). But his books are still widely read and, although Leith is changing physically, the language is much the same, ye ken?

I suspect parents would object to their sons and daughters writing in such a f'n vernacular style. Funny, but I wonder if they perceive it to be worse when their kids write it rather than just say it - and do they remonstrate with them about that? Or would it be just another occasion to blame teachers for their own shortcomings?

Allan Massie might wax lyrical in search of historical novel writing like his hero Sir Walter Scott, and maybe James Gillespie's would want a Muriel Spark clone? George Watson's could bid for its neighbour JK Rowling - although that other neighbour Alastair Darling does a good line in fiction too. There's also Ian Rankin - who could choose to go back to Fife or stay in Edinburgh to encourage a whole new school of crime writers. Sherlock aficionado Owen Dudley Edwards could help out and inspire the next Arthur Conan Doyle, and former Tory press officer Quentin Jardine show how to write Skinner-style. The point is not to use well- known and successful authors - apart from the fact that they would be too busy, too expensive and often too precious, they could also be too intimidating.

Using writers who understand their craft and are able to communicate and motivate pupils is what's required, and is not neces-sarily the same as writing a bestseller. Not every writer is a good talker, so there's no reason why they should make good teachers.

The obvious question, though, is why are writers-in-residence needed in schools at all? Are teachers being asked to do so much that they can't cover creative writing? Are they being asked to teach to exams too much? Are the Scottish exams a graveyard for creativity?

Many other areas of creativity in school have seen themselves squeezed over the years and some activities which were delivered through extra- curricular work have gone altogether. To make up for this, some schools have turned to outside organisations such as the Scottish Rugby Union for rugby coaching and the English Speaking Union for debates coaching, so why not engage writers to help with taking our children into the realms of creative writing?

Anything that helps pupils read books when before they would vegetate in front of the telly must be a good thing. Anything that helps children dream, create, design and speculate - and put it down on paper - must be too. I wish them luck in London - and look forward to it being tried in Peterheid and Greenock, Methil and Leith. Likesay.

Brian Monteith is fae Porty - an' needed a glossary tae read `Trainspottin' the first time.

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