Once upon a time there were 62 words

We’ve been blabbing away about what fun we’ve had with the 26 Treasures of Childhood project. But we’ve not said much about one of the best aspects of this wonderful writing adventure. It wasn’t just us professionals who were sestuding about our childhood objects, some local school children were on the case too. Over to Fiona Thompson, who will give you a behind-the-scenes peek into some very creative young minds…

We weren’t quite sure what would happen when we unleashed the power of children’s imaginations on the 21st century objects in the Modern British Childhood exhibition. But we were amazed at the results.

A ten year old girl gives the MMR vaccine a voice – “When I was born, everybody feared me” – a Lily Allen dress insists it’s “no gangsta” and a nine year old boy imagines his trainers squabbling in a cupboard, each pair fighting to be chosen first.

While adult writers from 26 responded to 20th century objects in the exhibition at the Museum of Childhood, children from Rushmore Primary School in Hackney wrote about the 21st century objects on display.

Like the adults, the young writers had to respond in just 62 words – a sestude. The children wrote their sestudes during a series of workshops run by The Ministry of Stories, the creative writing and mentoring centre in East London.

Getting to know the objects

Helen Roberts, Creative Learning Workshop Leader at the Ministry of Stories, is an Education Practitioner who specialises in community, museum and gallery projects. She devised and led four workshops for the children which took place over four weeks during the spring of 2012.

“Experiencing the Museum of Childhood’s collection first-hand was a huge inspiration for this project,” says Helen. “The children were clearly excited to have been invited to contribute to the Modern British Childhood exhibition, and took great pride in their writing. They questioned and critiqued the objects according to their own experiences, whilst responding to and reinventing them in imaginative and unexpected ways.”

Exploring poetry, rhythm and six word stories

Sarah Farley, a member of 26 who volunteers with the Ministry of Stories, describes the different stages of the workshops, where she acted as a writing mentor.

“During the first workshop at the museum we worked on describing objects in different ways, including writing about how a particular object made them feel. Rhian Harris, the director of the museum and curator of the exhibition, then introduced the actual objects and asked the kids if they’d like to write about them for the exhibition. The answer was a resounding Yes!”

The second and third workshops took place at the children’s school, and investigated different writing styles. “We used limericks to show poetry and rhythm,” says Sarah, “we used dialogue to start a conversation between the kids and their objects, we explored writing about time – last year, last month, etc – and we even used six-word stories to give them practice at writing to an exact number of words.”

The final workshop was dedicated to writing the children’s final pieces. “We told them they were completely free to write whatever they wanted about their object and in whatever style they liked,” Sarah explains. “One boy chose to write his piece about West Ham as a news article.”

Teletubby horror and Lily Allen bling

Children’s reactions to the museum objects were not always predictable. “There were a lot of laughs about the nappy, a lot of ‘bling’ references to the headphones and Lily Allen dress, and some of the girls were put off by the bra,” says Sarah. “But there were some darker elements too: many of them thought the Teletubbies were disturbing and they used them as the basis for horror stories. It’s interesting that the children saw them in that way, and goes to show that as adults we quickly lose touch with what really appeals to you as a child.”

“As kids, we’re driven more by our imaginations than by logic. But as we get older, we start to box ourselves in and give ourselves over to the logical part of our brains and become afraid of letting our minds run wild in all directions. Working with kids reminds me of the great fun you can have if you simply let go of the fear and give in to your imagination.”

“It kept on going nonsense!”

It wasn’t always easy for the children to get their ideas down on paper. One child said that the hardest part was writing the poem. “It kept on going nonsense!” For another, “The six word story was difficult because you couldn’t put descriptive words into it.”

But the overwhelming feedback was that this was a really enjoyable project. Asked what they liked best, the young writers said:

  • “Going to the museum because it was so fun going round and looking at all the exhibitions. It was a different style of writing and exploring.”
  • “Writing the 62 words because it’s tricky and gets you more interested… it’s more complex.”
  • “I enjoyed the chance to come up with my own ideas.”
  • “It has really kept my imagination going. It’s made me realise that there’s lots of different ways to write about feelings. It’s interesting how much power objects can give to your writing.”
  • “I have always loved writing and I love writing stories. This has really inspired me.”

The kids got pretty good reviews themselves. “I love the pieces that our young writers have produced. They’re fresh, personal, fantastic,” says Lucy Macnab, Co-Director of the Ministry.  Rhian Harris, the Museum’s Director and curator of the exhibition, is equally enthusiastic: “I think the children’s pieces are wonderful, really strong, inspiring stuff. They are going to provide a really important element to the exhibition – the child’s own response.”

Primary school, professional standards

Sarah was impressed by the way the children rose to the challenge of writing to a deadline and meeting the very precise word count – 62 words, no more, no less.

“The children tackled every exercise we gave them with enthusiasm and a lot of humour,” she says. “They had less than two hours to write, edit and deliver the final pieces. They all had clear ideas of what they wanted to say and were meticulous in getting the right number of words. In the end they met the deadline and hit a perfect word count. I reckon a lot of professional writers would have been stretched by that task.”

You can see the children’s writing at the Modern British Childhood exhibition at the Museum of Childhood until 14 April 2013.

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Let’s all sing….

Finally, the rest of the world gets to see what we’ve been up to. The Modern British Childhood Exhibition opened its doors last night; our writing is on display. While we mop up the tears of joy and relief, 26 stalwart John Simmons, one of the brains behind this project, reflects on the road we have travelled…

That was a first. A communal singalong in the Museum of Childhood led by Esther Rantzen. Our song was “Muffin the Mule” – “Here comes Muffin, Muffin the Mule…everybody sing Good Old Muffin the Mule.”

Not everyone joined in but that was probably explained by the fact that you needed to be in your 60s to have watched the original Muffin the MuleTV programme. Still, I thought it was a game effort by Esther who was the special guest to open the Modern British Childhood exhibition. And a couple of hundred guests, including writers who’d taken part by writing a sestude about a childhood object, were only too delighted to be there as the first people to see the exhibition.

Mr Simmons holds forth

What a long road we’ve travelled. At times a magical yellow brick road taking us all back through our childhoods, but the real starting point for this project goes back two and a half years to the original 26 Treasures at the V&A in 2010. For that project 26 writers had been paired with objects from way before any of our childhoods, various antique treasures from the 15th to 18th centuries: a bust of Henry VII, Elizabethan miniature, the Great Bed of Ware, a king’s wedding suit. The sestudes (my coined word came soon after) were 62 words displayed in the V&A alongside the objects. It had all gone so well that the V&A extended the exhibition for a month beyond its original slot as part of the London Design Festival.

The cover of our lovely booklet

In fact it went so well that it proved relatively easy to persuade the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Scotland to let 26 writers loose on objects from their collections too. By this point (autumn 2011) we had four collections of sestudes and we were able to convince new publisher Unbound to take 26 Treasures on as a book.

Using crowd-funding (thanks all who subscribed) we were able to launch the book in September at the 2012 London Design Festival. The yellow brick road had led us back to where we started at the V&A. Now the book, beautifully designed by Sam Gray, is available in bookshops and online.

Along the way, we’d had the thought that we are all stocked in our memories with books, objects, toys that are precious to us from our childhoods. How about writing another batch of sestudes about childhood objects? So we approached the Museum of Childhood in London and struck very lucky because Rhian Harris, the director, agreed to see us and explained that she was curating an exhibition to be called Modern British Childhood 1948-2012. It was almost too perfect to be true.

So began the particular part of the journey that took us to the private view at the Museum of Childhood on 10th October. Our writers, marshalled by Fiona Thompson, all produced 62 words exactly about Muffin the Mule (Michael Rosen), Chopper bikes (Neil Baker), Sylvanian Families (Lorelei Mathias) and twenty-five more besides. But for me the special addition was the fourteen schoolchildren from Rushmore Primary School who wrote their sestudes about objects from this century, from trainers to hijab scarves to Tellytubbies. This was all arranged with the Ministry of Stories.

Now the exhibition was in hand, all that remained was to produce the booklet of the work. We got the very talented designer David Carroll on board with his colleague Natalie Bullard from David Carroll & Co. With Park Communications agreeing to print the booklet at low rates, and the V&A shop agreeing to take and sell copies we were ready to welcome the public.

It was a wonderful experience – sorry if that doesn’t sound cool enough. But the whole theme of the exhibition was one that provoked thoughts, stimulated memories, put us touch with our emotions. I’m sure there were tears involved in the writing of the pieces but, as my colleague Jamie Jauncey is fond of quoting from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

What changed, if anything? That’s up to each of you to decide as you visit the museum and exhibition. Do go along and see. The exhibition will make you think about childhood – the one you had, perhaps the one your parents had or the one your children will have. It will make you realise how precious the time is and the objects associated in your minds with that time.

For me, it made me rethink history a little, in a very positive way. We are too used to thinking of history as kings and queens, wars and treaties, ancient documents and symbols of power. But actually we are living and creating history every day and, as I spoke when Esther Rantzen stopped singing: “We share experiences. Of course we share our history, and history can be represented by a child’s toy, a milk bottle and a television programme. That’s the real history of ordinary lives and objects and people that are made extraordinary by the shared emotions they evoke.”

Thank you to all the writers who shared their experiences, words and histories.

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Where Stephen Potts makes some spectacles of himself

They leant Morrissey his languor. Completed Jarvis Cocker. And gifted your editor a headline. But scriptwriter and novelist Stephen Potts found them disappointing, at first – and we’re talking about… well, read on to find out.

What object are you writing about and what were your first thoughts when we told you?

1950s NHS glasses. My initial reaction was disappointment –  had I been defined by my day job and age? – but seeing the possibility for play, I warmed to the task, especially when an obvious theme of duality emerged (looking through versus  looking at). A famous old hymn gave me the title, again on the same theme (before versus after). And I was off.

So, this is NOT Stephen Potts. I Googled “NHS glasses”, this image came up and, well… too good not to

What lost object from your own childhood would you like to own again, and why?

A pre-decimal penny, squashed flat after placing it on a train line. They normally squashed into an ellipse: I found this one, rotated it, squashed it again (now into a perfect circle) and found it a second time. Here was medal-shaped evidence of tenacity and imagination. I’d show it to my own kids now as evidence of foolhardy risk-taking.

Hop into my time machine and it will take you back to one specific hour of your childhood – where and when do you want to go, and why?

I was 11. Standing on a flood-damaged  footbridge, I looked down to see the earth literally open up under my feet, and the remnants of the bridge crashed into the swirling water. Now I see how, but for a matter of inches, my life would have ended at that point. But I was blase then: could I have learnt from this?

Can you surprise me with one unusual fact about your childhood?

I won a Blue Peter badge for jumping on a pogo stick 1463 times. Soon afterwards Blue Peter had a kid in the studio, pogo jumping on live TV, who had only managed 947 jumps. I mean, not even 1000 jumps! I was outraged at the injustice, then told myself I could have gone longer but got bored. I never jumped again.

What’s the earliest thing you can remember writing?

A short story about mountaineers getting trapped in a blizzard, and their communication with base camp as the storm mounts.  A teacher suggested I re-write it as a radio play, and for the first time I saw how form and content need to fit together. A lesson I tried to apply 40 years later, when my first radio drama was broadcast.

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Wanna be in Neil’s gang? Apply here

Well, it was bound to happen one day. Here I am, interviewing myself. I seem to talk a lot about membership cards and bicycles. And I reveal a truly terrible secret. So, Neil Baker, outstanding writer for business, master of the short story, and all round creative genius (writing your intro has its perks), it’s over to…me, or you.

What object are you writing about and what were your first thoughts when we told you?

A Raleigh Chopper. The iconic bike. At first I thought, argh, that’s a lot of responsibility. I’d have found it easier to write about a small, inconspicuous object – something that could be tucked away in a dark corner if my sestude was rubbish. But as other writers sent me their work to edit, I realised: all of the objects in this exhibition carry a lot of responsibility. They are all treasures.

The Guardian used this image in their lovely article about the exhibition

What lost object from your own childhood would you like to own again, and why?

When I was nine I formed a bike ‘gang’ with some friends. We called ourselves ‘The Trackers’. My job was to make everyone a membership card – that tells you a lot about the kind of gang we were. Until last week, I thought I still had my card – 35 years old – somewhere in the loft. I couldn’t find it. I’m hoping it might still be up there somewhere, buried under a sack of old clothes or books or Scalextric. But I’m not going to look, just in case it isn’t.

My badge of shame (and I just found I could buy one on eBay)

Hop into my time machine and it will take you back to one specific hour of your childhood – where and when do you want to go to, and why?

My ninth year was an important one. Not only did I establish Morden’s softest – and only? – bike gang, I also flunked my Cycling Proficiency Test. I’m still the only person I’ve ever heard of who failed to get their little red triangle badge, evidence that they could ride safely. My error? We were taught to look right, left, right before pulling away from a T-junction. On test day, I looked right, left, right and then added an extra left. I failed for being over cautious. I’d like to go back for a resit. The trauma still weighs on me.

Can you surprise me with one unusual fact about your childhood?
Our family moved to a small village in Devon when I was eleven. There wasn’t much to do, except play snooker. My friend Darren had a miniature table in his bedroom, but the only full-sized table in town was in the Conservative club. I took a deep breath and joined the club. When my membership card arrived in the post, I was horrified to learn that – by mistake, honest – I had joined the Conservative Party. I still worry that, come the revolution, this will be discovered and I’ll be among the first against the wall. But I’ve declared it to the world now, and I feel a great sense of relief. Yes, I was a Young Tory.

Oops. I’m snookered

What’s the earliest thing you can remember writing?
I remember carefully writing my address – Seymour Avenue – at Tudor Primary School, practicing it over and over. But the first ‘proper’ bit of writing was a short story that I dashed off in my English class, in response to the word ‘fire’. My teacher read it out to everyone and said it was good. Thank you for that, Mr Aitken. (He also made us listen to Bruce Springsteen tapes, which was less kind).

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Happy families with Margaret and Tom

Well, this is a first for us: a mother and son Q&A. We could call it two for the price of one, except nobody here gets paid for anything. So step forward branding guru Margaret Oscar and her son Tom Scadding.

What object are you writing about and what were your first thoughts when we told you?
T: I’m writing about Henry Moore’s ‘Family Group’ sculpture. When I first saw the picture of it, I thought how modern it looked. I also thought it was the size of a table lamp!
M: Henry Moore’s ‘Family Group’ statue. It’s striking how much it resembles the spirit of my own family unit. The three of us are incredibly close. I can’t wait to see it, especially as it’s life-size.

Hasn’t little Tom grown

What lost object from your own childhood would you like to own again, and why?
T: My first pair of proper football boots. With studs. Adidas children’s size 13.
M: My Batmobile! My father bought it for me when I was about five. I was the only girl that had one and it fired plastic torpedoes that were bright red so you couldn’t lose them. It was great.

Hop into my time machine and it will take you back to one specific hour of your childhood – where and when do you want to go to, and why?
T: The day my Prep School team won the South West England football final. The team was coached by my favourite teacher and we had all played our best for him. We won! And my mum, who was working away at the time, came and picked me up after the game. Perfect day.
M: The day my mother bought my first set of cutlery for me. Stainless steel, not plastic. She was so proud when I ate my first meal using my own knife and fork. We fought afterwards because I wouldn’t let her take them away to wash up!

Can you surprise me with one unusual fact about your childhood?
T: Much to my father’s disgust, I have never seen Star Wars! I don’t plan to, either.

Tom, this is Luke Skywalker. Honest

M: I didn’t attend a school until I was nearly 17. My father travelled with work and we travelled with tutors. The first time I joined school with people of my own age, I thought teenagers were freaks!

What’s the earliest thing you can remember writing?
T: I remember making and then writing out a Mother’s Day card when I was three. She still has the card to this day.
M: My name. I did it to prove a point to an uncle that refused to believe I could read or write. I was about two and a half.

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Ahhh lovely. It’s Lorelei Mathias

“I write novels about people falling in love,” says Lorelei Mathias on her website. Well, she’s managed to squeeze a lot of love into this little Q&A. It oozes the stuff. And can you spot the four words that moistened the squinting eyes of your hard-hearted editor? Read on and see…

What object are you writing about and what were your first thoughts when we told you?

A Sylvanian Families Caravan and contents. Genuinely, this was my favourite toy as a child. I had LOADS, and I still think they’re amazing even today. Not only that, a large proportion of my childhood was spent in a VW motor caravan. So my first thoughts on hearing my object were – ‘is this a joke?’ followed closely by, ‘Yay, awesome’.

This is their Death Star

What lost object from your own childhood would you like to own again, and why?

When I was two, we all went in the caravan to the Lorelei Rock on the Rheine. My dad bought me a souvenir t-shirt. It came down to my ankles. I lost it for years, but actually I found it recently in his attic. If I’m honest though, the most precious thing about my childhood was my dad. I’d like him back.

Hop into my time machine and it will take you back to one specific hour of your childhood – where and when do you want to go, and why?

Again in the caravan, but this time I’m ten and our dad has driven all the way to his homeland, Romania. I’d like to go back there then, and really soak it all up. I’m half Romanian but I don’t know nearly enough about my roots. I was always nagging my dad to take us back there, but it never quite happened.

Can you surprise me with one unusual fact about your childhood?

For seven years I was lucky enough to live two minutes walk from my high school, yet somehow I was always late. (Those who know me well now will say this actually isn’t very surprising.)

What’s the earliest thing you can remember writing?

Pop songs with my brother and sister, in the caravan on holiday. I was five. We were in a band called ‘The Bamboulas’, named after our favourite French biscuits, found in the hypermarches. We composed the tracks together. My sister was lead, I was backing vocals, and my brother was in charge of making noises exactly like lead guitar and drums.

[Ed: Lorelei sent all these lovely photos…]

Brother Emil, sister Camilla, Lorelei, her dad, and the 6th member of their family: the VW caravan where she lived every summer until aged 12.

Lorelei, her dad, great aunt and uncle Anutsa and Siegfried, against a backdrop of (Tran)sylvania (no pun intended)

With brother Emil on a woodland camping adventure

Lorelei, her brother’s wife and son, Leon, with her old Sylvanians


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Which witches worry Julian Abel?

Yikes. 62 words exactly, inspired by a Roald Dahl classic. No pressure. But copywriter Julian Abel seems unflustered. Old women in gloves seem more of a concern. But he’s over that now. Surely. Anyway, he agreed to answer our questions…

What object are you writing about and what were your first thoughts when we told you?
The Witches’ by Roald Dahl. My first thoughts were of being affected by the book as a boy. We’d moved to London after living in New York for a few years. I used to take the old Routemaster 82 bus to school every day and remember feeling particularly paranoid and frightened of old women. Especially those with gloves and facial hair.

Scary witchy lady

The only way to travel. But not if you want a Number 82

What lost object from your own childhood would you like to own again, and why?
I got a sky blue mountain bike for my 13th birthday. Leaving it outside Our Price record store one day, a homeless guy mumbled, “Our Price, more like their F**@! price!”. As I walked in a kid swiped my bike. I chased him screaming “stop him”, but he careened around the corner and was gone. I was inconsolable for a week.

Hop into my time machine and it will take you back to one specific hour of your childhood – where and when do you want to go, and why?
I loved baseball when I lived in New York and saw some Yankee games with my conservative English father, in his Burgundy corduroys and knitted sweater. After a couple of games I forced him into jeans and a Yankee hat to blend in. I loved the atmosphere, the cheering, the hot dogs, and most of all spending time with my dad. It’s the happiest I remember being as a child.

Can you surprise me with one unusual fact about your childhood?
By the age of ten I had moved from Paris, Toronto to New York – with about 13 schools dotted in between. My girlfriend calls me a Mongrel. Although I prefer the description a Belgian waiter once used – minestrone soup.

What’s the earliest thing you can remember writing?
A letter to my parents from summer camp pleading to come home. It went along the lines of “the bed is hard, the cabin is dark and the meat is fatty.” My older brother also wrote a letter. Although his sounded more like a B&B review on Trip Advisor.

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