Sunday 18 March 2018

Fighting Words in the hills at Glencree

Reporter David Medcalf dropped in on a creative writing session in Glencree, where Bray man Mark Davidson was encouraging pupils to pick up their pens and put their imaginations to use

Mark Davidson with the children from Greystones Educate Together
Mark Davidson with the children from Greystones Educate Together

Education can be formal. Education can be restrictive. Education can be mere box ticking. But not in Glencree, not at Fighting Words.

'We don't do discipline,' declares Mark Davidson, director of this exercise in imaginative schooling where the students are more likely to be found sitting on cushions than on seats at desks. So, if you don't do discipline, Mark, what do you do?

He explains that the reason why Fighting Words exists is to promote creative writing by young people, no holds barred. The inspiration comes from one of the country's most successful ever novelists - the esteemed Roddy Doyle.

The author of 'The Van' and inventor of 'The Giggler Treatment' is not actually here today, though he has been known to show up.

Instead, this morning's work is being carried out under the command of Mark and his team of adult volunteers, all four of them.

They are ready to receive the boys and girls from fifth class at the Educate Together primary in Greystones, all 24 of them, plus three teachers.

There is no way the bus driver is going to risk venturing down the narrow lane which leads to Fighting Words HQ. So the last 100 metres of the journey is completed on foot, allowing the children breathe deeply of the invigorating air of the Wicklow Mountains.

The first thing that Mark does when everyone has arrived is to separate the teachers - Caoimhe, Caitriona and Cian - from the children.

The teachers are ushered into a sitting room with a glowing fire and left to discuss curriculum and protocols, or whatever boring things it is that teachers talk about in private.

Meanwhile, the children are first encouraged by volunteer Eoin O'Shea to fill Glencree valley with a rowdy, raucous roar, to release the energy pent up during the bus ride.

Then they are brought into the Fighting Words classroom, where Mark Davidson awaits, ready to set them a task as they sprawl on their cushions. While discipline may not be to the fore, there is certainly a structure to the freedom that the youngsters are being offered.

As the director explains to this bunch of 11 year olds, they are here to write a book, or several books, as many books as they can dream up in a morning's work. He puts his phone on loudspeaker to establish a line of communication with a publisher called Mister McConky.

We never get to see this most irritable and dismissive of men but he surely knows how to lay down a challenge. When he declares down the crackly phone line that the young people of today have no imagination, the young people from Educate Together in Greystones know they have to prove him wrong. So they respond with a will when Mark asks them for the general ingredients of any work of fiction - character, setting, plot and so on.

The main character which emerges during the brainstorming is a firefighter sheep called Bill, whose principal ambition is to drive a Lamborghini (get the pun?) fire engine. He is pitted against an evil Giant Frozen Strawberry.

To further stimulate the imagination, the budding writers are fed instant pictures drawn on the spur of the moment by volunteer Margaret Joyce, introduced by Mark as the world's best illustrator. She responds to the mirth of the moment, with its blaze busting sheep and murderous fruit, by declaring 'the more way out the better'.

Certainly, today's group are not inclined to focus on everyday life as it is lived in Greystones.

Jess lamb, the volunteer manning the lap-top in the corner of the room, taps out a rough draft of an opening chapter, which is promptly printed off. Now it is time to toss the cushions into a pile in corner and begin work in more formal style, in teams around tables.

Each team is gently prompted by one of the mentoring adults but the creative is always favoured over the merely correct.

'We don't correct spellings.'

These fifth class products of the new millennium may have been brought up with computers from an early age but here they are chewing on their pencils and writing on good, old-fashioned paper. Some decide to dispense with the services offered by Margaret and instead produce their own illustrations.

For one feverish hour, the classroom is a swirling cauldron of creativity, both intense and good humoured, all remarkably focused on their assignment, though never reduced to silence.

The eye-popping views of the Sugar Loaf visible from the window are completely ignored.

Volunteer Eoin calls down the time - 'You have ten minute to finish the work of your lives!' They respond as though those lives depended on it.

At the end of their allotted hour, they are welcomed by publisher McConky whose disembodied voice declares that he never doubted their abilities and he is pleased to accept their work.

Along the way, in this whirlpool of literature and humour, they must learn to respect the ideas of others. Elements of fantasy are involved as the story goes off in bewildering directions, usually with a happy ending.

The Giant Strawberry may expect to wind up as jam while Bill heads into the sunset aboard his high speed tender.

'You would be surprised at how studious they all get,' observes volunteer Jess, a horse racing journalist when not encouraging children to use their imaginations. To round off the session, Eoin calls up a few of the newly fledged authors to read from newly minted works as their teachers file in to listen.

Some of the stories have strayed far from the original starting point to deal with super heroes or, in one case, a gorilla.

'The imagination in this room is lifting the roof off,' declares Mark as he prepares to send the visitors back home.

As they depart, the pupils are asked to put pen to paper one last time and offer their reaction to the Fighting Words experience.

'The best school trip ever and a great location' is the response of one.

Afterwards, the director and his crew review their morning's work, sure that there is always room for improvement.

'Once they realise that they don't have to spell right, they can usually take off,' says Mark.

The organisation has been prompting young people to write with confidence for fun and for personal satisfaction since 2009. That was when Roddy Doyle the novelist and his friend Sean Love of Amnesty International fame first discerned the need for such an organisation. They drew in part on the trail blazed by a group called 826 Valentia in California, but they put an Irish spin on the approach, setting up headquarters beside Croke Park.

The Fighting Words gospel has since spread, with regular meetings of a writing club for teenagers in Dún Laoghaire, for instance.

Summer camps have been run covering not only fiction writing but also tackling subjects such as film making, play writing and puppetry.

However, it is the two hour workshops for school groups which are the bread and butter of the organisation. They first started in Dublin city eight years ago but Glencree has proven to be a very popular venue since it was added more recently with backing from the Irish Youth Foundation in 2016.

Mark calculates that 103 schools - from Gorey to Tallaght - took part over the past 12 months, with demand far exceeding supply.

A native of Bray, son of Matthew and Patricia Davidson, he first came to Fighting Words in 2013, having recently completed his master's degree in cognitive science from UCD after first graduating in philosophy and French at TCD.

The qualification entailed a great deal of psychology and research into artificial science, opening up the prospect of an academic life.

Such a career did not appeal and Fighting Words offered an alternative which came naturally to someone brought up in a house filled with books.

'I have never been a classroom teacher but this work gives you the good parts of being a teacher,' he comments.

The job came up thanks to the admirable Glencree Society which has been in existence since 1962 when a local farmer left his land to a trust.

The brief of the trust was to use the property to welcome young people into the countryside.

Mark was one of thousands of scouts who have camped here over the years and now the creative writing brings another strand of youth work into the hills.

He can call on members from a panel of 44 volunteers to assist with workshops, achieving enviable pupil-teacher ratios. Once or twice a year, Roddy Doyle is likely to call by though the great man does not seek the limelight.

'He is very quiet and he sits down at the back. He is very personable and unassuming.

Wicklow People