At 3.30 on Tuesday morning my alarm rang out. After considering turning it off and burying my head in my pillow, I dragged myself out of bed, washed and dressed, and proceeded to carry eight enormous boxes of books from our first floor flat to the boot of my car outside. By 4.30 I was on the road, coffee in hand, facing three hours of driving to get to my very first in-person author event for ‘Out of the Smoke’.
I’ve done events before, but this one was different. This one was for a real-life published book from a real-life publisher, and (in a startling change from the previous year and a half) it was in person (see note on Covid precautions at the end). I was nervous, excited and tired, all at once – but most of all I was looking forward to spending a day with students and seeing how they took to me and to the book.
The school had ordered 600 copies of ‘Out of the Smoke’ to give out to students, and I had kindly (foolishly?) agreed to sign and deliver them – hence the boxes in the back of the car. I confess I did wince each time I went over a speed bump, but soon enough I was through the Blackwall Tunnel and on the open road headed north.
After a quick stop for coffee and some breakfast at a near-deserted service station, I found myself pulling off the motorway, circling a roundabout, and heading down between rows of squat red-brick houses in the shadow of a football stadium. This was Perry Barr, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Birmingham, and a few minutes later I was turning into the car park at Broadway Academy.
My contact was Chris, a history teacher who is also the Literacy Co-ordinator. He took me upstairs for coffee and a chat, and we found common ground in education and history. Then it was down to the Head Teacher’s office to meet Ron Skelton, who has been head of Broadway for thirteen years, and is the longest serving head in Birmingham.
Ron is incredibly dedicated to his work, and to the welfare of his students, and works closely with the community and the police to ensure they are kept as safe as possible. It was great to meet him, after having had a single Zoom call and a slew of emails, and his enthusiasm was inspiring. I could tell I was in good hands.
I had two assemblies to deliver in the morning, first to year 7 and then to year 8. I had already consulted with my Education Advisor (my 10 year old daughter), who had warned me not to stand up and talk for the whole time, and so I came prepared with my chimney sweep’s costume and props for a Chimney Sweep Boot Camp. The students took to the whole idea immediately, and I had plenty of volunteers to come up and be embarrassed in front of their friends.
The highlight was my Chimney Sweep Assessment Tool, a life-size replica of the inside of a chimney flue (hastily painted the night before). Flues are normally no more than 10 inches wide, and it was eye-opening to see how small that actually is, and how difficult it was for even the smallest volunteers to fit through it. In the end we only had two ‘successful’ candidates – although once they heard that their ‘prize’ was a life of indentured slavery, and an early death, they politely declined to accept it.
I also had a more traditional ‘about me’ segment, talking about where I was from, my publishing journey, what I liked to read and why I wrote the book. It was a pleasure to introduce Lord Shaftesbury to a group of 11-13 year olds, even though we all had to agree he was the oldest, whitest Old White Guy they had seen! Once we got past the first impressions of a stern Victorian politician, however, I was able to help them see that there was much more beneath the surface, and they were impressed by his care and concern for the poorest in society, and for children in particular.
After the assemblies I met my other contact, also (not at all confusingly) called Chris, the lead Librarian. Chris took me down to the school library, situated just off the main concourse, where I settled in for my three workshops.
I took years 7, 8 and 9 in quick succession, with a bite to eat in-between with Ron the Head Teacher. It was manic, but great fun! We started by looking at a short scene from chapter 6 of the book, featuring four of the main characters: Billy, Tosher, Clara and Gerard. We talked about their personalities, and practiced our cockney accents (to varying degrees of success!).
I brought the chapter up on the board, with the characters’ dialogue highlighted in different colours, and called up some volunteers to help me act out the scene at the front. I read the narration, and the students read the characters’ dialogue. As Gerard had far and away the most lines, we shared his between the whole group.
It was great! The Birmingham students loved trying out a cockney accent, shouting out the lines and talking about what made them different – and some of them are definitely budding actors!
It was great to see those who were the jokers of the class being confident and making everyone laugh; but also to see some quieter students coming out of their shells and contributing, however nervously! My favourite moment (I think everyone’s favourite moment) was a particular student attacking Gerard’s lines in … a strident Scottish accent! We left it at that because honestly it sounded great, and who’s to say Gerard didn’t have a Scottish lilt?
After the live reading the students all picked a character and tried to think about what they might say and do next, and it was great to see them picking a range – although the favourite was definitely Clara, which isn’t surprising as she’s so fierce and fun! I loved seeing their thoughts about what my characters might do, and we talked a lot about what would be true to character.
I was really impressed with one boy who suggested that Billy might run away; and when I pointed out that Billy tends to be loyal to his friends, the boy came back and said that while he was running away he might be feeling guilty because he was deserting his friends. I can’t say how heartening that was to see, because it’s a complicated thing to express, when characters’ thoughts and actions are at odds with each other, and even seasoned authors can struggle to make their characters complex.
At the end of the sessions I signed books for the students, and had time for a chat in a more relaxed setting. At the end of the day some other students who had not managed to get into the workshops came along to the library to get their books signed, and I had some great questions about how long it takes to write a book and why I chose to write this one.
I left Birmingham at 4.00 in the afternoon, tired and hoarse but very happy. I’m looking forward to working with the school in the future, helping them to improve their reading culture and talking to the students about gang culture and how similar things are now to what they were like in Victorian times.
I’d like to thank all the staff at Broadway, and Ron, Chris and Chris in particular, for their warm welcome. I’d mostly like to thank the students for joining in and making the day so enjoyable for me – especially the year 9 group, who came in cold to my workshop, having not had an assembly, but still gamely engaged with the task and gave me a lot of laughs.
Watch this space for future events!
Note on Covid-19 precautions
I have been double-vaccinated, and made sure to wear a mask at all times in communal areas in the school, following their guidelines, except when I was presenting in the assembly. All my plans for school visits abide by government guidelines and individual schools’ policies, and I am more than happy to conduct virtual visits where this is more convenient for schools.