Thursday, 11 August 2011

"Stealing is not necessary, thanks."




"My name is Casey. Hello, I'm telling you about my borough, Hackney. In the morning people eat their daily fry-up in their local cafe. It is fattening, filling, sizzling and sloppy. I will be taking you to my local cafe. In your world you can steal but in mine you can't. So stealing is not necessary, thanks."

Written as part of a literacy project on Thursday afternoon, the message was aimed at a fictional pirate - Captain Stripes - but it might as well have been addressed to one of the rioters who wrecked part of Hackney and other London neighbourhoods this week.

Casey and her friends are spending three weeks at a summer school organised by the Hackney Pirates, my favourite local charity. The Pirates hold after-school workshops in Hackney all year round, but the summer school is something special, from the incredible location (a roof garden) to the content (last week, the children made their own animation from scratch).

This Tuesday, however, the charity had to send the kids home early for fear of the rioters. Police evacuated the entire building and some volunteers helped the cafe next door lock up signs and chalk boards - as they could be used as weapons. In the end the streets stayed calm that night; apparently some plucky kebab sellers brandished their doner knives to keep off the mob. Still, for the Hackey Pirates it meant their lovingly planned summer school was disrupted by a bunch of rioting idiots.
In Ian McEwan's Saturday one of the characters manages to pacify a burglar by reciting Dover Beach; my own dreams of literary revenge were less lofty and involved bashing the rioters over the head with War and Peace.

On Wednesday, the Pirates regrouped and turned the chaos into something positive. They made a mini-documentary about what caused the riots and how they could be stopped, with the children as talking heads. Here are my favourite streetwise extracts:

"If David Cameron didn't go on holiday then this wouldn't have happened."


"I think the people who've been looting and burning have had a bad life or they're upset at something that's been happening to them."


"Maybe they're poor and they're really sad and they've got anger inside."

"It's not because they're poor. They had no proper role models."

And my favourite among the favourites:

"There was no reason, they could have just written a letter to the House of Commons."

That last quote is in itself a pretty powerful advert for literacy projects, right?

As for how to stop the riots: "We should bring the army in 'cause it's getting too hectic."

(You can watch the whole discussion on the Hackney Pirates channel on Youtube)

On Thursday, the summer school was back to normal and the young Pirates were scribbling letters to fictional pen-friends extolling the beauty of Hackney.
It felt a bit surreal given this week's pictures of Hackney in flames, but the children were perfectly serious. They consulted the dictionary for the best way to praise Mickey's Fish&Chips ("fresh battered fish, caught especially for you, served with chips. It's mouth-watering!") and came up with lots of adjectives not usually associated with Hackney ("The atmosphere in the Curve Garden is peaceful and safe").

Surely a bright future in real estate, poetry or the tourism industry beckons. Which brings me to why I started volunteering with the Hackney Pirates in the first place. I'm usually a bit suspicious about writers going on and on about the importance of literacy - it's a bit like Cadbury's talking about the importance of chocolate. And I don't believe that reading or writing books makes you a better person; just look at all those depressed writers. But I do think that education in general and literacy in particular are among the most decisive factors that shape a person's life. I used to volunteer for a similar project in Paris and I never cease to be cheered up by the sheer optimism of children. No matter how deprived their background, at a young age they really do believe that everything is possible and that they can become a scientist or astronaut (or real estate agent, or travel brochure writer) if they want to. Supporting charities like the Hackney Pirates helps, at least in a small way, to turn that belief into a reality.

And even if it didn't, it would still be worth it for the existentialist dialogue, overheard during Thursday's workshop in the Curve Garden:

Girl to snail: "You're nasty, mate, I'm putting you back into that bush."

Other girl, watching: "You just called a snail your mate!"

Girl with snail: "No I didn't! I said... I said... you're nasty, FATE."