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Inner city lives

Lucy Winkett

Regular readers of this column may disagree, but I've always thought of myself as a bit of a stickler for grammar and spelling. I can feel myself slowly turning into a grumpy old woman, like the participants in the TV show of the same name, complaining about how things are pronounced or spelt in a kind of female version of the Victor Meldrew syndrome, bemoaning that things aren't what they used to be.

A particular irritation for me at the moment is the word 'research'. Perhaps it's my over-sensitive musician's ears but every time I hear 're-search', with the emphasis on the first syllable, I have a palpitation. I should get out more and it will pass, but it won't be long before I find myself doing it, and the battle - which in my own mind is the battle against the creeping Americanisation (what a word!) of all known language and culture - will be lost.

This month I found myself in a literacy class in a City Academy. The ability of the pupils in the class to spell, write and read out loud ranged from almost non-existent, through halting, to fluent. I was on a table of 12-year-old boys who were asked to use similes and metaphors to describe a particular object placed before us - in our table's case, a button. I was searching my own memory for the difference between a simile and a metaphor when the boy next to me helped me out. 'Well Miss, a simile is, like, well, like, and a metaphor is when it is itself.'
After we'd described the button, we imagined what garment it had been on, then who had been wearing the garment and then when it was last seen.

Gradually, we were led to use more sophisticated sentences, by creating a back-story for our character. By the end of the lesson I had a sheet of A4 describing the owner of my button (a young man called Tim if you're interested, who rented a room in town, worked in a shop, dreamed of being a footballer and who had a secret which he'd never told anyone, which was that when he was younger, he stole from the shop in which he now worked. He lost the button off his shirt in a nightclub when he was dancing vigorously to his favourite P Diddy track).

My neighbours had not dissimilar stories but it struck me that the teacher - who was doing an excellent job of engaging boys in writing, imagining and storytelling - all empathetic and discursive exercises that girls find easier - had led all of us into an imaginary world where language only began to describe what was inside our heads.
I almost felt as if I could imagine what my Tim would think about most things. Rarely, as adults, unless we write fiction for a living, do we take time to discover the amazing variety of thoughts, feelings and powers of invention that we have inside ourselves.

It's all there though, and our capacity for empathy is always strengthened by letting it roam. Thank you Tim, wherever you are.