The National Poetry by Heart Competition

Last night, I was a judge in the regional Staffordshire/Shropshire heat of the first ever National Poetry by Heart competition. ‘Oh yes, I’ll do that,’ I’d airily said, imagining how nice it would be to sit listening to young people bringing poems to life.  The night before, however, I tossed and turned.  All those young people with their hopes of making the final at the National Portrait Gallery, practicing hard, giving it their best, trying to remember their selected poems and deliver them in a way that proved they understood them – and all to be marked on score cards by judges including me.  

What if I got it wrong?  Never mind the other judges - what if the best boy/girl didn’t win and I was the one to blame? The one the audience would be shaking its collective head over because so-and-so’s shining talent was overlooked?  I looked up all the poems to prepare myself. Some of my favourites on the list hadn’t been chosen, to my disappointment, but that’s the way things go. There were some brilliant choices too.

I read the poems out loud to get a feel for how easy or difficult they might be, both to understand and to perform.  Then I checked the judging criteria [as complicated as a national curriculum in miniature – were we really meant to take all this into account in the short time that a poem was being read?].  I practiced judging using performances on line. Finally I was about as prepared as I could be - yet still I had that niggling doubt.  I feared my judgment would let someone’s talent fail to shine.

But then I don’t like judgments.  Never have done. God help the general public if I’d ever been a magistrate. I shudder to imagine the petty criminals who’d walk free to offend. 

So why had I agreed to do this, you might well ask?  Certainly it wasn’t born of a desire to select the best at the expense of the rest.  No, it was for the poetry that I said ‘yes’. ‘Best news of the week after the renaissance of Ziggy Stardust,’ is how John Walsh, in the Independent, described the Poetry by Heart competition back in January when it was announced. ‘School champions will declaim Keats or Browning at oikish rivals from other schools. There’ll be heats and a nail-biting final in April. It’s very Michael Gove – and I’m all for it.’

Good for you, John Walsh.  I’m ignoring your mention of John Gove [and Keats and Browning, since so many modern poets are included too] but when you say that poetry learned by heart is like a private iPoems library available for download, I’m with you. And I’m with Andrew Motion when he talks about poetry moving us before we understand it, because it operates as ‘emotional noise’.  ‘Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads,’ Andrew Motion says. 

And that was what happened on the night. Without delving into the secrets of the judges’ deliberations, I can tell you that though the choice was tight the best girl won and, as far as I was concerned, she did it with her second poem, Edwin Morgan’s ‘Strawberries’, which she absolutely made her own. Before the competition, I’d identified this poem as one of those that interested me least, but Shropshire/Staffordshire finalist, Concorde College's  Alexandra Tham, unwrapped what it was saying and made it shine.


National Poetry By Heart Competition






My 'Children of Plynlimon' novels & Oxford Spires Academy

I really like being on my own in a hotel room with biscuits and a kettle, lots of hot water for a bath, crisp pillow-cases and my computer on my lap on the bed.  A whole uninterrupted evening of writing, and here I am at a quarter to midnight and I still don’t feel tired and everything in the world would be perfect if only the people in next room would only stop laughing and shouting [but then perhaps they’re thinking the same about my growling over my computer, obsessively read everything I’m writing out loud – nasty habit, but I can’t stop it I’m afraid].

I’m in Oxford.  Tomorrow I have a day of events lined up at Oxford Spires Academy in celebration of World Book Day, and afterwards I’m meeting poet and fellow Authors Electric colleague Dan Holloway for a drink before getting my train home.  All good things to look forward to.

As much as anything, however, I’m looking forward to talking to groups of children about my ‘Children of Plynlimon’ books.   I’ve done so many author events over the last few years on the Belize adventure and the writing of ‘In the Trees’ that it’s easy for these three precious books, that I laboured over so long and hard, to be overlooked.

Oxford Spires is particularly interested in the fact that these books deal with stories of alienation, which is fine by me. Alienation is something I’ve always written about - I’m certainly open to talking about it.   ‘Sabrina Fludde’. ‘The Red Judge’. ‘Mad Dog Moonlight’. All three children in these books are in search of a sense of family and a place to call home.  All three are children of mystery. One of them is trying to forget his past, the others are actively – and increasingly desperately - trying to find their pasts. None of them has what one would think of as an orthodox name, and that simple fact says something about their sense of separation from the world around them.

So that’s the general gist of what I want to talk about tomorrow.  Abren from ‘Sabrina Fludde’, and the street boy, Phaze II; Zed from ‘The Red Judge’; the mysteriously-named Mad Dog Moonlight – they’ll all be heading off on their river journeys again, following the three rivers - the Severn, the Wye and the Rheidol – that their stories are built around back to their common source on Plynlimon Mountain where lies the roots of all their troubles, and the solving of some of their mysteries, but definitely not all.  How boring life would be if all mysteries could be solved! 

More than the rivers, however, and Plynlimon Mountain where they have their source, these three books are about identity.  The children’s names are more significant than you’d think.  Here’s Mad Dog’s mother on the subject of the one she chose for him: ‘It’s not some crazy name we came up with off the top of our heads. It’s the name you earned for yourself the day you were born. It’s your name, and don’t you ever let anybody take it from you, because it’s who you are.’

I’m looking forward to tomorrow.  And now that the shouting has stopped next door, I’m looking forward to some sleep. Goodnight. 


Sully. John Sullivan. Feeding The Rat.

It was in the Chiquibul Forest that I first met Sully [pictured right in Papua New Guinea].  I was on an Arts Council funded research trip to Belize for my gap year novel, 'In the Trees'. I’d trekked three days through the jungle to interview a group of young volunteers that was being led by him on a major conservation project to protect everything from jaguars and Mayan artifacts to trees and shrubs from armed gangs of xateros [poachers to you and me].  The last day of the trek had been over the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and the last mile had been uphill in the tropical noonday sun. Consequently I was almost speechless from heat exhaustion, not to say anything of lack of breath, when I arrived.

‘Everybody’s really excited about meeting you,’ said their beaming, tall, brown and definitely not speechless leader. ‘A real live author trekking out to interview them.  Wow. Come and meet the gang.’

I couldn’t have met myself at that moment, let alone a gang. When I recovered however, I found myself completely enthralled by what these young people were doing, and the spirit in which they were doing it.  Less than three short weeks before they’d arrived here in Belize to start their jungle training, and it was only just over a week since they’d reached this remote part of the jungle, having trekked on foot over the Devil’s Backbone, just like me - only in their case laden with equipment  to build a bunkhouse for soldiers to guard the forest, not to say anything of the camp they'd be living in for the next two months. [Certainly there was no camp when they arrived. They had to set to and build one for themselves from scratch].

That their project was so successful, featuring on Belize’s Channel 7 News when the bunkhouse was opened two months later, was entirely due to the stamina and hard work of a group of young people who’d never met each other before and mostly never lived away from home, let alone traveled across the world or visited a jungle. But credit is due too to the leadership qualities of Sully.  He not only understood group dynamics and how to get people working well together. He knew how important being happy was as well, and understood the value of laughter, and the value to the young people of ‘owning’ their project themselves.

Before I left their camp, I sat by the river and talked to Sully about gap year volunteering in general, the approach he took to leadership and his previous life, including his time in the Royal Marines. There were lots of questions I wanted to ask, including whether he saw gap year volunteering being for rich kids only,  as is sometimes suggested. He said definitely not, and in this we agreed.

Back home in the UK, Sully and I have continued to keep in touch.  He’s a good friend to have around.  Once I read an interview which asked the question ‘who would you must like to be stuck in a lift with’?  Well, I always thought John Simpson would be my man because he’d keep me entertained with fascinating stories until we were rescued, but now I reckon Sully would be better because as well as the stories he’d probably do the rescuing.

Here in the UK Sully runs Elite Survival Training, which takes groups and individuals from the corporate end to school kids and gives them the opportunity to learn survival skills and look after themselves in the wild.   He also is a public speaker, talking about his life as an adventurer and explorer and giving his inspirational ‘Feed the Rat’ talk to young people and old alike. Everybody has their ‘rat’ - that thing inside of them they’ve always wanted to do, which will make a real difference to their lives, and Sully is very good indeed at persuading people to give that rat a chance. 

I’ve heard Sully in action. The school we visited was in Coventry.  He’d been invited in to inspire the sixth form to think about gap years, and the school theatre was packed. From the moment Sully started, you could have heard a pin drop.  He’s a tall man with a commanding presence, and on-screen presentation was pretty commanding too.  By the time he’d finished, there wasn’t a person in that theatre, including the staff, who didn’t want to grab a Feed the Rat t-shirt and head off somewhere to do their thing.

In his thirty whatever it is years, Sully’s seen the world with the marines [where he became their boxing champion in the most unlikely circumstances, which I may well share with you some time], traveled extensively in the Far East, including trekking deep into the jungles of Papua New Guinea where he learned survival training from one of the region’s most legendary – and notorious – eco-warriors. He’s worked as an expedition leader, and a fixer for a number of TV films, including those featuring the likes of Jack Osborne and Ben Fogel, and his trek into the jungle to meet and negotiate with a reclusive and rarely seen tribe of cannibals laid the foundations for the massively popular TV film, ‘Living with Cannibals’. 

Back here in the UK, as well as doing school talks, Sully’s been telling his travellers’ tales to the Explorer’s Club in Picadilly [feedback afterwards: 'This is one of the best presentations we've ever had'], and last year he was to be found at St James’s Palace handing out awards and giving an inspirational talk to Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold winners.

Then, as if to prove how capable Sully is of springing surprises, he headed straight off into the world of Strictly Come Dancing.  Yes, ballroom dancing. Not the most likely candidate, I would have thought, but at the Derngate Theatre, Northampton, a couple of years ago, he and his partner came in third, and I was there last year when he was on stage again - and as with everything else, Sully’s performance gave it his all.

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, in a long writing life, I’ve been to some fascinating places and met some amazing people, and if this website isn’t a place to celebrate that fact, I don’t know where is. I never expected at the age of nine, when I started out on my great career journey to become a writer, that I’d even get published, let alone ever find myself in a jungle on the far side of the world interviewing an ex-marine who’d lived with cannibals, survived being castaway on a desert island [sorry, I forgot to tell you that bit] and gone strictly come ballroom dancing on the side.

But then, that’s the writer’s life.  It's absolutely marvellous. You’d never expect anything – and then it turns up.  

All photographs copyright John Sullivan

Elite Survival Training 

Feed the Rat on Facebook

In the Trees by Pauline Fisk

If you want to book Sully to come and speak at your event, contact him via the links above.  If you want to book me to come and speak [and I tell some interesting tales too!] contact me either via my Facebook page or through my agent, whose address is below.