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Kevin Crossley-Holland joked of his time at Teddy Hall, ‘I was derided by my sports friends for writing poetry and by my poet friends for playing sport’, but while the college’s prowess on the pitch is well documented, it has a lesser-known but hugely rich tradition in producing writers of every description. With this in mind, on the 9th February Lucy Newlyn organised a celebration of writing at the Hall where tutors, current students and alumni met to share their own experiences of this culture and urge its continuance.
Emma Brockes started the proceedings with an enlightening talk about longform non-fiction in the age of blogging. The Guardian writer explained how journalists must balance their ‘stock’, lengthier, more worthwhile pieces, with their ‘flow’, smaller bits of journalism such as blog posts. Despite the appeal and immediacy of Twitter feeds -- and even in an age where attention spans are steadily decreasing -- there is still a place for serious and engaging journalism.
Emma reminded us that before the internet journalists still had to make a living by writing small scale stories, they still had to supplement their ‘stock’ with ‘flow’, so not much has changed in that respect. Online journalism is still in its infancy and iexpanding to encompass a wide range of styles, none of which have to be inane. This illustration of the potential of the internet for writing was a welcome message for aspiring journalists currently studying at the Hall.
The eight-strong panel, chaired by Karina Wilson and ranging from novelists to music critics to editors, each relayed their personal reasons for writing with enthusiasm and personality. As one might expect, compulsion proved a sine qua non for most, but it was by no means the only motivation voiced. Clare George humorously said writing was the only distraction from her desire to browse for houses online – ‘a less dangerous alternative’, and Tony Brignull revealed his decision to write was born out of his failure to master quadratics or the cello (not to mention the Eureka moment he experienced reading Dostoevsky)...
Eliane Glaser explained how writing gives vent to her anger, providing a platform for exposing threats like ‘cuddly capitalism’ and the hidden agendas that hide beneath the hoody of the proverbial Mark Zuckerberg. Indeed, while Alyn Shipton joked that he originally started reviewing jazz at Oxford to get free LPs (sadly they didn’t fit in his pidge), he also emphasised the importance of defending writing as a commercial process from international corporations like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft which disregard copyright – ‘fight those bastards!’ One should not forget that writing is a livelihood and one that needs feeding: as Karina succinctly put it, ‘I write to eat’.
Samira Ahmed reflected on the unappreciated joys of news-writing, revealing how practically vocational her English degree had proven. Samira’s love of wordplay had helped when distilling a huge range of sources into concise and accurate forms, and also made her a champion at broadcasting bingo, able to squeeze words like ‘hot tub’ into news reports on volcanic activity. Similarly, the critical faculties she developed at the Hall enabled her to find the ‘real’ story hidden in courtroom testimonies and other news events, the significance of which might be lost on the rest of ‘the hack pack’.
With Samira’s words in mind, we went to lunch with a desire to be involved n student journalism at Oxford, and had the pleasure of sitting next to Yann Lovelock who gave some great advice on the importance of taking the initiative in getting your articles published. As we ate we were treated to a wide variety of performances. Amongst others, Stuart Estell brilliantly captured the frustration in Tony Brignull’s poem written as a student after an unsuccessful date with a female don, and Jack Moran, a first year undergraduate, wowed with his innovative rap. Jack then performed admirably in his next role as a make-shift microphone stand for Rebecca Hollweg who sang beautifully, even risking a bit of audience participation. Fortunately the chorus of ‘Worse things happen’ was responded to with enthusiasm if not always an adherence to pitch.