March 25: the students behind this year’s event

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It is the start of a new decade. New Year resolutions for another ‘productive’ beginning have been tried, tested and dismissed. University classrooms vibrate with inspiration – and stress-inducing deadlines. But there is at least one event coming up at Roehampton which provides a chance to shake this year into shape.

That event is the Soirée on March 25, hosted by the Creative Writing programme and Fincham Press. Every year, a new group of students submits work to a writing competition, for the chance to be included in the next annual anthology. This year, the Soirée is combined with a launch of the anthology The Box, showcasing last year’s work. The keynote address is by Sara Collins, the 2019 Costa Competition First Novel winner.

A team of staff, students and alumni have been working hard to create an event that will delight and surprise. One member of the team, Steph Elliot Vickers, graduated from the BA Creative Writing with a first in 2018. A five-times anthology author, she won the Editor’s Choice Award for best submission at the 2011 Soirée, and has attended the event every year since then. Steph delights in seeing nervous student writers find their feet on the stage when they perform their work, and in striking up working relationships with industry guests.

The opportunities provided by the annual writing competition, and the support of Fincham Press, have kickstarted her career as a published writer, says Steph. The event provides ‘a unique chance for students, staff, alumni and industry professionals to come together and celebrate Roehampton’s next generation of talented writers’.

Another alumnus who couldn’t stay away is Joseph Shafique. He graduated in 2019 with a BA in Journalism and Creative Writing, and has stayed at Roehampton to pursue a MA in Publishing. In the meantime, along with some fellow students he has set up Cottage House Films, and is now writing and producing two upcoming films for the company.

Joseph says the team is ‘hoping this year exceeds the high standards set by previous soirées’, which for him include the highlights of ‘mingling with industry guests and enjoying the entertainment’.

One of the newest additions to the team is Lilly-Ann Newman, a third-year undergraduate student of Creative Writing and Journalism and founder-editor of Fresh Media, an online magazine created with Roehampton’s Student Union.

The talent and dedication of her peers makes her proud to be a part of the team, she says: ‘I have enjoyed every soiree over the past three years and jumped at the chance to be a part of the team who create them. We have been working very hard to provide another amazing evening. These events are a brilliant opportunity to hear the work of peers and talk to industry professionals, who were once in the same position I am, and to learn from their experiences.’

Working as a volunteer, the third year Creative Writing and Film undergraduate  Lisa Gaultier expresses optimism about the upcoming event: ‘I hope it will make everyone attending even more passionate about their craft. The soirées are inspiring events. Seeing people who are students, just like me, read out their work makes me feel confident in my position as a writer. And it’s a great time to meet people, both from the university and the industry.’

The kids of The Rook

I must categorically deny the vicious rumours suggesting that The Rook is the consequence of John Doyle’s midlife crisis and my own. John has a loving family to keep him sane and honest, and I have wine and a Cineworld Unlimited card. And besides, we are not middle-aged. Yeah, right.

The Rook is the result of other kinds of despair: despair over the state of the world; despair over the nightmare that is Brexit; despair over the crisis of journalism. The anthology was conceived in 2016, as Donald Trump was tweeting his way into the White House and Brexit-means-Brexit Theresa May was shepherding Britain out of Europe. The Rook was our cry in the dark, a bloody ¡No pasarán! – our chant of defiance against nationalism, misguided patriotism, crude, blatant or I-am-just-worried-about-uncontrolled-immigration racism; and of course, also, against read-and-forget, it-takes-a-second, one-millimetre-deep journalism. We did not expect to defeat those beastly enemies at the first battle. But we have now crossed swords and drawn blood.

The Rook: front and back covers
The Rook: Citizens of Nowhere, front and back covers

This does not mean that the brilliant young men and women who wrote most of the stories in The Rook share our ideas. While we adopted for this edition May’s insult to Remainers, ‘Citizens of Nowhere’, as our theme and a personal badge of honour, we did not impose on our contributors any political or professional manifesto. We just asked for their permission to include in this anthology some of the magnificent articles they had written while studying Journalism at Roehampton.

Isobel Rafferty’s ‘Lost on a Stranded Land’ and Vilde Haugen’s ‘Dreamland Beach’ – exquisite reminiscences of their trips to Northern Cyprus and Bali – and Josh Downe’s vivid ‘Bulls and Blood’ were all class assignments. Ellis King’s ‘Mallorca, Martina and Me’ was also an assignment, even though it reads, I told him, like the early script of a great romantic movie. Barbara Palovcikova’s ‘The Sounds of Camden Town’, which made me reconsider my dislike of the famous London market, was submitted for a module called Travel Journalism. And there is ‘Going Country, Going Undetected’, a shocking investigative piece about children used as drug mules by London gangs, written by Rafferty and her classmates Federica Infantino and Stephanie Badaru, three young women who have the courage and intelligence many career journalists have never shown.

We also commissioned three of the contributions:  Isabelle Kern’s delicate-as-a-ballet-dancer ‘My Russian Friends’, Aleksandra Antonova’s fiercely honest, sad and stubbornly optimistic ‘A July Morning in Bulgaria’ and Conor Young’s ‘North of the Heart of Babylon’, a piece that both of us would have liked to have written, and which represents the kind of journalism we believe in: truthful in a way run-of-the-mill journalism never is, slow to read but hugely rewarding, intellectually and emotionally alive, candid, daring and beautiful. Beautiful. The one thing that will impress the readers of The Rook the most is how beautifully these current or former Journalism students write.

John added to The Rook his own formidable piece, ‘Citizens of the Sea: a Reawakening’, about the rise, fall and glorious resurgence of Liverpool, and I – cheekily – translated a piece (‘The European’) that I had written for a Cuban magazine on the week of the 2016 European referendum. But the stars and heroes of The Rook are not its middle-aged editors but these young authors, who give us hope that all is not lost for Britain, Europe or even journalism; that there is life, energy, talent, ambition, and raw, pure, untainted goodness in the generation that older people, incorrectly, associate with the Kardashians and Love Island. Being associated in any way with these writers, being published with them in The Rook, being their teachers and, hopefully, their friends, is a huge honour.

Fincham Press and its indefatigable publisher, Susan Greenberg, who made The Rook possible, have done a great service to our university and its Journalism programme, for which we will be always grateful. I hope that their reward will come in the future, when The Rook appears as the first in a long list of published work by some of these authors.

By then, who knows where Britain will be, in or out; whether there will finally be a woman in the White House or someone even more Trumpian than Trump; and whether there will still be something resembling journalism, newspapers, literature.  But John and I will surely still be shouting and protesting and telling our students they should do better than clickbait and nonsense journalism. And we’ll tell them, Look at the kids of The Rook. Read The Rook. That’s the way. Try.