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‘To Say A Great Big Thank You’ – what I learnt from a multi-faith primary school

One afternoon last week I was at my mum’s flat, helping clear out cupboards of soft toys, Sylvanian Families and boardgames that – having left home a decade before – I felt just about ready to think about parting with at some of. In one of the cupboards was a box of cards and letters spanning my early childhood in Greenford and teenage years in Ealing. Among this box of treasure spanning the cripplingly embarrassing to the almost forgotten, was a letter written to Mum by the deputy head of Coston School, where I was a primary and secondary pupil.  

I hadn’t known Mrs Stapells well – I’d been too shy to know many people well, particularly those I looked up to. But Mrs Stapells was the kind of teacher I knew even then I wanted to become. The kind that ‘got’ how important teaching was, doing it with a sense of performance and celebration. Her letter is addressed to my mum is what it says:

Every so often something happens in teaching which helps me remember (when I’m feeling a bit jaded!) why I do it.

There have been several special things that have happened over the years which I remember with a mixture of emotions – sorrow, elation, pride, even. There have also been many poignant moments.

Today’s Special Moment occurred right in the middle of the “Hannukah, Holiday” song. It was the slow bit in the music referring to the miracle of the oil burning for so many nights.

I looked at the stage and the last of the candles of the menorah was being lit. The combination of the lovely music, the candlelight and shadows on Rachel and Susannah’s faces and their wonderful expressions was so beautiful I was spell-bound. I think I continued to wave the baton and lead the song on, because somehow we were “spinning the dreidel”. Then the curtains closed.

That one picture, however, was fixed in my mind. I just wish you could have been there to see it all for yourself. I felt I had to write and tell you about it partly because you missed seeing Rachel do something which must have made her feel nervous yet which she did so calmly and sensible, and partly because I was so moved by it.

Thank you for your contribution to an important part of our school’s Entertainment this year and for providing me – albeit unknowingly! – with a reminder of the joy of teaching in a multi-faith school.

I experienced a moment which awed me, and which I shall cherish for a very, very long time.

My good wishes to you and your family.

Yours sincerely,

Jenny Stapells

The letter is dated Monday 17th December 1990. I was seven, nearly eight, and the younger of two Jewish children in the school. ‘Multi-faith’ was, I’m pretty sure, the context in which I first learnt the word faith. It came into my consciousness synonymously with having a religious identity. Sure, I went to Cheder (Jewish religion school) and enjoyed celebrating the festivals with my family and community, but my everyday experience of Jewish identity was it being all the more special for being a normal part of me, not “special” in the accidentally patronising way that would quite often at high school (and which, alongside my other labels of vegetarian, dyspraxic, American, single-parent family, gave an ample menu) but special in the truer sense, that we were all different and therefore, in an important way, all the same.

One of the things I’m most grateful for is that assemblies like Mrs Stapells’s made it an absolute surprise to me to later learn hymns everyone had sung together were originally written not to “our God” but to “Jesus”. Colours of Day was one of my favourites; more so Autumn Days with its reminder ‘to say a great big thank you’ without specifically naming who to. If a multi-faith class gave me one big idea, that was definitely it. You thanked who youthanked; the important thing was gratitude itself (I’m the Urban Spaceman and Streets of London also made the song-sheets from time to time).

I looked up Coston’s website after finding Mrs Stapells’s letter, and wasn’t surprised to see the multicoloured hands around the slogan at the centre. It’s exactly what I expected, even though I haven’t thought about it at all much in the years between. 

I remember walking down a corridor in the secondary school on my last day and being too shy to say goodbye to Mrs Stapels – seeing her surrouded by girls and boys I’d seen in the school play, so apparently comfortable expressing and receiving love and attention. I wish I’d been brave enough to ‘say a great big thank you’ to her as my favourite Coston School hymn, Autumn Days, had encouraged me to do to the world. Still, seeing what she did so well is the reason reason I love teaching now and know how important it is, even or especially on our most jaded days.

Many of the soft toys and Sylvanian families are, of course, staying with me. What else has come with me to stay is  coming with me is Mrs Stapells and why teachers like her keep on making a difference long after people like me have left primary school.

I don’t know where you are, Mrs Stapells, if you’re still teaching, or even still alive, let alone if there’s any chance of you reading this. But I hope you would be glad to know I am writing it. Good teachers light candles in slow motion, the warmth and light growing over a longer time than they get to see.  If I’ve missed my chance to tell you, I still learnt what you teach and how you teach it are the same thing. And that nothing should be more natural than difference. 

Self, Other and Rupert Thomson

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Possibly the most important thing in teaching creative writing to adults is getting across that there is No Wrong Answer. Everything you write is a combination of your unique imagination, memory and viewpoint; the more your confidence and courage grow as a writer, the wider and more surprising the results will be.

Yet most questions students ask in creative writing workshops run along the lines of  ‘Is it alright if…’, ‘Am I allowed to…’ etc. The answer to all of these is a passionate ‘Yes!’ It is absolutely fine – and absolutely necessary – to experiment in whatever direction feels interesting. That’s how your get to know your story, complete your first draft and – as all worthwhile creative writing advice can be distilled down to – you need to write your first draft before you can edit it. There is only one question about creative writing that has ever irritated me, and no writer or writing student has ever asked it. Others have. It is “Why write as male?”

The reason writers don’t ask this question is writers realize very quickly that the quickest route to the universal is the specific: your reader recognising themself in the other comes from authenticity about that other. Writing that character in the first place does too. Empathy – the discovery of commonality of emotion with someone else – is much of why we write (“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster).

My short story Wolf in the Mirror won first prize in Writers’ Forum a couple of years ago. The protagonist was secretly in love with someone he couldn’t tell. His jealousy, like so much gothic fiction, was becoming a literal monster. Currently, only he could see it in the mirror but knew it was silently threatening to break out. When it was suggested to me by someone who I really don’t think intended to be sexist and patronising (any more than the dinosaurs meant to become extinct) wasn’t the point of being a female writer the female voice, I took a moment to suppress the scream, and said something along these lines:

No gender owns jealousy, love, fear or any other emotion. It’s easier to be truthful about them when you have a bit of distance (be that a distance of time from an event, or in this case a distance of gender, aesthetic tastes and many, many other aspects I changed between me and the viewpoint character of that story).

If you want to see this done really well, in prose that is effortlessly elegant, gripping and honest, look no further than Rupert Thomson.

Never Anyone But You is a fictionalised memoir and bildungsroman of two artists who fought against gender boundaries, artistic traditions and the Nazis. As teenagers, they fell in love before there was vocabulary for it, chose male names and men’s clothes, lived as sisters in the veiled eyed of the world when their single father and mother married, championed surrealism, resisted the Nazis and survived imprisonment by the SS and suicide attempts before and during their incarceration. Thomson’s prose is as astounding as the history that informs it. In the narrative voice of Suzanne Malherbe, who chooses the name Marcel Moore, Thomson writes fearless, direct emotion. One human being appreciating another is not about what that other looks like: the reason this emotional landscape makes every dialogue and every sex scene so believable is it does not try to be female – it is beautifully human. Her relationship with Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, remains passionate and credible from teen to old age. Here are some of the reasons:


1)Emotions not organs. If you take a look at the bad sex awards – if you don’t believe me – what the annual winners usually have in common is attention to anatomical detail. Bad sex scenes are driven by anatomy. Good ones are driven by emotional connection.

2) Drive the plot. This is the most elegant and direct style I’ve read all year, but that would be nothing without momentum. You can feel the plot ticking beneath every scene, a sense of what is impending, what is returning. We never lose the sense of when or where we are – the test of good historical fiction is that the story needs that setting in time and place – but characterisation is not overshadowed by this: it is enabled. Each character fully inhabits their life.

3) Recognise yourself in the other, whether this means another gender, a Nazi guard or whether your character is yourself. Just a little distance, a spoonful of otherness, and you’ll find all the more self is waiting.

From July 2018, this blog will continue at the Writers’ and Artists’ website.