The Story Narrative – lunchtime in London with Simon Wrigley

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On Wednesday, June 15, I had the pleasure of dining with Simon Wrigley who has co-ordinated the National Writing Project UK (NWP), in conjunction with Jeni Smith, for the last seven years. We met last year at the NATE conference in Newcastle upon Tyne where I attended a writing workshop. Simon has generously remained in email contact despite his recent ‘official’ retirement from 20 years of consultancy as English Advisor across two counties.

Story, the venue, is a unique establishment that opened in 2013 and was awarded a Michelin star within five months of operation.

At Story the premise is simple; we seek to tell our story through the food we serve.

Inspired by chef Tom Sellers’ culinary career and the history of British food, certain dishes are inspired by memory or provenance of ingredients. We want to share these with you through what you see, smell and taste.

These ideas dovetail neatly with the creativity and enjoyment of word craft and writing, reading and listening, sharing and discussing ideas and stories. Lunch with Simon was an experience including moments of deep pedagogical and philosophical discussion, childish giggling and sharing of stories from the past and, unexpectedly, the taking of many photographs.

Unusually, the menu is structured as Foreword – Snacks, and separate chapters

  • Chapter I – Sea
  • Chapter II – Childhood
  • Chapter III – Land
  • Chapter IV – The end

The planned interview style discussion quickly faded as we were presented with a series of ‘snacks’ in quick succession, each exquisitely explained by attentive waitstaff. Simon and I did not quite catch each explanation – coming as it did between our conversation – but this created amusing sideline moments of tasting, guessing, giggling: our own food narrative.

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Looking ahead on the menu, we anticipated the childhood offering of ‘Bread and dripping’ and I spoke of my father’s love of dripping and fat. Simon recalled the dreaded dripping tin kept in the fridge – I murmured acknowledgement of this practice, and mentioned how I had been chastised as a child by dad for cutting all the fat off some stewing beef: “What have you done? The fat is the flavour!”

But nothing prepared us for the delight that unfolded. A white candle was placed on our table and lit, then we were served a tomato palate cleanser (not on the menu) after the Lobster and lavender dish.

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Then we were served a platter of quartered rustic cob, cubed veal tongue with celeriac and beef jelly. The waiter shared chef’s memory of his grandfather dipping bread into dripping and we were invited to dip into the melted dripping from the beef candle, smear our bread with beef jelly and spear cubes – such fun!

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Simon and I returned to our discussion in a cyclical narrative structure: dipping in and out of ideas, revisiting writing experiences and returning to important themes. One area of particular interest, for me, is the process of maintaining a teacher writing group: difficulties and successes. Simon shared his most recent and yet to be completed research into group processes through a leader’s survey.

I present his key findings as brief points, acknowledging the draft state of this report:

  • groups typically structured around a core of five to ten writing teachers
  • regular pattern of meetings in galleries, museums, university rooms and private houses
  • meetings tend toward 2 hours on saturday mornings
  • time appears to be restorative rather than draining
  • writing is read aloud and shared on the day – deepens understanding of the writing process and breeds confidence
  • this is transposed into the classroom through helping students listen to each other’s distinctive voices, more than how closely they accommodate conventional structures
  • teachers who introduce writing notebooks and develop response partnership have found students eagerly engage with writing in a meaningful way – leads to growth resilience and independence, as well as a pupil’s ‘linguistic and cultural repertoire’
  • the groups, under the NWP guidance, provide a professional and educational ‘antidote to an overemphasis on writing as tested product’
  • not all institutions give ‘permission’ – need for a more equitable and national approach
  • NWP has had no funding and scarce resources – relies on teacher interest and goodwill
  • project plans are ‘to establish stronger links with more universities’ to allow teacher educators  to assist and support teachers

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An interesting custom at Story is to exchange books at the restaurant library. I discussed my swap choice with Simon, explaining The Simple Gift is an engaging Australian verse novel that has been on the Board of Studies HSC English Prescriptions List for some years. Students who often claim they ‘hate reading and hate writing’ experience an attitudinal shift towards a more positive self identity as readers of poetry after studying this text. Herrick shares the tale of a teenage protagonist, Billy, as he chooses homelessness before finding fulfilment through new friends and opportunities.

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When exchanging books, it is appreciated by the chef if a note is written in the front of each text. The Simple Gift was my first choice because food is an important symbol used by Herrick to represent Billy’s emotional state:

Food takes us all on emotional journey – here Billy searches for a new loving home, far from the tasteless takeaways to the shiny red apples and intimate picnics and loving feasts of Caitlyn. Enjoy!

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