A Captive Audience

11 February 2010

A friend (thanks, Rob) dropped me into this. Would I like to speak to a class of creative writing students about the nuts and bolts of the particular obscure niche of journalism that is the day job? Impart my expertise and accumulated knowledge to the younger generation and tell them how it really is at the coalface of nautical journalism? Of course! The venue? Ah.

Tutor Lucinda Gibson House explained that her class of writing students are as much a captive audience as anyone is likely to find - at HM Prison Ford, an open prison, once a wartime airfield, set in the Sussex countryside. Although an open prison, it's the least open of its kind, one of the class said later.

I wasn't sure what to make of it, unsure what to expect. The gatekeeper signed me in, made sure I'd left my phone in the car and left me to Lucy and her class. As it happens, talking to Andrew, Mohaman, Charlie the Tunnel King, David, Jeffrey, Matthew, Michael, Dalvinderder, William and Tom was a real pleasure.

They took in everything I had to say and asked the sort of questions you wouldn't maybe get from any other group. Part of this journalist's advice is that it's better to ask a stupid question when researching a story than to not ask and get it wrong. Their questions were far from stupid, but no shyness about asking straight out things that people in other circumstances would skate shyly around. Very refreshing. No coughing and hesitating, straight to the point.

I'd expected an hour at the most and then to be off before the Chichester by-pass rush-hour crawl, but spent the whole class with them and hopefully haven't thrown Lucy's lesson plans out of kilter. We spent several hours talking through the mechanics of obscure nautical journalism and delving into my foray into fiction.

'What sort of fiction?'

'Er. Crime fiction.'

That raised a laugh.

I carefully didn't ask too much. There must be so many fascinating life stories there, from one man with a life-long interest in astronomy to the guys with public school backgrounds, to the former fisherman who was trying out prison life in Britain after having done time in Morocco, Spain, France and who knows where else? But you don't like to ask... What brought you here? A bit too blunt.

It was touching to see just how clearly fond of her various charges Lucy is, even though she claims to be a cruel taskmistress who drives them like slaves. I hope they got as much enjoyment from the couple of hours chatting in Ford Nick's education block as I did.

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