I enter the classroom armed with my rainstick (this is the Writers in Schools Scheme), we are hunting for words. Already the walls are covered with trophies from [Pete Mullineaux] earlier forays – looming over our shoulders like animal heads. Although they are there to offer encouragement I’m also aware how these previous prizes might inhibit current creativity, dazzle us with their brilliance. So let us not look – we listen instead, tread softly in the darkness. The air fills with sounds of clocks ticking, chairs squeaking, a car goes by – how tuned in are we, was it a truck or a Ferrari? How far away? I ask them to imagine being truly blind, where hearing is a matter of life and death. Is the vehicle moving towards, or away from us? We navigate the room with our ears, then use touch to confirm. I tell them how the Inuit of the Arctic use the seasonal smell of flowers to guide themselves through the fog. It is a new and wondrous place to be, engaging all the senses – a change from our usual way of seeing, offering too an alternative to worldly obsession with image and surface impression. And we already have the beginning of a group sound-poem, as we say aloud what we hear – we call it ‘Wednesday morning in the classroom’:
Breathing, the clock ticks – chairs squeak, hum from the computer, heating system drums, a voice down the corridor...breathing, heartbeat...
Now we gather around the rainstick, listen to its water-music of rice or stones, falling through a xylophone of nails driven into a hollowed cactus stalk. We put the stick aside, become ourselves a rainforest, through percussion of hands and feet: finger-click of drip-drops from leaves, pitter-pat downpour on knees, then foot-stomping thunder, hailstones. We feel the urge towards speech, moving from hands and feet to mouth sounds – tongue clicks, whispering wind, cheek-slapping rain; we yodel ice the size of golf balls. Now we are a choir! But there is a way to go before we can mouth words. We try to re-trace the full journey, imagine ourselves back as pre Stone Age people, before the shaping of formal language, experimenting with simple sounds and gestures. Yet, even one utterance, ‘Ug’ – pointing to the clock, window, computer or each other, in varied tones of surprise, awe, command, questioning – reveals how much tone and texture of voice can impart meaning. And now something urgent, out of the vocal hubbub: a single actor with a message – waving of arms, strange hooting sounds ... we make our guesses, play prehistoric charades ... Yes, a mammoth is coming – something to eat, but we must first get spears, then we must skin and cook it. Too slow to understand and our meal is gone. And now another visitor, in a state of panic, from a tribe who do not even share our ‘Ug’. A waving of arms, we think perhaps another mammoth, grab our spears, prepare our fires. Fatal mistake, the forest rages towards our camp – we mistook mammoth for fire, the signal for flight as a sign to kill. A charade every time a mammoth arrives becomes a liability, we need to quicken time, find something specific – perhaps a sign in the dirt made with a stick, this one is mammoth, and here are deer, bear, wolf... And yes, this one is fire. And somewhere along the way, before, after or alongside the signs in the dirt, we develop the specificity of ‘words.’ We appreciate too how ‘mammoth’ is of local making – elsewhere they will name it differently, although surely there was an original universal proto-word sounding like a primal ‘raspberry’. We wonder too how long before that trunk sound is re-discovered in a bamboo horn and we have music. The mammoth charade we keep, its immediate use transformed into theatre, as we early humans realise our capacity for ritual; and in the re-telling of great mammoth and fire stories we acquire tradition, reflection, critical distance, history, tragedy, comedy, satire, irony. I glance at the classroom clock – half the allotted session to go, but we have prepared ourselves well for the final stage of our journey, the creative placing of these magical words onto a blank page. Most important, we have arrived here together, as a community, safe in sound.
We briefly talk about onomatopoeia, then listen to the rainstick again, try out ‘wet’ words, spoken as a chorus – wash, splash, plip-plop, trickle. Eventually, we make up individual poems in response to the rainstick. There are wonderful lyrics about rain of course, but also ones about snakes hissing, rashers frying in pans – we share them all within the class. We place these new treasures on the cave walls alongside all the others. Finally, for a treat, we listen to ‘The Rain Stick’ by Seamus Heaney, and witness that same primal ‘Ug’ in the guttural music of words like sluice, rush, glitter, drizzle; we recognise the kinship of gutter and guttural in his world; amazed at how our Nobel Laureate is a humble caveman like ourselves.« Return to listings