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Reflections: The Litmus

This reflection by Ali Smith, Senior Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts, takes the form of a foreword to a volume of work by UK school students in Years 9 to 13, The Litmus: Writing in Common, to be published shortlyLinks are provided to the particular writings to which she refers on the Litmus website.

Ali Smith

We launched The Litmus project not very long ago, in late 2019 and early 2020.  That we’d be in pandemic lockdown when most of the students were responding, well, it was unimaginable.  As was any kind of lockdown, as was Covid-19, and as was the way in which the pandemic has simultaneously brought people together and emphasised massive inequalities and divisions locally, nationally and all across the world.

“Ask your students to respond creatively, in any way they like, to the phrase in common“, we said in all our bright, pre-hindsight naivety.

In this brave new world, titling a written piece “Being Alive” sends out a whole new range of resonance.  Sukriti’s piece of this name presents the conundrum very well.  On the one hand, she says, “you feel like the only person in the world”.

On the other, “you are not alone.  You are never alone.”

Her “Being Alive” celebrates a brave new commonality which in the UK took shape in people up and down the country standing together outside their houses, leaning together out of their windows on Thursday evenings clapping, yelling, making as much noise as they could in appreciation of the NHS.  But this writer knows that the world beyond locality is also her life, and that she’s its life, she knows a broader canvas, and she knows that political and national divisions aren’t what being alive’s about – so she pushes her analogy further: “we are 7.8 billion hearts beating in-synch to create the complex rhythm of the world we move and live in, and even if you hide behind a thousand walls, that will never change.”

Talk about aliveness.  What furious, energised, thoughtful and shining vitality there is in this first collection of work from young people, written at a time when unprecedented became a commonly used word and when the meanings of words like life and death have put unprecedented pressures on our individual and communal imaginations.

In common. Regardless of pandemic, the phrase itself made the writers and the artists conjure and question notions of division. “Open your eyes,” one student writes (Emily Bickers).  “There are undoubtedly some unpleasant things that we have ‘in common’,” another says (Elizabeth); they write about how divides are everywhere, how even the ubiquitous computer and phone screens are a kind of divide. The writers here address, repeatedly, the homogenisation and reduction of humanity by algorithm; a very fine essay about technology by Angela Ede is prescient: “if we’re not careful then we will become as lifeless as the algorithms perceive us to be.”

Lifeless?  This book disproves the word with every page.  Here are some of its responses plucked from the air at random. Class difference is dissolved via the light in the eyes of two people socially divided but brought together by loss (Tessa).  The passing-on of stories from older generations is understood for what it really means: “For you gave us all our own stories, / Since we sat and heard yours” (Laurence K).  Enemies on a battlefield overcome the impossibility of dialogue simply by meeting (Maxwell). The individuality of twins becomes an extra celebration of what they have in common (Emily).  And a toy balloon, of all things, has a voice and a life that outsoar expectations (Bunnie).

What the pieces in this book have in common is imagination capable of that unexpected flight – and of granting destiny beyond expectation.

We could see as the submissions arrived that such imagination is at work, a generational imagination that questions everything: society, identity, language, form.  The formal range of the submissions is constantly surprising.   What students “make” of classic texts makes old classics fizz with life and possibility. They unearth new poems in a paragraph of prose, and in one instance, one of my favourite art imaginings ever, Joshua goes beyond the given picture and gives roots and wholeness to a tree drawn by William Blake to illustrate his classic Tyger. Emily Young turns a mountain range into a dragon, and vice versa, giving her piece the title “Imagination in common”.  And a story called “Finally Awake” by Giulia Toffoli acts like a piece of classic novel then asks what we have ‘in common’ with the past, telling us in a compact and powerful form to wake to it, come to life, and never to be comatose to pasts or futures.

Of course, I have some favourite pieces.  You’ll have your own, too, when you read the book, and mine shift and change every time I do. Today one of my favourites is “Opportunities” by Emma. A visitor to many countries already in her life, she lists the top four things “all humans have in common”:  all kids will want to play, regardless of what language they speak. Everybody is proud of a sports team and will want to know yours. Weather is worth going outside for, whatever it’s like. And finally, this: “our instinct as humans to help in times of need.”

I also love “I have not travelled” by Lani Wenda, which turns what looks like a negative statement into an understanding of ourselves in the world on our own terms.  Ava’s story magics a deft narrative union out of a momentary fragment and in a meeting of different voices against all the odds, examining the way time can shift and a quite different world is made possible – just by saying the word hello to someone you don’t yet know. Kiera Jayne’s “Just have fun, Kid”  is an extraordinary authentic rendering of a voice that reassures.

Ayushmaan Sharma, in the poem called “before anyone else“, unboxes us all: “we are an interrelation that strays from the / confines / of the status quo or strata of inflexibilities /  … “we embody / the elixir of human good.”  And talking of boxes, the thoughtful box-graphic of Rozzie‘s “In Common” unpacks itself round a picture of a person standing astonished, in awe and happiness, under a wide open sky.

What I’ve been most heartened by in reading this first collection of The Litmus project is the originality, the open-mindedness and the real groundedness that this collection reveals as a common quality among the students across the country, students responding to a theme, to a pandemic, and to what history is flinging at us all. It’s summed up by Fiona Zeka in “The Drawing Room” in her rejection of  an “exclusive society” and of the lonely and blinding room that exclusion suggests. Meanwhile Esme Johnson‘s poem, inspired by Roger McGough’s “The Sound Collector” and the sounds collected by students to illustrate the phrase ‘in common’, speaks directly to our time, and to the shock and the empathic nature of a brave new commonality: “It’s still common to hear ambulance sirens, / It was always a common thing. / But the old me and I don’t share something in common; / She doesn’t pray for the patient that siren brings.”

Rozzie, ‘In Common’

Something in history, and in the history we’re living through, is making us new.  Read the brilliant poem by Magdalena called “common ghosts” : “rule britannia my ghosts sing: / rule the seas and / the skies and / the bones / my closet is so full / of ghosts”. That’s vision.  That’s understanding, for the past and the future.

All through this book there’s a similar fearlessness and an energising celebration of the differences that make us who we are together; it acts like a kind of raised clenched fist, in a gesture of new and determined communality, as several pieces express an ancient and brand new solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. “Race is a social invention; racism is a social cataclysm,” Shanker Narayan writes.  “Rationality and racism are mutually exclusive events. They cannot coexist. Different races, however, can. … We need to promote immunity against racism, just as vaccines promote immunity against viruses.”

Beatriz, whose narrator knows illness very personally, writes that “during this time of uncertainty where I perhaps feel more distant from everybody else than most, I prefer to think about all the things I have in common with teenagers my age or even just humanity as a whole and not my differences.”

So, what do we all have in common, then? Amelie, in a poem called “you had nothing in common“, in which a young person addresses parents who are perhaps estranged, has a narrator who declares her self, her whole being, as what “in common” means. “Yet here I am.”

And here’s Oscar, in a poem called “Genes” : “So thank you Charles Darwin / For leading us on a discovery / That we are all in.”  But it’s an anonymous writer who says it most simply and clearly when he touches on the source – the genetics, if you will – of creativity, in his letter to a loved one. “You make me write.”

Here’s a book full of the writing life.  It’s only the first stirrings of a project, one which knows the importance of and the crucial life in the contemporaneous expressions of some of the young people of this country.

It gestures towards the future from an unprecedented present. It’s full of heartening vision.  It’s a very good read.

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