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Alex O'Bryan-Tear has published 4 articles

Reimagining education

Cherwell speaks to novelist Abigail Tarttelin about creativity and education following the launch of her debut novel, Flick
Alex O'Bryan-Tear on Sunday 5th June 2011
Photograph: Chris Goldberg

I join Abigail while she’s in London, celebrating the launch of her debut novel, Flick. She seems fairly relaxed about the whole thing as she lingers over her lunch with a few friends. In fact, she tells me, this late lunch started out as a late breakfast, and they haven’t had the heart to move on yet. This certainly isn’t a sign that she’s putting her feet up following the launch; in fact, her second novel is already with her publisher, and she is set to appear in several arthouse and feature films over the coming year. ‘It’s like learning to juggle,’ she explains. The only question to ask is ‘What can we add?’

Abigail’s route to this chic Soho establishment has been an unorthodox one. Unlike many contemporary novelists, she didn’t take a creative writing course. She did, however, briefly pursue a film studies course, before turning her back on education completely. She remembers the exact moment of this revelation clearly. ‘The teacher at the front of the class said, ‘I’ve met the director’ - of this film, that she’s supposed to be a world expert in - ‘and he hugged me!’ And I was thinking, you’ve met him once? You do not know anything about that film. You can pull it apart as much as you like, but you don’t know what he was thinking when he created it. I think one of the things that would be better to have at uni is something where you actually produce something.’ So she dropped out to pursue her acting and writing career independently, and hasn’t looked back.

Abigail’s concerns about academia is one that many of us may have experienced, in some form or another.  But few straight-A types like her put their money where their mouth is, and try to go it alone. Her attitude is more strongly felt than most, as it has its roots in disappointment with the current educational system as a whole, and its sidelining of creativity. ‘Imagination is much more important than intelligence.  Every business needs creative people.’ And this isn’t just head-in-the-clouds thinking. ‘The arts make so much for the economy...but there’s no respect for that, even within the industry.’ Unfortunately, the more creativity-focussed courses remain the target of much snobbery, and for most of us, an arts course still means criticism and analysis, rather than production. And if this is the embedded attitude at university, it can only be worse at the school level.

Every page of Flick testifies to Abigail’s unique educational journey. The style is untamed and impressionistic - ‘cinematic’, not prosaic. It’s written, Abigail explains, for the ‘Internet generation’: bite-sized and easy to digest, it is hoped that it will reach an audience who wouldn’t normally pick up a book. Even the marketing campaign could only have been devised by a young person: it comes with a QR allowing you to download an album, whose tracks are designed to accompany particular chapters.

Flick is a bright teenage boy who finds himself crushed between two opposing forces: an oppressive educational establishment which tells him he has no chance at a future and a nihilistic youth culture which teaches him not to care about it. Abigail didn’t attempt to explore that particular theme at all - in fact, she says she ‘wasn’t planning on writing a book’ in the first place. ‘I thought,’ she explains, ‘I’ll start a book when I’m forty, and actually have something to say – when I know something.’ But writing the book became a cathartic experience - laying her bugbears about education to rest, she can now bring that chapter of her life to a close.

The same can’t be said for all the Flicks populating the real world. With controversy over state education never far from the headlines, the resulting novel is a very timely elegy to lost potential and missed opportunity. An endless string of educational reforms haven’t proved sufficient, and it seems inevitable that something more radical will happen. What direction this will take, it’s impossible to say; but I for one am hoping that Flick’s voice – ‘Criticism is never as valuable as creativity!’ – is heard by the right people.

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