Emily Rhodes

Early editions

Contributing to a homegrown school magazine can inspire a passion for writing that endures into adulthood, says <em>Emily Rhodes</em>

Early editions
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‘The bath is still stained pink,’ said Anna, laughing as we reminisced about those halcyon days, now over a decade ago, when she started a school magazine.

Anna and I went to Westminster School for sixth form. We’d both come from St Paul’s Girls’ School, where magazines proliferated, and were surprised to discover that Westminster had none except for a rather grand annual put together by the development office, aimed more at Old Westminsters than current pupils. Anna was keen to set something up. It would be called Pink, she decided, after the school colour.

This brings us to the bath. A launch party was deemed of paramount importance, so we duly assembled in the basement of Anna’s parents’ house, where she had turned everything pink. Including pink tequila jelly… which led to pink vomit… which stained the bath pink. Let no more be said on the matter.

However successful the launch was, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Pink continues to exist 13 years later. So I made an appointment at the school archive, where I was presented with three neat box-files containing every issue. Evidently this collection was deemed precious, as I was allowed to take notes only in pencil. Anna’s lead article in the first issue proclaimed: ‘expelled!’ (the graphic design forbade capital letters). In it she argued that expulsion was a tool to create scapegoats rather than to help troubled students. There followed an intriguing piece about the ‘Greaze’, a bizarre school tradition of fighting over a pancake. Then came an interview with the actress Harriet Walter, a selection of student photo-graphy, a round-up of recent news stories and some film and music reviews, including my own painful critique of a chemistry teacher’s solo guitar album. I should also mention the column entitled ‘Sex in the Sixth Form’, by a girl who these days is penning a book about sex and youth in China.

It would seem that even at the tender age of 17, the magazine appealed to something in many of its contributors which would go on to influence our careers. Looking back at those who were involved with the first issue of Pink, I’m struck by quite how many of us went on to pursue a long love affair with writing. Anna is now a novelist and travel writer; Hattie worked for years at the Times and now writes a successful blog; Rory was an editor and is now a literary agent; Julia works for English PEN; another Emily has become a translator; and I am riddled with the writing bug, for sure.

I happily read on, tickled pink to uncover a Wham bar, which had been given out with issue four. Leafing through the years, I noticed a shift in the magazine’s focus. While elements of self-involved schooliness were present from the beginning, these had been balanced by more sophisticated articles, which engaged with subjects such as surveillance, anti-Americanism and positive discrimination. Over time, these all but vanished; instead Pink became increasingly full of lingo and in-jokes, snipes at teachers and photos from parties. Maybe, as the success of Facebook would suggest, such self-involved self-expression is what people — perhaps teenagers in particular — really enjoy. Maybe this is what gained Pink enough popularity to keep going for so many years.

The archivist informed me that the headmaster had begun to censor the magazine. Though surprised, I could certainly understand why he had wanted to try to exert some form of control. A few marked-up photocopies were included in the files; his comments included: ‘This insult sounds too rude and personal.’

Perhaps it was the censorship that snuffed Pink out in 2008. Or perhaps pupils preferred to turn to the online delights of Facebook for their selfies and gossip. In 2013, however, I saw with glee an energetic new publication proclaiming ‘Pink’s back!’ and urging readers to tweet @Westminsterpink. Sadly, when I looked up the Twitter account, the activity seemed to have lasted for only a few months, gaining a mere 48 followers. Two issues were published last year, but the second was tellingly slim. I left the archive unsure whether Pink will garner a sufficient following to continue.

Gaining enough contributions seems to be the toughest hurdle for a school magazine. At St Paul’s, this is what stalled the creative-writing magazine I founded, which lasted just one issue. Though a kind English teacher pointed me in the direction of a few talented young writers, I struggled to gain submissions, so rather glumly decided once was enough. Anna coyly admitted that when she started Pink, she’d resorted to asking various students if she could write articles under their names so it didn’t look like she’d done quite so much of it.

I spoke to Georgia, who recently left St Mary’s Calne. Her magazine, The Fortnight, was only eight pages long but appeared with startling frequency — every other Monday. She said that she and the other two editors had needed to write almost all the copy to begin with, but submissions had flooded in before long. What spurred such a rush of contributions? Ucas forms, she said.

While some contributors may be motivated by no more than the cynical reality of looming university entrance, Georgia’s passion for the magazine was real. She told me how much she’d enjoyed working on it, especially when the pressure from schoolwork mounted. She found it to be a welcome means of keeping herself informed with current affairs instead of disappearing under piles of books for exams.

Evidently, her experience with the magazine helped foster a love of the written word, for she has gone on to Cambridge to read English, and tells me she would like to work in publishing. I think of how many of us involved with Pink have since made our homes in the literary world, and wonder if there is something un-expectedly powerful, perhaps even life-changing, about working on a school magazine.

An enthusiastic Haileybury English teacher, who recently helped students set up a creative-writing -magazine, told me that he hoped some of those involved might go on to contribute to an undergraduate magazine and maybe even eventually start something up themselves. ‘I guess the majority of these start-ups are short-lived,’ he admitted, ‘but, perhaps more so than the big publishing houses, they are vital to the health of literature — they are its grass roots.’ Certainly, school magazines can inspire a passion for writing that, for some of us poor hacks, lasts a lifetime.