Editor Henrietta Thompson meets Lucy Macnab, co-founder and director of Brilliant Britain nominee Ministry of Stories in London’s Hoxton.
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Some people say that London life doesn’t have a very strong sense of community anymore. Well I would like to take those people by the hand, and make a little visit to Hoxton, specifically to the Monster Supplies Store, one of the greatest examples of a truly effective community initiative I’ve ever come across.
The Monster Supplies Store is where monsters, little ones especially, can go to stock up their cupboards with such delights as Organ Marmalade and Congealed Earwax. But far more than being a useful local shop, if visitors should pass through its doors into the space behind, they will find an even more compelling world: The Ministry Of Stories. Set up in 2010 by authors Nick Hornby, Lucy Macnab and Ben Payne, the Ministry is a centre for creative writing for local children. Engaging local writers, artists and musicians to teach and support imaginative writing there is also a publishing arm that prints the results, and film screenings in local cinemas to show the results of any screen plays.
The Ministry, and of course the Monster Supplies Store, have been so popular that the trio are now looking at the possibilities of expanding the concept across the country. I was very happy to have the chance to sit down recently with Lucy Macnab to ask her some more about this Brilliant Britain nominee.
Henrietta Thompson: What are the best selling items in the Monster Supplies store?
Lucy Macnab: One of our most popular is Cubed Earwax – delicious as an after dinner treat. And our range of Tinned Fear is always delighting people – each tin contains a specially commissioned limited edition short story by an amazing British author – for example Zadie Smith wrote Mortal Terror, Joe Dunthorne wrote Escalating Panic, and Charlie Higson wrote Creeping Dread. They’re a great gift, and very useful for any monster that’s lost its mojo and needs help scaring humans.
HT: What inspired you to set up the Ministry of Stories?
LM: The Ministry of Stories has been inspired by 826 Valencia, the young people’s creative writing centre and pirate supplies store founded by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari. When I met [Ministry co-director] Ben Payne, we started talking pretty quickly about how we could go about starting something similar here in London.
Eggers’ teacher friends told him that the one thing they lacked with their English students, particularly those with literacy issues and those for whom English was a second language, was one-on-one time. Eggers’ guess was that there would be enough people among his writer friends who will be willing to volunteer some of their time to help out, and so he found an empty space opposite the offices on Valencia Street of his literary journal McSweeney’s. However, the city authorities told him that this space was zoned for retail; he couldn’t just open it as a “school” – it had to sell something. So he opened it as “a pirate supply store” too: somewhere where you could buy everything that a self-respecting pirate would need – from replacement peg legs to bird seed for your parrot.
The idea has been so successful that 826 Valencia now has sister centres in New York, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, DC, all working under the umbrella of the 826 National network.
We applied for some seed funding from Arts Council and the JJ Charitable Trust, and about that time Dave Eggers came to town to do a book reading – the surge of people wanting to help us make it happen, as well as the confirmation of our funding, helped make it a reality.
HT: Can you describe some of the projects you do?
LM: Last year we worked with local groups of young people in school and after school, to write about our neighbourhood in east London. The project culminated in July with the declaration of the independent Children’s Republic of Shoreditch. Local children wrote all the rules and regulations, acted as ambassadors, and worked together to design and run their own Embassy building in a disused shop near the Ministry on Hoxton Street.
The Embassy was open to members of the public to find out about the laws and customs of the country, receive expert advice on how to qualify as a fully-fledged citizen, and take specially created tours of the Republic. We really enjoyed writing about our local area. Another highlight was creating a map of Hoxton Street’s shops and cafes, with a group of young people from Hackney Community College’s New Horizon project. The course is for students aged 16-21 with learning disabilities, and they use the street as a classroom to learn about independent living. We visited shops and cafes, and the students wrote poems about them, which are now displayed in shop windows up and down the streets, as blue plaques beautifully designed by one of our volunteers, Andy German.
HT: Who is The Chief?
LM: The Chief is in charge of the Ministry of Stories. I’ve never seen him (or her, we don’t know), but sometimes we’ll have communication from the Chief to visiting children, setting them writing challenges, and encouraging their respect, courage and imagination. Who the Chief really is remains a bit of a mystery, but fans of CBeebies may be interested to hear that we have some podcasts coming up online, from 17 December, where they can hear what the Chief sounds like.
HT: What’s next for the Ministry?
LM: We have big plans for this year, including a scriptwriting project, inspired by our project this year to create a soap opera written by young people. You can see all 4 episodes of their soap online and we hope to do more scriptwriting workshops. We are also working on a series of comic book workshops for secondary schools, and we’ve recently opened an application process for people who may want to set up a Ministry of Stories in their own neighbourhood.
HT: You have published a Monsters Guide to Etiquette – what are your top tips for aspiring Mulberry monsters?
LM: These tips are taken direct from the children’s writing in The Awfully Bad Guide to Monster Housekeeping:
#731, When at the Cinema
If you’re in the cinema and the film is about to start – remember to drink your lard.
#534 When meeting
When meeting another monster, you should always force them to live in a bin.
#2017 When visiting
When you go to a human’s house, always steal the fridge.
#1374 When at a restaurant
If you’re a monster, do eat the paper. If you’re a monster, don’t tip the waiter.