Bestselling author returns to Peter Symonds College to inspire next generation of writers

Beth O’Leary, former student and author of The Flatshare, a Sunday Times top five bestselling novel, returned to Peter Symonds College to share her experience with winners of the College’s annual Creative Writing Competition.

The competition, on the topic ‘Air’, was open to entrants from across the college, and divided into Literary and Non-literary categories. First place in the Literary category was awarded to Chiara Lewis for her piece ‘Salat-al-fair’, while the winner of the Non-literary piece was Violetta Howard for her work ‘Air’.

Ahead of the prizegiving Beth described her recent experience regarding the publication of her debut novel ‘The Flatshare’ and shared her writing tips with the audience.

Commenting on the awards Beth said “It was such a pleasure to return to Peter Symonds and talk to some fellow writers. It's fantastic that Symonds are running this competition, and even more fantastic that so many brilliant students entered. Congratulations to the wonderful winners!’

The annual Creative Writing Competition is organised by teacher Isobel Simons, Head of English Language and Literature and generously supported by The Symondians Association, which provides a focus for ex-pupils and staff, and support and sponsorship for events and departmental initiatives throughout the College.

Isobel Simons, Head of English Language and Literature at Peter Symonds, said, “It's a great pleasure to have so many entrants to this popular competition. The quality of imagination and writing skill is excellent to see, and we wish all the competitors the best of luck in their future writing careers. English Language and Literature A Level has a strong focus on exploring how creative writing works technically, and it is brilliant to see lots of our students putting what they are learning into practice. We also get lots of students from across the whole college participating, even if they don't do an English A Level.”

Winning Entries

Salat-al-fajr by Chiara Lewis

  • Salat al-fajr: dawn, before sunrise

Bright inks that undulate along the theatrical colours of the sun: they are our life. The cool March breeze punctured against my bedroom window, refracting a portion of scintillating aurora lights whose beauty was like that of a precious diamond. What lay beyond my window awakened a compulsion to thank him. For the air I breathe. For the beauty of the world. For my family. As I bowed my head I said “Allahu akabar”- Allah is great.

  • Salat al-zuhr: midday, after the sun passes its highest

She said words could fly: they’re greeted by the wind, embraced in its freedom, glide inside the current and follow our infinite destinations. She told me our memories are never gone, they follow us in the air we breathe. She could hold them. As her hands lowered to her kneeled lap she inhaled. Among infinite rows of beautiful women, her beauty was of the rare kind: eclipsed behind her hijab was an ineligible element of kindness and grace deriving from her innate nature. Two brown-mahogany eyes scintillated with a glint of mischief, humour and playfulness that never seemed to escape her youth. That was my mother.

  • Salat al-'asr: the late part of the afternoon

“Although you cannot fly, God created birds in a special form so that the air can carry them”. That’s what my mother told me. Melodic words which oscillated in the air I breathed are with me now. Everywhere. Swerving, sweet winds enfolded into my living room. A simultaneous bow of our heads; my mother was beside me: “Allah take me on the right path, truthful path, the path that leads to righteous”. Compelling prayers decamp my mind into a place where love is omnipotent and all powerful. No poverty. No violence. No suffering. I lift my head: my longing is not solitary. Her face mirrored my thoughts exactly, to a world where violence is inexistent and we are equal.

  • Salat al-maghrib: just after sunset

“The air carries the birds like the water carries your ships”. Her passion for the Quran was as immense and great as a mother’s love for a child. As we walked towards the place of worship, silhouettes of birds flew home across a sky that was now magenta; their freedom was mesmerising. Theatrical coloured rays swept, along my city, Christchurch, mirroring light through her hooped gold earrings which were once her own mother’s and will one day be mine. Sometimes, her infectious smile was so compelling as to awaken a sense of pride within me. Her kindness was radiating. Steadily, the sky began to blacken and it occurred to me what I was most thankful for: my mother.

Though I prayed for love, I got hate.

“Allah take me on the right path, truthful path, the path that leads to --”. Spears of bullets. Violent to the ears. Oppressive. Suffocating. Intoxicating. Relentless. Ruthless. My thumping brain helplessly torn by impenetrable noise and confusion. A torrential thunder of infinite shotguns fired, each carrying a life with their immense yet miniscule power. Glass shattered. Walls of the mosque locked me in a state of anxiety and hysteria. Bodies rose and fell. Shrieks escaped my mouth. Tears escaped my eyes. Like a cluster of sparked plugs my arms shook, awakened by an omnipresent panic which invaded my body. Accelerating breaths began to hammer against my chest beyond my control.

Across the large death room, a death machine was held in the black, murderous hand. His finger flicked the trigger; his face indifferent, impassive and toneless. Air piloted the nefarious bullet, so light and cold, which birthed from the black hand. His aim was destructively accurate. Its point as sharp and devilish as a spear and colour as corrupt as he who pulled it. Indoctrinated by its ill-natured speed, my head traced its track.

For a moment, the world stopped.

Feeding into human flesh the bullet halted. The blood was like a river artery, feeding into the main channel which already governed the floor. As her eyelids fluttered, a wavering murmur flew into the air. I caught it. I unfolded my love into the last embrace. Reaching her last breath her heart stopped. That was my mother.

  • Salat al-'isha: between sunset and midnight

“Allah take me on the right path, truthful path, the path that leads to righteous”. I stopped. I breathed. A wound so deep is hard to heal. Behind the deep ebony feathers of the night, fifty of swirling stars dominated the sky above me. Among them, I found myself captivated by one. Its beauty was of the rare kind. Its glimmer reminded me of her smile. Its vibrancy reminded me of her strength.

I looked down. I smiled. My memories of her are never gone, they follow me in the air we breathe. I can hold them. My hands lowered to my kneeled lap; I inhaled. This time, I held the precious words which will follow me eternally. With shivering, delicate lips, she squeezed my hands, barely made a noise but I understood: “Armeena, my daughter, I love you”.

I looked at the star, then I bowed my head. Ammi A’isha, my mother, I love you too and this prayer is dedicated to you.

In memory of the families and friends of those affected at the Christchurch mosque shooting, 15th of March 2019

Air by Violetta Howard

  1. [mass noun] The invisible gaseous substances surrounding the earth, a mixture of mainly of oxygen and nitrogen.

1.1 Air regarded as necessary for breathing

Air provides life across the world, allowing plants to respire and humans and animals to breathe. When I breathe, air rushes through my nose to my lungs, filling them with life. This life is threaded through my blood, tirelessly pumped by my heart through my aorta and arteries from my head to my feet. The life carried to my head through my blood allows for conscious thought, whereas the life in the rest of my body grants me the freedom of movement. Controlling my breathing calms my mind, controls my body, and makes me aware of my surroundings through my senses. I can use the air I breathe in, twist it and turn it and expel it out again to carry my own voice. My thoughts become words with meaning; I can express my opinion and I have a voice to defend myself and others. I breathe therefore I am.

1.2 The free or unconfined space above the surface of the earth

When we have hopes and dreams, we release them up into the air through lanterns or balloons, unsure if they’ll fly true or simply into the nearest tree. But they can travel thousands of miles through the air, carrying our hopes and dreams with them and spreading them across the country. The empty air has a sense of uncertainty; we are unsure if our wishes will ever come true, but by releasing them into the air we entrust them to a higher power, and allow for our dreams to float from of our hands. When students graduate, and hopefully their dreams come true, they throw their mortar board hats into the air as an act of celebration. The air above them represents unlimited potential, their achievements are embodied by the soaring mortar boards which demonstrate the graduate’s ability to rise and achieve through life. The free, unconfined air is transformed from a space of hopeful uncertainty, to one of achievement and potential.

1.3 Referring to the use of an air craft

The first air craft glided through the air just over a hundred years ago for a brief three and a half seconds. Since then we have developed the power of flight to transport people, goods, letters and anything we can imagine on a commercial scale for hours on end. There is a certain freedom in watching the world shrink away from a plane window, knowing that soon you could be somewhere else completely different. The power of flight unites us as planet; we can bring our loved ones home in mere hours, transport international aid to countries in need and send parcels and packages when we cannot reach them. Travelling with ease also allows us to expand our minds with our horizons. Air travel aids the formation of a global community; we are able to meet individuals from around the world with contrasting cultures, share our knowledge and learn from them. We can take a little bit of our travels everywhere we go, sharing the stories of others and holding them as precious as our own.

1.4 The earth’s atmosphere as a medium for transmitting radio waves

Although we cannot see it, the air is full of technological life, specifically Radio waves tirelessly connecting us through the air across all hours of the day. When we think of radio waves, we may think of “walkie talkies” used by children during hide and seek, or music blasted from radios belonging to antisocial teenagers. However information is constantly being broadcasted through the air via these invisible signals to personal radios, televisions, satellites and other receivers. We may sometimes underestimate the importance of technological life; the same technology which can allow family and friends to hear each other’s voices across the globe also guides drivers along unfamiliar roads and ensures that planes land safely. The same technology used in children’s toys plays an essential part in rescue missions, especially in remote locations, and assists police and local authorities in keeping communities safe. The ingenuity of these signals is invaluable in keeping individuals connected, they act as criss-crossing life lines through the air.

1.5 One of the four elements in ancient and medieval philosophy and in astrology

In ancient and medieval medicine, blood was the humour that was associated with air. Although medical science was in its primitive stages, even the first physicians recognised its importance for life. Interestingly, air is not considered a traditional element by the Chinese, but the ancient Chinese had a similar concept, chi, believed to exist in every living being. Chi was thought to be a sort of “life force” or “spiritual energy” which literally translates into today’s language as an “energy flow” or “breath”. Traditionally air and life were thought to be intricately intertwined and connected, perhaps unable to exist independently. In Western astrology, the zodiac signs Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are associated with air; individuals born under these zodiac signs are thought to be particularly communicative, intellectual, clever and fair. The connection between air and the functioning of the human body, even to some extent how an individual thinks and behaves, supports the importance of air as not only a life source but also an essential part of creation and spirituality.

1.6 A breeze or light wind

The air has the power to sweep sands across deserts and throw the ocean waves, yet the same summer breeze gently flutters through your clothes brushes through your hair. The breeze carries pollen to and from flowers and provides currents for birds and bees, quietly assisting life around us. A light wind also carries the scent of prey to a predator, a chicken to a fox, thus completing the circle of life. A light wind or breeze is just as powerful as the gust of a storm or swirl of a hurricane.

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20 June 2019