In a corner of east London, Nick Hornby’s Ministry of Stories is turning strangers into neighbours while integrating new-fangled tech with old-school imagination.
They say the best ideas are the simplest ones. But actually, the best ideas are the ones that spring to life. Nick Hornby gets this. Over the past few months, the bestselling novelist has seen the transformative impact that a simple idea can have – provided people stop talking and start doing.
In 2009, the celebrated writer, whose cult classic Fever Pitch birthed a new kind of pop canon, sat down with art entrepreneurs Lucy McNab and Ben Payne for one of those ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ chats. Over coffee, they nattered excitedly about 826 Valencia – the San Francisco-based writing project founded by indie author Dave Eggers in 2002. Disguised as a Pirate Supply Store (a ploy to gain rental space in the Mission District’s retail zone), 826 became a way to connect local children with a pool of creative professionals who worked on their doorstep but never crossed their paths. Today, the 826 movement has gone viral, boasting writing labs in eight cities across the US. So, could it work in the UK? Hornby, Payne and McNab agreed it was worth a shot.
“It’s one of those brilliantly simple ideas,” says Hornby, “putting editors, illustrators and writers together in a room with local kids. Naturally you think, ‘Why hasn’t it been done before?’ But I think it took the singular imagination of a particular person – that being Dave – to see how you could put different sections of the community together.”
Within a year, the trio had corralled enough financial backing and manpower to get their 826-offshoot, the Ministry of Stories (MoS), off the ground. In November 2010, The Hoxton Street Monster Supplies Store – the first of what they hope will be many MoS writing labs – opened its doors, offering storytelling workshops for local kids. “I was surprised by the enthusiasm,” admits Hornby. “The internet has really helped; Twitter means you can muster volunteers incredibly quickly, in a way that would have taken a lot longer before.”
Housed on an ordinary high street in Hackney, east London, this flagship emporium, stocking jars of Mortal Terror and Thickest Human Snot, has become a conduit between two disparate yet neighbouring worlds. Young professionals may know the borough by way of its many gentrified haunts, but it also has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country. “We’re in an interesting part of London,” explains Hornby. “There are so many technology start-ups around Old Street, it’s being dubbed ‘Silicon Roundabout’. We can benefit from that, by virtue of being a few hundred yards away from where a lot of the UK’s innovations are happening. The more things there are like the Ministry of Stories, which actually encourages all members of a community to walk through a door and mingle, the better off we’ll be.”
“The more things there are like the Ministry of Stories, which encourages all members of a community to walk through a door and mingle, the better off we’ll be.”
So is this fantastical world, where children are authors and professionals mere guides, a comment on our education system? “We’re not replacing schools and we don’t think schools are doing a bad job, whatsoever,” he says. “I just think a different perspective, from people who have put their creativity to some kind of practical use, can give children a sense of possibility.”
And when it comes to possibility, where do stories fit in? What good are tall tales in a world that bows down to data and hard facts? “Storytelling is at the centre of an awful lot of things we do,” says Hornby. “It’s there when you’re sitting in the pub telling a story, or reading a paper, and we shape narratives naturally if something has happened to us in our day. Technology is going to become a very important part of what we do; it’s a very important part of literacy today, with reading online, e-books and so on.
“And writing isn’t just about writing books. Writing is about songs and films and TV shows and games; these are all parts of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. If we can make people feel that storytelling and writing is always going to be a relevant part of their lives, then that would be success for me.”