Still running hot
She is now an award-winning crime writer, but Dreda Say Mitchell still loves teaching. The passion for justice, she explains to Meabh Ritchie, informs them both
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much similarity between WH Auden, one of the most significant poets of the 20th century, and Nas, the New York rapper. But at William Tyndale Primary School, this class of Year 6 pupils can see the link.
One of the children is reading aloud Auden’s poem “Night Train”, and Dreda Say Mitchell, class teacher for this morning, tells her, “I wanna hear the beat,” until the 10-year-old is smacking the side of her leg in time to the words she’s speaking. Nas’s music video for his hit single “I Know I Can” is shown next, and this class of 10 and 11-year-olds enter into a discussion about what makes something rap and not poetry. Gerome claims that Humpty Dumpty could be a rap, showing the class how it might be done by making his shoulders rise and fall in time to the beat and doing an East-side symbol with his hands.
“He could give the kids a mini lesson on rhythm, but when we came to do the writing, he wasn’t so sure about it; he was calling me over,” says Mitchell. “But it’s about transferring what he knows, and finding ways to access that in the classroom.”
By the end of the morning’s lesson, all the pupils had been able to identify imagery and rhyme, and write their own poems, which they are all keen to read out to the class. But just as important to Mitchell is that they had the confidence to participate and express themselves through language.
“(Rap) is a fabulous art form to use in the class to get children, particularly boys, writing … When I think of socially conscious rap, people like Nas, Mos Def, Rakim - it’s about our lives and how we’re living. Rap is a literary art form that comes from an oral, African tradition.”
Mitchell is used to balancing different projects. As well as working as a part-time adviser on Islington Council’s Ethnic Minority Achievement Service (EMAS), she is a celebrated author at the forefront of the UK’s crime-writing community. She first found herself on the literary scene after winning the Crime Writers’ Assocation (CWA) John Creasey Award for her first novel Running Hot in 2005.
The book, about a teenager in Hackney, was praised for its gripping plot, but also its portrayal of east London characters and the gangster underworld. Geezer Girls, her third crime novel, is out now, and only a few weeks ago, Mitchell was busy touring and promoting the new book. She also writes columns for a number of national newspapers, and sits on the review panel for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.
Critics have said that inner London is as central to her novels as some of the characters, which Mitchell herself acknowledges. But it is Tower Hamlets that she is most passionate about; the area where she grew up on a housing estate and where she herself worked as a teacher and deputy head for years.
Her own experience of being a pupil at Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate Girls School in Limehouse, east London, was largely positive. “I’ll never forget one day coming home from school. I opened the door and went through to the sitting room, and there was the assistant headmistress, sitting with my Dad,” she says, laughing. “I thought, my God - what have I done! But she said, don’t worry. It was just they had a policy of going on a home visit for every girl in the first year. It was very progressive.”
The teacher found out that Dreda’s father had mobility problems because of an artificial leg; something she hadn’t told anyone at school. “It gave them an opportunity to find out about a family’s circumstances,” she says. Now, as an education consultant, Mitchell is a firm believer in looking at all the components that influence individual pupils. “The only way you can start dissecting what’s happening to people is by placing them in their social context and looking at all the things they connect with. (How do they) get access to housing, access to jobs. What’s the relationship between all those types of things?”
Her first teaching job was at Robert Clack School in Dagenham, where she taught history. “I loved teaching,” she says, “but thought that maybe teaching teenagers wasn’t right for me.” Tower Hamlets happened to be offering training programmes for teachers who wanted to move to primary, so she retrained at a primary school in Bow. “Year 2 is my year - I just loved it. And I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity.” She went on to work as a deputy headteacher at Cayley School, Limehouse, and then moved to Tower Hamlets’ EMAS as deputy head in 1999.
While working in education and studying part-time for an MA in Education Studies, Mitchell started to try her hand at writing. She had done a creative writing course at Goldsmiths College while working as a primary teacher, and then in 2001 decided to pursue it further, “to see if I was any good”. The following week, Time Out was advertising a writing course at the Groucho Club, and she applied. It was a big step, and one which initially felt very daunting.
“I must admit, I had a load of baggage on my back about being working class, being black and not really having written anything before,” she says. “I felt like a tortoise with its head in its shell going up those stairs. I wanted more or less to be invisible.”
In the end though, she believes it was precisely her roots and her difference from the other members in the group that made her writing stand out. She went on to the advanced course the following year, and the central character of Running Hot - a drug dealer named Schoolboy who wants to get out of the underworld and has seven days to do it - started to come together.
Maggie Hamand, the course leader, was impressed, and when she set up an independent publishing company, Maia Press, a few years later, she asked if Mitchell would consider developing Schoolboy’s story as a novel for publication. At the time, she was working as a school improvement officer in Southwark. “I was writing the book on the Tube and everywhere.” When the reviews started to come in and the nomination for the CWA award was announced, she was delighted, and never expected to win. “We just thought we’ll go down, have a couple of drinks and enjoy it, and it won. We were just amazed.”
After being interviewed on the radio in August about her new book, she received a barrage of comments from listeners saying how surprised they were that someone from her background was writing novels. It’s a sign of the times, says the author, that it’s so unusual for someone from a housing estate to be successful in the arts.
“We live at a time now where being working class, particularly being white working class, is getting a bit of a hammering, to tell you the truth,” she says. “When I was growing up, there were such powerful working-class figures in the art world. It was a celebration of working-class life.” In one of her columns, she names Dennis Potter, best known for The Singing Detective, and Barrie Keefe, who wrote The Long Good Friday, as some of the working-class heroes who got to the top. “Whereas now, if you turn the telly on, working-class people on reality shows are being ridiculed or they’re all beating each other up.”
Her family and the families in the neighbourhood were “really rich” in some ways, she adds. “When people talk about being working class, they make some pretty broad statements. You hear the word ‘deprived’ a lot. There’s no qualification that they are talking about being economically deprived, but life isn’t all about having money.”
Through writing, Mitchell has given a voice to the working-class communities that she grew up in and worked with. Running Hot’s Schoolboy wants to be a chef, but is let down by the school, which doesn’t offer him any opportunities. Geezer Girls is about four women who grew up together in the care system and are forced into working for a man nicknamed The Geezer. At the beginning, she thought she was writing social commentary as opposed to crime.
It’s no surprise, then, that Mitchell is so passionate about empowering young people to express their own experiences by developing their literacy and raising achievement. She welcomes the shift towards themed learning in primary schools suggested by the Rose review.
“I’ll tell you what I like about it: the whole shift from thinking about English as a subject, to thinking about language,” she says, speaking again as an education consultant.
Dreda Say Mitchell’s parents are from Grenada, where oracy is a big part of the culture and stories were always being told at home when her Dad’s friends came round for the evening. “The only reading material we had in the house was my mum’s Bible, I had some kind of atlas, and my dad occasionally used to buy the News of the World,” she says laughing, but they had the Whitechapel library just around the corner with a huge range of reading material and music archives.
A couple of years ago, Mitchell would have described herself as an education adviser who is also a writer. The two roles have shifted for now, and she spends most of her time writing, working at Islington only a few days a week. However, the two roles cannot be separated so easily.
“My writing is part of the cycle of my life; it’s not divorced from my work in education,” she says. “I’m passionate about education; about children; about inner-city kids; working-class kids; black kids. So many passions. And the same passions have driven my writing. They are a mirror to each other, really.”
Geezer Girls is available from Hodder at £6.99
About Dreda Say Mitchell
- 1987-1988: Completed a PGCE in secondary history teaching at the Institute of Education
- 1989-1999: Retrained as a primary teacher and worked in Tower Hamlets, later moving on to work as a deputy headteacher. Completed a part-time MA in Education Studies at London Metropolitan University and attended a part-time creative writing course at Goldsmiths College.
- 1999-2004: Moved to the Ethnic Minority Achievement Service (EMAS) in Hackney. Continued working as a consultant in Redbridge and then Southwark.
- 2001-2004: Creative-writing courses at the Groucho Club under Maggie Hamand.
- 2004 to date: Joined EMAS in Islington as a senior primary consultant.
- 2004: Published Running Hot (Maia Press), which won the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey first novel award in 2005
- 2007: Published Killer Tune (Hodder)
- 2009: Published Geezer Girls (Hodder).