The streets of east London can be intimidating. Gritty and grey, even without rain, it’s no surprise Jack the Ripper called it home. In fact, if you’ve been anywhere near the area over the past few years, you might’ve heard the distant rumble of a very disgruntled person.
I once dared to follow that rumble, and it took me to the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies Store, a boutique catering for the needs of the “living, dead and undead”. Eek. Its shelves are stocked with cubed earwax, fang floss, a range of salts made from tears, and, um, human snot. If you’ve ever wondered what to get the monster in your life, you’ll find it here.
While I perused the range of outlandish products (though seemingly legit—the earwax looks suspiciously like cream fudge, and the human snot might actually be lemon curd), the distant rumble got louder, and I quickly learned from the voluntary shop assistant that it was The Chief. He—or a very grisly ‘she’, no one can be sure—works beyond a door at the back of the shop, at the Ministry of Stories where, “due to a rather inconvenient curse”, all profits from the store go. And The Chief was in a particularly bad mood. Of course.
The Ministry, “a creative writing and mentoring charity for young humans”, is on a mission to inspire a nation of storytellers in the UK. Founded by Lucy Macnab, Ben Payne and author Nick Hornby (of High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch fame), it depends on volunteer writing mentors to run workshops where junior ministers—that is, the schoolchildren of Hackney, England’s poorest borough—can let their imaginations run wild.
Soon after that fateful visit, I became a writing mentor myself, helping to give kids as much or as little encouragement as they need. Generally, once the junior ministers have been through the Monster Supplies Store, they’re game. Once they’ve encountered a very grumpy, demanding Chief on the tannoy, they’re determined. And by the end, they each walk away with a published piece of work. As long as The Chief is happy with the stories, naturally.
Keen to ground creative writing in the real world, the Ministry has run courses on writing comedy, song lyrics, video games, scripts for soap operas and comic books. All of which have been performed, filmed and published. Musician Ben Folds came in to record an album using lyrics written by the kids. If I’d had the chance to do that at school, I’d still be riding that wave well into adulthood.
They’re an enterprising lot too. In the Bottled Emotions workshops, a class of 10-to-11 year olds had to market and sell a range of emotions—like melancholy, rage and fear—to their chosen monster audience. After weeks of brainstorming, mood-boarding, product naming, stop-motion animation, and even writing a poem for TV advertising, they presented their ideas to a captivated audience, blowing us all away.
As a mere human grownup, working with bright young people is a satisfying reminder of the power of imagination and how inherently creative we all are. Far from catering to little monsters, the supply store and its secret ministry are dispelling demons and inspiring poets, playwrights, musicians and artists who might otherwise not known they had it in them.
If you fancy getting involved, the Ministry of Stories is holding an open day on Saturday 1st August. It’s also up for a National Lottery Award. Please vote here by Tuesday 28th July. If you don’t, it’ll haunt you.