Michael Rosen talks survival and hope at Coleridge Community College poetry masterclass
A huge crowd of pupils assembled at Coleridge Community College this week as Michael Rosen, author, poet, broadcaster and educator, hosted an advanced poetry masterclass.
The wordsmith’s workshop involved Michael helping various sub-groups at the school co-create a poem, and now they’re all gathered together and they’re reading out the poems they’ve written and Michael is making comments.
Poems are “another way you can talk to each other”, he tells the 100-or-so pupils after the first poem is read out.
The third pupil’s poem, titled ‘Hope’, is just four lines.
“It paints a tiny little picture,” says Michael, shaping a box with his hands. “It’s like a haiku [a form of Japanese verse]. A haiku is just three lines, it’s like ‘A leaf falls off a tree/Into the water/And floats out to sea’. It’s a little snapshot.”
Michael is good at snapshots. His considerable literary output was recently recognised when he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2023 at the British Library in London. The annual award was established in 2009 in memory of Nobel Laureate playwright Harold Pinter and recognises writers who, in the words of Pinter in his Nobel speech, cast an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and show a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.
The chosen writer also gets to select their own ‘writer of courage’. To whom had he conferred this honour, I ask Michael in a side room after the session ended?
“Rahile Dawut,” he replies. Rahile Dawut is a Uyghur ethnographer and linguist known for her expertise in Uyghur folklore and traditions.
“She’s been incarcerated by the Chinese government,” notes Helen Weinstein, director of Cambridge-based Historyworks, and the organiser of Monday’s event.
“We hope she will hear of it,” says Michael.
Michael was famously in an induced coma for an astonishing 45 days after he contracted Covid-19 in 2020 and his recovery has been one of nature’s great marvels. His contributions to the nation’s cultural wellbeing have stepped up, not least on X (Twitter), where he consistently manages to make Latin the language of hilarity in his ‘Boris’ tweets – as per his sign-off here:
So how has he been feeling about the UK’s ongoing Covid-19 inquiry?
“I was horrified and appalled by the Covid hearings,” he replies. “And disgusted actually, at the mix of chaos, ruthlessness and indifference to a terrifying disease.
“The big revelations for me are what happened right at the beginning.
“I got affected between March 9 and March 15  and this was the very moment they thought ‘let it rip through the population’. They knew some people would die and there was some sort of game-playing. The very idea that they entertained so many people dying was horrifying – as was the lack of preparedness.”
Michael describes the almost comically tragic missteps – misdiagnosis as flu in a phone call, botched appointments – that eventually resulted in his being hospitalised.
“My oxygen levels were so low – it said 58 and it should have been between 95 and 100 – the tissues weren’t taking up oxygen,” he says. “I was sort of nearly dead but without knowing it.
“Then I was in an induced coma for 40-45 days. It’s a lucky dip really – if you wind down the whole system so that you don’t have to eat or breathe, they hope the body heals itself.”
And miraculously, that’s what happened. He still suffers from limited vision and hearing on his left side, and he has numb toes, but his mental acuity cannot be gainsayed.
“They tried to put a stake in my heart like Dracula,” he says with a gleam in his eye, “but I rose from the dead. My old friend Chris called it the Resurrection of the Year.”
And here he is, our very own Lazarus, enthralling a new set of young people eager to learn how to bring stories to life. What he conveys to them is how to find tiny slivers of hope and humour in dire situations, and how to amplify that to build a bridge that others can walk on, finding freedom in self-expression as they go.
Michael’s work as a Holocaust educator – “today I told them a story about my father’s uncles that happened on a deportation train to Auschwitz”, he remarks of another part of the talk he’s just given – includes regular Cambridge contributions on Holocaust Memorial Day (every January 27).
“For those events we use words like ‘hope’, ‘helping hand’, ‘freedom’,” he says. “So as not to give the kids despair. If you give kids despair it gets very complicated, and we try to avoid that.”
The events taking place in Gaza this month must be troubling for young people though, I suggest.
“I haven’t spoken about Gaza in school, neither about Sudan, Syria, or India,” Michael responds. “Today I referenced ‘things you see on the telly’ and I want the children to reference that as well. Children here are not cosseted from war, there’s an intake of asylum seekers. I don’t reference anything directly.”
One thing he does reference directly is the state of the education sector in Britain.
“The genius that is Michael Gove has ensured that central control over the curriculum has got tighter and together,” he remarks caustically of the current Levelling Up minister who upended the UK’s examination system and curriculum during his 2010-2014 tenure as education secretary.
“They think they’re raising standards but it’s the opposite – they are narrowing the curriculum and squeezing out the arts and humanities, and pushing the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.”
For Michael Rosen, the arts and humanities are sacrosanct. And, as we walk from our meeting room to the foyer, the pupils all cheer him as he passes their classrooms. He’s got their back, and they know it.
Matt Oughton, principal of Coleridge Community College, said: “I’d like to thank Michael for his time and inspiration today. He fascinated and enthralled our Year 7 and 8s with his magical stories and poems.
“I listened with joy as our students wrote their own heartfelt poems that spoke about love, kindness, friendship and family. We can’t wait to have Michael back with us so that we can continue our journey together.”