It’s a dark, autumnal day in London, just before Halloween. A dim light glows from inside Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, and children peer in at shelves stacked with jars of Thickest Human Snot, balls of Fang Floss and, best of all, tins of Escalating Panic.
One child inspects the shelves further, whispers a password, and suddenly a secret door opens, revealing a whole new world. The door closes, and life on Hoxton High Street returns to normal.
It might sound like a scene from Harry Potter, but this secretive supply shop is brilliantly real. The hidden door opens into the Ministry of Stories, a creative-writing centre for 8- to 18-year-olds in east London. And as the Ministry prepares to celebrate a year providing mentoring and workshops for young people, helping them to produce everything from short stories and poems to screenplays and newspapers, it’s no exaggeration to suggest there has been a kind of magic at play here.
The Ministry of Stories was founded by Lucy Macnab, Ben Payne and the best-selling author Nick Hornby after they were impressed by the success of Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia project in the United States. A creative writing centre for young people wasn’t some kind of Eggers vanity project after the global success of his debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: he set it up as a response to conversations with teacher friends who told him that what their pupils lacked was one-on-one time. He spoke to the writers he knew and asked them to help plug the gap.
“But there was a problem,” says Macnab. “The city authorities told him the building he wanted to use for the centre was in an area zoned for retail. He had to sell something. So, because the interior looked a bit like a pirate ship, he opened it as a pirate supply store.”
And, incredibly, it still sells glass eyes and mermaid bait to this day. There are now sister centres in seven cities spanning the US, each with a different shop theme. “The thing is, they don’t all have to sell stuff,” Macnab explains. “But they do, because the model was to get inspired by writing on the high street. It’s very much part of daily life – it’s not like a school.”
It was natural, then, that when Macnab, Payne and Hornby were looking for a space in London, they would try to emulate that model – not least because it’s great fun.
“When you go into our shop, the fiction doesn’t shift for a minute,” Macnab explains. “You could genuinely believe it’s a shop for monsters and that a vampire might walk in the door after dark. That might sound quirky and silly, but it’s a really important idea. Because the minute you step in the door you’re given licence to use your imagination, to start believing in stories.”
Happily, people have actually started buying jars of Guts & Garlic Chutney in the shop, helping to offset the running costs. The Ministry of Stories is, after all, a charity that only really functions thanks to the hard work of an army of volunteers. But these people continue to provide invaluable support because they believe in what the project is trying to do.
“Everyone has stories to tell, an impulse to communicate and share ideas,” says Macnab. “We wanted to create a space that didn’t replace what schools were doing but was complementary to them; where the children could decide what stories they wanted to write, and then have them properly listened to as they were expressed. The acknowledgement that they have stories to tell and are creative people is as important as the writing and literacy skills that come with it. It’s empowering.”
Over the past year, Macnab has derived great satisfaction from seeing regular visitors to the Ministry gain confidence, both in their writing and as people with something to say. Even one two-hour workshop with a primary school culminates in the publication of a book, so the children not only write for a purpose but have a real sense of achievement from the end product.