Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A real good sport

Sunday 16th October, 12 noon, Quay House, MediaCityUK

Words by Shirley Kernan.

Tom Palmer wasn’t much of a reader when he was growing up. It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 17 that he found himself bitten by the reading bug, after his mum encouraged him to read about football, to browse football magazines and to read match reports in newspapers.

It is just a throwaway memory, a wisp of a tale that children’s author Palmer imparts to the young, and predominantly male, audience at the Scrum! literary event in the BBC offices at MediaCityUK on a bright Sunday morning. But it is a tale that suits the atmosphere. It helps everyone feel at home, unjudged. Here is a man who is one of us. For, while the audience at Scrum! are young and understandably keen, they are quiet too, politely eager, perhaps just a little bit daunted by the plush newness of their BBC surroundings. Fortunately Palmer, author of two popular football fiction series for children (Football Academy and Foul Play) is the perfect host, offering a gentle mix of education, inspirational literary message (in this case, the merits of reading and writing) and a little bit of fun too.

The event kicks off with the congenial Palmer introducing himself before quickly jumping into audience participation – with a literary theme, of course. First, who likes reading? A few hands tentatively raise but it isn’t looking overly promising. Anyone like rugby? A few more hands but it’s hardly a win. Football? Ah yes, here we go. Hands shoot up with noticeable enthusiasm. What rugby team do you support? Football teams? Soon names are being called out with worldly abandon, teams from Widnes to Newcastle to Barcelona, and of course Manchester’s own obligatory two football clubs, are reported to the encouraging Palmer. Things are starting to warm up. Next is a short quiz, allowing one or two of the young audience members to display a sporting knowledge which is surely beyond their years, before Palmer deftly brings the focus back to the main theme – reading and writing. He chats for a while about how he got into reading, how lucky he feels to be an author, and follows up with a short excerpt from his latest outing – Scrum!, a rugby novel about a boy torn between loyalty to his dad and a relationship with his mum's new husband. The audience giggles mischievously as Palmer cheekily signs off his reading with a joke. Yes, the applause seems to say, you’re definitely one of us.

Without pause for breath, it is time for some fun with the young audience members invited to take part in a penalty shoot-out. Standing in an orderly queue reminiscent of PE class, the participants look nervous but, regardless of victory or disaster, each is roundly applauded. It ends with a tense final. Two lads go head-to-head. Only one can win the coveted trophy, but it is a supportive affair with everyone seemingly pleased merely to have taken part.

And so to the grand finale – the special guests, namely BBC Sports Editor Carl Hicks and Andrew Sheridan from Sale Sharks. Again Palmer gets the ball rolling, encouraging the panel to share their thoughts and experiences, from career beginnings as a sports reporter on a local newspaper (Hicks) through to being inspired by Sting lyrics (Sheridan, who is a singer-songwriter in his spare time). Then it is over to the audience to ask questions, opening the conversation up and providing plenty of opportunities for humour and anecdotes. It is to Palmer’s credit that he successfully keeps the merits of reading and writing to the fore as the conversation meanders off into more sporting territory. Equally to his credit, the younger audience feels comfortable enough in this amiable grouping to open up - to ask questions and shout out answers. This laid-back, easy feel seems to suit the other audience too, the older ones - the parents and assorted friends and relatives ensconced at the back but equally happy to join in with an answer or a suggested “good read”.

Overall Scrum! proves to be a light-hearted, enjoyable event. A genuine love of sport, a desire to encourage and support the next generation and a convivial atmosphere means it would be all too easy to think this was a regular event – a sort of BBC literary training ground for young rugby and footie fans. More importantly, it proves to be an inspiring event. As Carl Hicks points out when asked what is the best thing the Olympics will bring to the UK, it is that young people might realise they too could one day be an athlete, a sports journalist or, perhaps even, an author.

Shirley Kernan is a writer. She Tweets @shirleycurles.

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