“The Ministry has always been about the art of the possible”

Posted by theministry on 20th December 2018

As our fantastic Co-Founder Ben starts to wrap-up his time at the Ministry, we look back at the highlights of nearly ten years helping young writers find their voice.

It is with immense gratitude and pride that we say farewell to our Co-Founder and National Producer Ben Payne, as he prepares to leave for pastures new. For nearly ten years, Ben – alongside other Co-Founder Lucy Macnab and an army of team members, trustees, volunteers and supporters – has founded Ministry of Stories and transformed it from start-up charity to national award-winning organisation.

Ben has spearheaded our national family of similar organisations and helped us to reach thousands of young writers across the country. He always champions the imagination of every child, and we are lucky to have had him embodying and advocating the values of the Ministry through our formative years.

We are delighted that our new Director has been appointed and the announcement of this position will follow in the new year. Ben and the new Director will have time together at the Ministry before Ben leaves at the end of March.

We’ve picked Ben’s brains for some of his favourite moments at Ministry of Stories – some of you may remember them too…

You launched Ministry of Stories with Lucy Macnab and Nick Hornby in 2010, having started work on it with Lucy in the year before. What made you take the plunge?

Somewhere there’s an email – an invitation to meet in a café in South London – from Alistair Hall, our Art Director and the other founder of MoS which he sent to me and Lucy. That must be almost exactly 10 years ago now. This was the point where we first got serious about setting up what became MoS. Lucy and I had met on a training course and we’d got talking about projects involving young people and writing that inspired us. Previously, I’d set up a young playwrights programme for the theatre where I had been an Associate Director. I’d found the plays that these young writers wrote brilliantly imaginative, frequently hilarious and always inspiring. Lucy’s background was more in poetry and fiction – so that seemed to be a good combination to start. That said, neither of us had done anything like MoS before, and so I think we drew a lot of confidence and encouragement from the fact that we were taking the plunge together. But also it’s a myth that enterprises like MoS just emerge from single individuals. We soon found that we needed many more people than just us to get it off the ground. What was amazing was that we did find them.

What where your goals right at the beginning?

I think we were both committed to creating something from scratch for children and young people that was of really high quality: that would be owned and understood by its local community and which was a celebration of the power of the imagination. This is why Hoxton Street Monster Supplies was so important. At the start, we really didn’t have enough money to do anything, never mind open a shop too, but we really wanted to create something that was a complete story in itself, into which you could walk straight off the street. But most importantly, we didn’t think there should be any form of writing or any kind of creative project that was off-limits to children. We wanted them to be able to explore everything.

How have things changed since then?

Well, when we opened, it was just the two of us and a part-time volunteer coordinator doing everything, supported by an already sizeable army of volunteers – so there’s a lot more staff now for a start! I also think we’ve got a lot better at knowing what works: what inspires young people to write and what keeps them writing. One big change has been our ability to reach many more of them across the country. We supported and mentored Grimm and Co in Yorkshire and Little Green Pig in Brighton and they are now independent organisations in our “family”, doing fantastic work with young people in their own parts of the world.

Have there been any really stand-out moments for you in the last eight years?

How many do you want?! But if you just want one – a single one – there’s the moment when one of the boys in our songwriting project hears the recording of the song he wrote being played back to him for the very first time. It’s extraordinary – and just brilliant that his reaction was caught on film. If someone asked me to sum up why we do what we do at the Ministry, I’d point them to that moment.

What have been your favourite projects?

Most recently, I think it has to be Speak Up, our speechwriting project. By some weird Ministry magic, Speak Up transforms a group of variously unconfident teenagers into the most articulate, passionate speakers in Parliament on a whole range of subjects, all in the space of ten weeks. I also loved our years of writing soap operas and comedy scripts where children and young people matched all the wit and originality of the adult professionals with what they created in their characters and stories. But for sheer chutzpah, it has to be the Children’s Republic of Shoreditch in which children created and realised their own independent country through writing. This involved letters written to the Queen, Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the local MP providing highly cogent reasons for not wanting adults in charge of anything anymore. (All of these letters, it has to be said, received replies.). We had a soft rock national anthem with a mandatory dance routine and, on the final weekend, a marriage ceremony organised by the children between one of this country’s leading children’s authors and one of our volunteers that for some reason required everyone present to carry a home-made paper handbag.

What are you most proud of?

In addition to all of the above, I think I’m most proud of being responsible for raising much of the money that MoS needed to set up and establish itself. When I think about it now it’s probably in the millions and that was something that I had to learn how to do pretty much on the job. I’m also proud of some of the extraordinary partnerships that have come the Ministry’s way in that time. Even when these partnerships haven’t been about supporting us with money, they have always taken the Ministry and the children involved in the projects involved to remarkable places and experiences – Parliament, Google, Penguin Random House, EastEnders to name just a few. Just as importantly it has taken those children and young people’s writing and imaginations into those places and partnerships and hopefully changed them a little bit too in turn.

What’s been the most unexpected thing to come out of nearly a decade of work for MoS?

I learned to expect the unexpected and to never underestimate children’s abilities. We once ran a poetry project based around an insanely difficult poetic form (for me, anyway) called mesostic poetry, Here the name of the object you were writing about had to run vertically down the middle of each line. Having tried my poetic cack-hand at it several times myself, I suggested to our workshop leader that this one might be too much of a stretch for the children too. She smiled at me serenely and said “Well, let’s see what we get at the end of the week.” When I came in a few days later I found on the top of a pile a perfect mesostic poem called “Chocolate – by Brian”. Its first line “Come play in my chocolate fountain …” swept across the top of the page with a flourish and everything followed brilliantly and neatly below. Underneath about 10 more of Brian’s mesostic poems there were pages and pages of more of them by the other students. So that told me …

What are you most looking forward to seeing the Ministry do in the coming years?

MoS is now part of a growing family of similarly inspired organisations and programmes both in the UK and worldwide. MoS organised and hosted the first ever gathering of these in London in 2015. I am really excited by what we can all achieve together in the next few years, working as we do with thousands of children every year in Europe, the US, Canada, South America and Australia – last year, collectively, we reached over 147,000 children! And there is the potential for this movement to go even further and spread right around the world.

How are you celebrating your decade with MoS?

I’m well-known among my friends and loved ones as being not great with heights and being really rather clumsy and uncoordinated. What better way to celebrate 10 years of work for MoS then than by jumping out of a plane? Obviously, a parachute would be involved and hopefully I’d be strapped to someone who actually knew what they were doing. And of course, a skydive would also raise some money for the Ministry itself. Anyone like to join me?

What will you be taking from the Ministry out into the world?

That is a good question! For me, I think the Ministry has always been about the art of the possible, and about making writing and what it can achieve possible for children and young people too. In the same way that I think the Ministry has that in its DNA, I would hope that I have that in mine now in whatever I do in the future. It has been a hugely rewarding job and really can’t wait to see what the Ministry does next.

NEXT PAGE: A Year in Numbers