It started as a short story competition. In 2017, when the Warwick School librarian Kay Hymas realised that her students wanted an outlet for their writing, and that there weren’t any active competitions to give them one, she saw an opportunity. But RB Writes soon gave birth to a diverse series of musical and literary events which, given the right circumstances, could have reached beyond the Reigate and Redhill borough. But, of course, the pandemic hit. Now, Hymas looks towards an uncertain future, whilst enthusiastically remembering past successes.
When the competition started, recounts Hymas, many children’s short story competitions “seemed to have dried up” – they weren’t as widespread as they had once been. “Children just weren’t getting the recognition” that they deserved for their work. So Hymas stepped in to try to change this, with a competition that was, initially, just for students at St. Bede’s and Warwick school. However, it soon blossomed into a borough-wide competition.
Publicised by Andy Nash of the Belfry shopping centre, the competition asked children to write about the town they lived in. It could be about anything, so long as it fit these parameters. “If it was about aliens, they had to make sure the aliens were visiting Redhill and Reigate.” After sifting through over 500 responses, the judges were left with around 25 serious contenders for the prize. Eventually, this was pared down to three winners, including the overall victor. In this year’s competition, this victor was Orla McNally, whose story ‘Reigate Pigeon’s War,’ was read out on the local radio station, Susy radio, alongside the second and third-place winners.
The competition was an unexpectedly big success, and after a second round in 2019, Duane Kirkland from Reigate and Banstead Council asked Hymas if she would consider doing it annually. With this came plans for a week cultural events, getting local community-art ventures (such as NMF and Surrey Libraries) under the umbrella of a local Fringe week.
Plans for this year were promising. Blue Peter’s author of the year, Vashti Hardy, was to lead workshops for ‘commendable young writers’ as an ‘MC.’ Local MP Crispin Blunt would be the guest of honour. Beyond the initial competition, the initiative would be expanded. A literature tent was to be put up at the NMF. Local venues such as community pub The Garibaldi offered to host events. A Brighton-based travelling theatre company, This is My Theatre, was to produce a highly-anticipated production of Jane Eyre in the castle grounds for the week of events (backed by green spaces manager Helen West, who was enthused about the prospect of bringing more affordable theatre to the area).
But when the lockdown hit, all these plans suddenly ground to a halt. The bulk of the planned events were live, relying on the kinds of gathered throngs that just couldn’t safely exist with social distancing procedures. The ceremony was cancelled, as was the music festival and thus the literature tent. The whole week was postponed for 12-19 June 2021, but even this is uncertain. Yet in the quiet of lockdown, plans form. Hymas has no shortage of plans for when the virus is finally extinguished; the future is uncertain as ever, but eventually, there’s hope things could go back to normal.
Of course, some things can work outside the parameters of social distancing. For example, a podcast, in collaboration with Surrey Libraries, is planned, starring local crime writer Niki Mackay. But live events are the bread and butter of the initiative, and there are plans for these too, (although with the uncertain situation, no promises are made). Hymas tells me about trial events that may take place at the Garibaldi, as well as a possible an adult story competition alongside the children’s one, although this may prove more logistically challenging, lacking as it does the infrastructure of a school to boost it. “All these are grassroots events,” enthuses Hymas. “A lot of the events next year are off the shelf, ready to go.”
But doubts are always present. “It might not be possible to do a week of events even after this is all over,” she says. “Stand-alone events may have to be the future.” It is, of course, tragic that the lockdown put a stop to such a growing, thriving company in the midst of its thrust towards further success. When the dust settles, the arts will have lost much of their former glory worldwide. But Hymas has a solid backbone of plans to work with, and this, at least, gives her an advantage.