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Sophie’s Log – an appreciation by Dr Malcolm Hebron, English teacher

How much literature deals with the teenage years? There are, of course, countless books which describe and dramatise this formative period of our lives – often with great skill: authors such as David Almond, Michael Morpurgo and Robert Westall are among our most respected literary talents. Increasingly, this genre of fiction is reaching beyond its niche market and drawing in readers of all ages. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have become bestsellers, and are even packaged separately for younger and older buyers. For those who want engrossing stories from a young person’s perspective, there is plenty to choose from.

But such works tend to be written by adults. Books actually by teenagers are comparatively rare: it is an area of life where published first-hand accounts are in short supply. One such book is Sophie’s Log, an account of growing up (dread phrase) as it is actually happening: from ponies and fairies to boyfriends and universities, it is a unique and moving record of one girl’s journey to adulthood.

Sophie’s Log was not written for publication. It is an anthology of poems, letters and journal entries by Sophie Large, a busy and talented young woman whose life was cut tragically short by a road accident in 1998. She was just nineteen. Shortly after her death, Sophie’s writings were discovered by her family on her bedroom shelves. Besides being precious relics, the contents of the ‘Best Poetry Book’ and other volumes also astonished even her close relatives with their sensitivity and growing assurance: here was a literary talent developing at remarkable speed. After consideration, it was decided to publish a selection of her work, and to make the book the centrepiece of a charitable trust fund founded in Sophie’s name. The result is Sophie’s Log, a most moving and memorable volume.

There are three chapters: Childhood, Growing Up and Maturity. Each one contains a selection of different kinds of writing – as well as poems and letters, there are lists, book reviews, and jotted down thoughts, often accompanied by the author’s own artwork. Yet despite the miscellaneous, fragmentary nature of the contents, the book makes a remarkably coherent whole. Across the sections, there is an ongoing contemplation of some of life’s deep pains and mysteries: as we turn the pages, we meet the author coping with the death of loved ones, meditating on religious faith and human relationships, and describing past happiness and future hope. Yet her voice is never portentous or self-indulgent; all is laced with wit, joy in the good things in life and wry self-knowledge. You feel at the end that you have really encountered a vibrant, curious personality finding her place in the world.

‘Childhood’ starts with the author at nine years old wishing for a more peaceful and less polluted world, reading Black Beauty and (perhaps a little less typically) writing imaginatively about the feelings stirred in her by the music of Pachelbel and Respighi (‘Sometimes I see people in the 16th century danceing [sic], sometimes little birds hopping around’). There are several poems, and while it would be patronisingly sentimental to see budding genius in all of them, there is a charming delight in sound and form, and the first stirrings of independent expression. ‘Leaving the Nest’, for example, starts conventionally enough with ‘Why, Oh Why did I leave home?’ but develops the theme in an original way – ‘my plump worms, (given by her) / turn into old caterpillars (got by me)’. Then, in the list of things missed by Robert Robin, we get the delightful ‘And how I miss the feathers on mum’s backside’. This is a ten-year-old coming up with a fresh and mischievous perspective, and saving the poem from mere prettiness. Similarly, we learn in ‘Jimmy Quick’ about a pony who will eat anything, / especially tangerine peels’. Through the nursery rhyme formulas real observation, feeling and thought peep through. There are words written to her own music; Sophie later became a very talented soprano singer.

One tiny piece in the Childhood section also serves as the book’s epigraph. It is ‘a haiku, or short poem with a deep meaning’:

How can the end
Be the beginning again
When all seems lost?

This stunningly simple utterance comes in a letter written to her grandparents, when her grandfather was seriously ill. Perhaps Sophie was preparing herself for the inevitable loss. In the light of her own death, the words are, of course, tragically ironic. But regardless of the context of the writer’s life, they are deeply memorable, and helpful – even to someone much older. For I do not know of any clearer, tighter expression of the sense of finality when death occurs. This little haiku took the author herself by surprise, I think, as artistic creation often does, for in later years we find her returning to it and reflecting on its meaning.

In ‘Maturity’ ponies return, this time in a piece which deliberately undercuts the pretty picture of Black Mountain ponies with a realisation of the true harshness of their life. Irony and anger have entered the frame. There is a feeling of facing up to life’s realities, beyond the prettiness: the poem ‘Sunglasses’ discusses this in a simple, effective conceit. One of my favourite poems, ‘Imagination’, moves backwards and forwards between the world of private fantasy and the dull reality on which imagination works, in a way which is somehow exuberant and poignant at the same time: ‘My makeshift raft sits sluggishly in the stream. / The ferry stands, glittering in the sun.’ Over the section, the range of the tonal palette widens: at one end we find a rapturous attention to nature’s beauties, and a celebration of the comforts of a religious service; at the other, there are reflections on the acceptance of death and an astonishingly lucid account of the overwhelming feelings that old family photos can stir in us. Predictably, there is self-examination, but honesty rather than self-pity predominates: ‘I am not a stereotype teenager. I do not make or maintain friends easily…’ Anyone who finds that their nature and interests separate them from the crowd will find a kindred spirit in these pages. Boys make their awkward lumbering entrance. Dieting is an issue. And the author discovers what was to be the blazing passion of her remaining years – acting in, and directing, plays.

It is theatre which is the driving force in the author’s life in the last section. Still there are nostalgic pieces, but in general this is life in the present and future tense. Dramatic productions (including a stint at the National Youth Theatre), A Level results, and university applications crowd the days. There is a deep ambition to work in theatre, and a seriously thought-through business plan for a theatre company to back it up. In the last pages, we hear the voice of someone who has found a path – dynamic, determined, driven. Yet underneath, the writer is still reflective and reserved. On Sophie’s desk on the day she died was a revised version of an earlier poem, about the richness of an inner life that others don’t see, secret, intensely aware and vital: ‘I, me, myself, am real, alive, here.’ The life which ended in the accident that day was a life at full flame.

Sophie’s Log takes us into the inner world of a unique and remarkable person. At the same time it gives eloquent voice to many of the common experiences of the springtime of life, and so may speak especially powerfully to people of the writer’s age. For those of us further away from that time, it is an inspiring reminder of the sensitivities and imagination of youth. The book has already had a rich afterlife, including a play, Sophie (by Bryan Willis) based on Sophie’s writings, which has been put on at the Edinburgh Festival and broadcast on BBC Radio. Yet just as rich is the life it has in the hearts and minds of readers, particularly those discovering it for the first time. Buy a copy and you will also help others: proceeds go to the charity Sophie’s Silver Lining Fund, which helps to finance needy students in the performing arts – young people with Sophie Large’s own dreams and passions, continuing, one might say, where she left off.

Introducing Sophie’s Log to schools – a pilot scheme at Coleridge Community College, Cambridge

Jo Stead spent some time explaining his intricate map to me. His imagination had run riot. The island of SPASMA had been discovered by his great, great, great grandad, after he had got caught in a storm while fishing and been blown ashore there. The blood red pond signified all the people who had died in Jo’s family. What I took to be a snake in the southeast of the island was a banger car racing track (because Jo’s family enjoy watching that sport), and the football, volcano and palm trees were all Jo’s particular interests. The brown areas were the poorer parts of the island and the green areas, the rich parts. Jo won the prize for best individual item for this carefully considered map, imagined as a result of reading about Sophie’s mythical island of Goothrans, an Island of Dreams and Expectations.

All the pupils in Year 9 of the Coleridge Community Centre in Cambridge had spent time after SATS producing their own logs, after reading Sophie’s Log. The English teachers, obviously inspirational and dedicated people, were thrilled with the results. Children who sometimes needed coaxing to write had thrown themselves into producing personal logs with enthusiasm, exploring their memories, both good and bad, looking inward at their own feelings and emotions, their personal ambitions and dreams, their hopes and fears and inevitably, in the context of Sophie, some thoughts about death. Michael Hever wrote, “Grandad I love you so much; Rest in peace; Always together me and you; Never apart; Dead but I still love you; All disappeared never to be seen again; Disappointed but some day you had to die.”

Their imaginations had been stimulated and in some cases it was obvious that writing their logs had provided a therapeutic outlet for difficulties in their lives.

Sophie’s Log was compiled by her mother and father, Cherry and Steven Large, after Sophie’s tragically early death at the age of 19 in a car crash. It is a compilation of her thoughts and feelings in poetry and prose throughout her teenage years. Normally we would not have this window into the intensely private areas of a girl’s life, but I am certain Sophie would approve of what is being done with her words. She herself was vivacious, enthusiastic, intuitive, talented and eager to communicate with people. She was developing a career in the challenging world of drama, and was full of life and ambition when she died. Her words, invariably provoking a welling of tears to the eyes and a lump in the throat since they proved to be so prophetic, were written by Sophie in the form of a haiku at the age of 12, illustrating the remarkable maturity she often displayed in her poems and thoughts.

“How can the End
be the Beginning Again
when All seems Lost?”

Those pupils who had used modern technology to produce their logs had often downloaded images from the net, including mind-boggling images of luxury for their ideal homes. The materialism with which the young people of today are constantly bombarded was clearly demonstrated. For one lad a requirement for his dream island was, “loads of fit birds,” with an accompanying picture! However, comfortingly, the almost universal message was the importance of family and friends. Michael Hever summarised this as a haiku:

“The things I love are simple:
Friends and family
They are the most important.”

One of the concepts that seemingly revealed most about how the person saw themselves was an acrostic of the student’s name. Vanesha, who won the prize for the best log, wrote: Vivacious; Energetic; Notorious; Enigmatic; Shy; Happy; Ambitious, Sophie’s poems and prose had clearly helped the children to explore their feelings about themselves, other people, places and ideas, as was illustrated by Stacey Selin, who wrote, “When I listen to this type of music I feel good about myself, and I could just fly away ….” The top ten wishes were also revealing – most being directed towards personal well being in terms of future riches (to be the richest boy in the world) and abilities (to be as brainy as Albert Einstein)`, but a proportion towards good things for friends and family, and some for global well being in terms of international peace and the abolishment of disease (wishes of which Sophie herself would have strongly approved); however, the canniest reserved the last wish for a further ten!

Cherry had been asked to attend the school to see how Sophie’s Log was being used in the classroom context, to tell the students a little about Sophie herself (which brought tears to a number of eyes), and to award prizes for various categories within the project. She had asked Malcolm, a professional teacher, and myself, as a photographer and writer, to accompany her, and we were set to work from the moment we arrived at the school to read all the logs! The young people had been asked for permission for us to read their work, because it often contained such personal and confidential material. We had barely reached our conclusions about the prize winners when the children were assembled in the main hall. It was an enthusiastic but disciplined audience, who were very supportive of those of their company who were brave enough to get up before an audience of about 100 to sing songs they had composed, to read extracts from the play Sophie and to give Powerpoint presentations of their logs. It was obvious that Sophie’s words had struck a chord with each of them, and very moving to think that it had helped some to think more clearly about themselves and perhaps feel less alone in the often painful business of growing up. Year 8 were clamouring to do the same next year, and the English teachers Andy, Martin and Lisa were all keen to repeat the exercise, and if possible incorporate it into their PHSE syllabus. Cherry was over the moon at the prospect. Let us hope many more schools will adopt it and that it may become a recognised part of the school curriculum, since this visit clearly illustrated that it is serving a wonderful purpose in drawing pupils out of themselves, initiating self examination, providing catharsis, and stimulating the sharing of thoughts and feelings with their friends. And of course, it allows Sophie to live on in other people’s lives.

As Dayner Marshall said, “Sophie Large died but always seems there because we read her log and know she cares.”

Rosamund Macfarlane