Enter Grimm & Co in Rotherham and it’s like stepping onto a magical movie set, with lotions and potions perched above balancing broomsticks. There’s even a library lined with much loved literature tucked into a cosy corner. Jeremy Dyson discovers hidden doors and secret stairways.
Of all the various creative endeavours I’ve been involved with, from the comedy group The League of Gentlemen, to the play and film of Ghost Stories, and my own books of short stories, Grimm & Co holds a very special place in my heart. For those that don’t know, Grimm & Co is a Yorkshire charity which promotes literacy among children, particularly those who might not enjoy the advantages others do.
I’ve been earning my living as a writer for more than two decades. My parents were nervous about me setting out on such a potentially precarious path but they never realised they were the ones responsible for laying out the stepping stones which had led me there.
I, like many children, was blessed with a vivid imagination and Mum and Dad thought it was their job to feed it. I was regularly bought books and comics, but also taken on visits to museums, caves, ruined castles and abbeys, and less-obvious, but perhaps the most inspiring were joke and magic shops at seaside destinations. These became canvases onto which my imagination painted additional layers of fascination (ghosts in the windows of the ruins, mazes which became portals to another dimension etc) and also great slabs of slow release fuel for my own creative urges. I never forgot the feeling of excitement encountered on these trips.
The joke and magic shops were particularly special to me. The experience of walking through the doors of these palaces of delight, packed with mischief and wonder, was like a bomb going off in my imagination. More than just a bomb, it was closer to nuclear fusion because the memories are still belting out creative energy, deep in the core of my being, forty-five years later.
As an adult, and particularly when I became a parent, I grew increasingly aware of my own good fortune in having had access to these early experiences. I knew of, of course, that there were many children for whom such access was not easy to come by. For quite a while I mused upon whether it might be possible to set up some kind of charity that could address that problem.
Synchronicity stepped in for me in the form of writer Matt Haig who I met at a publisher’s event. He started talking about a charity he was involved with called Grimm & Co, which seemed to have exactly the same aspiration. And so, I was introduced to the extraordinary Deborah Bullivant, the force of nature behind the enterprise. Her vision, drive and determination were going to become a source of ongoing inspiration for me.
At this time, Grimm & Co had temporary premises above a shop in Rotherham town centre. Deborah was an academic, looking at ways of boosting literacy in communities that really needed help, and she’d come across a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by the American writer Dave Eggers. He’d set up 826 Valencia in San Francisco, which had similar aims. It was fronted by a shop, which apparently sold supplies to pirates. The kids would go in and be led through this amazing place to the workshops hidden behind the store. The idea soon spread across the US and Deborah immediately saw that such a model could work in Yorkshire too, and thus Grimm & Co was born (though the shop would serve magical creatures rather than pirates).
All this was in place by the time I became involved in 2013. But Grimm & Co had yet to find permanent premises. Mindful of my own childhood experiences I stressed how important I thought it was to ‘bake in’ the magical quality that I remembered from my juvenile day trips. This would involve great design, and deeper than that, Deborah recognised it needed a kind of mythical underpinning. To that end, her, myself and Steve Dearden a fellow trustee sat down and began talking about a character, Graham Grimm who might be behind the whole business. I took the idea and ran with it, writing a short story that explained Grimm & Co’s ancient origins.
The story flowed quite easily, it was a pleasure to create a magical realm that Graham Grimm might have been a part of. I was right back in my own childhood, the world of my favourite books: ‘Haunted Britain’, ‘The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic’ and ‘Mysterious Yorkshire’. Once the story was written, everyone involved in Grimm & Co could plug in to it. Most significantly, our incredible design team were able to derive a look and a feel from the tale they could extend to every corner of the premises, including the products the shop sold.
There’s no question that this first phase of Grimm & Co has been more successful then we could have dared hope. There have been theatre performances of dramas, short films made and shown in our own mini movie festival and radio plays broadcast nationally on the BBC, all of them written by Grimm & Co children, each of these endeavours was enabled by another of our fantastic trustees, the wonderful Paul Clayton. Most significant has been the impact on children themselves. Time and again teachers have told us how kids who would never voluntarily pick up a pen before have become enthusiastic story makers, thrilled and excited by the possibilities of their own creativity. And that, to me is the true wonder of Grimm & Co. It’s not about seeking to turn every child into a professional writer. It’s something much more fundamental than that. It’s about enabling them to see the power of their own creativity and how it can be found through literacy, a universally applicable faculty that can serve them through the rest of their lives, no matter what they end up doing. In fact, our first three years in the original Grimm & Co shop have been so successful that we are now having to seek much larger premises so we can fulfil the increasing demand for access to what we have to offer.
To me, once again it’s a testament to fact that things which begin life in the imagination, as Grimm & Co did in Deborah Bullivant’s eight years ago, can go on to thrive in actuality, growing from those tiny first seeds of an idea into a tangible reality that impacts positively on the lives of others. Now that’s real magic.