Creative Writing Competition

In June 2020, following the first nation-wide lockdown, The Chipping Norton Theatre and the University of Oxford collaborated to produce a film on the theme of contagion, with music, drama, and short talks. From that came a creative competition, run at Oxford Spires Academy, producing artistic responses to the short film. Following its success, another competition was run, this time to find creative written responses of all kinds. 

And we received so many! Ranging from short stories and monologues to poems and song lyrics, and everything in-between, the judges were astounded by the extremely high quality of all the entries. Indeed, cast members from The Contagion Cabaret were so impressed by the winning three entries that they have asked to record performances of the works. These will be uploaded in the near future, so stay tuned to see them!  

Alongside the winning, highly commended, and runner-up entries, you can read how The Contagion Cabaret influenced each pupil in the creation of their piece. While some heavy themes emerge across the submissions – notably frustration and isolation – these are treated maturely, occasionally with humour, and all with an underlying optimism for what is to come.  

The judges thank everyone for entering and now hope you have as much fun reading these pieces as they did!  



Red Balloon  

Being a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Oxford University seminar on ‘The Role of the Arts Throughout World Crises’, held as part of the International Underground Historical Convention, which took place at what used to be Balliol College at Oxford University, on June 3rd 2163.  

Keynote Speaker: Professor David Alhaji, Department of Anthropology, Cambridge University, England.  


[Prof. Alhaji:] 

“...thank you Professor Miro, and may I also take this opportunity to thank you, good people, for your bravery and dedication in attending. I speak not merely of the certain degree of trepidation surrounding...well, the legality, to be frank, of this event, but also the likelihood of being faced with my singing, which may be enough on its own to incite a new pandemic, if not my federal arrest. [Laughter].  

Welcome to the fated twenty-first century, and to my discourse on the arts during the 202021 Coronavirus (otherwise known as Covid-19) pandemic, seemingly a diminutive blight when correlated with its more formidable successors: the mid-century emergence of the climate crisis (encapsulating of course the plight of Australia, Greenland and several areas of South America) and the ensuing quantum leap in migration dynamics. But since on these topics - and on others of the latter part of the century - you have already much regaled, I will delve into a different surprisingly overlooked, considering that it claimed the lives of three million people, and catalysed an unprecedented change in the role of the arts. 

I presume you have all watched the source on which I will base today’s lecture - is everyone familiar with Contagion Cabaret? Yes? This seems to be a definitive- Ah, no: there’s always one! [Titters]. Sir, I will try to be coherent as possible, but it is likely you will be...baffled, to say the least [Knowing laughs].  

For the benefit of our friend here, the source in question is a film made in the pinnacle of the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, a collaboration between this fine institution and the Theatre Chipping Norton whereby a collection of academics and actors (though personally I find these frequently interchangeable!) compiled historical texts into a virtual presentation - an online cabaret. Now obsolete, a ‘cabaret’ was a venue-based entertainment form, characterised by a series of distinguishable, crowd-pleasing acts of which music played a large role and liquor-drinking (its name being derived from liquor-serving restaurants) was instrumental. Though lacking in liquor - as we regrettably are now [Laughter] - the cabaret style is very much alive in Contagion Cabaret in its structure, notably the charismatic host, clad in red and introducing the acts through a microphone...a stand for magnification of the voice that would evidently have been used in traditional cabaret.  

Much like other artistic endeavours of the time (and here I entreat you to stay for my esteemed colleague Professor Livingstone in her discourse on films of similar provenance: Death to 2020 and Unprecedented) the video’s tone fluctuates between the jovial and the melancholy, the heartfelt and the sordid, desperately wringing laughs from a horrendous situation as history shows us is typical of the arts. Though seemingly exempt from the required absurdism, some scholars contest its farcical tendencies to hark back to another realm of entertainment - circus (derived from Homeric greek) - with the element of the ‘clown’ not so much present in any one character but in symbols such as the host’s red balloon, and the palpable discontent at a government considered ‘absurdist’ by some at the time (seen in a wonderfully furious reading of an extract from The Times, October 1918).  

For before the Revolution and the undisputed dominion of Omnia (known then as Amazon) the arts served another purpose than that of entertainment and escapism: social and political criticism, often surpassing the entertainment realm in giving rise to real change. And they were brawny these artists...seen in works such as Brieux’s Damaged Goods, Dickens’ Little Dorrit, compiled in such a way by the members of the Theatre Chipping Norton that unveiled coherent commentary on social taboos, fake news and nationalism. Drawing on societal repulsion at Sexually-Transmitted Diseases (regrettably still existing today) they lamented perhaps at the social divisions created by the pandemic; the ‘infodemic’ suffered at the hands of the Coronavirus was shown to be paralleled with the time of Queen Victoria; and in a recreation of a 2014 newsreel concerning syphilis, there was an illusion to the current phenomenon of vaccine nationalism. Artists such as these delved into History and sourced its offspring, presenting texts in a theatrical medium often to laudable effect ...presenting issues to an audience, veiled in the succulence of tragedy or comedy or music has historically prompted the path to social change. This (as well as scarcity of a software not presided over by Omnia) is partly why I chose to deliver my lecture in person, cabaret-style, as they would have wished me to do. Exempting, of course, the singing and the little red dress. [Laughter].  

But was criticism centered solely on the dense politics of ‘plagues, pestilence and pandemics’? Or can a supplication for the arts themselves be discerned from the production? If not purposefully, such a reading can be adopted by us, with the (I won’t say “benefit”) of hindsight. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21 notoriously saw a time in which all facets of society were ranked by prioritisation: the arts, as ever, were left in the dust, cut, underfunded...ironically at a time where escapism was most in want. This was the case certainly in traditional, theatrical mediums which thrived on an endangered tourism industry: in the OECD’s report of a ‘culture shock’ in Britain jobs at risk were estimated to suffer 0.8 - 5.5% levels of employment, and the country’s theatres found themselves appealing to public charity for sustenance, including the National Theatre.  

Yet the pandemic marked a pivotal moment in catalysing an unprecedented rift between venue-based and online art. Due to irrepressive technological advancement and the dire need created by the pandemic, the latter soared to form what scholars now dub the ‘Second Golden Age of Television’, whereby the tyrannical nature of the ‘studio’ was overcome, and film/television became globalized, almost democratized: films were made by ‘ordinary people’ on their mobile phones (sort of like our CAPSULES but individual and carried by hand) and common names found themselves on the international platform, which championed individualism and artistic endeavour. Artistic populism and elitism were forgotten in the emergence of a hybrid of traditional, small-scale creativity and globally-spanning technology.  

As I can see from your faces, this seems a sacrosanct phenomenon to us, where small-scale creativity and technology are polar. For again in the climate crises, mass migration and the quite frankly xenophobic measures against the latter whereby good people such as yourselves were marginalised into the Underground (please forgive my tangent) the arts were again the first to go, concurrently with the rise of ‘neoliberalism’ across governments and merging of the big corporations into our dear Omnia. [Murmurs]. In effect, we are even further behind ‘square one’ in that global symbiosis through the arts as we know it is rigid, seemingly ‘state-lead’ and wholly directed by corporation, and pure artistry is as scarce, melancholy and anticlimactic as our ‘host’, standing alone in a field or in a dark studio as she delivers her cynical moments of insight. So perhaps that red balloon symbolizes nothing more than [Scuffle and commotion at the back] impending demise for the free will of the arts-at the back, if you please [Muffled scream]. My God they’re here- If everyone could stay calm; you have done nothing wrong...please sir - calm if you please! - if you could just let them go quietly, I will accept resp-  


This recording was ended by OmniaTM on the grounds of breach of International Educational Regulation laws, breach of International Underground Communities privileges and overall threat to social security. 

Individuals implicated will be dealt with accordingly. 


―  Natacha Basset, Year 12 

“I was not merely inspired by the subject matter of the 'Contagion Cabaret' film, but also its manner of compiling texts and sources from history to provide something thrilling, enjoyable and engaging - my submission mimics this, or tries to at least! Moreover, I thought it would be interesting to consider the role of the arts within the pandemic, rather than the disease itself.”  


Lockdown Triptych 

The view from my window is over rooftops. Geometric slants and receding chimneys lend themselves to all manners of cabarets for me to watch; the stage neatly divided into sixteen slats of glass.  


The first time I saw the pigeons they were perched on neighbouring chimney pots, looking at each other, as if daring one another. Then the dance began, with one bird hopping to the next chimney – although not so much of a ‘hop’ as a clumsy flutter, the pots along the terraced housing being set too far apart for anything so elegant as a ‘hop.’ From her new perch she eyed her suitor triumphantly – perhaps not expecting him to follow, to insist in such a forward manner, but he did. In one bound he was on the next chimney pot. Outraged, she hopped onto the next, and he pursued. Their display continued down the street and, I would like to imagine, across Bridport, the defiant dance across rooftops, chasing each other on and on.  


Soon after came the congregation of house martins. They were leaving us for Africa, but lingered for a day or two, filling Bridport with their chattering. Like dashed-off forgotten words in a jostle for attention, scrawling their cries across the white October sky, speckling it as if they were some sort of airborne particles, suddenly become visible. Their blue backs wheeled this way and that, with little sense of direction, unable to find any resting place, or a moment to pause. 


A month later the boat appeared outside my window. No longer able to voyage across the Atlantic, the empty Tui liner needed to anchor somewhere, and up till then it had been moored outside Portland harbour. But strong easterly winds drove it to shelter in Lyme Bay. And so here it was, the enthusiastic winking logo somewhat downcast by the shabby rock armour and concrete pier, its immensity made ungainly, having been just months ago been a mere fleck in mid-Atlantic.  


― Hazel Morpurgo, Year 10  

“In ‘Lockdown Triptych’ I drew upon several extracts from the ‘Contagion Cabaret.’ The performance from ‘Little Dorrit’ reminded me of two pigeons I saw from my window. These birds could go where they liked; they weren’t pinned down, ‘stuck on a card like a collection of beetles,’ but were able to hop freely from house to house. Another aspect of lockdown was the constant presence of the news which, although not explicitly mentioned in ‘Contagion Cabaret,’ I felt was crucial, and so I used the ‘chattering’ of the house martins to illustrate this. Finally, I drew upon Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague,’ in particular the line, ‘no trains were running.’ To me this was a reminder of everything being brought to an abrupt standstill, leaving even Atlantic cruisers to drift along the Dorset coastline like ghosts.” 


A beautiful mess... 

That to me, is the way in which I would describe the whole Corona experience, or as I’d like to call it, the Covid Trilogy: Covid-19, Lockdown and Toilet Paper Mayhem (because seriously what the heck were people thinking buying that many toilet papers in 2020?).  

With all jokes aside, this writing competition, purposed by Oxford University has asked me if the artistic film of Contagion Cabaret has influenced the way in which I viewed the Covid pandemic and lockdown itself. It’s safe to say that instead of influencing or changing it in any sort of way, it has at least allowed me to fully explore the perspective I have on it. Which, inevitably, is my belief that the Covid Pandemic was both a blessing and a curse.  

Now before you all come at me with the pitchforks and torches, wondering how in the hell can I ever consider this a good thing, let me explain.  

When corona first fled onto the scene, people had no idea what happened. One moment there were news about a new deadly virus infecting people, to reports about thousands of people being infected, to news about people already dying from it. It was that serious. Certainly, a way to kick off 2020 (which we would certainly like to forget).  

Then like a wildfire, hubs and restaurants started to close. With public activities such as going to the gym and attending nightclubs being cancelled. All in which were passive aggressively stripped away from young adults, to prevent them from going to places where too many crowds would allow the black plague rip-off to spread like a zombie outbreak.  

And just like that, by March 20, 2020, all schools were shut down with a first UK lockdown being announced. This led to me, having around 6 months to myself at home, with little to no work to do as the GCSE course was already over. My Year 11 experience came to an end and, in the blink of an eye, I had to say goodbye to my friends and peers, some who I would probably never see again, spending my time alone in solitude, only being able to converse with my friends through social media. Even that wasn’t enough.  

Overall, a complete mess. Three months into the year and the world is already in chaos. Damn.  

However, to many people, lockdown was a blessing. For students, this was a six-month break from school, with most of us being able to wake up at any time of the day we wanted, being able to play video games, catch up with our favourite TV-shows... hell, maybe even catch up with their education and exceed other students. The possibilities were endless... and then some. It was a lockdown after all. So, you won’t see people having the time to catch up with friends or save the world with their superpowers. (I wish that was a thing-dang it, now I want one- why can’t we live in a world of Marvel or DC?

Yet, even though that six months from school, work and even life, may seem like a paradise... it was somewhat hell in the making. Forget actually being roasted alive; being alone in solitude was the real torture.  

For starters, during the first two weeks of lockdown I found myself being ecstatic as I now had the liberty to sleep whenever I wanted and do whatever I wanted without having to interact with anyone in the outside world. (Being introverted is literally a whole mood) Then things started to go downhill; first off, I got bored, really bored, bored to the point where I talked to the wall about how bored I was. Unfortunately, this left me alone with my thoughts- which anyone can tell you is your own worst enemy. My automatic way of thinking and constant dwelling on the negative left me in a depressive state, amplified by the somber mood of quarantine and the inability to go outside and reconnect with life.  

Now, you may be thinking, why are you telling us your backstory? Well... one, because it aids in my character development, two because this is my monologue and I can do whatever I want with it and three, because I’m trying to let you understand something.  

Lockdown was depressing as hell. It was awful for the most part, many individuals, including extroverts, couldn’t cope with the idea of being confined in their homes with seemingly nothing to do. How could you ask someone to completely accept the change of pace, the alteration of having to go to work/school day by day, to now staying home indefinitely doing nothing but complain to yourself about how bored you are. It did not help with anyone’s mental health. What makes this worse is that this depressive state that I felt was even more depressing when we look at the likes of people who have quarantined themselves with abusive family members, with poor living conditions and even homeless people, who are constantly being told by politicians to stay at home. We are really living in an intelligent society. But as one girl on the internet once said if you’re homeless just by a house. We are evolving, just backwards.  

So, as you can see, or hear depending if you’re blind and being read this: the lockdown was a complete mess for some people. There was no glimmer of hope for common-folk trapped in a political tragedy. Shakespeare: take note. With this in mind the overall standpoint would be to stay that the lockdown completely sucked. Right? 

Well... yes and no. As I said, there was a strange beauty in this mess. Six months staying at home gave us something that we were severely lacking in our lives... time. For most people lockdown gave you two options: Either get to work and catch up with assignments, tasks, or chores you have to do, or get down and stay lazy cause you’ll never get this chance again to sleep for twelve hours straight. Be productive or get lazy (with an actual reason to be it).  

Personally, I was a mixture: the bastard child. Often times, I was terribly unproductive, choosing to wallow in my own misery, despair and agony. Then, in contrast, I would engage in physical activities such as exercising in order to become the next Dwayne the Rock Johnson. And for the rest of the lockdown, it would enter a paradigm shift between the two - with watching anime, playing games, and educating myself a bit happening in between.  

This extra time allowed people to dive deep into hobbies they had to neglect for their otherworldly responsibilities. Now we had the time to learn how to cook, how to dance, how to play an instrument and for me in particular, how to improve my drawing capabilities. Lockdown gave me, gave us, the chance to engage ourselves in activities that furthered our growth as human beings and allow us to focus on the positive sides of life. Sniff. That was beautiful. Think I teared up a little bit there.  

As I said lockdown was beautiful mess. It was complicated to describe as the experience was rather new to this modern age. It was so unexpected that many jokingly stated that aliens would have a blast watching this season of earth, as the plot finally got interesting. Many made memes about the situation in order to over exaggerate how this felt like the end of the world. Others couldn’t wait to find out what other catastrophes each month had in store. And many others were left wondering what their friends looked like, as we were only limited by our anxiety, insecurities, and idiocy of only texting our peers instead of video calling them to know if they’re alive or not.  

Social anxiety is a total B- (Gotta keep it PG now!)  

But I digress. The overall point here is that the lockdown was definitely an experience. One that will never leave our minds. It will be both nostalgic and tragic. Especially since we are in our third lockdown in the UK... but at the time of April 2021, it has eased up a little, with a vaccine on the horizon. So, there’s some hope, I guess.  

And as I said Contagion made me realise a couple things as we steadily move on into the current decade. That being... that we are paranoid. Rightfully and regrettably paranoid.  

I have a friend who, once schools started to reopened, always cleaned the tables or computers that she’d use with wipes/disinfectant. This was of course to stop the spread of the virus and contamination. She’s also not the only one however, my current Psychology and Sociology teachers do the same and so do other students at my school. People are now wearing masks, afraid of getting any form of spit on their faces. People are now avoiding each other like the plague, with the two-meter distance rule taking full effective and people are now mindful of a coughing person; because if you cough it’s as if you just killed somebody’s grandma. 

Paranoia 100. 

In 2019, this would be abnormal. In 2020-21, you are abnormal for not doing any of this. A person literally got arrested at one point for wiping his spit on a pole in one of the subways (disgusting, yes). This goes to show how serious we are at stopping this Covid monster. The main reason is that we are stripped of our freedom. We, as a society, like to believe that we are on top of the food chain, we are sentient beings with knowledge and wisdom that far transcends the likes of animals, plants, and even outer space as we are the greatest things known to man. It’s not like we can’t be killed by the same enigmas we claim to be smarter than... I hope you notice the sarcasm.  

Anyways, we’ve gotten so use to being on top, to being number one and all of a sudden all of that was stripped away. We were, and still are, being DOMINATED by a virus that cannot even speak, yet knows how to manipulate the puppet strings in every step of the way. It knows how to take away our freedom and it is that absence of freedom that people long and wish for. The truth of the matter is that lockdown and Covid made us scared.  

It showed us how people can be easily killed off left and right, showed us how the things we took for granted, such as the luxury to go outside and interact with others, can be lost and it also showed us that we are not invincible. It showed us in 1920, it showed us during the black plague and it is showing us now. 

We are scared, we are angry, we are vulnerable and we long to be free. Free to hug our friends once again without worrying about infecting them, go to the movies, go on dates, go to nightclubs, attend schools, work again, go outside to avoid our families. We long for that freedom again, but going forward, that freedom will never be obtained... well at least in a while. Got be a bit optimistic here.  

For the next five years or so, people will still be wearing masks, keeping two meters apart and sticking to a health code of conduct that doesn’t make them susceptible to something like this again.  

Lockdown and Covid taught us to be cautious. We were like an animal in the wilderness, not understanding that we were the prey instead of the predator. 

On a comedic note, Covid made me realise how melodramatic we can be. First off, why do we need more videos explaining to us how to wash our hands? Children I get, but teenagers and adults? Are you telling me no one washed their hands before this? Also, why in the hell did people overdose on toilet paper last year (2020)? I cannot believe that was a thing, like seriously, you don’t need that many, are you using one WHOLE roll just to wipe it down there?  

The overall point to take here, is that the lockdown was complicated. It came out of nowhere, and rearranged our lifestyles like how one keeps rearranging a Rubik’s cube. This analogy proves that there’s no clear way to say whether or not this was a blessing or a curse, as it held many advantages and disadvantages, with the experiences being different for many different people.  

As a result, this Covid trilogy of medical disaster, was terrible, eventful, uneventful, fun, boring, depressing, anti-climactic and every other word in the Oxford Dictionary that I cannot hope to imitate here. 

It sure was a hell of an experience though. 

A psychological thriller to remember. 

A beautiful mess... 

This monologue was brought to you by a 17-year-old who has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. 


―  Camoy Reid, Year 13  


Highly Commended

Catrin Holehouse, Year 12: Excerpts from an Exile 

Antonia Sicheri-Peel, Year 12: Monologue

Lara Davis, Year 10: The Photo Album in my Head 


Zohal Mahmoodi, Year 9: A New Day

Sarah McCutcheon, Year 12: (a poem that will probably be ignored) 

Serena Thethy, Year 11: What if it's Mother Nature?