Captured by a pirate fantasy, former film producer Nick Goldsmith has created a world where young people can find their voice. He tells Fergus Byrne about the Bank of Dreams and Nightmares.
A chance encounter with a pirate supply store in California was the initial inspiration that prompted former film producer Nick Goldsmith to launch an initiative to help young people enjoy the benefits of writing. Best known for producing films like The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambo, Nick was visiting San Francisco when he ‘stumbled across’ a shop that appeared to sell accessories for pirates.
The store, on Valencia St in the Mission District, offered an extraordinary array of pirate supplies including peg legs, eye patches, products to combat scurvy, planks (sold by the foot), ocean maps, and a large vat full of miscellaneous antiquities where visiting pirates might rummage for treasure. It even had a glass case of replacement eyes for any pirate needing a new one. And for those that might be suffering from being land-bound, there was a small area with a fish tank where melancholy pirates could sit and dream of the ocean waves.
Nick remembers being ‘blown away by this weird and wonderful place’ and asked if this was really a shop for pirates. Or was it a front for something even stranger? In fact, it was. It turned out to be the retail frontage of an initiative set up by American writer Dave Eggers who wanted to run workshops to help disadvantaged children learn about writing. At the back of the store, a secret door opened into a tutoring room where kids from the local neighborhood came to be given one-to-one attention to learning. Often, parents would come too and watch as enthusiasm spread amongst the children. In time, the focus became about writing stories that were to be published in books, and the initiative led to similar shop-front workshop centers popping up around the country. One, in Brooklyn New York, was set up as a ‘Superhero Supply Company’ carrying everything from capes to invisibility products and Superhero instruction manuals. The initiative was an enormous success and young people who had never before had an opportunity to have their words listened to, let alone published in a book, got the chance to develop talents that might otherwise have remained dormant.
The concept was never far from Nick’s mind and after getting involved in the homeschooling of his own children during the first lockdown he decided to quit film producing and start a charity to help local children in the same way. His charity, ‘The Bank of Dreams and Nightmares’, published its inaugural anthology, I Have a Dream, written by young writers from Beaminster School in July this year.
The key activity of the charity is to work with schools that have a high proportion of pupils who experience socio or economic disadvantage. The target audience for their creative writing program is children who live or go to school in these wards, many of whom are failing to reach expected levels of literacy and are experiencing social exclusion because of their lack of reading and writing attainment. Aware that, now more than ever, schools need all the help they can get to catch up after the Covid lockdowns, Nick Goldsmith and his volunteers are providing an invaluable resource to support schools with specific workshops which fit into the school curriculum.
On a personal level, it is an enormous leap for Nick. ‘I was a film producer working in TV commercials, features, and music videos’ he explains. ‘I’ve been doing it since I left Art College and loved every minute of it.’ However, after ‘thirty-odd years’ he felt that either he or the industry was changing and it was time to do something else. After his mum passed away during the pandemic and left him a little bit of money he decided that gave him the opportunity to set up the charity. ‘It would make her proud and that would be something really special’ he says. With a huge track record in getting things done and working with a vast network of high-caliber people in the film world, he set about calling some of those he used to work with to ask them to support his charity. ‘And what’s been great’ he says ‘is all the people I have worked with over the years have been really helpful and supportive in getting the charity up and running.’
That seed funding started the ball rolling and although fundraising is always a constant; the charity is now running ongoing workshops with Primary Schools which are booked right through December. They are working with sixteen Primary Schools as well as Secondary Schools and they are currently training up four volunteers to be paid as freelance workshop leaders. With a sense of brimming enthusiasm, Nick talks about some of the ideas currently underway including a ten-week workshop working with a Bridport school on writing lyrics, which he hopes will result in recording an album; a national newspaper, being designed, written, and produced by children from different local schools, which he hopes will see its first issue produced in the Autumn; a Guide Book to Weymouth being produced by children at Budmouth Academy and a range of podcasts which are currently being released on their Soundcloud page.
However, there is one small gap in the plan, and as the charity grows and becomes more effective the need to fill that gap becomes more important, and indeed valuable. The charity needs a home. And to fit in with the successful model that was begun by Dave Eggers all those years ago, it needs a public space for kids to drop into whenever they can or want to. So what is Nick’s plan? ‘I want to buy the bank’ he tells me. ‘Rather than be a nameless, faceless charity, the idea that we’re striving for is to have a space on the High Street, so that you become accessible. So I want the bank.’
Nick is referring to a building that once housed and ran the finances of the community; an institution whose tentacles spread into the many nooks and crannies of the local economy and into the lives of people striving to build their own and the town’s future. What could be more apt than a bank to house ‘The Bank of Dreams and Nightmares’? He sees it as a repository for the future of the area’s imagination, its aspirations, and healthy development; building strength from the young minds that will build our future communities. ‘The idea being that we’re a real bank for stories’ he says. ‘So kids come and they deposit stories and they withdraw stories and they get inspired to write stories in there. And what it does is it makes us as a charity accessible, so we’re not unknown. People can just wander in and discover us—which is really exciting.’
He cites Bridport as the natural starter home for ‘The Bank of Dreams and Nightmares’. He says it ‘has this image of being super-creative and eccentric and all of these things’. But he points out that it still has areas that are deprived, ‘and they are overlooked because people see the highlights’ he says. ‘And actually, it makes it sort of worse for those communities to be served.’ The other reason is the charity wants to offer more to kids than just an extra writing hour in school, by working with professionals in industry. ‘And what Bridport does have is, it’s got some really interesting people’ says Nick. He wants to tap into those interesting people. For example, one of the current projects is a comedy sketch workshop which has got two professional comedy writers running it and BBC Comedy has come on board to partner with him on it.
At this point the possibilities are endless but there is a need for more benefactors and volunteers, especially as momentum builds and new ventures grow. In September the charity will publish its second book of stories written by the children and Nick is hugely enthusiastic about the impact being published can have on young people. ‘I’m incredibly buoyant’ he says. ‘I don’t know whether it’s because we are doing something outside of school that is not like school, but when we do these books in Secondary Schools we ask the school to select twenty children from the year group who this would benefit most. Often the teachers will be amazed saying, “they don’t normally concentrate for longer than 10 minutes—they’ve lasted the whole two hours”. So we must be doing something right. But I find the kids, 99% of the time; blow me away with their imagination and what they come out with.’
Spiralling: A Slow Descent into Madness, an anthology written by a group of young writers from the Sir John Colfox School, is the title of the second volume being published and launched in September. The title doesn’t necessarily depict the content of each story; although Nick admits that some of the content is quite dark. It is chosen by a democratic vote amongst the children involved. ‘Our whole philosophy is to let them say what they want and not censor it’ says Nick. The tutors don’t try to steer the children despite sometimes being tempted. ‘It’s really hard not to try to direct them’ he says. ‘I think that’s the hardest thing to do. But when you let them go, they take you to a place where you’d never think the story would go. With the primary school workshops, we come up with a story for the class up to a cliff-hanger. And then they finish their own endings individually. Their endings are amazing; bonkers; off the wall, but really amazing! And so I guess I’m really enthused about what the kids can come up with—and the fact that they want to do it. I find it absolutely fascinating. That’s a big bonus for me in doing this.’
There’s no doubt that what Nick started at the beginning of 2021, remembering his ‘stumble’ into a Pirate Supply Store, will have many twists, turns, and indeed a myriad of endings. But in the meantime, it is a story worth following, whether as an observer, supporter, or volunteer.