Best-selling novelist makes emotional return to Sussex childhood school

Award-winning writer Alex Preston, a former pupil of Sompting Abbotts Prep School, returned to his almer mater after over 25 years. "I was moved and delighted to be back!" he said. "The school has kept the things that made it unique and inimitable."

Author Alex Preston with Sompting Abbotts Headmaster Stuart Douch
Author Alex Preston with Sompting Abbotts Headmaster Stuart Douch

14th March 2018 — Alex Preston made his return this week after offering to run a creative writing master class for the Year 7 and 8 pupils as a thank you for the "extraordinary warmth and joy" the school gave him as a child.

He and his brother, the Celebrity Big Brother star and singer, Samuel Preston of the Ordinary Boys, attended the independent school near Worthing during the 1980s and 1990s. 

“Sompting Abbotts was my sweet spot. What it did was to nourish a deep love of learning, particularly of English literature,” said Alex Preston, who won his scholarship to Lancing College at the school. 

Preston's first novel, This Bleeding City, published by Faber and Faber, won the Spear's Best First Novel Prize, the Edinburgh International Book Festival Readers' First Book Award, and was chosen as one of Waterstone's New Voices 2010. It has been translated into 12 languages. His second, The Revelations was published in February 2012, while his third, In Love and War, was featured on BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. Preston reviews books for national newspapers and magazines and is a regular panelist on BBC2's The Review Show. He is the grandson of Princeton University English professor and literary critic, Samuel Hynes. 

"I wanted to give the students a taste of what studying Creative Writing at university might be like and so I delivered them a brief lecture on the building blocks of good prose - how to come up with ideas, how to build character, how to shape plot," said Alex, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. "We discussed the Socratic method, using a piece of Platonic dialogue to investigate ideas about how meaning inherent in words changes across different cultures and languages."

The students, he said, responded brilliantly to the material, coming up with superb examples of their own. "They showed what creative and unusual brains Sompting Abbotts has helped nurture. The Year 8 students were particularly sharp and displayed both lateral thinking and a deep love of literature – just the qualities that the school nourished in me 25 years earlier."

The Year 8 pupils, many of whom are studying for senior school scholarships exams right now, felt they had benefited hugely from their tutorial with a successful contemporary novelist. 

"It's not every day you get to meet a famous author!" said Ethan R. "It was very informative and I hope it will help my creative writing skills." 

"He was very inspiring and he's galvanized me to try a career involving creative writing," said George B-N. "My passion for it was set alight by his talk."

Another pupil Jonny T added: "I thought his visit was really interesting, I liked the ideas about putting characters in awkward situations to drive a plot and using actions to convey emotions. I think my creative writing will become more vivid now." 

Headmaster Stuart Douch said: "It was invigorating and enthusing for us to meet an Old Abbottonian who is creating great literature and inspiring others to express themselves with the written word. It was a brilliant event."

Preston toured the school and sat down to a school lunch with the staff and pupils in the dining room where he used to eat 25 years ago.

"You only need to walk around Sompting Abbotts to know that this is a special place - from the quality of books on the many shelves (and in students’ hands) to the atmosphere of intellectual endeavour and cheerful spirits that wafts about the place," Preston said. 

He added: "The school has kept the things that made it unique and inimitable. Progress is knowing what to discard and what to hold onto as we move into the future; it feels to me like Sompting Abbotts has made the right decision at every step of its development over the past quarter-century and I can only hope that it continues to flourish for many years to come."

Running a good school, he said, was both a science and an art. "But Sompting Abbotts has something else on top of these: a magic that means that for all who pass through it will continue to conjure feelings of warmth, happiness and decency."

Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School (Coed 2-13) is a day school in West Sussex.

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