Whether you are enrolled in an English degree like me, or dropped the subject as soon as you reached A-Level, everyone can agree that literature is an unbelievable force for change. My (almost unintentional!) involvement in the Royal Commonwealth Society is the perfect demonstration of this. One little poem I wrote near the end of Year Thirteen amidst my A-Level revision has since taken me places I never could have imagined.
The flowers in the image above were a thank-you from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) for a speech they asked me to give at the Commonwealth Day fundraiser banquet on the 14th of March this year. If I had said this sentence to myself in March 2022, I would have laughed in disbelief. ‘Who am I to be attending such high-profile events?’ But it isn’t me. It’s literature, and my role as a representative of the positive force it can have on the world.
The RCS’ focus on literature is representing young people (specifically from disadvantaged backgrounds), representing the under-represented, promoting education, and spreading peace across the nations. The Commonwealth was never something on my radar before I became involved with it, but seeing what they are doing with literature, especially for young people, has inspired me and given me life-changing opportunities.
The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition
The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition (QCEC) is the oldest international writing competition for schools. The RCS has been delivering it since 1883! Winners have gone on to receive Pulitzer prizes and become authors, and I came to hear about it through my English teacher last year, in my final and only year of secondary schooling in the UK.
When Mrs Whyte first emailed me about the competition, I ignored it. The criteria was to write a poem, short story or essay based on the set prompts, and in my mind, my A Level revision was far more important than a creative writing competition. However Mrs Whyte was determined I had a chance and emailed me again, encouraging me to enter. I ended up writing a poem called ‘Nursing Homes,’ which can be found next to my picture on the page at this link: https://www.royalcwsociety.org/meet-the-winners
A few months later, I received the news that I came runner-up in the senior category of the competition, and I was absolutely flabbergasted. What unfolded next felt almost like a dream. I was put up in a hotel in County Hall for a week with my parents, and the other winners of the competition were flown out from all around the Commonwealth, including places like New Zealand, India, and Uganda. Every day we visited several significant cultural sites in London, like the Tower of London, the BBC Broadcasting House and the British Library. We also met incredible people like the Speaker of the House of Commons and the High Commissioners of Singapore and Australia.
The highlight of the week was the final day when we were invited to Buckingham Palace for the awards ceremony. The people in attendance came from all different areas of the RCS. I got to chat with Dame Susan Hill about ‘The Woman in Black’ and Geri Halliwell read my poem out to the party (and gave me a hug!). Then, most importantly, I had the honour of meeting HM the Queen Consort and receiving my certificate from her. The pictures of me and Camilla featured on the Times and the Royal Family official Instagram, and it was incredible to receive screenshots of the articles from my friends who didn’t know I had won the competition!
“Each year, young people write on a theme that stems from the Commonwealth’s values and principles, developing key literacy skills whilst also fostering an empathetic and open-minded world view.”About the QCEC, royalcwsociety.org
High Commissioners and Westminster Abbey!
What made everything even more special that day at Buckingham Palace was the fact that it was my 18th birthday. I had my first legal drink in the presence of royalty! But, also, when I turned 18, I was generously invited to become an associate fellow of the RCS because I had won the competition. I was able to choose which part of the society I wanted to involve myself in, and of course, I chose literature.
My passion for literature really started to blossom. Knowing that I was representing something so important made me think back to how lucky I was to have entered the competition. I’d grown up in Lebanon and was forced to go to a boarding school for my final year of A Levels because Lebanon’s socio-economic situation had deteriorated to the extent that I wasn’t able to do my exams there. I had never been encouraged to do creative writing at school. Reading had always been for losers throughout my childhood. The fact I’d come to this point and been recognised with such exposure and success was almost a miracle. I can’t wait to start giving back to the RCS since they’ve given me such incredible opportunities.
I can’t wait to start giving back to the RCS since they’ve given me such incredible opportunities.
A little while after the ‘Winner’s Week,’ I was invited to the High Commissioner’s Banquet at Guildhall. I got to have dinner with more people I never would have dreamed of meeting. There were most definitely over 150 guests, and though I felt out of my depth, being the youngest in the room, it built my confidence and was an honour to represent the RCS. I also got an invite to the Princess of Wales’ Carol Service at Westminster Abbey which is broadcasted on TV every Christmas Eve, and it was surreal and beautiful to see that in person.
Commonwealth Day & Banquet
I thought things couldn’t possibly go up from here, but yet again, the influence and importance of literature took me as a representative once more – this time as the ‘Mace Bearer’ for the Commonwealth Day Service on Monday the 13th of March. I had received an invite to the service already, and was unbelievably excited to attend – I might even feature as a face in the crowd on TV!
However, my socks were blown right off when a few days before the service, I received a call asking if I would be willing to take the role of Mace Bearer in the royal procession down the abbey. Essentially, I would have to walk in front of their majesties the King, Queen, and the rest of the royal family as they walked slowly down the abbey, place the mace in front of the King, bow, and lead the procession again on the way out.
I was so shocked that I wondered if they’d gotten the right person for a second. This seemed so out of my depth that I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But then I thought of all the other young people like me I could inspire if I did this – I wanted to let them know that just one little poem can be the thing to shake up their world! The link to the service is featured below – you can see me at the beginning and end wearing a blue suit and white gloves, holding the Commonwealth Mace, which is a massive solid gold stick with the flags of all the countries of the Commonwealth etched onto it. I was even name dropped by the BBC presenter at the end of the service, and it still blows my mind that I was on live TV!
Seeing my name card on the tablecloth in that dining room in the London Marriott Hotel almost brought tears to my eyes.
Not only did I get to be a part of this incredible event, but I got to connect with people all across the Commonwealth doing life-changing things for people in their countries and communities. Meeting the Royal Family was probably the highlight of my life – I’ll never forget exchanging smiles with them!
And finally, I was asked to say a speech at the Commonwealth Day Banquet the next day – again, the youngest person in the room with only a poem going for her. Seeing my name card on the tablecloth in that dining room in the London Marriott Hotel almost brought tears to my eyes. It’s amazing that my story can be a testimony to the power of literature. If you feel like your writing is insignificant, please be encouraged that it is so significant, more than you know!