At our November Speaker Series event, South Hampstead High School welcomed back two former pupils, Helena Bonham Carter and Allie Esiri, to speak to parents, staff, fellow alumnae – and some very excited pupils. During the evening, the two best friends led the audience on a mesmerising journey, punctuated by performances of specially selected poems that have guided them through life.
Allie (who has compiled several poetry anthologies including A Poem for Every Day of the Year) and BAFTA and Emmy award-winning actress Helena cited a diverse range of poets who have provided a backdrop to, and defined, their enduring friendship. Side by side on stage, they read their first choice together – a touching rendition of Us Two by A A Milne: “It isn’t much fun for One, but Two, Can stick together.” Other selections included I am by John Clare, Does it Matter? by Siegfried Sassoon, Valentineby Wendy Cope and Human Family by Maya Angelou.
Throughout the evening, Helena and Allie revealed how poetry can express the inexpressible, for not only the important things in life, but the little things as well. “A poem can transport you into somebody else’s shoes,” said Allie, whose passion for poetry was contagious. “It can also remind you that you are not alone.”
Helena and Allie Esiri (then Byrnes) met aged 11 on their first day at South Hampstead High School in 1977. “I am indebted to letters,” remarked Helena. “We had to sit in alphabetical order… all my best friends have a surname beginning with B!”
Theirs is a friendship that has endured 40 years of life’s ups and downs. When asked what her desert island luxury item would be, Helena responded “Allie” in a flash. “Allie is a professional and conscientious friend. We chat, we FaceTime, we holiday, we shop, she is my phone-a-friend. We couldn’t function without each other.”
Reminiscing about their time as teenagers at South Hampstead, Helena highlighted that there was “no envy or one-upmanship. Friendships were a cornerstone – what a gift. I was very happy here. I think I was more adult when I was child than I am now.”
“We certainly weren’t competitive at school,” added Allie, who remembers Helena as being hard-working, diligent and “law-abiding”.
During the evening, Helena recalled that she was slightly intimidated by poetry in her younger years. However this did not stop her from winning a small sum of money in a poetry writing competition, which she spent on her first listing in the actors’ directory, Spotlight. “I was wearing my yellow school shirt in my first professional photo!” laughed Helena as she showed the picture to the audience. She also drew parallels between poetry and acting: “They can both transport you to new places and you don’t even need a passport.”
When considering what advice to give current South Hampstead students, Helena and Allie urged the girls to be true to themselves, to be bold. “Do something you love. Work hard at it, do your prep… but then jump and trust that you can fly.” They also highlighted the need to take responsibility, to make your own interior weather, illustrated by the poem, Thumbprint by Eve Merriam: “I make my own sun and rain. Imprint my mark upon the world whatever I shall become.”
In her parting words, Helena reiterated the importance of learning to accept your vulnerabilities and to have a sense of humour about yourself. “Remind yourselves that you’re special, unique – and that no one can be better at being you than you.”
At the start of the evening, Helena had asked if anyone was not a fan of poetry. A few brave souls raised their hands, confessing to ambivalence (at best!) But the buzzing crowd, clutching signed copies of Allie’s poetry anthologies after the event, including the aforementioned cynics, was clearly testament to the transformative powers of hearing poetry read so beautifully aloud.
The Speaker Series is one of the many initiatives introduced by Mrs Bingham in 2017 to help open the hearts and minds of our pupils. Each term we invite pupils, parents, staff and alumnae to hear from and quiz an array of distinguished guests with a myriad of different perspectives on the world. To date, our school community have heard from a range of experts in their fields: BBC presenter Mishal Husain, feminist science writer Angela Saini, Olympic Gold medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, the first female MI5 Director General Dame Stella Rimington MBE, Citibank’s Chief Global Political Analyst Tina Fordham and the Rt Hon Michael Gove.