A Childhood Filled with Books
Our walls were lined with books, ranging from poetry to art, all stacked on home-made shelves. One image that remains with me is of my parents in the evening - one either side of an open fire, sipping homemade wine, my mother knitting - and both with an open book on their lap.
My father was a self-educated man, who grew up in the east end of London, and left school at fourteen. He was a classic case – having passed his eleven plus he could not attend the grammar school because his parents couldn’t afford the uniform; he was one of nine children.
After the war he went to work for Batsfords the Publishers as a boiler man. He already had a wide knowledge of books and so soon worked his way up through the company to become a sales manager, a job he loved, but sadly, due to ill health, had to leave after only a two years. He took his books, and as advised by his doctor, moved to the country ....
When I first started school I learned to read very quickly, but then in my second term, when I was five, I got a new teacher who hit me with a ruler if I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I froze completely and forgot how to read. I didn’t begin to read again until I was eight, when Miss Beckett went off sick and thankfully never returned. That unhappy experience seemed to set the tone for the rest of my school days.
I spent most of my time trying to avoid school. I hated being stuck in high-ceilinged, high-windowed, airless rooms through all the seasons. Because we lived on a farm, and my parents didn’t have a car, I had never visited the school before the day I started. My older sister would come home and tell me that she had been sitting in a class all day. I thought she said glass, and I had imagined that school was a glass bowl filled with light. So when I arrived on my first day at the Victorian village school, I was both mystified and disappointed, and even more so at break time when I found my brother and sister had become strangers who ignored me completely.
When I was eight I developed septic tonsils, which I found a great help in my school avoidance campaign....
My Childhood Authors
We lived on a farm miles from anywhere and didn’t have a TV, so books became especially important to me, and even more so when we moved up the valley to a cottage next to the large Manor House. We were offered the cottage because the old lady who owned the Manor wanted children nearby for her grandson to play with. When I was off sick and alone in the house, my mother being at work and my father ill in hospital, the old lady took me under her wing and allowed me free rein of the books in the her nursery library. The books had belonged to her children when they were young, so I discovered writers that I had never heard of before, writers popular with children of a generation before mine. Some of my favourites were:
Lucy Fitch Perkins – who wrote a series of books about twins from different countries. I devoured them, read and re-read every page, learning about different cultures.
The Heidi books by Johanna Spry - I can still recite the first page even now, where Heidi is brought to live with her grandfather, far up the mountain in his wooden chalet, and given a bed of straw in the loft from where she can hear the wind in the pine trees.
The Bunkle Series by M. Pardoe – it took me years to work out what a Shooting Brake was!
Dr Dolittle and the Push-Me-Pull-You by Hugh Lofting - I was intrigued by the thought that animals could talk to us and we to them. (It’s true… ask my cat.)
I dipped into grown-up books, like Jane Eyre, which frightened me so much I've never been able to read it even to this day.
Later on I discovered the joy of writers like Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville. Again, Enid Blyton was written for a generation before mine and by the time I was growing up, her work was rather looked down upon, but I loved her, especially the Famous Five and the Mallory Towers series. After my father died, I dreamed of being sent off to boarding school, away from my grieving mother and all my friends who had been told never to bring up the subject of my father’s death in front of me.
The one positive thing I did take from primary school was that our Headmaster, who had a passion for ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’, would often spend hours, when he was tired of teaching, reading aloud to us.
He never could work out me or my brother; we didn’t fit into any of his little boxes. My older sister passed muster because she had neat hand writing. I remember his surprise the day he asked us to recite poetry and I recited ‘Meg Merrilies’ by John Keats. I’d spent a rainy afternoon dipping into my father’s books and I’d learnt it by heart. He asked me how I knew the poem. I didn’t enlighten him.
That Special Teacher
I don’t think there was ever a special teacher who lit the blue touch paper of writing for me, or in fact, any other subject, but there was one teacher who tried. His name was Mr Reid, or as we all unkindly called him, Loony Reid. Whether it was because he knew my mother from the school where she taught, or because he saw a talent, I don’t know, but he marked me out for special attention. At thirteen I didn’t want that. He used to ask me stand at the front of the class and read out my story, and all my friends would titter in the back row. They used to call me Loony’s pet. I retaliated and had another septic tonsil episode, but then they decided to take my tonsils out and I was stumped. I no longer had an excuse to stay off school.
I look back now and I cringe at my crassness, my unkindness towards a man who was genuinely trying to help me. I suppose the only thing I can say in my defence is that I was unused to getting attention or being singled out, and so I found it too uncomfortable, and hit back.
My Beginnings as an Author
Once I learned to write, it became the only thing I ever excelled at, and though my teachers complained about my handwriting and my spelling, I was praised for my creativity. I started my first novel when I was eleven. I still have it.
In the early 1990’s I moved to Sheffield, and when unpacking, found some of my old school English exercise books. Dipping into them, I was surprised by how good the stories were. They were probably the same stories that poor Mr Reid had praised. Thank you Mr Reid.
Once I had settled in to my new home, I determined that I would find a writing workshop and resume my writing life. A month later I started at a WEA* class that had a creche. It was my first step on the road to being a writer.
A few years later I was accepted on a Lottery-funded writing project called The Opening Line. I gained a lot of confidence and experience on this year- long course, and began to write a novel. This was my second step.
The next year I gained a place on an MA Writing course at Sheffield Hallam University, even though the only English qualification I had was an O Level. I was accepted purely on the work I submitted.
* WEA – Workers’ Education Association – an organisation set up to help people to educate themselves. It is not a qualification-based organisation.
To be continued ….