Look at that! Nearly three months since I last threw some words at this blog. There’s no excuse except that I’ve been busy writing. The trouble is, though, I’ve been writing TWO books at once – admittedly for the past couple of years – and although they’re nearly done, they’re not quite done. If that wasn’t enough, I’ve started a third book which is something I sneak off and play with, just for fun, but it all tends to put a stop to serious thoughts about actually getting something published.
I must say that the third book is fun to write. My younger daughter calls it my doll’s house and the friend who has read it complained loudly when she reached the end of the pitiful fifteen thousand word total. I hope to finish it sometime but there’s no hurry; it’s set in 1918 and there are three girls, one still at school; a dead (they hope) father; a distant mother who is a suffragette who writes racy novels under a pseudonym; a grandmother who failed dismally as a debutante by being sick all over Queen Victoria’s satin-clad feet, and a houseful of wounded officers in the small stately home next-door.
Recently, I was having a discussion with some other writers about what, if any, encouragement we were given at school. The answer seems to have been, Not Much, for most of them, and school was often a barely-tolerated cross to bear. Not for me though. I loved school. When my mother put my name down at the small primary school down the road – the one that was built from Nissen huts left over from the First World War and were so fragile that a boy once punched a hole through the cardboard wall – she was told in no uncertain terms that she Must Not Teach Me To Read. So she didn’t and as the annual intake happened in the September after your fifth birthday I turned up on my first day aged 5 years and 9 months, unable to read (though not bothered about it). Alone out of the other forty-nine wailing children, I, (horribly precocious), informed the harassed teacher that I wasn’t supposed to be at her school. ‘Oh? Where should you be then?’ ‘I’m going to the grammar school,’ I announced. To which she replied, ‘I’m sure you will, eventually, Nicola. Now you’re here though, perhaps you’d help me with some of these children who are crying?’
I don’t remember learning to read but by my sixth birthday, on Christmas Eve, I could read fluently and was put up a year – the downside of that being that I was too shy to ask where the girls’ loos were with the inevitable puddle as a result. (The answer was out in the arctic playground, with no glass in the windows, and a long way to walk (run) if it was raining.)
So – school was fine and I had no problems – apart from the entirely ludicrous requirement that had nine-year old girls (don’t know what the boys did) knitting. Not simple knitting though. I was presented with needles and wool and presumably a pattern and told to knit a pair of gloves. With fingers. After a month of hideous nights rent with screams and nightmares – and more puddles – I was a nervous wreck and my mother demanded that they set me to knit a plain scarf.
The grammar school was fine too – Parkstone Girls’ Grammar School – which, after I left school, was transferred to a modern building. (I bet it wasn’t as much fun as when we poked about in one of the old the attics and found a tiger skin rug complete with glass eyes and fearsome teeth!) We weren’t actively encouraged to write fiction as essays on dull topics were the order of the day but there was always an expectation that you could do anything you set your mind to and I did get a couple of poems in the school magazine. It was only after O Levels that I disliked school: not the lessons but the wasted hours doing games and PE, civics, music (which seems, at this distance, to have consisted of learning to sing ‘Who is Sylvia?’ for a whole term!) I should mention games, something I loathed with a passion and to this day the only sport I follow is tennis. (That’s probably because of the Australians of the day, with their long bronzed legs and tiny shorts – step forward John Newcome. Sigh…) My school consisted of several large Victorian and Edwardian houses scattered around a couple of acres. The art department was in another house, Torvaine, about half a mile up the road and the hockey field was just beyond that. To my eternal gratitude this field was low-lying and often flooded but we didn’t get away that easily. A little farther down the road was Poole Park with its football and hockey pitches. That was all right, the walk took time out of the lesson, but best of all were the times when our school field was flooded and the pitches in the park were already booked. That meant we had to walk towards Sandbanks (the millionaire’s paradise where, incidentally, my grandfather was offered the chance to buy an acre of land in about 1900 for the princely sum of £5! He couldn’t afford it and as my mother was the fifth child, I doubt if I’d have benefited even if he had.) Once we arrived at the Whitecliff playing field we had to pick up for teams. Naturally I’d made sure nobody ever picked me, though I could run pretty fast if I wanted to. The leftovers were told to play a scratch game out of the way and this is where it was fun. It takes a perverted kind of skill to hit a hockey ball on to the shore just far enough so you all have to clamber down to the beach to retrieve it, and not so far that the ball gets lost in the sea. Much more fun than running up and down after a ball with the hockey mistress (short hair held back by a Kirby grip, aertex shirt, and shorts that were known as ‘divided skirts’) shouting, ‘Where’s the left-wing? Oh – it’s you, Nicola.’
Enjoying school as I did it’s no wonder that I was an avid reader of stories of boarding schools, many of them dating back to the late nineteenth century – these, of course, are the inspiration for my pet project, the WW1 book. I have an awful lot of them, some ludicrous and some so beloved that I read them annually and sometimes more often. There are also modern stories set in schools I’d have given my eye-teeth to attend: Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘Witch Week’ school; Terry Pratchett’s ‘Assassin’s Guild’; Miss Cackle’s Academy and, of course, Hogwarts.
To this catalogue I can now add, ‘The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School’ by Kim Newman. Set in a gloomy boarding-school not long after World War I, this is a school story written by a writer of horror stories! He’s certainly done his research into the genre and it’s great fun to spot all the usual situations but the horrors creep in and it gets extremely scary!
The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, the fabulous series written by Jodi Taylor, isn’t on the face of it, a school story, featuring as it does time travel, history, death, murder, mystery, comedy and lashings and lashings of margaritas, beer and head-banging sex. However, the setting is an historic stately home, everyone lives-in at their workplace, discipline is strict (most of the time) and when summoned to the Director’s office, the historians are as nervous as any third-former at the Chalet School.