On the road

It’s funny how certain stretches of road bring things back. Twenty years ago, I was doing a PhD, part-time, at the University of Nottingham, and every six weeks or so I’d leave school at the end of the day and set off in the opposite direction to home, up the A1 and then along the A52, negotiating roundabouts and lane changes and early evening city traffic. I’d park near the Trent Building with its shiny white Portland-stone surfaces, heave my lever arch folders out of the car, and make my way to my supervisor’s room with its bright posters and scratched wooden table. We’d talk for an hour, and then I’d go home with a head full of ideas, singing along to mixtapes made for me by my friend Dermot, all Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt and REM, back in the day when mixtapes were still a thing. It was a good time.

Rainbow over Nottinghamshire. Taken from the A52, 30 October 2021

It seems a bit mad, now, to sign up for a part-time PhD alongside full-time teaching, but back then it made total sense. I’d always intended to do postgraduate work, but didn’t apply straight after graduating, partly because I was scared I wouldn’t get the funding and partly because I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I did a PGCE instead, and told myself I’d teach for a couple of years and then go back to university. Then my mum died, very suddenly, at the beginning of my second year of teaching, and my immediate need was not to uproot myself and give up my job but to put a deposit down on a house. There was enough money left over for me to fund myself through part-time postgraduate work as long as I carried on teaching as well, so that’s what I decided to do.

I wanted to look at the history of English Literature as an academic discipline, and was very lucky in being able to find lots of archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when universities in England were establishing their first degree courses in English Literature. I could talk about this for ages, but to simplify massively, there were lots of people in the late nineteenth century who didn’t think that English Literature should be studied at degree level. One group felt that it wasn’t difficult enough to be studied at university: reading imaginative literature and having opinions about it was what you did in your spare time, rather than something that could be examined with any kind of academic rigour. Another group, on the other hand, felt that literature was too special to be the object of academic study. One’s relationship with literature was personal, ineffable, and any attempt to turn it into an academic discipline would inevitably crush it.

If you’re spotting parallels here with current debates about the teaching of English, that’s interesting, because the other main element of my research centred on the discussions that were taking place about Curriculum 2000 and the teaching of English Literature at A level. What I was interested in – and what I would never have known about if I hadn’t spent a couple of years in the classroom – was the fact that the arguments that had circulated about the academic study of English Literature in the late nineteenth century had never really gone away. The early supporters of disciplinary English had to define the body of knowledge that was being taught and the way in which this knowledge would be assessed. Their initial attempts to do this often involved testing remembered facts, such as recalling the details of particular locations in Shakespeare’s history plays, or listing important national events that might have made an impression on Geoffrey Chaucer. Students had to define technical terms and offer plot summaries. My favourite question, set at King’s College London in 1882, was ‘Quote any passage from “Christabel”’.

Over the years, in a piecemeal manner, the universities started to develop ways of teaching English Literature that depended on interpretation and understanding, rather than the simple retrieval of knowledge. But the problem of English never really went away. In the early 2000s, just as I was grappling with my PhD thesis, teachers of English were navigating their way through the first few iterations of Curriculum 2000. A level English Literature now placed a greater emphasis on critical and contextual knowledge: some commentators argued that this was a way of making the subject easier to examine, and others contended that it jeopardised the delicate nature of the relationships that students were building with the study of English. A lot of work went into trying to steer a course through the new specifications, ensuring that the study of English was rigorous and challenging yet also maintaining a space for personal engagement (and protecting students, as much as we could, from the excesses of an exam-heavy curriculum). Knowledge, understanding, personal growth, the development of skills: the elements that we’re still wrestling with now, as we try to work out how best to foster our students’ relationships with this fabulous – and fabulously complex – subject.

There’s more that I could say about the study of English, but that’s for another post, because really this post is about places and times and why some phases of our lives matter so much. My PhD took me to a number of dusty university archives, and also other places, among them Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford, where I read the minutes of English faculty meetings in JRR Tolkien’s spiky handwriting. It led me to speak at conferences and meet lovely people and also write a book, Defining Literary Criticism, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it also took me along the A52, more times than I can remember. In the second year of my doctorate, one of my colleagues started an MA, and we travelled up to Nottingham together and stopped off on the way home at the Little Chef near Holme Pierrepoint, loading up on coffee and carbs – chips and a burger for him, a toasted teacake for me – before facing the rest of the journey. Those hours on the road, thinking and talking and letting ideas percolate, were immensely important. It was a time of my life between one lot of difficult experiences and another, and it stands out as a block of time that was wholly joyful and unproblematic.

We drove along the A52 this morning, on our way back from a wedding in Derby, and it brought all those memories back. The Little Chef isn’t there any more, and there are some additional tricky junctions, which is the way life goes, I guess. But I still remember those journeys, and the feeling of having a head full of ideas, buzzing and eager, and remember it as one of the most important times of my life.

On pineapples, asking questions, and treading softly

I’ll tell you what, though: I wish asking women about babies was forbidden. I long for the day when strangers and acquaintances don’t feel entitled to ask me about my reproductive choices.’ Katie Edwards, The Independent, 11 October 2021

Sigh. Just when you thought that the 21st century had finally – maybe – arrived, the new president of Murray Edwards College, the University of Cambridge’s one remaining all-female college, jerks you right back into the 1950s by complaining that it seems to be ‘almost forbidden’ to ask young women about their plans to start a family. (Nothing about asking young men about their plans to start a family, you’ll note: it’s only women who need a bit of a nudge.) There are, of course, many reasons why people’s reproductive choices are none of anyone else’s business, and I’m not going to rehearse them here. What I am going to do is to write about what it’s like to be asked those questions when you don’t actually have any reproductive choices at all. It’s estimated that one in seven couples in the UK experience problems conceiving: chances are that even if you’re not affected, there’ll be somebody in your workplace, in your family or your circle of friends, who is. That means there’s an awful lot of us who face those questions, and we need people to know why it’s not okay to put us on the spot.

I’m in my late forties now, so it’s a long time since I’ve been on the receiving end of questions like this, but there was a period of a few years when they seemed to crop up everywhere. When The Husband and I got married, it was the obvious thing to ask. Are you feeling broody yet? Are we going to be getting some exciting news soon? I got used the kind of voice people used when they asked. You know the one: that bright perky meaningful voice, reeking of entitlement and nosing its way in where it isn’t wanted. It wasn’t just the questions, it was the hints as well. When I bought a new car, one friend pointed out that its boot was just the right size for a pushchair. When I decided to grow my hair, my then hairdresser mused that many of her customers decided to grow their hair when they got pregnant. I didn’t go back.

I spent a lot of time pretending not to be interested in babies. Every week, there seemed to be another pregnancy announcement: another collection for another colleague going off on maternity leave, another round of pass-the-baby when they came in to introduce us to the new arrival. When’s it going to be your turn? I kept my head down and feigned indifference like a boss.

The reality was that The Husband and I were trying to have a baby but failing. It had all started so well. We were twenty-nine, and we’d decided that it was the perfect time to start a family. We had a mortgage. We were old enough to be responsible parents. Neither of us smoked, neither of us had any worries about our health, and we assumed that I’d get pregnant as soon as we started trying. The worst-case scenario was that it would take a few months. It would happen, naturally enough, at the time we’d decided was most convenient, fitted in between holidays and work commitments and carefully timed so that the baby would be born at the right point in the school year, preferably September or October, to have all the benefits that came from being one of the oldest in the class. But we had to be careful. We couldn’t start trying too early because then we’d risk having a baby in August, and that would be terrible. Imagine!

Spoiler: it doesn’t work. (Source: Pexel)

People give you all manner of rubbish advice when they know you’re trying to conceive. Try yoga. Or Reiki. Eat lots of pineapple. Enjoy the lack of responsibility. Just relax! It’ll happen when you least expect it. Take a holiday. We went to Norfolk for the weekend. It didn’t work. I gave up expecting people to understand, and turned to the internet, where I found a wealth of support groups for women who were trying to get pregnant. There was a whole new language to get my head round, from the technical vocabulary of reproductive medicine to the cutesy slang that people used as a means of keeping the awfulness of the whole thing at arm’s length. Having sex was ‘doing the deed’, or, more toe-curlingly, ‘babydancing.’ Posters wished each other ‘babydust’ when they were waiting to see if their latest attempts to conceive had been successful, and sent ‘sticky vibes’ to people who’d recently had a BFP (big fat positive) on a pregnancy test. Dedicated A level English Language teacher that I was, I could see why people communicated in this way: it was a shared social code, a way of signalling membership of a group that nobody wanted to be a member of for long. But it wasn’t me.

Fortunately, I found an ally. Kate – who I’m still in touch with, nearly eighteen years later – had messaged me when I’d voiced my frustration about people asking intrusive questions (see, nothing’s changed) and we’d swapped email addresses. We exchanged emails – long ones, sometimes several times a day – sharing what we’d been through and the sense of isolation we’d felt. We became fellow refuseniks, scarred and toughened. It was the first time I’d found anyone who really understood.

Kate and I had a hot date every Wednesday night. It was a very particular kind of date, for two reasons. The first was because it took place over the phone, a necessity given that we lived on opposite sides of the country. The second was that it revolved around watching the BBC TV series Bodies. Written by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor, Bodies was set on the obstetrics and gynaecology ward of a fictional NHS hospital. Its plot focused on two characters: an ambitious but bumbling consultant, Roger Hurley, who wreaked havoc on the nether regions of countless pregnant women, and a junior doctor, Rob Lake, who agonised over whether to risk his career by blowing the whistle. There was plenty of NHS politics – cheeseparing managers, league tables and people watching their backs – plus a maverick senior consultant, played by Keith Allen, whose personalised number plate read VAG 1. But it wasn’t the politics that interested us. It was the gory scenes of childbirth and its aftermath: uterine prolapses, forceps and Ventouses, fourth-degree tears and cascades of blood. Separated by the best part of two hundred miles, curled up on our respective sofas, we’d sit and talk, breaking off occasionally to watch in horrified fascination when something particularly gruesome happened. Because really, what lay beneath our obsession with Bodies was the knowledge that we had escaped all this. We may have been infertile, we may have endured all those months of symptom-spotting and been left feeling like failures, but at least we’d be spared the horrors of the delivery room and the emergency C-section. For an hour every Wednesday evening, we could console ourselves. We could run for the bus and not worry about leaky pelvic floors; we could drink wine and stuff ourselves with pâté and soft cheese. We were heady with the intoxication of having found a gang to join, even if it was only a gang of two.

Consolation prize. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Deciding to adopt put an immediate stop to all the questions about when we were going to start a family, and probably gave some people food for thought about what had been going on in the background during all that time when I’d been practising my evasive tactics and pretending not to be interested. To my immense regret, I never confronted anyone back then about how insensitive their questions were. Kate was braver than me. She’d taken colleagues to task for tactless remarks, pointing out that fertility is a privilege that not everyone shares. Many of our conversations revolved around the importance of openness. Kate told me that she’d gained huge comfort from her friendships with older, childless women, several of whom had shared their own stories of being unable to conceive at a time when infertility was a subject that people just didn’t talk about. Her experiences had prompted them to reveal griefs that had been hidden for decades, and to show her that it was possible to envisage a future without children. She’d also told some younger friends what she’d been through. ‘If nobody talks about infertility, Carol,’ she’d explained to me during one of our Wednesday night phone calls, ‘then everyone who goes through it thinks they’re the only one, they’re completely alone. And younger couples just carry on thinking that when they decide it’s time to start a family it’ll all be okay, it’ll happen just when they want it to, just like we did. Somebody needs to tell them it doesn’t always work out like that.’ We were going to be the wise women, we decided: the people who knew how it really was. We’d been fired in a crucible, burnished and hardened, but with knowledge to pass on that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There might seem to be a contradiction between wanting to be open but not wanting to be asked intrusive questions. The key difference, though, is obvious. I’m open about infertility on my terms. It’s a conversation that I get to start, when I feel comfortable about it. It’s not a corner that I should feel backed into. It’s driven by my desire for honesty, not your thirst for gossip. It’s a horrible experience – crushing and isolating – and it’s one that people should know more about. But only when I’m ready to tell.

Raising awareness is very much on my radar at the moment. Next week, it’s National Adoption Week, and you can bet your life I’ll have lots to say about that, but that’s for another post. This week, it’s Baby Loss Awareness Week, which aims to break the silence that can exist around the loss of a baby. Every year, the week culminates in a global Wave of Light on 15 October, when bereaved families around the world light candles, at 7pm local time, to commemorate the lives of babies who died during pregnancy or soon after birth.

It’s a necessary event. In the past, stories abounded of parents whose babies were taken away before they had the chance to say goodbye, let alone to grieve. Doris, the narrator of Alan Bennett’s monologue ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, gives birth to a stillborn son who is wrapped in newspaper, ‘as if he was dirty’. Nowadays, bereaved parents are supported: specialist workers help them to create memory boxes with handprints and locks of hair, and there is time – however brief – for them to hold and cherish their baby, to ease this heartbreaking loss. So many couples go through this. Every October, on social media, I’m struck by how many of my friends and acquaintances light candles. I knew about some of their experiences, but had no idea about others. Then, a pink candle, a blue candle, sometimes alone, sometimes in multiples, and I rethink my perceptions of particular lives and the sorrows they must have contained.

So, in a week when the president of Murray Edwards has lamented the fact that she no longer feels able to ask young women about their plans to have children, let’s think about all the possible answers that people might give, and the experiences that lie behind them. Let’s remember those who have suffered those gut-wrenching losses, and those who, like me, never got to see a positive line on a pregnancy test, and never had anything tangible to grieve. This is a club that none of us ever wanted to join. But let’s try to share our experiences, if we can, in the hope that it might make things easier for those who don’t yet know what life has in store for them.

Teacher Feature: Miss Caroline

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We’ll get to Miss Caroline eventually. First, here’s Lola:

Lola, from I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child

I have a lot in common with Lola, at this stage in the school holidays. I had a lot in common with Lola when I was four, too. School was looming on the horizon and I couldn’t see why I needed to go. I had lots of important things to do and school was going to get in the way. I could read, thanks to a combination of my mum, Enid Blyton, and Twinkle, the picture paper specially for little girls, which I pounced on as soon as it dropped through the door and pored over endlessly. I was competent at writing, especially now my big sister Julie had taught me how to do a capital N the right way up. And I could occupy myself for hours on end. I’d recently discovered that I could create my own horse by putting two dining chairs together and making a bridle and stirrups out of leftover knitting wool. I had Lego and plasticine and any number of things to do. Life was pretty good, thank you. I was a busy little person with a busy little mind, and I didn’t want school to get in the way.

The morning of 3 September 1977 saw me scrubbed and defiant. My school didn’t have a uniform, but I’d been put in a dress – outrage – and was standing in the hall waiting for my mum. I had a drawstring bag with my new black plimsolls in it, ready for PE, and I was swinging the bag backwards and forwards. My anger gave power to my swinging and before long my drawstring bag was flying up in the air in a steady arc. Back and forth, back and forth – and then, with a final furious swing, it smacked me square in the face.

My nose started to bleed. Handkerchiefs were deployed. It wouldn’t stop. My mum tutted and admonished and replaced one handkerchief with another and then yet another, and at some point the decision was made that I wouldn’t be going to school that day. Result! ‘Don’t you dare try that again tomorrow’, I was told. I hadn’t been trying at all, but I’d got one more day of freedom to enjoy.

So when I finally started school, I was a bit of an oddity. I was even more of an oddity because I had a book with me. It was In the Fifth at Malory Towers and it was a new world. Reading about school – especially a school with midnight feasts and lacrosse matches – was fun; it was the reality I didn’t like. My mum figured that if I took the book with me, it might make things easier. So when we got there, and while my mum talked to the teacher about why I hadn’t been in the previous day, I sat down and started to read.

The teacher’s name was Mrs Woods. She was old, like a grandma, and dressed all in brown. ‘What’s she doing?’ she asked. ‘Is she just looking at the words?’

‘No, she’s reading.’

‘Really? Can she read out loud?’

I gave a demonstration. The headmistress, the redoubtable Miss Spelman, was summoned. It was established that I could write, as well, and I was asked if I could write a story. So I did. I can’t remember what it was about, but Miss Spelman was very impressed that I could use speech marks. I was put in Class Two for Reading, rather than staying in Reception with everyone else, and went to sit with the big boys and girls every morning while flash cards were held up and we chanted the words that the teacher pointed to. Differentiation, 1970s style.

I started to see the point of school, after a while, but it’s a good job I didn’t have Miss Caroline. Miss Caroline is Scout’s first teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the fact that Scout can already read when she starts school does not impress her one little bit. Miss Caroline tells Scout that her father must not try to teach her any more; that she will have to ‘undo the damage’. She tells Scout that she must not write until she is in the third grade: ‘We don’t write in the first grade, we print’. Miss Caroline, with all the wisdom of her twenty-one years behind her, has firm ideas about how children should learn, and will not be swayed from them.

It’s clear that Miss Caroline herself has a lot to learn. She learns about cooties; she learns not to lend anything to a Cunningham – the Cunninghams never take anything they can’t pay back – and not to expect a Ewell to turn up to school for more than the first day of each school year. She finds out that there are children who don’t fit her fixed notions of what should be learned and when. She has to face, in short, the knowledge that all her training, all her years in college, can only go so far towards preparing her for the reality of being a teacher. The most important part – understanding where her pupils come from and having a sense of the reality of their lives beyond the classroom – is something that can only be learned on the job.

I was lucky to have Mrs Woods and Miss Spelman, at the start of my formal education, who responded to what I could already do by helping me to do more, rather than telling me (and my mum) that I shouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place. Miss Caroline makes Scout feel guilty for not sticking to a schedule that she never knew about in the first place. You’d hope, in time, that she will let go of her certainties about the way young people should learn; that the years will soften her corners and teach her which battles are worth fighting and which can be abandoned. You’d hope that she gets to spend less time sobbing on a desk in an empty classroom and more being astonished by what her pupils are capable of.

It’s twenty-five years now since I was an NQT; it’s forty-four years – bloody hell – since I finally made it into Mrs Woods’ classroom with my dog-eared copy of In the Fifth at Malory Towers. Not all newly-qualified teachers are as sure of themselves as Miss Caroline, and not all four-year-olds arrive at school able to read and write and do speech marks. But all NQTs, and all four-year-olds, have a lot of learning ahead of them. Good luck to all of them, and let’s hope, for all our sakes, that this year is calmer than the last two have been.

On writing, aged 48

Years ago, I read a poem by Susan Bassnett, then Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, called ‘Goethe’s Desk’. The narrator sees Goethe’s desk in Goethe’s house, and muses on what she could have done if she’d had Goethe’s desk to work at, rather than having to do ‘a dozen servants’ jobs’. Here’s the poem:

I was reminded of ‘Goethe’s Desk’ last week, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping magazine launched a new scheme for women novelists under 35. Joanna Walsh, who runs the Twitter feed @noentry_arts, wrote an open letter asking for the age limit to be removed, citing the many inequalities experienced by women: access to education and free time, an excess of caring responsibilities, and intersectional obstacles stemming from social class, ethnicity, disability and illness. Age-based prizes, the letter argued, favoured ‘those with the cultural confidence, time and money to commit to a writing career while young’. How do you achieve this conviction that the world is waiting to read what you have to say? How do you get your words out there, without the knowledge of how publishing works, the connections and advice and help up the ladder? And how do you silence the voice in your head that tells you there’s something else you should be doing?

The @noentry_arts campaign really resonated with me, as a woman writer in my late 40s. I don’t write fiction – my genre is narrative non-fiction – but my journey to becoming a writer has been shaped by many of the factors that Walsh cites in her letter. The most obvious of these is the lack of free time, stemming from juggling writing with childcare and full-time work. Behind this, though, there’s also a raft of issues to do with social class, a lack of the kind of cultural confidence and connectedness that Walsh refers to, and a hefty dose of the kind of impostor syndrome that I should really have outgrown by now, but haven’t. So here’s me, and here’s how I came to be a writer, at 48.

It all started when I was four. That was when I first read a book – a whole book – all on my own. It was Five Run Away Together – the third in the Famous Five series – and I didn’t even know if I should be reading it, because it wasn’t my book. It was a hardback, with a faded red cover, and I’d found it in the sideboard in our house. I knew it must belong to one of my siblings, but I didn’t know which one. All I knew was that I’d found a book and it looked interesting. The writer had a funny name, written in a way that made it look like ‘Gnid Blyton’. I knew it probably wasn’t Gnid – that was a silly name – but I didn’t know what else it might be, and anyway, I wanted to get on with the story. So I squeezed myself into the little space between the sofa and the wall, the place where I used to hide if I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, and settled down to read. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

Enid Blyton’s got a lot to answer for. I’m not talking about the sexism, xenophobia and disdain for the working classes. They’re appalling, of course they are, but I didn’t notice them when I was four. The thing that possessed me was the idea of adventure. I wanted a boat of my own, and a torch, and a little camping stove powered by a bottle of methylated spirits. I knew I was never going to have my own island with a ruined castle and an actual dungeon, but the rest seemed reasonable. Well, perhaps not the boat. I asked for the torch and camping stove for my fifth birthday. I got the torch, but not the stove. The torch was useful, up to a point, but there wasn’t really an awful lot that I could do with it. There was an acute shortage of the key ingredients of adventure in Newton-le-Willows in 1977: no smugglers or travelling circuses with escaped jewel thieves or rogue scientists trying to steal important blueprints. So I decided that if I couldn’t actually go on any adventures, then the next best thing might be to write about them. When my sixth birthday came around, I asked for a desk so that I could be a proper writer, and that’s really when it all started.

By the time I was halfway through my second year at primary school, my Famous Five obsession was so firmly embedded that the headmistress took my mum to one side. It was getting a bit much, she suggested. Every piece of writing I did was linked to the Famous Five in some way. I’d even managed to write an imaginary interview with Julian (though, sadly, I didn’t ask him anything about his massive superiority complex). I needed something else to be interested in. So I started to go for riding lessons, and horses quickly replaced junior sleuths as my main object of interest. Inevitably, like all horse-mad little girls, I wanted my own pony. And inevitably, like most horse-mad girls, I couldn’t have one. We had nowhere to keep a pony, and anyway, ponies were expensive. If I wanted a pony, I’d have to find some way of earning some money. How could I do that? The solution, to seven-year-old me, was obvious. I’d have to write a book.

I tried to write lots of books, over the years. To begin with, most of them featured ponies. I was good at drawing and decided that if I could illustrate my own books as well, I’d earn even more money to put towards a pony. The problem was that I didn’t have a lot of staying power. I’d come up with a good idea but didn’t know how to carry it through. I tried to write a book about British native pony breeds with pictures in biro of Shetlands and Exmoors and all the different sections of Welsh (there are four; I knew my stuff) but never managed to finish it. I spent the summer between primary and secondary school writing a book called One Jump Ahead, about a girl called Rebecca who gets a pony called King and turns him into a champion showjumper, and filled an entire Woolworths notebook which I’ve still got somewhere. As a teenager, I went through a phase of wanting to write scripts for soap operas, but had no idea how you’d actually get involved in that for real, so Brookside and EastEnders had to suffer my loss. And that, actually, was the problem. I spent a lot of time in my room, writing, or walking the streets, thinking of things to write about, but I didn’t have the first clue how you went about becoming an actual writer with your work published and your name in print. Pretty much all of my writing went completely unread by anyone except me: stored away meticulously, paper-clipped and treasury-tagged, then filed away for some mysterious day when Somebody would want to read it.

Story of my life. (Card by Rosie Made A Thing)

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I went to Oxford to do English, with vague ideas of staying on to do a doctorate and become an academic, fuelled by reading too much David Lodge. On my first day there, waiting in the porter’s lodge to get the key to my room, I had my first real-life encounter with a lacrosse stick, the first time I’d seen one outside the pages of Enid Blyton. On my second day, standing in the front quad, I talked to a boy on my course about the essay on nineteenth-century literature that we’d had to do over the summer. We’d been told to write about either the presentation of women or the presentation of the working class. ‘Well, I’m not a woman and I’m not working-class,’ he explained, all bright eyes and floppy hair. ‘I wasn’t sure which one I should do.’ I remembered earnest conversations in the sixth form common room when we’d tried to decide which social class we belonged to. We were, almost universally, the children of people who’d started at the bottom and worked their way up: my own parents had both left school at 14, and my friends’ parents were nurses and schoolteachers, skilled tradespeople and the owners of small businesses. Nobody – not even Catherine, whose mum and dad read the Guardian – was confident enough to plonk themselves wholeheartedly in with the middle classes. My floppy-haired new friend at Oxford had no doubts whatsoever. His uncle was a senior QC; his family was right up there at the heart of the Establishment. He himself aspired to be a barrister. To me, this spoke of a lack of commitment to English. It seemed disloyal. All I wanted to do, by that stage, was to spend my life reading books and writing about books and eventually – I hoped – end up writing books myself. I’d stopped riding by then, and given up on the idea of a pony, but getting my name in print was still there, hovering like a distant dream.

As it was, I didn’t apply to do postgraduate work immediately after my degree. I wasn’t sure I’d get the funding. I knew that my family wouldn’t be able to pay, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to help with my living expenses. I wouldn’t have asked them to: why should they, when my siblings had all supported themselves from leaving school? I also knew that jobs in academia were few and far between, and that I’d have to be prepared to move to wherever the jobs happened to be, scraping by on temporary contracts in the hope that I’d manage to get something permanent eventually. This was so far outside my family’s experience that I didn’t have the confidence to take the risk. I could have headed into journalism, but again, it was something I knew nothing about. I’d done a tiny bit of writing for student publications, but had been put off by the number of people who seemed to know exactly what they wanted to say and were absolutely confident that people would want to hear it. My elbows didn’t feel sharp enough. Instead, I played it safe, like so many first-generation university students from non-traditional backgrounds, and did a PGCE. I got a job at a school in south Lincolnshire, a part of the country I knew nothing about but that sounded nice, and that’s where I still am, twenty-five years later.

I did do a PhD eventually, but I did it a different way, part-time, while teaching full-time. I wrote a book – the snappily-titled Defining Literary Criticism: Scholarship, Authority and the Possession of Literary Knowledge 1880-2002 – and co-wrote two others. Then I became an adoptive parent, and started to think, a lot, about the ideas people have about adoption, the way adoption is depicted in the media and in popular culture, and how far removed these images are from the reality of adoption today. I wanted to explore these perceptions, to tell this story. And so I started to write, again.

It’s not easy, combining writing with working full-time – I’m now a Head of English – and being a parent. I write in whatever gaps I can open up around the rest of my life. There are frantic bursts during school holidays and then weeks during term-time when I can barely write at all. It takes a huge amount of self-discipline, and there’s always something else demanding my attention. But I wouldn’t be me, without it.

I need to be the age I am to write what I do. I couldn’t have written about adoption without becoming an adoptive parent, without living that particular reality and having to tackle the complexities that adoption brings. It took me a long time, and hours of redrafting, to get my work to the stage where I felt ready to submit it to an agent, and I had to give myself a stern talking-to before I pressed Send.

I don’t have any hopes of grandeur, but I do want to get my writing out there. I have an agent, but no publisher. I know it takes time. So I am working on an idea for another book, and being patient and trying to build a platform. The struggle with impostor syndrome is still there: that lurking, constant feeling that at some point, someone will give me a polite nudge and tell me to get back in my box. But maybe, one day, I’ll get lucky. And now that I’ve started horse riding again, maybe one day there will be a pony, after all.

Teacher Feature: Mrs Tilscher

It’s 1984, and I’m in my final year of primary school. Our teacher is Mrs McGrath and she is like no other teacher we’ve ever had before. She’s tall, dark-haired and exacting, and probably – at least, to our eleven-year old eyes – somewhere in her forties. She sets high standards. She’s precise and exacting: one scruffy piece of work, one desk left untidied, and you know about it. She doesn’t raise her voice, because she doesn’t need to. We respect her and we have an appropriate level of fear for her, too. She introduces us to things that we need to know about, even if we’d prefer not to, like the effects of smoking and what would happen if there was a nuclear attack. It’s classic Haunted Generation stuff, a classroom counterpoint to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. More than one person has nightmares because of what Mrs McGrath teaches us, but they’re necessary nightmares, preparing us for a world where things are more complicated than we’d ever realised.

We do fun things in Mrs McGrath’s class as well. We make sweets – fudge and coconut ice and peppermint creams – and decorate chocolate eggs at Easter. We paint, and make models from clay. We have a disco. Frankie is telling us to relax; Nena sings of ninety-nine red balloons, floating in the summer sky. The Los Angeles Olympics loom and beyond them, secondary school. We know that this is the end of something, an important time. Mrs McGrath is steering us as far as she can. At some point, we’ll be on our own.

An apple, for Mrs Tilscher? (Source: Creative Commons)

This transition from those last few months of primary school to the start of secondary, from childhood to adolescence, is captured in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. Fittingly, the poem starts with a journey, but it’s an entirely imaginary one, a voyage up the Blue Nile with Mrs Tilscher chanting the place names. There’s a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere of the primary classroom. Mrs Tilscher’s room is ‘better than home’: it glows ‘like a sweetshop’ and is filled with ‘enthralling books’, brightly-coloured resources and jars of frogspawn. Duffy fills the poem with smells and sounds you’d almost forgotten: ‘the scent of a pencil, slowly, carefully shaved’, ‘the laugh of a bell’, ‘a xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form’. For all its excitement, though, Mrs Tilscher’s room is also a safe place, where ‘Brady and Hindley / faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake’. Mrs Tilscher loves you, and some mornings she’s left a gold star by your name. You’re secure, in Mrs Tilscher’s class.

Except that everything’s about to change. Over Easter, the tadpoles grow, and so too do the children. A ‘rough boy’ tells you how you are born, and you’re appalled. The knowledge you’re gaining isn’t just about physical journeys, now: it’s about those metaphorical ones, the ones that involve something less comfortable and much more troubling than a list of place names on a map. School becomes restless. Reading the poem’s final stanza, you can feel what it would be like to be in that classroom during the last weeks of term: fidgety, full of new curiosities, ready to move on and be somewhere else. Duffy’s description of the atmosphere here is a wonderful example of pathetic fallacy:

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.

And Mrs Tilscher can’t help you any more. ‘You asked her / how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled, / then turned away.’ She’s ready to move on, too, to a new class. She’s done her job.

A few of us said we’d go back and visit, when we got to the end of primary school, but we never did. There are some things that you have to leave behind. I don’t think Mrs Tilscher’s students would be going back, either. That turning-away at the end is an odd gesture. Is it an abdication of responsibility, a refusal to face up to her students’ inquisitiveness? Is that smile patronising, telling the narrator that she doesn’t need to know about those things? Whatever it is, it’s definitely final. It’s up to somebody else, now.

I don’t remember my own last day of primary school, but I do remember my son’s, five years ago. There were tears at his final assembly and when we said goodbye to his lovely teacher, who did so much to build his confidence. I am always in awe of primary school teachers, because there is no way I could do what they do, and I am especially in awe of Year Six teachers, who see their students through that final year and get them ready to fly. If any of you are reading this: thank you. I hope you know what an important job you do, and how much of a difference you make.

Teacher Feature: Mr Sugden

I hated PE at school. It was the one subject at which I was truly rubbish. I probably wasn’t that rubbish – I could catch a ball, as long as I knew which direction it was coming from, and one joyful year in primary school I actually got a B+ for PE in my end of year report, to put alongside the smug row of As that I’d got for everything else. But I was bad enough for PE to be something I dreaded, week after week. I read a blog post this week about the anxiety that many students experience in Maths, and could recognise a lot of it. Fortunately, my main Maths teacher at school was the lovely Mr Wilson, who was just about the least anxiety-inducing individual on the planet and got me safely through GCSE to the point where I would never need to do Proper Maths ever again. But PE: no. It wasn’t exercise that was the problem. It was the rules; it was the picking of teams; it was being shouted at for my incompetence by people who hadn’t wanted me on their team and whose team I didn’t want to be on anyway. It was a horror.

All of this brings me to Mr Sugden, the subject of this week’s Teacher Feature. Mr Sugden is the PE teacher in Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, and was immortalised by Brian Glover in the 1969 film Kes. (Fun fact: Glover was a PE teacher himself before he became an actor, and worked with Barry Hines at Longcar Central School in Barnsley). Mr Sugden is the proxy for every hated PE teacher who has ever existed. He stands in for all those petty tyrants who let the best students pick the teams while the weaklings and fat kids shivered miserably on the sidelines; all those sticklers for the rules who forced people to wear discarded kit from Lost Property; all those wannabe FA Cup-winners who thrived on taunting the kids who couldn’t move quickly enough. If Sugden was your PE teacher, your whole week would pivot around that hated lesson. You’d barely sleep the night before, and then you’d wake, gritty-eyed, and drag yourself off to school hoping against hope that something would happen to mean the lesson was cancelled, like a fire drill maybe, or a smallish meteorite landing on the school.

Brian Glover as Mr Sugden, ready for action. (Source: top10films)

Sugden’s lesson isn’t really a lesson at all, because it’s all about him. He’s there in his spotless kit, his socks held up with tape, his boots ‘polished as black and shiny as the bombs used by assassins in comic strips’, his laces tied meticulously. He captains one of the teams and gets first pick of the best players. His team is Manchester United: he is Bobby Charlton. He’s also the commentator, and the ref. He threatens and domineers and takes it all far too seriously. ‘Are you tryin’ to tell me about football?’ he challenges one pupil who dares to question him. He’s let down by his goalie – the reluctant Billy, in too-big borrowed shorts – and spitefully throws the ball at him, knocking him over into the mud. So determined is he to win that he makes the boys play on after the bell, missing their lunches, until the winning goal is scored. Except that it’s his opponents who win, the ball allowed in by Billy.

Sugden definitely gets his revenge. In the changing rooms after the game, he forces Billy into the shower, barring the exit and spraying him first with hot water, then cold. The other boys are uncomfortable. They plead with Sugden to let him go. It’s the kind of behaviour for which Sugden would nowadays, quite rightly, be sacked. Watching the film now, he’s a ridiculous figure. But he’s dangerous, too: the kind of sadist who, in real life, made the school careers of countless children an utter misery.

School PE has changed enormously since the days of Mr Sugden. It needed to. PE teachers are aware of the vital role they play in safeguarding, building confidence and tackling issues of self-image, and in emphasising the importance of exercise as well as competitive sport. Nowadays, too, there are brilliant grassroots initiatives to get people exercising. I am a massive fan of both Couch to 5k and parkrun: parkrun always has a volunteer tailwalker so that nobody ever needs to be last, and celebrates the fact that in the years since its launch, the average time that participants take to complete their 5k has actually increased. Yet on the women’s running groups I follow on Facebook, there are regular posts from people who, for years, have seen themselves as rubbish at sport, who struggle to exercise in public, and for whom putting on a pair of trainers will always bring back memories of shame and failure. The real-life Mr Sugdens – and the Mrs Sugdens, and Miss Sugdens – did a lot of damage.

Teacher Feature: Tom Crick

What do we do, as teachers, when we hit a crisis in our own lives? How do we manage if the world around us is falling apart?

That’s the situation that faces Tom Crick, the fiftysomething narrator of Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland. His wife, Mary, is in a psychiatric unit after abducting a baby from a supermarket and pretending it is hers. Meanwhile, at the south London comprehensive school where he teaches, his subject – History – is under threat. His headmaster sees it as an irrelevance, and indulgence, in an age where budgets are being cut and future employment prospects are everything. He is also being challenged by a student called Price, a ‘teacher-baiter’ who argues that history is nothing more than a fairytale. It’s the 1980s, and the world faces the nightmare of nuclear annihilation. What’s the point of looking to the past when you might not have a future?

So Crick starts to tell his class a story. It’s the story of how he got to be in his present situation: a story of incest, murder and secrets, unfolding over the previous century and a half, and taking place against the shifting, restless backdrop of the Fens. It begins when Crick was a ten-year old schoolboy, living with his father and older brother in a lock-keeper’s cottage by the side of an East Anglian waterway, and takes in a whole sweep of Fenland history. The story loops back and forth, worrying away at the past like a persistent student and approaching it from different directions. As Crick’s lessons veer away from the French Revolution, and as he approaches his enforced early retirement, he tries to get his class to see that history not so much a collection of facts, but an attempt to understand oneself: to look at the process of cause and effect that brings you to your present state.

Geese over the Fens, near Boston

I first read Waterland when I was doing my A levels, and one of my A level History teachers was a Tom Crick. The other was a giant Welshman with a walrus moustache and a penchant for rugby, but our Mr Crick – who was also my form tutor – was a troubled man who was clearly undergoing a crisis of his own. He had several long spells of absence, and then a period when he only came in to teach his A level classes. He told me one day, during a tutor meeting to discuss how my A levels were going, that he’d been prescribed pills and sent to see a psychiatrist. It’s a hard thing to find out about, when you’re seventeen. When I was going through my own phase of wanting to rage at the universe, he told me I should go out into the middle of the street and scream. ‘At the top of your lungs. Better that way than on the edge of a building.’

Teaching, we’re often told, is like acting. You put on a face and perform. But if you spend more than a few years in teaching, it’s inevitable that you, or a colleague, will face something in your personal life that will shake that professional persona. Back in 2004, I was undergoing investigations for infertility. I had a series of blood tests to measure whether my ovaries were functioning properly. I got the results of the final test – which confirmed that basically it was all a bit of a disaster – one morning while I was at school. I had a choice. I could let everything fall to pieces, or square my shoulders and go off and teach my next lesson. We were in the middle of an Ofsted inspection at the time, so the former wasn’t really an option. I took a deep breath, and went off to my classroom, where there was already an inspector waiting to observe my next lesson.

I never thought, when I first read Waterland, that one day I’d end up teaching in the Fens. It’s a weird landscape, huge skies, flatness, and the constant presence of water, pumped out from the land into drains and ditches, gleaming straight lines of silver. No broad sunlit uplands; no moments of the sublime. As Tom Crick asks: ‘To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality. The great, flat monotony of reality; the great empty space of reality. How do you surmount reality, children? How do you acquire, in a flat country, the tonic of elevated feelings?’ The Fens have a beauty all of their own, but it’s a strange beauty, an acquired taste.

I never found out what happened to my history teacher, and we never find out what happens to Tom Crick and his wife, either. Teaching is many things. Sometimes, it’s frustrating: sometimes, it’s a slow, laborious daily grind, and sometimes it gives you moments of joy and hope that bring home what a real privilege it is to work with young people. And sometimes, it’s a form of support, a splint: a chance to put on a mask and carry on, a sense of purpose that takes over when everything else seems meaningless.

Hey, Ofsted

Thirty-two years ago, it was the summer of 1989. I’d just finished my GCSEs. Other people kept muttering that I should find a job for the summer, but Merseyside in the 1980s wasn’t exactly overflowing with summer jobs, and in any case I had other ideas. I was alternating between going for long solo walks – pacing around the hot summer streets of Newton-le-Willows, the air thick with the scent of goldenrod and willow herb – and reading. I was due to start my A levels in September and we’d been told that we should read as much as possible over the summer. We had an induction session where we had to write down the last three books we’d read, and cross off anything that was one of our GCSE set texts. I wasn’t completely sure what I should read, but I did know that teenage fiction and pony books wouldn’t pass muster. I’d read a review of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work in the paper, and thought it sounded interesting. I bought a copy of it from WH Smith in Warrington and read it over the course of about four days, and discovered from it that there was the possibility of doing English at university, something I’d never actually thought about before but which started to take hold in my mind, that long summer, in a way that nothing else ever had.

All in all, it’s just a … (Source: Creative Commons)

One of the central characters in Nice Work was a lecturer called Robyn Penrose. At one point in the novel, she mused on what it would be like to have never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and then reflected that there must be many thousands of reasonably well-educated people who had never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, who had never shivered at Lowood with Jane or throbbed in the arms of Heathcliff with Cathy. I’d heard of the Brontës, but what I knew of them came largely from Kate Bush singing about the wily, windy moors. There was a gap in my knowledge and it seemed to me that reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre was something I needed to do. I didn’t know it yet, but I was on the edge of something big.

I bought a Penguin Classics copy of Wuthering Heights, with purple-streaked heather moors on the cover and an introduction by someone called David Daiches. I made myself read the introduction, even though it looked complicated. I found out about the Brontës, about the sisters who died so young and the ones who survived, and was intrigued by strange crabby Emily who strode across Yorkshire and didn’t give a toss about anyone. I devoured Wuthering Heights, and then I read Jane Eyre, and between them the Brontës opened up spaces in my head that I didn’t know existed before.

I raided the local library and pored over biographies, dusty-looking books from the non-fiction section that hadn’t been borrowed in years. These books made no concessions to teenage me. I needed to reach up and find my own footholds. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this stuff I was learning about. It was a huge, absorbing mass of ideas and I couldn’t quite make it fit in with the rest of my life. I had a vague sense that my friends wouldn’t know what to make of any of this, and so I didn’t tell them. It felt like dangerous knowledge, all these things I was finding out about these three strange sisters and their slightly embarrassing brother, up there in the parsonage. It was leading me into alien territory, out there on the other side of the Pennines. Empty moorland acres and twittering skylarks and trees sculpted by the wind. I squared my shoulders and trudged on into the unknown.

By the time sixth form started, I was reading Villette. It felt like the biggest book I’d ever read. Not just in itself – six hundred densely printed pages – but in its honesty, its unwillingness to make concessions. I was possessed by Lucy Snowe’s lonely journey to Brussels, her awkward existence at Madame Beck’s pensionnat and her emerging friendship with the equally spiky Paul Emanuel. I tucked my copy into my schoolbag with my French textbook and my History notes, and read it in the library when I should have been learning about the Wars of the Roses. Walking home from school, I played out conversations in my head – imaginary university interviews with lecturers who’d read more than I could ever imagine – about why the Brontës were so important and why Villette was so much better than Jane Eyre.

Learning doesn’t just take place within a classroom. That summer, the summer of 1989, changed my life, and it happened because I had the freedom to spend three months lost in books, going for walks, and thinking.

Horses, when they are young, benefit from being turned out to graze and explore. There are things that they need to learn, but they also need time to just be a horse.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with Amanda Spielman’s announcement that students in Year 11 and 13 shouldn’t be given study leave this summer, but one of the most important is that it ignores the fact that young people – especially after a deeply traumatic year – need to be given time to be themselves. They need to mooch around and pursue their own interests; they need to hang out with friends and spend time on their own. Some will be out earning money; some will have other responsibilities. Some might still need the support of school, and it’s important that this support is there, for all manner of reasons. But what none of them need is to be in a hot stuffy classroom, pursuing someone else’s idea of catch-up. Let them be, and let them breathe.

In the beginning

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It’s September 1987, the first week of the new school year, and we’re doing Shakespeare. We’re allowed to do Shakespeare because we’re in the top set. It gives us a sense of importance, of privilege: we square our shoulders and underline our headings and brace ourselves for the task ahead. There are two top sets, one in each half of the year, and the other one is doing Twelfth Night. We’re doing The Merchant of Venice. We’re in Mrs Ferns’ class. I’ve never had her before, but my friend Catherine has, and says you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her. Mrs Ferns has half-moon spectacles that she will lower occasionally, peering over the top of them and fixing some poor unfortunate with a beady glare. She keeps singling me out to answer questions, and for a while I think she’s picking on me, until my mum says that she’s probably just trying to test me out. Then I start putting my hand up more often, and she moves on to someone else.

It seems a bit weird, this Shakespeare business. My impression of studying Shakespeare has been formed by Adrian Mole, who writes in his diary of ‘translating Shakespeare into modern English.’ It takes us a while to get Salarino and Solanio sorted out, and we whinge about why it didn’t occur to him to choose names that were a bit easier to distinguish. We suspect that Mrs Ferns is playing mind games, sometimes, when she asks us to interpret what kind of language Shakespeare has used, why he’s used this particular word and what it might suggest. We complain that we’re reading too much into it. (Reading too much into it: that thing that every English teacher will be accused of, at some point. Surely Shakespeare didn’t mean to use all those metaphors and things?) But we’re a biddable class, and we do our homework diligently. We’re doing this new qualification, the GCSE, and know that it’s important to work hard right from the start: we’ll be doing coursework soon, and it’ll go towards our final grades. Shakespeare is all part of this. He’ll help us to do well.

In Venice, things are afoot. Antonio is borrowing money from Shylock because his friend Bassanio wants to marry a woman called Portia, who lives in Belmont. We’re not quite sure why he needs money to do this (new clothes? hiring a carriage?) or why Antonio is getting himself in debt for him. Mrs Ferns tells us that Antonio is sometimes played ‘a bit queer’, and because it’s 1987, nobody thinks to pull her up on this, although I know it’s a comment that at least one of my classmates still remembers over thirty years later, citing it as one of the things – the slow drip-drip of ingrained thoughtlessness and prejudice – that made him feel different, and isolated, without any hope of ever fitting in. Mrs Ferns also tells us about the roots of anti-Semitism, and about stereotypes of Jewishness. We think of Shylock in his gaberdine, a bogeyman, another outsider, pleading for acceptance. If you prick us, do we not bleed? In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket, and learns that all that glisters is not gold: the Prince of Aragon, not wanting to opt for what many men desire, picks the silver, and is rewarded with the portrait of a blinking idiot. We know, from long-ago fairytales, that both of them were obviously misguided, that the third casket, the least special, is the right one to pick. But the story is trying to teach us something, as well as to entertain us, and so we let it.

There is news on the Rialto. Antonio’s ships have run aground on the Goodwin Sands: immediately after Bassanio claims Portia as his, he hears that his friend’s ventures have failed. All the riches of Tripoli, of Mexico, of Barbary and India, all lost. We picture silks and spices, rich brocades and woven cloths, all floating on the sea or sunk at the bottom of the English Channel. None of us has ever been to Venice. We know it’s in Italy, and that the streets are canals filled with gondolas, but that’s about it. We know that the Rialto is a bridge, but not what it looks like. We imagine somewhere busy and bustling, alive with colours, the scents of distant lands. Shylock is ready to exact his bond, and Portia puts on her disguise, ready to make her speech. The quality of mercy is not strained: It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath … Mrs Ferns makes us learn it off by heart, and I can still remember it even now, reciting it as my party piece whenever my students complain about having to learn quotations.

Our GCSE coursework is to write the front page of a newspaper, reporting on the trial. I have an idea of what I want to write but can’t make it work. I don’t know how to get the sentences to sound right. I get 16 out of 20, and ‘Good’ in red biro, but I don’t know why I got 16 out of 20, or how I could have got 17 or even 18. That wasn’t how schools worked, then. Today we’d have been given assessment criteria and mark schemes; we’d have been shown examples of what a good piece of work looked like and had the chance to get feedback on a draft of our work before having a go at the finished version. But it’s 1987, so we accept what we’ve got, and move on to our piece of work, on the War Poets, where we do even more reading-things-into-things and where our answers never seem to match up to the ones in Mrs Ferns’ head.

*             *             *             *             *

We tried to go to Venice in 2000, but there was an air traffic control strike in Italy and all the planes were grounded. Then life got in the way, as life does, and we didn’t try again until 2016. This time, we made it. It was February half-term, the week after the Carnevale, and we arrived in a misty Cannaregio towing our suitcases and hardly believing we were here. Venice! But backstreet Venice, away from the tourist hubs. Humpbacked bridges and buildings scarred with graffiti and patched with damp. Elderly men and women with wheeled shopping trollies and small dogs, going about their daily business. I remembered something I’d read in a biography of Edith Wharton, about how the interesting places were always to the side of the important monuments, hidden away.

And then we were at the Rialto. Covered in scaffolding, but still, the Rialto! Shylock wouldn’t have recognised it. The silks and brocades were cheap scarves; the spices were sachets of dried herbs for making different types of pasta sauce. There was Murano glass and fake designer handbags and bottles of olive oil. The bridge sloped under my feet and I stood and bounced, absorbing it through my soles. This was the Rialto and this was Venice and in some ways, this was where it all began. I thought of Mrs Ferns’ lessons and of everything that had happened since, and the people flowed past me on either side, oblivious.