Saturday, 12 January 2013

Early collaborations

I drifted through Grammar School in one of the lower streams. I worked out later that it wasn’t only the boys who were streamed – in some subjects it was the teachers as well. In particular, there was a dynamic English department of which I was barely conscious. Meanwhile our English teachers were the backwoodsmen. They were less than enthusiastic but I liked them. Worse things can happen at school than benign neglect.

For a couple of years we had Alf (as I’ll call him here), a non-specialist who, having overseen the decline of his own subject, was kept occupied overseeing us. Our weekly homework was usually a list of three or four essay titles, dictated out of his head into our exercise books: The Worst Holiday, My Hobby, Loneliness – that kind of thingThe last on the list was always the same: Anything else you can think of. His comments on my work were laconic. 15/20 Good. 14/20 Quite good. 16/20 Good if original. For an essay on Crowds, I cut out and glued a picture from the Gloucestershire Echo of people waiting on the platform to see the Queen pass through the local station. I pointed out the danger that the people at the back might push forward in their excitement, throwing the people at the front under the Royal train. Alf wrote: 14/20 Not very likely.

It was probably my father who’d given me that thought. Health and safety was one of his things. But he was good at stories too. Under the generous rubric of Anything else you can think of, he helped me with a few tales of adventure – first person narratives, often set, I realise now, in the pre-War world of my father’s imagination, in which a couple of pals might set off on their bicycles into the countryside in pursuit of a burglar, to be congratulated by the local constable once the burglar was safely behind bars. I did all the writing, but he was happy to feed me plot ideas while he got on with other jobs.

The story I remember most clearly involved a local convict, whose escape is reported in the local paper. Our first-person hero and his friend do some research and decide to stake out the home of the convict’s aged mother. The convict catches our hero snooping around the house and takes him hostage at gunpoint, while the police, summoned by the friend, gather outside with loud hailers. There seems no way out of this impasse. Then the aged mother turns on the radio, and the newsreader reports that an escaped convict has captured the son of local builder Wilfrid Treasure.

‘You’re never Wilf Treasure’s son!’ the convict says. ‘Best boss I ever ‘ad, ‘e was. I was working on ‘is site, diggin’ the footin’s when they came to arrest me. Insisted on paying me out in full, your dad did, before ‘e’d let them take me away. ‘Ere, Ma, put the kettle on. I’m giving myself up.’

That’s the way I remember it, including the forest of apostrophes. I’ve no idea what Alf made of this crudely embedded commercial  for the family business. He gave me 15/20 and wrote: Implausible, but quite well written.


  1. The teacher's laconic comments, and the one-mark difference between "Good" and "Quite good" sound very familiar. Similar micro-comments (who said Tweets were brief?) appeared on our school reports. When my own son (born 1988) began to get written reports from school I was amazed at the amount the teachers wrote on them - they seemed to be writing essays, as well as reading them, and these teacherly efforts, as far as I could see, were, on the whole, plausible, and quite well written.

  2. Nice one, Phil! I saw the expansion of reports during my period of teaching, and liked it. Word processing made it easier to say more, without necessarily being more prolix. In the days when all the teachers had to write on a single sheet of paper, there was such anxiety that you might make a hideous mistake and have to grovel to all those who'd gone before you to get it re-written!