I admit to having been genuinely surprised by the comments from ‘real’ artists (I’m impressed by anyone who can make a living out of art!) about my Christmas cards and I have been wondering why my pen has been used for writing rather than drawing these last 20-odd years.
I know why I love writing. I love reading. When you love reading, sometimes it inspires you to want to do your own. Stick me behind a book and I’ll be quiet until you take the book off me. For someone who talks a lot, this is a good way to ensure my silence. I’m quite convinced I get books as presents just so I sit quietly for an hour. Books have always taken me to other places, whether they are the inspiration behind going to Brazil (Journey to the River Sea) or Japan (Across the Nightingale Floor) and ever since I can remember, I’ve just loved books and words. I’ve still got every single book bought for me as a present, from my Children’s Bible (from my Nana and Gramps) to my Hans Christian Andersen (my Gran)
But I wasn’t a good writer. Or reader. At least, I was until I met my nemesis. Mrs Skinner, my first year English teacher at secondary school. She was everything I was not, and have not grown up to be. Glamorous, confident, well-dressed, coiffed, skiing holidays and ski suits, clothes from Jaegar and Dash. I’ve never been that adult, and I wasn’t that child.
My first mark in English was 7.5 out of 20. We were reading The Odyssey (because that’s SUCH a great book to give to a child!) and Liz next to me got 20 out of 20. I will never, ever forget that mark or her comment. “Did you even read the passage at all?”
I had. And I’d tried really hard.
I spent the next 3 years in the shadow of brighter, cleverer girls, girls who went to Oxford and Cambridge, worshipped by Mrs Skinner.
I wasn’t that girl.
Then I had the luck to have Mrs Trethewey for English GCSE. She is and always has been my inspiration, although we have very different styles. She was quiet and supportive and demonstrative. She gave me a book of John Clare poems and copied out a Spike Milligan poem by hand in her green Berol pen. These were the days before photocopiers, but that one gesture has stuck by me forever. I used Berol pens myself for a long time. I don’t think I ever saw her mark in red. Mrs Skinner used to cross through my work in red. Whole pages. Page after page.
When I chose my A levels, I chose the subjects I’d either done well in, or subjects where I had loved the teacher. I had not done well in English Literature (I got a B… it’s okay… Bs are the story of my life. Tries Hard but Doesn’t Really Get It.) but I took it anyway. I took RE because Linda Kerr was up there alongside Mrs Trethewey as World’s Best Teacher. And I took French. I’d been quite good at it.
I dropped Art because I thought to myself that unless I wanted to do Art at University, it was a bit of a pointless escapist kind of a subject. And despite how easy Art had always been compared to English (I never got 7.5/20 or my work crossed through) it seemed like I’d come to the end of the study road with it.
Of course, I had the misfortune to get Mrs Skinner for A level. She never gave me higher than a C for any piece of work. Again with the red lines and ‘Avoid Sweeping Generalisations’ (story of my life!) and huge circles around my errors. Because she wouldn’t aim higher than a D on my predicted grades, I was left unable to sign up for an English degree at any of the universities I wanted to go to, and even the bigger polytechnics wouldn’t accept my C grade. I wanted to do English so much, but with her predicted D, I wasn’t even in the running.
I got a B.
I always think I got that grade despite her.
I guess I could have reapplied the next year. I know I messed around with Clearing for a bit, trying to find another place to read English, but it wasn’t happening. I went to Sheffield to do an English and Psychology degree and actually, it was the kindest, most wonderful experience.
I got a 2.1 and although I wasn’t writing, books were finally making sense. Everything that I’d always thought was going on was going on. Where I though Shakespeare was being smutty, he was! Where I thought Owen’s War Poetry was immensely tragic and appealed right to the teenage heart of me, Mrs Skinner had dismissed him as an effete homosexual who couldn’t hold a candle to Keats. Where I had loved Jane Austen’s sharp bitchiness, I still will always associate her with Mrs Skinner who worshipped her sharp tone and disparaging comments.
My degree taught me that I pretty much liked most of what was out there, and it was little surprise I ended up taking more and more English. In fact, I took an extra unit, just because nobody seemed to care if I sat in on the lectures and went to seminars. I signed up and that was that. None of this fee-paying malarky as there is now. I liked the psychology too, and for a long time I battled with whether I’d become a psychologist or a teacher in that final year.
When I came into English teaching, it was pretty crappy. It seemed like lots of schools were still doing books from the sixties and seventies. Luckily, I ended up with Charlotte and Karen and Eileen at Chaucer where The Bridge to Terebithia was standard teaching and ‘new’ books were the way forward and nobody, but nobody taught the same thing to each class, year in, year out.
As I got responsibility, I got money. I could now buy the books for my department. If I wanted a set of Private Peaceful, I could buy it. The same with The Outsiders and Chanda’s Secrets, Wolf Brother and The Conch Bearer. It was incredibly liberating.
And so as I taught, I read more and more. Longman Pearson paid me to read books, write reviews and then teaching materials. I got paid to select some of the best children’s books on the market. Books were my thing.
And then I stopped teaching.
I still love books. I still love children’s books and teenage fiction, but having (a little) extra time brought out the artist in me.
This artist has always been with me, from the doodles on the margins of my A level work to the scraps of watercolours I did, to the night school A level course and then the photography. She’s always been there. She’s just been diplomatic enough to sit back and wait whilst I worked out my frustrations about books. Now I’m at that point where I know this literature subject soooo well that my inner artist wonders how she can live up to that level of achievement. I guess these next years coming, I’ll find out!