Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Miss Allison and Novel Writing

My closest friend from school days, Elaine Noakes, came to stay with us for a weekend in the summer (July 2009). We did quite a few things together, which was all very nice. To begin with, I organised a dinner party for a few of our school friends and their partners, from Lister School (which was, first of all, a technical school, then became a comprehensive school and is now known as a Community School - see The dinner party was for the school friends that I have kept in contact with over the years. There was lots of food and drink, cheerful conversation and reminiscing.

The next day, Elaine and I went to the Anarchist Bookshop and Freedom Press in East London (near Aldgate East station) and then went on to the Whitechapel Art Gallery (which recently reopened) which is literally next door. Elaine bought quite a lot of material in the bookshop - it was a great opportunity for her, as they don't have a bookshop like that where she lives. Then, in the evening we went to see 'Time and the Conways' (by J.B. Priestley) at the National Theatre, London.

On the Sunday Glenn, Elaine and I went for a walk together in Wanstead Park. We had lots of conversation about politics and literature. Much to their surprise and delight, Elaine and Glenn found for example that, as children, they had both really enjoyed the Viking stories by Henry Treece see -

I never read any of those books at all; I much preferred more 'feminine-type' books, such as Louisa Alcott's 'Little Women' and 'Good Wives'. Also, Sue Barton's stories about nursing. I also really loved adventure stories, with children finding treasure in places like Tintagel, in Cornwall, for example. On the whole though, it has to be said that I cannot remember all that much about what I read as a child.

Elaine and Glenn walking in Wanstead Park, July 2009

But in this blog, I want to focus, in particular, on our conversation about English literature, and how this got me thinking and reflecting more on something quite specific - namely, our English teacher at school and my childhood dreams of writing a novel.

So, in the course of the conversation on our walk, we got talking about our English Teacher from Lister County Technical School. Now, as my readers know, I read loads of novels as a young girl and my love of books has remained with me throughout the whole of my life of course. I cannot bear not to have a good book to read. I always wake up in the morning looking forward to reading the latest book that I am engrossed in. And if I don't have one, well then, I have to find myself one pretty sharpish! That's the extent of it all. Anyway, in relation to my school days, my love of reading fiction obviously meant that the chances were that I was going to particularly enjoy the English lessons at school. And indeed, I did. Our English Teacher, Miss Allison, taught our class English right from when we were 11 years old, through to when we were 16 years old (years 1-5 as they were known as in those days). She was also our form teacher throughout this period. She was a strict teacher, who then made the lessons interesting, so the class behaved, which meant that we were able to listen and to learn.

I hated the weak teachers, who could not control the classes, which caused havoc to break out and made it difficult for those of us that wanted to learn, to be able to. I was a quiet member of the class (surrounded by many loud, white working class kids), which meant that I felt very vulnerable at times and in such situations. Basically, a third of the class was quieter and more thoughtful and studious, but two thirds were loud, rowdy and messed-about (doing stupid things like throwing paper aeroplanes about), given half a chance, and were not interested in learning. The French lessons were a good example of how the rowdy ones messed about when we had poor teachers. French teachers kept coming and going and most of them could not control the class. So, because of all this, whilst to begin with (in the first year) I got very good marks in French, I ended up with a poor C.S.E. grade. So, in this way, I very much appreciated Miss Allison with her ability to be able to control the class and deliver interesting and varied English lessons.

My favourite English lessons were those where whole novels and plays were read out in class (I was not so keen, in contrast, with English comprehension, for example, which I found to be rather nit-picking and where one could not get so involved with the plot). But when someone read out loud in class in this way, I became very absorbed, throwing myself into the stories, thinking and removing myself from day-to-day reality, once again. I was captivated. In fact, they were my favourite lessons, until the history lessons that we started to have with Mr. Thomas in the third year (now known as year 9), where we explored the Tudor and the Stuart periods. I thought that was absolutely fascinating. It was also the first time that I had ever heard a teacher talk about anything vaguely sexual; he talked about Henry VIII taking his various wives to bed. I admired his boldness here; I thought he was taking risks saying this to a class of schoolchildren, but he could 'pull it off' because he was such a strict, fair teacher. So, all that really amused me, and it is something that I have always remembered very clearly. Mr. Thomas was just such a good teacher; a good disciplinarian who then made the lessons interesting, indeed exciting, told us to take notes, and also added humour to it all. All this then lead me to reading historical books by Jean Plaidy. But in regard to Miss Allison, well now, Elaine was definitely one of her pets, one of her favourites; well, probably her favourite in the class, if the truth be known.

In addition, basically, Elaine Noakes and Alan Elias were top of the class. Alan, incidentally, then went into the legal profession, and became a partner in the international law company Clifford Chance, for a number of years. A company which, by strange coincidence, I worked at for a short period (1999-2000) myself, as a Project Manager, taking the library through the initial implementation stages of their Unicorn Library Computer Management System.
So, from a situation where both Alan and I had been bullied at school, we came out 'on top' in various ways. Anyway, I digress somewhat.

Elaine, like me, is an only child, but her upbringing was different to mine, and I think she had more time to develop at her own pace, as a child, than I did. She was indeed, very able, and various people in the class looked up to her. She learnt to play three musical instruments; the piano, the clarinet and the cello, and obtained many music qualifications, working through the grades - she had grade 8's in some, if not all, of her chosen instruments. She would also often play in the school concerts. Now, Miss Allison would frequently select Elaine to read out in class. And Elaine was, indeed, very good. I enjoyed sitting listening to her reading, enabling my imagination to travel freely. But Elaine said, on this walk of ours, that when she was at school she sometimes got fed-up with always being the one that was chosen to read. She also read a lot of Shakespeare plays out loud in the class, which of course, was particularly demanding. Apart from anything else, too much reading out loud can give one a sore throat, of course! Yet, in contrast, Miss Allison never chose me to read out in class. I expect this was also because she knew that Elaine was a good 'performer' as it were, because as I say, she often played in the school concerts as well. Patterns repeat themselves; those that are successful become more successful etc. By this I mean, that it would probably have been good for me to have read out in class - it might have helped to increase my confidence. Still, that's life and all a long time ago now. But now that I am 'going' for the novel, my thoughts naturally return to these early school teenage years.

Why am I saying all this now, one might well ask? Well, because on our walk Elaine made the point that whilst she seemed to be something of a favourite with Miss Allison, she thought that for some reason or other Miss Allison took a dislike to me. I hadn't really thought about this all that concretely before, but Elaine got me thinking, and I have concluded that she might well be right about this. Elaine said that perhaps Miss Allison had some sort of chip on her shoulder, and I disturbed or threatened her in some way or something. Miss Allison was definitely a spinster-type for one thing - that was for sure (in fact, she reminded me somewhat of the strict disciplinarian, spinsterish female teacher in the comedy series 'Please Sir', for any of you that can remember that comedy programme - see But Elaine did get me thinking further. Perhaps, Miss Allison herself had wanted to write a novel as a child, and was not able to, did not have the right conditions and opportunities etc. And/or was perhaps forced to go out and earn some money. Perhaps, for these sort of reasons, she became an English teacher instead; a poor second choice, of course. Who knows - but that would explain something about her attitude to me. She certainly seemed to find me something of an irritation, even though I never did anything to actively irritate her at all, unlike so many of the others in the class. Or perhaps she just wished that I was more confident; may be I represented something of a negative side of herself that she was trying to put behind her. Who knows?

Now, one might ask - 'why should I be given any special treatment by an English teacher?' There were after all, some 30 children in the class. But the point was that I loved reading and read more books than anyone else in the class. At one point Miss Allison set up a class library. This involved her taking books out of the school library, and putting them on a shelf in our classroom. At this point, I was reading books from the public library, the school library, the class library as well as books from my own collection at home. I also used to do voluntary work in the school library with my friend Pat Sandel in the lunch hour.

Then, Miss Allison told us to borrow books from this class library and to write up annotated bibliographies of the books we read, and put them in a journal. Now, I read about 8 books a week - I can remember that very clearly to this day. I wrote up annotated bibliographies of my 8 books a week very enthusiastically. I thought that this would really impress Miss Allison, be a way of helping me to get through to her, and for her to understand a little more about my mind, and how fast and enthusiastically I could read and think. I loved it all anyway, and wanted to do it, so this was no hardship to me at all. But Miss Allison did not seem as impressed with this as I thought she would be. Perhaps, she was hoping that someone else would shine through - who knows. She would also often say on my school reports that I could 'try harder'.

Then, I had this negative attitude and reaction from her when I approached her when I was about 12 years old, about writing a novel myself. I had just read a good book that had been written by a 12 year old and suddenly thought that I could do this myself. I dreamt of having a novel written by me on a shelf in the public library. I talk about all this in a piece that I wrote about the best-selling novelist, Michelle Roberts that is on our website - see Roberts

It all seemed such a wonderful idea.

It took a lot of confidence for me to go up to Miss Allison like that (especially as I was quite a shy and timid child). But at the time I so passionately wanted to write a story book, a work of fiction, that I put my inhibitions behind me and 'braved it'. But when she gave me the clear vibe that I had 'ideas above my station', and put me off, well that completely dampened my confidence. And still worse rather than giving me credit for how much I read and absorbed she wanted more from me. Unfortunately, this trait has continued somewhat into my adult life - with people wanting more and more from me. Glenn also suffers here in this regard. People never seem satisfied. Anyway, Miss Allison said that I should be reading a better class of book than that provided by Agatha Christie (who was one of my favourite authors about that time). Well, after that, I gave up all serious thoughts of writing a novel myself as a child. I came away with the feeling of being 'put-down' rather than having my confidence boosted, when I had wanted the opposite. I knew that I was capable of writing a novel; I just needed someone else to have some faith in me, and to point me in the right direction. Because, of course, I did not know how to achieve it at all on a practical basis. My mother would never have helped me either. This was a serious problem for me, and partly why I ended up often turning to teachers - I saw them somewhat as surrogate parents, in some way. No wonder that education has always meant such a lot to me throughout all my life!

In regard to the practicalities of getting a novel published, indeed, it is only now that I am really starting to get to grips with the intricacies of how to actually achieve this. This includes going through an agent and not going directly to a publisher directly of course; writing the whole book out in draft first, leaving it to one side for a while, then revisiting it and editing it. Then, once one has the completed draft manuscript to look through the Writers and Artists Yearbook and find agents that cover the area of one's novel. Also to look through the acknowledgements pages of recent novels in one's area, because as John Jarrold explained to me, authors often mention their agents in the acknowledgements. I contacted John Jarrold recently of John Jarrold Literary Agency - see and he made all this very clear to me and I very much appreciate this. Then, finally, of course, to make contact with the agent. But I can see that it is important to only do this when one really thinks that one has a winning formula; a best-selling novel; a novel that will engage. The way that I have been selecting out books that are real page-turners recently should really help me in this regard, I think (see my previous blogs about the novelists Douglas Kennedy, Rosamunde Pilcher and Erica James), for example. Also, the value and importance of enticing book covers.

But the whole thing did puzzle me as a child. I was a well-behaved pupil, who never gave any hassle. I got good marks in nearly all of my subjects. I was passionate about books and reading and very interested and keen on learning in general. So, anyway, all of this had a bad effect on me, particularly when it came to pursuing the idea of writing a novel, which I have put 'on hold' until now. Still, I got my first non-fiction book published in 2005, on Globalisation, see - so, at least, my fantasy of writing a book became a reality. And I am now starting to realise that many of the lessons I learnt from writing a non-fiction book can actually be applied to fiction writing - particularly in regard to the need for focus and determination and thinking in very concrete ways about how to make getting a book published a reality, which is somewhat different from dream-like fantasies of course! If one wants to achieve something, no matter what it is, one has to be clear and single-minded about it.

In conclusion, I very much appreciate how Elaine has helped me to clarify my thinking on these matters. And of course, it really was because of her that I went to university in the first place. And I have always been very grateful to her for that. She also helped me to become a more confident person in the sixth form; although the whole environment was much better for me in this way, in general, than my previous school years.
Then, when we were studying for our A' levels in the sixth form, Elaine suddenly said that she wanted to study at a campus university - leave home and London. Well, I often wanted to run away and leave home - since my early teens, but could never think of a sensible and legitimate way of doing it. I was too bright to kid myself that it would all have worked out alright. I could see that if I had run away I would probably just have ended up in care, and would have been worse off rather than better off. On the whole, your parents are going to care for you, be more bothered about you, than strangers in a social services department - I felt sure of that. Anyway, Elaine suddenly supplied me with the perfect solution. Everything turned around in the sixth form. People were now rating and appreciating my ability and my intelligence in general. Going away to a campus university seemed the perfect solution; the icing on the cake, as it were.

This was very much reinforced by our A' Level Sociology teacher, Barbara Rabone. She was 'all for it'; she definitely thought that Elaine and I should apply for campus universities outside of London. She had obtained a degree in Social Administration from Nottingham University herself, and said that the whole thing had been a wonderful experience and that we would really benefit from it.

In fact, the whole thing about us studying A' Level Sociology is interesting in itself. From when I was 11 years old, through to when I was 16 years old, Lister was a Technical School. Then, as we entered the sixth form, it became a Comprehensive School. It changed from being a very small school, with only about 350 pupils to being a large comprehensive school, with over 1,000 pupils. There was no A' Level Sociology on offer in our sixth form. Elaine and I started studying for Economics, History and English A' Levels. But we did not like the History at all. Each week we were told to learn a series of facts which we were then tested on. So different to the history lessons that we had had previously with the wonderful Mr. Thomas. So, anyway, we mentioned to some of our teachers that we would be interested in studying A' Level Sociology instead. Various social issues, along with religious issues were always being discussed in my home. It was something that I had very much been brought up with and I thought it would be very interesting to study all this in a more formal and disciplined way. Barbara Rabone had just started teaching at the school. She did not always enjoy teaching some of the more working class, rowdy, undisciplined children that she found herself having to deal with all that much. So, I think for this reason alone the idea of setting up and teaching A' Level Sociology appealed to her. And so, that is what she did. We were indeed, very fortunate and I am very grateful to her for all of that.

All in all, in my school years (from 1st-5th year, when I was 11- 16 years) Mr Thomas was the best teacher we had as far as I was concerned, and Miss Allison was our second best teacher. I wanted to 'put the record straight' here as well, because although I had these personal issues with Miss Allison, I still learnt a lot from her lessons and she was indeed, a very good teacher. Also, when I was 16 years old, I thought briefly about leaving school and becoming a nursery nurse. But Miss Allison thought that was a terrible idea; she said that I would hate it, clearing up children's sick etc. So, I decided to stay on and do A Levels. She certainly gave me good advice there; and I am grateful to her for that. Obviously, also, she could not really have given all the help that I would have needed to get a novel published either at such a young age, but it would have been nice if she had given me some positive feedback and encouragement, rather than the more negative feedback that I got. But there we go. It wasn't to be. I was determined, though, that our middle son, Victor Rikowski, would not suffer in this regard. So once when we were walking home from school one day when he was 10 years old, and he said he was feeling 'odd', the 'warning lights' came up. I went immediately and spoke to his junior school teacher and she said that she had noticed him walking round the playground on his own. I told her that he wrote lots of stories. She then really encouraged Victor; he read stories that he had written out loud to the class, and became something of a leader in this regard, really inspiring the other children. This all greatly increased his confidence of course. If my confidence could have been increased in the same sort of way, then that would really have benefitted me. Still, it wasn't to be. Reflecting futher, perhaps, also though, these early school year experiences have made me somewhat too tolerant of loud, bullying people sometimes, and this is something that I need to be mindful of in the future, and continue down my path of connecting up with tolerant, considerate as well as creative people.

So, that provides some more background information about me, novels and novel writing. But for now, enough reflecting - and on to novel-writing!

Dinner Party at our home with some of my school friends and their partners, July 2009

1 comment:

  1. Looking back, we had a mixture of teachers. Some dedicated and some who just went through the motions. I loved English (composition), History and Football, but I generally disliked school and the mechanical process of learning. I couldn't wait to leave at the age of 15.

    It would be 21 years before I re-engaged with education in a formal sense. This time, I was ready for it.

    Perhaps, all these years on, you are now ready to write that long overdue novel and I wish you every success with that.