Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Day I Left School

 All of us, bar Gemma, in the playground at the end of our last day at Clapham & Patching, in July 1995

It’s twenty years ago this week – and possibly even twenty years ago to the day, although I cannot be sure – since I left primary school.

This doesn’t have a huge amount to do with my writing, the main subject of this blog, other than that it was at primary school when I first decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I don’t remember a specific moment when I decided that, but I do remember the joy of writing stories. I wrote a whole series of little stories at primary school about a character called “Paul Pumpkin the Pirate”, had huge fun writing them, and there was probably more imagination and creativity present in those than anything I write today. Somehow, I think, all but the best of us somehow get bogged down once we leave childhood. That creativity dies away.

But anyhow, this is by way of excusing the fact that this blog post is not about my writing at all. It’s a reflection on the fact that twenty years have now passed since I spent my final day of a very happy six-and-a-bit years as a pupil at Clapham & Patching Church of England Primary School.

I have been accused on occasion of living too much in the past, of looking back too often. I am fond of the past, it’s true, but I don’t think obsessively so. I am the sum of everything that has happened to me so far, and it would feel wrong to ignore it or forget about it. Some of it is embarrassing, or sad or upsetting, or incredible to think I was even the same person at the time, but all of it is what went into making me who I am. I look forward, I go on, I do new things, but I have a sense and in many ways an affection for everything I used to be, of the people and places that were once so familiar.

I think one of the reasons it’s been on my mind is because there’s a certain amount of desk moving going on at work at the moment, pending a little reorganisation of the newsroom, and in that final week at Clapham we had a big movement going on as well. When I’d started at the school – in January 1989, as far as I can tell, just before I turned five – Class One, for the youngest years, was in the classroom facing into the playground, and Class Two, for the four oldest years, was in the classroom at the front of the school.

They swapped round in the early 1990s, and for all of my time in Class Two, from autumn 1991 onwards, we were in the classroom facing onto the playground… Until those last few days of the summer term of 1995, when we were all busily engaged in sorting everything out and changing everything around and moving back again. I can remember feeling slightly aggrieved that I’d be ending my time at the school in the “wrong” classroom…

In the "wrong" classroom, at the end of the last day

It was a hot summer day, of course it was – aren’t they always when looking back on childhood days? But there are photographs to prove it, in this case. Funny little details stick in the memory. I remember how Mrs Breese – one of the finest teachers ever to have graced a classroom – had written on the whiteboard “The Grand Finale for Year 6!” I had to squint to see it, the note of the eye test I’d failed at school still hidden away in a drawer in my bedroom at home, not yet confessed to mum because for some odd reason known only to the mind of an 11-year-old, I felt horribly guilty about my increasing myopia and didn’t want to admit to it.

It’s almost alarming how some details that are quite important have slipped my memory. I have had a sudden attack of uncertainty as to whether the leavers’ service at Clapham church was actually on the last day – I have a vague memory that occasionally they wouldn’t be, and might be a day or two beforehand… 

 The only picture I seem to have of all nine of us, outside Clapham church after the leavers' service, with the books we were given as parting gifts from the school, one of the grand traditions of the place!

They were always quite the symbolic occasion of finality, though. I had of course been attending them for the past few years, and as our leavers’ service approached, I think we were quite excited about the books we would be given. The Year 6 leavers were always presented with a bible and another book (one they might actually like), and I can remember it seeming like a very serious and important occasion when, probably a week or two before the end of term, Mrs Skitt took us out to the picnic table in the playground one morning to discuss with us what books we might like.

I had my heart set on either a Formula One or a Doctor Who book (so as you can tell if you know me now, I have not changed a great deal in some respects!) In the end I was given Journeys of the Great Explorers, not a bad choice as I did always enjoy history at primary school, but it did make the whole thing seem a little more disappointingly random than I had hoped!

They also gave us each a large, laminated colour blow-up of a photo of ourselves from the school archives. Mine was me a few years before, holding a plastic bottle with wheels and a sail fitted to it, turning it into some sort of land yacht model, made for some project or other.

I remember being pleased that it wasn’t the normal local vicar taking the leavers’ service, as I couldn’t stand him. Instead it was some random stand-in vicar we’d never met before, but he seemed quite jovial and was impressed when I knew the answer to some question he posed to the congregation about the conquest of Everest… I forget what it was now – he might have been asking who first climbed it.

I remember also being pleased that Mrs Smart, who’d left a year or two before, came back for the service… Alarmingly, I can’t remember if Miss Harvey, the head teacher for most of our time there who’d retired the previous year, was there… I have a vague memory of thinking she hadn’t been, and then afterwards being told she had actually been there but had slipped in and sat quietly at the back…

(We didn’t like the head teacher who’d had the temerity to succeed her. As far as we were concerned, she was very firmly “The Enemy”, and that was that…)

There were nine of us, which was a large year group for that school, for which having a grand total of fifty pupils in all years would have been operating pretty much at maximum. In the year above us, there’d been only three – in the year below, just two.

We did have a feeling of “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” though. And that’s not just a retrospective, nostalgic view – at one point over the summer after we’d left, we even organised a “Year 6 Reunion”, most of us gathering at Lisa from the yeargroup’s house to chomp on McDonald’s and watch videos on afternoon… Cool Runnings and one of the Naked Gun films, as I recall!

I remember trying not to lose face by crying at the end of Cool Runnings, as I was quite moved by it… But weeks earlier, on that hot July day when we finished, I did cry about leaving primary school. It wasn’t utter devastation, I didn’t think my life was over… But I was sad. When you’re eleven and have been at a school for six years, it forms the majority of your memories of life. Six years seems like an eternity at that age. And I’d enjoyed my time there.

It was a fine old school. Still is, I’m sure. And I am proud, very proud, of the education I received there. Not just the facts I learned or the abilities I gained, but of the character of what they taught us, too. You’d think a village school in the heart of rural Sussex would be a staid, conservative sort of place, perhaps. But like all the best schools, it taught us to question, to wonder… And to be decent human beings. I have a clear memory of us being taught about Martin Luther King, just for one example, and the utter pointlessness and poison of racism.

I was not a perfect pupil. I’m not sure I was even a very good one. I could be incredibly difficult, extremely stubborn, I’d often refuse point-blank to work in groups, and I had quite a violent temper and could fly off the handle quite suddenly if I didn’t get my way or felt embarrassed, upset or frustrated. I could be quite vile to people for no reason whatsoever. I would frequently, as was the parlance of the day, “get in a stress.”

Indeed, one of my major memories of school life is frequently being sent to Miss Harvey's office, and sitting on the floor in there looking at the Pobody's Nerfect sticker on the opposite wall...

But, for all of that, I was and am a much better person for having been to that school.

There was an assembly of some sort at the end of the final day, I think. With the big white doors that separated the assembly area from the front classroom open, and the school sitting down and facing out into the classroom… I remember, and have a photo of, us Year Sixes performing some sort of impromptu comedy sketch for the entertainment of the assembly, although I don’t remember anything about what it contained. The photo shows me mock-admonishing Alex Fox, who is laying face-down on the floor having perhaps pretended to fall over, as Tim Crighton, perhaps waiting for his cue, watches on from the doorway through to the other class… Whatever we were doing is, alas, lost to history!

 Messing around for the assembly, at the end of the last day. You can see where most of us have removed the name stickers from our trays. Lisa, sitting behind Jenny, looks as if she might be holding some sort of script for whatever it was we were doing... Mrs Skitt and the class one teacher, Miss King, look amused, anyway!

I remember many of us who were leaving peeling the name stickers from the front of our “trays” (the drawers where we kept our pencils, books, etc) and sticking them to our clothes… I still had mine for years afterwards, sellotaped to the side of my wardrobe in my bedroom at home.

I remember mingling and posing for photographs in the playground at the end of the day, not quite able to believe it really was all over, and that chapter of my life had gone for good… As was often the case on nice days many of us went up the road to the village rec after, and I remember Howard Johnson from a couple of years below asking me, with some surprise, if it really was true that I’d cried, as he didn’t think it seemed like the sort of thing I’d do.

I said it was true, I did cry, because I was sad…

I find myself rather stunned to sit here and think that it’s been twenty years since it all happened. I could never have conceived of where I would be and what I would be doing back then. I never had any plans for the future at all other than “become a writer.” Sometimes it was alongside other childish ambitions – to be in the fire brigade, to be in the navy, to be a Formula One team owner… But always alongside being a writer. I can’t even think what the eleven-year-old me would make of me now – would he be disappointed, I wonder?

I can’t decide if it seems like it’s passed by in a flash, or if it does seem like such a gulf of time since then. It’s terrifying to think that in another twenty years I will be in my fifties… That’s one of the reasons for writing this rant about it all, I suppose, so get some of the memories down before they fade any further.

Life depends on change, or so they say, and we’d stagnate if we stayed in one place, at one time, in one state of mind forever. The joy of some moments depends on their very transience – if you try and keep everything the same it simply withers and dies.

I know that now, of course, as a grown-up, but it was still a culture shock to suddenly go from a village school of fifty to a comprehensive school of over a thousand. I had some idea of what to expect from the fact my older brother and sister had been down the same route already, and from watching Grange Hill on TV!

But Angmering and I did not get along terribly well initially, and I felt rather adrift in it all, I think… I have a clear memory, very early on in my time there, possibly on our first proper day, of meeting up with the others from Clapham who’d gone there, outdoors at lunchtime. We were sitting around one of the picnic tables they used to have alongside that bit off the quad that ran between the L block and the reception / staff room bit… We probably talked a bit about the new school and how we were finding it, and I remember Gemma Eldridge, as she then was, asking “is this where we’ll meet up, then?” I quite liked the idea of us little band of Clapham alumni sticking together, still being a unit of some sort, meeting up every lunchtime… But it was all smoke in the clouds, of course. Quickly blown away. I don’t think we ever did meet up there again, and we all found new groups, new people, new lives really… We still knew each other, of course, but we weren’t some independent unit within the big school. We became part of a much bigger year group.

And, it has to be said, one I was also extremely fond of, in the end. I didn’t cry when I finally left Angmering all those years later, but I was just as wistful about leaving as I had been about Clapham. I may not have enjoyed my early years at Angmering, but by the end I loved it, and felt part of a community, a happy one too.

I don’t believe that your school years are necessarily the best days of your life. There was a time when I did think that, in my late teens and early twenties, when I was at university and then in the early years of employment, doing a dull job I didn’t enjoy at all.

Now, of course, I am fortunate enough to be part of another community, doing a job I enjoy and doing something with an end product. School is all about preparing you for the world, and is in many ways simply a means to an end. Now, I do something which actually has an end to it, a result. You can argue over whether it has value, but there it is.

As impossible as it was for that 11-year-old Paul to imagine where he’d be at the age of 31, I suppose it’s equally impossible for me to imagine where I will be and what I will be doing at the age of 51. What’s probably more frightening is that when I am sitting and reading this back in 2035, it probably won’t feel all that long since I wrote it…

Anyway, here’s to us – Gemma, Emma, Lisa, Jenny, Alex F, Alex M, Tim and Sarah. And to Miss Harvey, Mrs Skinner, Mrs Breese, Mrs Smart and Mrs Skitt… Very happy times and places, that I wouldn’t have missed for all the world.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Into the charts!

In the charts - briefly! 8th July 2015

On Sunday, Val - the lady I wrote about the other day, who kindly sent me an e-mail about how much she'd enjoyed The Ruined Heart - posted about the ebook on the Facebook page for Treasure Quest, a programme I produce on BBC Radio Norfolk. This led to 11 sales on Sunday, and pushed me right up towards my target of 20 in total. A few days on, and I have now passed it - 21 sales at last count, which means that Alice Flack will ride again.

I noticed when checking the Amazon page last night that this little spike in sales also meant I was propelled to the dizzy heights of number 93 in the "historical thrillers" chart in the Kindle Store! Given that this was on the basis of just those 21 copies being sold it doesn't really say much for the ebook sales at the bottom end of this chart, but hey... It's something!

I've also had a very nice review left on the Amazon page. I must admit that it was from a friend of mine, Lauren (who blogs extensively here), but hey - she didn't have to say anything at all! So I'm very grateful to her, and flattered that she liked it. She wrote:

Alice Flack is a bit of a mystery, arriving in a sleepy village and discovering a secret hidden for years. In fact she still is a mystery after reading the book and I'm hoping there will be more stories soon so we find out a little more about her! Definitely worth a read, the perfect length for me as a busy mum too!

Well, Lauren will be happy as there are indeed to be further Alice Flack stories - or at least one. Simply because the story idea had been in my mind for months and I wanted to finally sit down and tackle it, I began writing the second Alice story, Voices in the Dark, at the beginning of this month. My reasoning was that if it was around the 25 to 30,000 word mark, as planned, then if I did 500 words a day throughout July and August I'd then have it finished, ready for the time I'd have hopefully met my sales target.

That target has been met, and I've actually been averaging a bit more than 500 words, and am enjoying putting it together.

 "A writer is someone who counts words," John Braine said. My daily and cumulative totals so far for July on the new Alice Flack story!

In the meantime, if you haven't yet, please do feel free to add your 99p to the pot and buy The Ruined Heart from Amazon here:

And thank you to everyone else who has bought it so far!

Alice Flack will return...

Monday, 29 June 2015

Halfway there, and a nice review

On Saturday I completed chapter 15 of Scarrowbeck, my cod-19th century thriller based on a joke from a radio programme, being written to raise money for the BBC Children in Need Appeal.

So I am now exactly halfway to my target of 30 chapters, and well on-course to be finished by the target date - Saturday the 7th of November, when we're holding this year's Treasure Quest Live stage shows at the Norwich Playhouse.

I've slowed down a bit to just a chapter a week, but aim to try and pick it up again... Of course it's all nonsense, but it seems to be entertaining the ten or twelve people following it, and it's already raised more than my initial target of £150, or £5 per chapter. Thanks to everyone who has already donated!

You can read the existing chapters here, as they're posted:

And you can donate online here:

When it's all done, I'll put it up as a complete novel both as a Word document like the individual chapters, and in ebook form for Kindles, etc.

Speaking of ebooks, sales of The Ruined Heart have not exactly taken the world by storm. It sold five copies on the day I put it online, and in the fortnight since then has sold exactly one more copy, yesterday.

So slightly disappointing, but yesterday's sale did result in this lovely e-mail I received today, and what's more it's from someone who is neither a friend nor a colleague, and whom I have never knowingly met. So I was very pleased with it!

I hope it is OK to send an email to you at the BBC but I couldn't find another address. In the space of just over an hour I have been totally absorbed in your book and honestly it is such a good read and I couldn't put it down...

Seriously, it is tremendous and I was left wanting for more so leaving the ending open for more Alice Flack is genius. I am an avid reader and it was so refreshing to read a book with a story that does not rely on 4 letter words and explicit details of sex. I am now reading Scarrowbeck and really enjoying that as well. All this and cryptic Treasure Quest clues - you will, I am sure have a best selling novel at some stage. Can you imagine Ruined Heart being adapted for TV and Alice Flack being the new Miss Marple !!

As you can imagine, this left me with a big grin on my face, and I kept re-reading it throughout much of the day! As for further Alice Flack stories... Well, I do have the next one plotted out in some detail, and rough ideas sketched for some others, but whether or not they ever see the light of day depends on whether I ever meet my target of 20 sales for The Ruined Heart!

If you'd like to buy it - it's only 99p! - you can do so on Amazon, here:

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Ruined Heart

The Ruined Heart cover, created by David Lavelle.

Last year, I wrote that I’d finished a short novella – or, less charitably, a long short story! – called The Ruined Heart. A sort of murder-mystery set in an English village just after the Second World War, I was rather pleased with it, and mentioned how I was considering putting it up online on Amazon as an ebook download.

Well, now I have done it, and those of you of an ebook persuasion can purchase it for 99p by clicking here.

Long-term readers of this blog – should there be any! – may be surprised at this, given my stated dislike of the idea of self-publishing. It’s not that I condemn others for doing whatever they want with their books, it’s just that, for me, it feels like cheating to expect people to want to pay for my books when no publisher has judged them good enough to print.

But 25,000 words is a funny length for a story. Too long for a short story, and much too short for a novel, there isn’t really anything else I could do with The Ruined Heart. So I decided… why not?

A friend of a friend of mine, the talented David Lavelle, kindly took on a commission to create a piece of cover artwork, and the story went online to purchase from Amazon this morning. I’ve decided that if it somehow manages to make 20 sales, I’ll put another one up. I already have a 2000-word treatment written for a second Alice Flack story, and some ideas floating around for others… They’re quite fun to write, and there is something more relaxing about writing without the pressure of thinking you’re ever going to submit it to anybody.

So just the readers to worry about, then!

So far, it’s sold 5 copies, which isn’t bad for one day, and a quarter of the way to my target. No reviews yet, and I doubt it’s sold to anyone I’ve never met, or ever will manage that… But you never know!

Elsewhere, I continued to work on the Scarrowbeck novel in aid of the BBC Children in Need Appeal, and am nearly halfway through that – you can read the chapters so far completed by clicking here. I managed to complete the research and writing for my possible next Doctor Who Magazine piece, and that’s being considered by them for possible publication next year, although it may need cutting down a bit. Fingers crossed it will appear on some form or other! I also submitted Another Life to another agent last week, so we shall see what happens with that.

Anyway, please do take a look at The Ruined Heart – and if you like it, please tell your friends!