As a shy fifteen-year-old schoolboy, I was often the unfortunate victim of having to stand before the class and read my short stories out loud. At that time I was living in a boys only boarding school in the Lake District- not the fun loving Hogwart’s School of Harry Potter- where the focus was heavily on academics and turning men into boys. This included regular three mile runs at 6:00 AM then having to wash in cold water. Discipline was strict with almost every minute of the day regulated, and even then, I thought, quite unnecessary so. Classes were followed every evening by long study periods including on the weekends. On a Sunday morning after we had all trooped out of church, there was an hour of essay writing. I loved that time and knew even then, I wanted to be a serious writer. It was a place where I could let my imagination soar and for a brief period each week, it took me outside my incarceration.
The consequence of my mental dalliance was the inevitable of having to stand before the class once our essays had been returned and read my work. In an all-boys school, there are all kinds of internal hierarchies, mysterious initiations, and a secret code of behavior. Being singled out by a teacher was an absolute ‘no no’ and I paid for it by being made fun of and discouraged from doing the one thing that I loved and knew, even then, I was good at, telling stories. But my stubbornness won out and eventually as I gained some seniority, the harassment stopped. And I continued to dream and write.
During the winter and spring, the top two classes were allowed to go to Grange Over Sands, our nearest small town, which hosted an amazing speaker program. Those were special evenings. I got to meet amazing people from all walks of life; Princess Ileana of Romania gave a firsthand account of the Communist takeover, Douglas Bader the most decorated pilot in World War II who lost both his legs then learned to fly again, and Edmund Hilary, the first man to climb Mount Everest, and Sir Winston Churchill's son, Randolph.
But my favorite presenters were all writers and since we knew the lady who organized the series, (the sister of the college taxi driver), she made it possible for us to meet them afterwards and we usually collected their autographs.
Over the space of just a few years I spoke with Kingsley Amis, later Sir Kingsley, poet, critic and teacher. He wrote more than 20 novels, Lucky Jim was his first and won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction. It was followed by I like it here and Take A Girl like you, which Amis read from and with great humor. I was thrilled and inspired with his style and in your face prose but completely shocked at his characters causal approach to sex. It was a revelation. In a college where no sex before marriage was religiously preached, this novel exposed a world that I and my friends had no experience of but secretly hoped it existed. And it was exciting.
Months later, John Braine discussed his Room At the Top which I had just read. One of my more daring friends had secreted a copy into our dorm and it was doing the rounds in lightening quick time. I devoured his unadorned use of everyday language, that both shocked and excited me. For a group of young men with raging hormones, it was amazing, revealing and titillating material! Here was a writer with strong Irish Catholic roots describing male female relationships that seemed to be so honest, natural and real, but in a way that would bewilder any priest. (The real shock would come a few years later when Shelagh Delaney wrote her Country Girl, and the book was actually banned in Ireland.) Braine seemed a little surprised that we had already read his book and asked us with a knowing smile and in his broad Yorkshire accent, “Well, did you lads all enjoy it?”
Alan Sillitoe left school at age 14 and never went to college, which made me wonder why my parents were spending so much money on my private education, and it was only while in hospital with tuberculosis that he became an avid reader of literature and started to write. He worked closely with the poet Robert Graves, and eventually wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, influenced in part by the stripped-down prose of Ernest Hemingway. The book conveys the attitudes and situation of a young factory worker faced with the inevitable end of his youthful philandering. As with John Braine’s best seller, while it was essentially a social protest, it was the daring sex scenes and female relationships that were a far cry from Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair and even Tom Jones our staple college literary diet, which riveted our attention. But when I heard him speak, he had also just published his short story collection, The Loneliness of the long-Distance Runner, I was smitten. Awestruck would be an understatement, and I wished I could write like him. I also learned, but didn’t know it at the time, that reading a work and having it read to you can be a totally different and exhilarating experience. A charming man, he spoke to us (we were a small group of five) as if we were adults and answered our schoolboy questions as if they had been posed by a gaggle of eminent professors.
But my most memorable lecture was by the Australian writer, Russel Braddon discussing his war time heroics in his bestselling book, The Naked Island. As a Japanese prisoner of war for three years, he was tormented by the fact he couldn’t remember how to solve Pythagoras’ theorem nor the second movement of the Bruch violin concerto. Ever ready to help, I quickly searched in my pocket for some paper and scribbled down the theorem. When we met for his autograph, I presented it to him.
‘Sir,’ I remember saying politely, ‘I too want to write and just in case you haven’t had time to catch up with your math, this might jog your memory; but I can’t help you with the Bruch.’
He looked at it quizzically, smiled, shook my hand, said thank you, carefully folded and placed the paper in his inside jacket pocket then signed my autograph book.
I had read The Naked island which I thought was engrossing, but he went on to write more than thirty books of a very uneven quality I would hasten to add. Other than with just a couple of them, Nancy Wake and Cheshire VC, I was not really impressed by his style. Years later, purely by chance, I happened to hear him being interviewed by the BBC and he recounted this incident of when he met with a precocious or as he put it ‘a snotty nosed schoolboy who wanted to be a writer!’
The bell started to ring, the head boy shouted it was time for lunch, and suddenly I was jolted back to reality with a bang. Essay time was over for another week. As I closed my notebook, I tried to slow down my imagination, but it was already planning my next story. Perhaps I would be the writer of a hidden collection of short stories that would surprise the world.