by Jackie Hales
I can smell it now – that plastic, soft to the touch and touched by so many other children, warm in my hands and yellowing like the liquid Acriflavine Mum put on my knees when I scraped them. The pungency of plastic and polish hit my nostrils as soon as I stepped over the threshold of the library, located in a grand old house full of wood panelling and floorboards that spoke to the ghosts of past inhabitants, with their creaking warning of the interlopers treading them now. They welcomed me into the hallowed silence of my inner world.
I loved books. I still love books. Books have been the spine of my life, and it all began with those childhood visits. Mum had been denied the education she should have had, born on the day the First World War was declared, to a sick mother and a father who was a working-class snob. She never said where her love of books came from, but she was a bright and lonely child, and she became a bright and lonely old woman, still devouring the written word in to her ninety-sixth year. Education was the key, she taught us – the key to better jobs, a better life, a better chance to be who we wanted to be. We had very few books that we owned. Oh, but we had so many that we borrowed! Every two weeks, we climbed the hill and entered the sanctum of Shrewsbury House. Mum had usually read at least two books over the fortnight, sometimes renewing one, sometimes not, and while she browsed her adult shelves, my sister and I were free to roam among the children’s books. There, we discovered the magic of Heidi, and I fell in love with the Alps. We fulfilled our dreams of being ballet dancers with Noel Streatfield, and I dreamt of going to a boarding school in the Burnese Oberland, speaking French one day, German the next and English the next, like the girls in the Chalet School. I devoured What Katy Did and Little Women, and all the others in their series. When series came to an end, it was devastating, especially if it didn’t end as I wanted it to.
I can’t remember when I started to read, but I know that, much to the disgust of a later generation, at a young age I read absolutely all of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and graduated to the Famous Five. Weren’t they wonderful? They had middle-class names like Tim and Julian, and freedom to have adventures. Yes, I read the more difficult Silver Sword, Coral Island and others, where no quarter was given to what a child’s vocabulary might be. We used to think that Mum swallowed a dictionary, because she would deliberately use a new word and make us find out what it meant, but if you wanted a good story, you also had to grasp the nettle, take the plunge, or whatever else it took to crack the code of the writer’s style and subject yourself to the agony of the heroine.
“I hope I taught them that books reflect life, but they can also influence life; they can take you away on a magic carpet, or they can take you right there, to the heart of injustice.”
It was probably Enid Blyton that was responsible for ‘The Woods Club’, and even before my teenage years, I was heading for teaching, organising others, and writing. I invented the club, which met in my father’s faded blue-and-black old ramshackle shed, greeted by the sawdust and the oily tools lurking in the shadows, with spiders for company. We and our neighbours’ children perched on stools for our solemn meetings. Members could only get into the shed with a password, and I produced badges, probably influenced by Blue Peter, held on with safety pins (but not a bit of sticky-back plastic in sight). I still remember the pictures on the badges, all cut out of white cardboard, the Primary school-like fluffy top of each tree like a green cotton-wool cloud. We had a promise, bound in secrecy, and I began to write plays for us to perform to our long-suffering parents. We dressed ourselves up in net curtains and old shirts, and we were lost in our imaginary worlds.
I spent most of my working life as a teacher – a teacher of English of course – persuading teenagers that books were worth the slog, that poetry was amazing stuff, that they, too, could imagine and create, and learn to love the written word. I tried to convince them of Shakespeare’s brilliance and sense of fun, having finally come to realise that, when studying him at degree level. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t always get it. Some of them understood my passion for Pride and Prejudice, and wanting to tell Lizzie ‘Go girl!’. I stood on a hop-up, flapping my arms, to get across to Year 11 the power of the Kestrel in Kes. I taught them Hardy’s unexpected similes and Lawrence’s sins, and the classical canon, but I also taught them The Color Purple and The Bloody Chamber, and countless texts that challenge thinking, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Long Road to Freedom. I hope I taught them that books reflect life, but they can also influence life; they can take you away on a magic carpet, or they can take you right there, to the heart of injustice and wanting to cry out in protest. My childhood self used to read under covers after lights out, and I secretly hope that some of the children I have taught, despite being in a boarding school, have done the same, even if it is on a Kindle, not being able to wait to find out the end of the story. So here I am now, past retiring age, and my shelf life as a teacher is over, but I belong to a book club and my story is not yet over. I once had to teach, as an A-Level text, Fahrenheit 451, a nightmare dystopia, with burning books – because the written word is powerful, and long may it be so.
Jackie has spent most of her working life as an English teacher, with much of that in a local boarding school. She re-discovered writing as a student in the 1970s, and it has been a sporadic hobby ever since. A few poems have been published in anthologies, one of them ‘Symphonies of the Soul’ (Poetry Guild 1996). She tends to write short stories, inspired by situations and photographs, rather than managing to complete novels that have not got off the starting blocks, but the ambition is still there for when she finally, completely retires – something still elusive in her late sixties. She grew up in a working-class family, but with aspirational parents, who wanted their children to take all that the post-war educational opportunities promised. They did.