Schooldays

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English Class, Heanor Aldercar Secondary School, Mid-1960s

I had an email recently from someone asking me if I would sign one of my books and dedicate it to his wife on the occasion of her 65th birthday; she had been a young student in one of my classes at Heanor Aldercar Secondary School in the mid-60s, and had since gone on, I discovered, to study Mathematics at Imperial College, followed by an MSc and PhD in Computing at Nottingham University – for not one scrap of which I can lay claim to have been any kind of influence. What she remembered me most for was my love of contemporary poetry and my handwriting [a sort of Italic with the occasional added flourish] which she spent hours, apparently, trying to copy. A good job she can’t see it now! She and her husband had read a number of the Resnick novels without realising that the John Harvey who had written them was the same as the one who had talked her whole class into buying their own copies of Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound, thus risking the wrath of any parents who might object to the raciness of their contents.

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So mild they must seem now, those poems, innocent even … Roger McGough’s “At Lunchtime … A Story of Love”; Brian Patten’s “Song for Last Year’s Wife” and “Little Johnny’s Confession”; even Adrian Henri’s schoolgirl obsession. Another time, another age, another set of values: other lives.

Twelve years I spent teaching English & Drama: Heanor first, a small mining town, as it was then, between Derby and Nottingham; then Andover in Hampshire and, finally, Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

All a long time ago, though it doesn’t take much to remind me: a chance meeting, an email out of the blue. But names and faces blur and, looking back, you can only hope you did some little good; taught students successfully how to write a coherent sentence and instilled some enjoyment, in one form or another, in words. Anything more, surely, would be presumptuous – too Goodbye, Mr Chips. 

This message came via Friends United some ten years ago …

Dear John
You turned my life around learning about the War Poets (Seigfried Sassoon – “Oh German Mother”) and introducing me to Folk Music (“Blackleg Miner”).
At the time we met I was off the rails – you put me back on them.
I often refer to you as my saviour from the factories and coal mines of Derbyshire.
Tom Cooke had me down as a loser which I was before you.
I am now retired from the Fire Brigade after 34 years reaching the post of Divisional Officer and I live in Spain with my wife Angela.|
As well as teaching me English you believed in me and taught me about social history ands much more. I have a lot to thank you for. Hope you are OK.
Ian Shaw  1965-1967

Weigh that alongside whatever else I might have achieved, whatever honours and good reviews, and make me choose and I would have to say it means more. Goodbye, Mr Chips, indeed.

 

 

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It Was 50 Years Ago …

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I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.

One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.

It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.

None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.

Barry Hines: 1939 – 2016

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Barry Hines

In sad retrospect, I’m pleased that, talking about the Resnick novels at Bromley House Library in Nottingham this Saturday just past, and asked about influences on my work, I mentioned, alongside a small number of other social realist writers, the novelist and dramatist, Barry Hines, who, unbeknown to me, had died the previous day.

A teacher of English and Drama, I’d just moved  on after three years at Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School, in a small, principally mining town in South-East Derbyshire, to take on a similar post in less industrial Hampshire, when Hines’ first novel, A Kestrel for A Knave, was published in 1968. Set in South Yorkshire, the novel, and Ken Loach’s well-known and cherished film adaptation, Kes, released a year later, struck me forcefully their ability to render a world entire unto itself without ever being patronising or over-sentimental, but with hard-truth, understanding and compassion.

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As it happens, we’d watched a DVD of Kes at home only a few weeks before – a first time for our daughter – and despite familiarity on my part, it had still engendered tears (and laughter) and, most of all, anger. Exactly, I think, as Hines – and Loach – would have wanted.

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What I didn’t spell out at Bromley House, but should have, was the importance of Ken Loach’s two-part television drama from 1977, The Price of Coal, written by Barry Hines, to my preliminary research for Darkness, Darkness, the Resnick novel  partly set during the Miners’ Strike, which I’m in the process of dramatising for Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives Theatre.

Both Kes and The Price of Coal were produced by Tony Garnett, and there was a time, some few years ago now, when the Resnick novels were optioned for television by Garnett’s production company. We’ll do what we can to get your books to the screen as well as they deserve, Garnett said when we met. It never happened. (It rarely does.) But what if it had … ?

In the Footsteps of a Master

Here’s a recent piece about Nottinghamshire and my largely accidental connections with D H Lawrence that I wrote for web site of Nottingham’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

By hazy co-incidence, I’ve ended up inadvertently shadowing different periods of D. H. Lawrence’s life: a year spent with my family in Cornwall, on the Penwith Peninsula, found us just down the lane from Mermaid Cottage, where Lawrence had lived with his wife, Frieda, while he was writing “Women in Love”; earlier, moving back down to London from Nottingham in the 80s, I pitched up in the nether regions of Hampstead, an energetic stroll away from the Vale of Health and Byron Villas – like Mermaid Cottage, one of several locations in which Lawrence’s attempts to collect around himself a group of fellow-writers came to little or nothing.

Most significant for me, however, was the period in the mid-1960s, when I first moved up to Nottingham from London to teach at Heanor Aldercar secondary school. Living on Castle Boulevard, I would drive into Heanor every day, taking either the route through Kimberley and Eastwood – Lawrence’s birthplace, of course – or through Ilkeston, tracing for a time the path of the River Erewash, bringing to mind as it always did the description of the land close to the river in the opening of “The Rainbow” – a description more pleasantly evocative than the disparaging reference in his essay, “Nottingham and the Mining Country” …

“Now Eastwood occupies a lovely position on a hilltop, with the steep slope towards Derbyshire and the long slope towards Nottingham. They put up a new church, which stands fine and commanding, even if it has no real form, looking across the awful Erewash Valley at the church in Heanor, similarly commanding, away on a hill beyond.”

Although Lawrence is writing about a time a good thirty years earlier, the basic geography remained unchanged, so that it was possible, standing at the centre of Heanor and taking a reverse view across the valley, to feel a sense of closeness, of continuity, that was enriched further by reading the early short stories and re-reading “Sons and Lovers” and “The Rainbow”. His landscape: a writer’s landscape.

I walked around Eastwood then on numerous occasions, to 8a Victoria Street, where Lawrence was born, and on down to Garden Road and thence to Walker Street, following the family’s move from house to house. Moving away myself at the end of the 60s, it wasn’t until I returned some fifteen or so years later, a writer now and no longer a teacher, that I explored the landscape of Lawrence’s life and writing further, using Michael Bennett’s “Visitors’ Guide to Eastwood and the Countryside of D. H. Lawrence” as my guide. (I have my copy still.)

A favourite walk was past Moorgreen Colliery to Moorgreen Reservoir – “all grey and visionary, stretching into the moist, translucent vista of trees and meadow” – that Lawrence used as the setting for the drowning in “Women in Love”, and on from there across the rise and fall of open fields that leads towards Haggs Farm, the home of Jessie Chambers, the Miriam of “Sons and Lovers”.

As Lawrence described it in a letter … “A tiny red farm on the edge of the wood. That was Miriam’s Farm – where I got my first incentive to write …”

Though it would be reckless – and, almost certainly, wrong – to discern any clear connection between Lawrence’s writing and my own, there is something in that distant and fleeting sense of the proximity to a great writer – being able to walk, as it were, the same ground that he walked and know what it became in his fiction – that gave me – much as reading and retracing Alan Sillitoe has done – a sense of permission, at least. A sense of place. Somewhere to write about if you can.

You can find the original piece, suitably illustrated, here …

http://www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com/uncategorized/footsteps-of-a-master-exclusive-guest-post-from-john-harvey/

And you can find out more about Nottingham’s bid here …

http://www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com