From writer to author in under a year

Part 2: Primary schooldays

I’ve always been a writer…

Although I learned to read and write, my first couple of years in school weren’t happy ones. I was bullied and punished by the teachers for stoically retaining my left-handedness. I was bullied and humiliated by the other children for quite random things, like the colour of my jumper or wearing an eyepatch, but mainly for having scars as a result of a scalding accident. Invisible when I was clothed, these scars were all too visible (and grimly fascinating to classmates) once we were all stripped to our vest and pants for PE or Musical Movement. On top of this, I hated both school dinners and the nausea-inducing morning milk. The consequence for refusal of either was to be FORCE FED. (Years later, in a history class, I felt an understandable empathy with hunger-striking suffragettes.) Anyway, when this all got a bit too much I was known to calmly put my coat on and clear off home early, at either morning or afternoon playtime. I can’t remember the school’s response for some reason.

Around about the same time (I was 6 years old I think) I had my first run-in with religion when I was chucked out of Sunday School. Revealing what would later be praised as “an enquiring mind”, I asked the teacher how anyone knew what Jesus looked like, as it all happened ages ago and there weren’t any photos. Well, she could find no answer. In fact, she was speechless. But she must have found her voice again later, to report my impertinence to the Minister. He asked my mother not to send me again, citing my question as a reason.

So, this tiny, scrappy rebel became a local-library-haunting bookworm and schoolgirl comic ( Bunty, June etc) serial reader. Nothing could have been further from the reality of day-to-day life in a northern working-class home, than the murderous ambition and shifting alliances in historical courts and palace prisons. Or indeed, in boarding, ballet and riding school fiction for ‘gels’. I devoured it all! I especially enjoyed stories of plucky heroines surviving adversity and misadventure to come out on top as winners/ heiresses/ successful/ popular – and sometimes all of these. When I wondered, would my real birth parents show up to take me away to a life more like the endings in storybooks?
And what, if anything, did I write about? My childish stories (written at home NOT at school, as ‘composition’ hadn’t yet been invented) were re-imagined versions of what I was reading, but with me as the heroine. But I didn’t just suffer storybook gel’s ‘frightful bad luck’, while at ballet school or out riding my pony. Oh no! I fought and escaped from INJUSTICE! The injustice of NOT having ballet or piano lessons or an adorable Shetland pony! Bless.

I had less time for writing stories as I moved through Junior School and learnt how to win friends. I noticed that a very popular girl in my class was funny – that is, she made other people laugh with what she did and said. I remember quite clearly the lightbulb moment when I decided that I could do the same thing. Thus my career as a joker began.

My mum constantly told me how clever I was, and that my reward would be to pass the 11 Plus Exam and go to the Grammar School. To prepare me for the dreaded Exam, she questioned me every morning, as I was leaving for school, from some book of difficult exam questions she had acquired. For example, “How much does a gallon of water weigh?” she would ask. “Ten pounds (Ibs),” I’d reply. Would you believe it? That question really came up in my actual 11 Plus Exam.