So – sorry, Mr Humphrys! – my sister said to me, “I’ve sorted out the website; now all you need to do is write your first blog post.”
She had no idea of the effect she would have. No idea at all of the sheer panic, horror, terror that filled me when I heard her say that. None.
Comfortably, relaxed, she persisted. “Just think of something you’re passionate about, and write about it. No biggie.”
But there I was: twenty-five years of teaching English in secondary schools up and down the country – what could I possibly have of value to say? Twenty-five years of helping teenagers to find their voices, written and spoken, and create content fit for purpose and audience, and I was mute. Dumb. Crushed entirely, absolutely, by the weight of my own silence.
Lying in bed that night, my six o’clock alarm set ready for the first day of my new reality – that of being a fully-paid-up member of the self-employed club, a freelance commercial writer – thanks for the tips, Peter Bowerman – I found sleep unfindable. No matter how far afield I sought it. Content writer? Copywriting? A professional writer – me? Where was my voice? Help!
What was I passionate about? About what could I possibly string blog sentences together to create an informative, engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking whole? A hole was all I could envisage. Or more precisely, an abyss.
And yet. It was so simple in the end. And here it is: the subject I am truly passionate about. It has shaped me, and made me who I am.
No-one can remember when I learned to read. I could do it well before I went to school, it seems. But I can remember so many of the stories from my young childhood. Milly Molly Mandy. The Velveteen Rabbit. Issi Noho. My Naughty Little Sister. Who could possibly forget Moon Face and the Magic Faraway Tree? ALL the Famous Five stories. And the Adventure series – the Island of Adventure my personal favourite.
I grew older – the rabbits grew less cute: General Woundwort in Watership Down. One thing led to another: The Plague Dogs. The villains became more fearsome: Selina Place and Nastrond in the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. How fortunate I am to live just down the road from the place where it all happened, Mobberley and Alderley Edge – watch out for the svarts! The fight between good and evil played out in the pages of my mind in Susan Cooper’s wonderful Dark is Rising series. Stories were not just in books: they LIVED.
Time passed; hormones kicked in. Before I knew it, I was irreconcilably hooked on Mills and Boon romance, probably largely thanks to serialised stories in my Gran’s pile of Woman and Home magazine. A sunny spot in the lounge of a certain South Lakes bungalow was my idea of heaven, next to the big brass jam pan that held my favourite pile of magazines. Jilly Cooper’s romps were devoured as quickly as I could get hold of them, my teenage girlfriends and I bonding over newly acquired sexual knowledge. Did anyone else read Dallas, the novel? Blimey.
But it wasn’t all slush – oh no, there was grit and reality too: the story of Violette Szabo in Carve her Name with Pride; the terrible carnage of the Roman invasion and the fierce resistance of Boudicca in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Song for a Dark Queen, echoed in more recent times by the powerful retelling of the same in Manda Scott’s incredible “Dreaming” series – all 2,760 pages of it. Courageous heroines shaped their own destinies, albeit in worlds totally governed by men, in the novels of Mary Stewart, Jean Plaidy and Sarah Harrison. Winston Smith’s clock struck thirteen and a new horror entered my world.
Story was everywhere. All the time. I made up stories with my best friend Caroline at primary school: if we weren’t riding our horses, we were making up show-stopping designs for our fashion company. We lived and breathed our stories – they were totally real to us; they were us, and we became them.
And where is story now? Does story still “live”? Whatever happened to the “new” Winnie the Pooh story I tapped painstakingly out on my best paper, aged maybe ten, a writer even then, on my wonderful typewriter to send to my little cousin far away in Toron’o? A spin-off, before spin-offs were even invented – I was ahead of my time.
There is a rich seam of what we now call Young Adult fiction – never have our teens been so spoiled for choice. Ours was a world of anthropomorphism or the eternal fight between good and evil, immortalised in Tolkien and Le Guin – now, every genre under the sun, and some being invented right now as I write this, there for the readers amongst them. The tinies can gurgle with delight at the antics of Winnie the Witch, and sing along with the Gruffalo – although they still know The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, too.
Story takes place on Netflix and even still on terrestrial TV; on big screens near you, and on little, handheld and precariously perched screens in bathrooms and bedrooms, on trains and buses and trams the world over. Story is enacted over and over in GTA and Call of Duty games.
Story is still everywhere.
But how does the quality, written incarnation of story get into the hands of our children? Because how else will they learn to cope with the rigours of the exam system our government has inflicted upon us?
In my very last term as a teacher of English, my heart cracked a little as I was forced to edit Michael Morpurgo’s sweeping, tragically bitter-sweet narrative of the two Peaceful brothers as they grew up in a sleepy pre-war village and became combatants in the war to end all wars. I had to do this because in the grand scheme of things, an assessment was due to be completed, a spreadsheet to be completed, progress to be tracked.
What happened then to story? It had lived, breathed, and taken shape in front of my year 8s’ very eyes. They had listened spellbound – even the naughty ones. Especially the naughty ones. They hated the Colonel with a passion. Their mouths opened with scandalised shock when they found out about the Colonel and Grandma Wolf. They hurrahed when Charlie got away scot-free with Bertha the foxhound. Some of them wept, or tried not to, at the end.
Was showing them the movie version of the novel at the end of the half-term a fit apology for the hatchet job I’d made of one of the best novels for young people ever written (IMHO)? I think not – no disrespect to the film, which is charming, but it really does not in any way do justice to the story that Morpurgo was shaping out of the ether before their own minds’ eyes: no movie can, let’s face it.
In a world where children’s acquaintance with story is increasingly visual and fractured, let us continue to fight for the written word: and let us wage war against a Gradgrindesque educational environment which demands primarily the tracking of progress and puts in a poor second place the lyrical, joyous, mind-expanding experience that is the world of the well-crafted story.
I live; therefore, I need story. And, therefore, as Charlotte Brontë said, “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.”