On growing up and going back
I spent a few days last month in North Devon, where I spent much of my childhood. My father was headteacher of village primary schools there, first in Umberleigh in the Taw valley and later in Woolacombe on the coast. We lived in Barnstaple and I was a pupil of what was then the Grammar School and is now The Park Community School. The school is celebrating its centenary - there's a new and very interesting book charting its history by Trevor Hill - and I'd been invited along to run some writers' workshops for pupils. It was CWA crime fiction week, so it seemed an appropriate date for the visit.
I was happy in the school. It stands on a beautiful location looking down at the river and I made friends who are still important to me: my best friend at school lives in the town, we're still very close and I had a great few days with her. We walked the Tarka route between Fremington Quay and Instow, listened to jazz at the Barnstaple Festival and ate cream teas. Now it seems to me that what I gained from that experience didn't have a lot to do with exams and knowledge. I learned to read widely and perhaps my passion for European crime fiction developed from the enthusiasm for French literature passed on by Barbara Morrish, our brilliant teacher. Camus's La Peste is still one of my favourite books. (My English teacher, Michael Grey, was more interested in Dylan than Shakespeare and is now considered an authority - the English classics rather passed me by...)
Mostly though, when I remember schooldays, especially my sixth form, it's about the other students. Beach parties on Croyde beach, with firewood nicked from the lifeguards and too much cheap wine, and walks through Anchor Woods. All the time talking. About our dreams and our loves, about painting and poetry. The sense that understanding the other as an individual was as important as understanding ourselves. In these days of targets and league tables it seems idealistic and self-indulgent. How can you measure emotional intelligence after all? But that desire to get inside another person's skin and see the world through their eyes is what writing's all about. It was the best possible training for me.
It was very odd to go back to the school. I was seventeen when I left and I've never been there since. There were odd flashes of memory. Of the library, of rehearsing school plays in the hall, of a classroom where a particularly strict and scary teacher had taught, of speech day and betting on the length of the chair of governors lecture. But the young people were much the same as we were. And the writers in my group showed a concentration and skill that I'm not sure I would have had at their age. I hope they get as much out of their schooldays as I did.