Ghost of a chance

An East End primary is at the heart of a teacher's tale of time travel and heroics during the Blitz that has a contemporary twist. Geraldine Brennan reports

Geraldine Brennan

Once in a while, primary teachers get a break, and here it is: a ghost story with a Second World War setting, based on a true story about a present-day east London school.

It has believable contemporary child characters, reflects the cultural mix of inner-city schools and explores themes such as bullying and friendship. Not only that, but it's short enough to be read aloud over two lessons. Of course, it was written by a teacher.

Joe Layburn moved into primary classrooms six years ago after a career as a journalist. He spent 15 years as a reporter, mainly for Channel 4 News and had always wanted to write stories for children, but his early days teaching in east London showed him how hard it would be to satisfy his audience.

"Children have their own interests, their own language and they don't want dialogue that doesn't sound real, or fictional children who don't strike them as authentic," he says.

So Aisha, the contemporary East End 10-year-old in Joe's novel, Ghostscape, peppers her speech with "stress", "issues" and "whatever". Aisha and her mother are refugees from Somalia, where Aisha's father has been killed. Aisha has adjusted to her new life better than her mother, but she is not happy at school because she is being bullied by the hard- as-nails Chevon. "There's a lot of girls like Chevon around," Joe says. "An important message in the book is that you always have to stand up to bullies."

She is driven to hide in the toilets one day and emerges from a cubicle to discover the walls have turned from painted to tiled, and there's a strange boy called Richard in baggy shorts by the sinks. The toilets, the school itself and the outside world are all as they were in 1940. Richard shows Aisha the Blitz-damaged old East End, then travels forward to her time to help her deal with Chevon: they can each slip into the other's world as a ghost.

Intrigued, Aisha researches the history of the school and finds that it was bombed during the Blitz: but she has left Richard and his grandfather sheltering in the school building after losing their home. She travels back to 1940 to save them.

The school that really received a direct hit on the night of September 10, 1940, was South Hallsville Primary in Canning Town, east London. It was rebuilt as Hallsville Primary after the war, and now has a memorial plaque and garden dedicated to 73 local people, including children, who died while they were sheltering in the school.

It was Ian Evans, Hallsville's special needs co-ordinator, who told Joe about the school's history (they are fellow West Ham supporters). "When you've been a news reporter your antennae go up when you hear something like that. I remembered it when I wanted to write a story for children like the children I'm teaching. I thought of a timeslip story set in the Blitz that would have some authenticity to it."

The local story of the South Hallsville bombing maintains, Joe says, that the bombed-out families sheltering in the school were due to be moved to relative safety in the suburbs, but the buses to pick them up went to Camden Town in north London instead of Canning Town. So they stayed one extra night: the night of September 10, 1940. Joe believes the death toll is higher than the official 73.

"There are a lot of old boys around Canning Town who lived through the war and they will tell you that 400 people died. The Government would change figures to keep morale up and a lot of bodies couldn't be recovered. People often sheltered in schools because, if many people in a neighbourhood lost their homes, a big building was needed for shelter. There was nowhere else for them to go. There was no Tube station then. But school buildings weren't protected against bombs, so there was no guarantee they would be safe."

Joe grew up in Wanstead, east London, but his family had roots in Canning Town, where they owned a furniture factory before the war. His father, like Richard in Ghostscape, was not evacuated. "My grandmother could not bear to send him away," Joe says. His father's four cousins also stayed in London and were killed in an air raid. His father left school at 14, but later became a secondary teacher and specialised in PSHE before he died in 1989.

Joe is grateful that his grandmother, who is still alive, kept notes of her wartime experiences and published her memoirs for circulation among local history societies. "She had a good memory and great descriptive powers, so there are a lot of vivid and detailed accounts of day-to-day life during the Blitz and the aftermath of bombing, which she knew intimately." So Aisha's nightmare visions of bombed-out streets with glimpses of households suddenly minus their walls, and Richard's tales of grim conditions in the Tube stations made into temporary shelters, are rooted in Joe's family history.

Joe turned to teaching, inspired by his father, when he had young children and wanted to stop travelling. He had visited many global trouble spots for Channel 4, including Soweto, Northern Ireland and North Korea. "My dad, who had a million and one jobs, always said if you're going to teach it's best to do something else first, and then you'll really appreciate teaching.

"Teaching is a great job and this is a great time in my life to be doing it. Journalism gave me the chance to be in amazing places at interesting times, but it can be a negative world and everything about teaching primary children feels positive."

He now teaches at Bancroft's Junior School in Woodford Green, Essex, but trained with the London borough of Newham's graduate teacher programme. "My first day was as scary as anything I did as a reporter. If you're doing a piece to camera and it goes wrong, you just start again. It's not so easy to start again in front of a class."

When teaching in West Ham, he met Somali children "and listened to their stories about what their lives had been like in Somalia and how they were in the UK".

Joe test-markets his works in progress (he is about to finish his second novel for Frances Lincoln) with his English classes at Bancroft's. "Sometimes they're flattering and sometimes they tell me when something doesn't work." He is also eager to please the current Hallsville Year 6s and visited last term to show them the final proofs plus artwork by John Williams, who has drawn animation storyboards and strips for Marvel comics.

"Let me show you these," he tells the group. "Isn't this a great front cover? Here's Chevon, isn't she horrible?" The children hiss in unison. "I hope you'll think the school is like yours."

Ghostscape, published by Frances Lincoln, is out now.

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Geraldine Brennan

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