Mr Reeves and Mr Holifield by Pam Ayres

After the disappointment of failing her 11-plus exam, the poet was thrilled when two teachers spotted her gift for writing

Kate Bohdanowicz

It would be immodest of me to say that my ability to write well wasn't noticed at school, because it was. However, Mr Reeves and Mr Holifield singled me out for having something special to offer. They recognised that I had a love of writing stories and they encouraged it. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I failed my 11-plus exam and, at that time in the late 1950s, it meant I was denied the chance of studying for GCEs. I was relegated to Faringdon Secondary Modern in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) and left at 15 with no qualifications.

Mr Reeves was my English teacher, and he looked like something out of a Dickens novel. He seemed about 150 but he was in his forties, I suppose. He was rotund, had curly, wild, greying hair and was always covered in chalk.

When I was about 12, he gave me a posh exercise book on which he had written "Ayres and Graces" and asked me to write stories in it. Then Mr Holifield, who also taught English, started a school newspaper called The Conquest and printed my stories in it.

I wrote about my escapades. They were pretty excruciating in many ways, but they used good vocabulary and had plenty of fast-moving action. I remember writing a dramatic story about someone falling down a well. It was a bit like the Famous Five, but not as glamorous. Some old copies of the paper have surfaced as people have dug them out from their archives. They've been sent to me smelling of mildew.

Encouragement at that stage was massively important to me. I had a perfectly happy home life, but I was one of six so I didn't get much individual attention. My mother was concerned, quite rightly, with looking after the basics, such as dishing up tea every night. So for Mr Reeves and Mr Holifield to see the potential in me was thrilling.

Mr Holifield had the idea of a revue and I wrote a song about Diana Dors. I made a wig for it, but when the time came I didn't have the courage to perform it. He offered me a tape recorder to sing into on my own, but I just couldn't, which is a shame because it was a good song.

I resented the fact that I didn't have any GCEs and benefited greatly from various further education schemes. When I left school, I worked as a clerk in the Civil Service. It was desperately boring, but they had a day-release scheme at college and I got GCEs in English language and literature. Then I went into the Women's Royal Air Force and took a couple more. When I was about 22, I wanted to do English A level, but by this time I was becoming known for my funny poems round the folk clubs and I focused on that.

I kept in touch with both teachers for a while. I joined a local amateur dramatic group in Faringdon and Mr Reeves - Bill - was a member, so I got to know him in a more relaxed way. Mr Holifield went on to become a headmaster in Suffolk.

In 1975, after I won Opportunity Knocks, I was signed up by London Weekend Television to do a preposterous number of shows. I knew I couldn't churn out all the material, so a load of scriptwriters were brought in. One of the sketches was fairly coarse. When it appeared on television, Mr Reeves was so horrified that he wrote to the producers and said: "What on earth are you doing? She's worth so much more than this!"

It was rather sad to hear, but he had always been protective of me.

You Made Me Late Again!, a new collection of poems by Pam Ayres, will be published by Ebury Press on 26 September, priced #163;16.99. She was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz


Pam Ayres

Born: 14 March 1947, Stanford in the Vale, Berkshire, England

Education: Faringdon Secondary Modern, Berkshire (now Oxfordshire); Oxford College of Further Education

Career: Writer, poet, comedian, broadcaster and entertainer.

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Kate Bohdanowicz

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