A drop of Rosie in the old china;Interview;Cynthia Kee;Book of the week;Books

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Privilege and poverty clash head-on in Cynthia Kee's novel, 'The Crack in the Tea-cup'. Reva Klein shares a pot or two with the teacher turned author

Upper-class love affairs and special educational needs are not the most likely of bedfellows. But in Cynthia Kee's novel, The Crack in the Tea-cup, they are intertwined in a strangely haunting story of a young, privileged teacher's dedication to her troubled pupils.

Rose Pitt, the beautiful daughter of a career diplomat, leads a double life. By night, she attends formal dinner parties in the homes of London's aristocracy, goes to the opera and makes passionate love to a married Labour peer as old as her father and as randy as a buck rabbit.

By day, she teaches children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in a London primary school that has every problem going - not least a headteacher from hell, aided and abetted by a secretary like Miss Trunchball, from Roald Dahl's Matilda.

With the silent collusion of the well-meaning but lumpen teaching staff, they run the school like a penal colony. It's an institution that has no time, compassion or tolerance for children with problems - or for teachers who have time, compassion and tolerance for children with problems.

Rose's school is a world familiar to Cynthia Kee. She's been in a school or two. She started out as a journalist (for, among others, Picture Post, Vogue and the BBC's Tonight), then qualified as a teacher and educational therapist.

Like Rose, she made herself monumentally unpopular with headteachers for championing poor, troubled children. She says with pride that she was once sacked from a west London primary for writing in the Observer about an intransigent head.

And you suspect that, like Rose, she went into teaching with certain preconceptions. She says: "Rose entered teaching expecting a world of good people concerned with children, and found it was just like any other world, with people involved in power games."

Her main characters are portrayed in black and white. Rose is beautiful and good, a glamorous Joan of Arc battling against the incarnations of evil, which take the form of anyone in authority. They appear in all the institutions portrayed - school, hospital and the children's home where Rose's most needy and off-the-wall pupil, Sam, winds up.

The upper-class characters, two-faced and self-obsessed, fare little better. Rose's lover, Labour peer Lord Wetherby, is in the end more besotted with his royal-studded lifestyle and honorary chairmanships than with Rose's anatomy. And to keep this life afloat, he is determined to stay with a wife he finds physically repulsive but socially necessary.

Even the Education Secretary, once a red-hot socialist, can't be bothered with Rose's impassioned pleas on behalf of poor Sam and the other children destined for the scrap heap because they don't fit into the inflexible structures schools have become. She has too many other things to think about - between occasional shots of G and T for elevenses.

Kee, formerly married to broadcaster Robert Kee, had to publish this book herself. Chatto and Windus, which originally commissioned the work, and had published a previous novel in 1994, rejected it. So did several other publishers.

Why did she persevere? She shakes her head, framed in clouds of dark hair, and looks down at her silver loafers. "I feel responsible to the children in the book. They were real in my mind and couldn't come alive properly unless the book could be read."

Those creations are composites of children she has worked with. She still works today, on a voluntary basis at a central London primary. "I don't know the minutiae of the politics of education these days, but I do know about the children I've worked with and written about. The labels they're given - what do they mean? Mostly, they've missed out at some developmental stage and are blocked somewhere down the line. What they need is attention and time."

Kee insists her book is fiction. But, she says "it certainly reflects the attitudes and behaviour and lack of understanding out there". While it is flawed as a novel on several counts - the caricatured portrayals of goodbadsalt of the earth types, the treacly love scenes - the insights into the pressures and dire realities of the lives of children branded EBD and the institutional response to them are the book's raison d'etre.

The Crack in the Tea-cup is not a great book. But it is an important one for teachers and all of us who fall into the trap of judging people on appearances.

Kee's message is not new - children need nurturing, and some parents, ground down by poverty, feelings of inadequacy and stress, need support. While schools cannot turn disturbed children's lives around on their own, they can, through caring, understanding and patience, mitigate some of the pain, anger and alienation many children feel. Her final image of poor Sam, alone in an isolation room, is simple and gut-wrenching - woe betide a society that turns its back on its most vulnerable members.

'The Crack in the Tea-cup' is published by NLJ on March 25, at pound;10

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