Leila Berg has spent her life fighting. Playground anti-Semites in the 1920s, fascists in the 1930s and, perhaps most famously, elitist educationists in the 1960s have found her a ferocious and indomitable opponent. But in the 1990s the challenge of writing her autobiography almost defeated her, she tells Jonathan Croall
Not long ago Leila Berg decided that, before she died, she would tell the truth about her childhood and youth. So she went into her workroom, closed her eyes, and sent herself back to the 1920s and 1930s. It proved to be a traumatic experience.
"I used a kind of self-hypnosis, and I found it quite overwhelming," she says. "Becoming a child of three again was very harrowing, very painful and very frightening. At one time I felt quite suicidal. I felt I couldn't write the book without a therapist sitting by my side and holding my hand. In fact I managed on my own, but by the end I was utterly exhausted."
The major part of Flickerbook, a series of relived fragments of her life at home, in the street, and at school, is the result of this tormented search for her younger self, for the small, intelligent, sensitive Jewish girl growing up in a climate of fear and violence between the wars in Manchester.
A strikingly original autobiography, vivid and poetic, funny, sensuous and searingly raw, it goes a long way to explain why Leila Berg has spent so much of her life fighting fiercely and often provocatively for the right of children to be listened to, understood and accepted.
The book illuminates the origins of her passionate involvement in the educational cause cel bre of the 1960s, the closure by the London County Council of Risinghill School in Islington. Her best-selling book on the controversy, Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School (Penguin), offered a passionate defence of the school's head, Michael Duane, who died last month.
Here too is the germ of her creation of Nippers, the series of children's books that attracted such hostility from many teachers; and of her often fierce denunciation of teachers and other adults for supposedly blighting children's lives.
Now in her 80th year, Leila Berg lives in a cosy, oak-beamed 17th-century smuggler's cottage in Wivenhoe, Essex. The day before we meet there she has been in London, promoting the autobiography on Woman's Hour and other radio programmes. "It's the first book of mine that's not been met with a howl of rage," she says, almost disappointed. "I can't get used to it."
Flickerbook tells the story of a quiet girl growing up in a close-knit Jewish community in Salford, bewildered by and fearful of the adult world, where nobody seems to explain anything, and where warm human contact is rare.
"I learnt very early on to cover up my fear," she remembers. "It was all bottled up inside me, and maybe that wasn't very good for me, because it made my anger much fiercer. Yet I could let myself go much more easily at cruelty done to others than when it was done to me."
The three-year-old bleakly tells herself: "Daddy never speaks to me. He is just in the same house." Her father was a teacher at Manchester's Jewish Elementary School during the day, and took Hebrew religious classes in the evening. But all she felt was his hatred of her, his silence, and his ever-present "black face".
Her mother is less harsh, but not noticeably warm. A kindly act by a neighbouring friend's mother provokes the cry from young Leila: "I wish I had a mother who doesn't mind what you do, just lets it happen however it is, and speaks so softly, and lets you be."
Violence was a fact of life at home. Hanging on a nail on the kitchen door was a tawse, which her father used to beat her brother Ellie, floggings she was forced to witness. At her elementary school she also saw children beaten with rulers and blackboard sticks as a matter of routine.
"Being bright protected me from any physical assault, but not from the emotional one of seeing children being hit all around me, which I couldn't bear," she explains now. "I thought the place was a madhouse, and that all the adults were quite insane."
In the book her most positive memories focus on life in the Salford streets, playing games of marbles or "Ogdens" (cigarette cards) with other children, observing the toffee-maker and the scissor grinder and the ragman's donkey, or delighting in women plucking hens on the pavement.
Her family voted Liberal and took The Manchester Guardian. "Only now do I see how intense and obsessive the insistence on education was, how in an immigrant community there was such a need to understand the language and culture of the new place you were in," she writes.
Flickerbook includes recollections of the bullying she suffered for being Jewish, of boys banging her head against the wall for "killing Jesus", of others accusing her of drinking baby's blood. Even the teachers joined in: "Today Miss Reilly said, 'All the Jews stand up on the forms'."
Helped by her intelligence and her early passion for books and learning, she gained a scholarship to Manchester High School. "I felt a tremendous relief, but also a responsibility to act as a mouthpiece for all those kids who couldn't escape," she recalls. "That's haunted me ever since."
Books and culture were her saviours. She walked to school so she could spend her bus fare on visits to Manchester's many theatres, to the cinema to see Charlie Chaplin, and to Charles Halle concerts at the Free Trade Hall, where she heard Kreisler and Schnabel play.
Any money left over went on books. An avid reader, she plundered second-hand book stalls for the works of Wells, Conan Doyle, Jerome, Michael Arlen and many others, then used her collection to start a fiction library at school, complete with her own cards and date-stamp.
"Getting on" for the young scholarship girl meant speaking nicely, "not so Lancashire", so her mother insisted on speech lessons. "I didn't realise quite what an imposter I was until the 1960s, when I heard my voice for the first time on a tape recorder," she says. "I was so indignant. I sounded like a complete stranger."
She briefly went to Stockwell Teacher Training College in Bromley, but there was never any chance of her entering the profession; her attendance was a bargain between father and daughter, a compromise between her desire to be a writer and his insistence that she apply for Oxford or Cambridge, places of privilege which she already despised.
She lasted a term at Stockwell. Already a Young Communist League member ("they became my family"), she walked out in disgust, after being threatened with expulsion for organising a group of fellow students to attend an Aid Spain meeting at the Albert Hall; such political events were out of bounds.
"It was a dreadfully creepy place run by the British and Foreign Bible Society, which I felt had nothing to do with children or education," she remembers. "It was just like an extension of a very authoritarian school, with a series of lessons. The other women students were just zombies, very passive, and encouraged to be so."
In Flickerbook, announcing she is writing an article about the college headed "Do you want teachers trained here to teach your kids?", her reaction is much angrier: "I should loathe my own children to be warped by people so sickeningly twisted, so ignorant, so masochistic, so ingratiating, so bowing to authority. "
By this time she was heavily involved in the fight against fascism, and the later sections of the book offer a lively account of her involvement with the Party, her flat full of comrades arguing and drinking mugs of tea - "Leila's salons" someone calls them. But there's tragedy too: the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade claim the lives of two lovers.
This prolonged exercise in recapturing the past, of emotion recollected in anger and pain, has evidently been exhausting for her, but also therapeutic. She has, she says, learnt a great deal, about herself and about other people.
"I don't think I'll lose my feeling for children, but since I've finished the book I've begun to feel more mellow about adults, to feel more sympathy for them. I realise they too have had their hard times, they too have had parents who treated them badly. I think perhaps I got stuck in my childhood, but now the stream can move on, rather than carry on eddying around that particular rock."
Despite this mellowing, she continues to look with dismay on the school system, where she sees children having less and less time to build good relationships with teachers. "Though there are pockets of people who care, I shudder to think what is happening to kids when they're only esteemed for the marks they get and the levels they reach," she says.
As for children's books, she finds it ironic that it is now generally accepted that they should reflect children's real lives and concerns, a belief she remembers being much pilloried for when Nippers first appeared. "I was one of those who were supposed to have ruined children's syntax," she says.
She is optimistic that the child-centred approach of teachers such as Michael Duane, A. S. Neill, Bob Mackenzie and others has not been in vain. "Such ideas are never lost, even though the tide goes against them for a while," she says. "They will surface again one day."
Flickerbook: an Autobiography is published by Granta (Pounds 15.99)