Dying to tell what it's like
Nicholas Tucker reads Edward Blishen's final volume of memoirs
Edward Blishen's Roaring Boys, still the best as well as the most entertaining account of a teacher's first years in the classroom, came out in 1955. Other autobiographical instalments that followed also concentrated on teaching (This Right Soft Lot; Uncommon Entrance), and there was a constant flow of journalism for The Guardian and The TES, which published his last article earlier this year.
This was a wryly affectionate account of revisiting the London school he had first taught in, only to discover that the building itself had now been converted into superior town flats. As in everything he wrote, astute comments merged with memories of the past in the typical quizzical, affectionate, self-deprecating style that had won him so many loyal fans ever since he started writing. Blishen inspired generations of English teachers and edited the Junior Pears Encyclopaedia for many years. He was known to a wide radio audience, presenting book programmes on the World Service and Radio 4, notably the popular A Good Read.
Mind How You Go, his final autobiographical study, is a constant delight to read, even though its over-riding theme is the ailments and infirmities of old age that finally led to the author's death late last year, a few months after this book was completed.
Bertrand Russell once said that while there were undoubtedly many points in favour of old age, he could not at that moment bring any to mind. Blishen would surely have agreed; he finds nothing good to say about the cataracts and prostate problems described in these pages. Even so, this account still remains a celebration of a life greatly enjoyed and which also provided much pleasure for others.
Experience of illness constantly reminds him of the miracle of the good health normally so taken for granted. The most basic excretory movements are admired as miracles of efficiency and careless good fortune once there is frightening first-hand knowledge of what it is like when they are not working at all. Blishen makes these points gently and quizzically; he never orates from a pulpit. There are passages here as good as anything he has written, and a reminder that we have lost someone so consistently amusing that even a letter to his accountant could sometimes turn into a masterpiece.
Much of this book takes place in huge hospitals consisting of "a torment of corridors" and "going in terrifyingly for doors". Death itself is to an extent anticipated by the endless waits and a gradual sense of losing touch with what is going on outside. Nurses, doctors and patients come and go, all material for the amused fascination Blishen felt for the human condition. Like Chesterton, he believed that for a small child an unexpected uncle at the door could be quite as exciting to the imagination as any story about the arrival of a dragon.
Living in Barnet, he could observe how the boys of his youth grew into the companions or nodding acquaintances of old age. The particular journey each takes is described with sympathetic understanding, and when he laughs it is with, rather than at, them.
There was also his own family to describe, from his famously irritable father (Sorry, Dad) and his meek, diminutive mother (Lizzie Pye) to his own two sons and wife.
But some of his best writing was about his large cast of senior relatives, all coming from the same lower middle class background as his father. Blishen was an expert chronicler of their general habit of disgruntlement: "You had no power at all, so gave yourself the illusion of power that comes from withholding your approval from virtually everything." But in his pages, these normally over-looked characters make an entirely justified claim on our attention. All human beings here come over as in some way extraordinary, not because of any particular characteristic but by virtue simply of being human.
he has dealings in this book with some who appear under their real name (Kingsley Amis), while others are thinly anonymous (Roald Dahl) or re-christened (Harry Ree and Leon Garfield).
There is also a description of a week's visit to Russia with oldest son "Ben", and another of a holiday in Tenerife. Coming towards the end of the book, this is a final burst of sunshine. Released temporarily from pain and dysfunction, Blishen looks around and as always revels in what he sees. His fellow tourists, women "majestic in their casual wear at breakfast, left you groping for words to describe the duchessy selves they brought to dinner." They are served at table by a waiter forever "giving a breathtaking impression of pinching every haughty bottom". When Nancy breaks her leg and goes to a dubious private clinic, Blishen saves up everything he has seen to tell her later, just as she stores her own impressions for him. Few couples can ever have enjoyed each other quite so much.
Blishen died having just heard that this book had found a publisher, but in the knowledge that his other autobiographical works remain out of print. This is an unjust fate for such a wise and delightful writer, and one that speaks poorly for the survival of other quirky, minority authors in the future.