Life stories

19th May 2000 at 01:00
SECRETS AND LIVES: Middle England revisited. By Mary Loudon. Macmillan pound;16.99

The people of Wantage, Oxfordshire, have more cats than dogs, and (perhaps as a result) buy a lot of fish at the Wednesday market. Butthat's only a very small part of their story.

In the league of local celebrities, Joe Stokes the fish man and Michael Foster, the manager of Waitrose (who supplies the cat food statistic), are almost eclipsed by retired junior school head Winifred Pope. Miss Pope's name is invoked by several past pupils in this collection of edited interviews presented as first-person accounts (not quite reportage, not quite fiction) by Mary Loudoun, famous for persuading nuns and clergymen to lay bare their souls in her previous books.

Her latest project, set in Wantage but intended to build up a picture of the far-from-average individuals to be found in any average English town, is a retort to metropolitan snipes at small-town provincialism.

The pieces do not betray the toil that must have gone into getting them on to the page. The 46 subjects come imperceptibly into focus as they speak of loss, suffering, betrayal, fortitude and big ideas.

Miss Pope had big ideas when she opened her classroom door to find the cupboard was bare except for brown paper and string and a few books about "chaps in long shorts and hats saluting the flag". She stayed for 25 years instead of the five she intended, and is pleased that she retired before paperwork ate into the time she needed to talk to pupils and parents, which is, she says. "the lifeblood."

Her testimony is followed by that of Terina Cox, one of her more volatile pupils. "I love that woman to pieces. Evey time I tried to express myself, I found myself getting into trouble, but Miss Pope always used to listen to me. I wanted to stay at Miss Pope's school forever. My first day at secondary school, I cried."

Terina's story is one of the most emotionally draining in the collection. One of her three children almost dies in infancy, and her best friend dies abroad in grim circumstances.

Her secondary school career was, she believes, blighted by teachers ready to assume the worst of her because of her family's reputation, and her account of it is punctuated with violent incidents. The second time she was excluded, it was for hitting a student teacher. "I punched the living daylights out of her."

Miss Pope's considerable efforts were a drop in the ocean of Terina's rage, but may have helped her to realise in later life that "you teach children by loving, not by being angry".

Terina, 31 at the time of interview, is at the younger end of the interviewees' age spectrum. Others of her generation see their town as somewhere to escape from. Ian and Tina, who have reached giddy Guildford via Australia, think of their birthplace as The Twilight Zone, where life revolves around pub opening time. Rachel, whose east European Jewish family moved there in her teens, headed swiftly for the club scene in Brixton. Jamal, the lone Muslim trader in town, is saving up to retire to Bangladesh.

The overall picture is of a community that fits some of its stereotypes - overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon (Rachel and Jamal are in a minority), class-ridden and inward-looking. But as Miss Pope demonstrates, it's the individuals who make the difference.

GERALDINE BRENNAN


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