Make it a thriller

7th November 2003 at 00:00
How World War II Was Won on the Playing Fields of LSE: the story of Willis Wright, groundsman and unsung hero. Written and edited by David Kingsley. Inky Legs Press. pound;7.50 (five or more copies pound;6.50) each plus pound;1 pamp;p from Kingsley and Kingsley, 81 Mortimer Road, London N1 5AR

Memories, Milestones and Miscellanies: 125 years of Norwich High School for Girls. By Alan Brodie. (pound;8-pound;12 inc pamp; p) from 95 Newmarket Road, Norwich NR2 2HU, tel 01603 453265

Willingly to School: the story of 900 years of education in Warwickshire. By David Howe. Warwickshire Publications pound;15.95Order on 01926 412550

Could you write the history of your school to such electrifying effect that someone who knew nothing of the place would eagerly turn the pages, crying:

"Listen to this bit"?

These three authors, using three distinct but equally effective approaches, get high marks for trying.

David Kingsley's book has grasped the fact that the people we remember from school, college or university are the so-called "unsung heroes" - caretakers, ground staff, porters, kitchen staff, housekeepers - at least as much as the teachers. In this case, the central character is Willis Wright, who for 28 years - from 1929 to 1957 - was groundsman at the New Malden playing fields of the London School of Economics.

The story is told largely through a continuing correspondence between Mr Wright and the LSE staff. His tenure included the Second World War, so he writes at the height of the Blitz: "Just a line to let you know we are still alright, although we are getting a bit of a Dusting. We got another big one on Friday night it was a blast mine or rather a new kind of landmine." The letters give us a glimpse of a time when two people on opposite sides of what was then a real class divide (Mr Wright wrote "Dear Sir" and received "Dear Wright" in return) could develop a warm, mutually respectful relationship.

Alan Brodie has chosen to present his book on Norwich high school for girls essentially as a series of single pages, one for each year, and each with a contemporary illustration underpinned by text. The approach means the pace is lively and it's a gift to those who will turn immediately to "their" years.

Importantly, the historical narrative unfolds as you turn the pages, particularly through group photographs of girls in late Victorian dress which give way to Thirties pageboy hairstyles, then to Forties gymslips and Fifties blazers, and a new uniform in 1997. My favourite is from 1895: headmistress and 12 mature-looking pupils clad in full-length frocks, and in front, enigmatically, a boy squinting at the camera. The caption reads:

"Miss Gadesden, Prefects and 'The Boy'".

David Howe, former chief inspector in Warwickshire, has taken on a whole education authority. He's chosen patches of history, and themes that will interest people: the arts, special education, headteachers. (He quotes from the logbook of one new head: "I am now in a position of responsibility with very little idea of what the job entails. 400 dead wasps found on the library floor.") Howe does his duty by the authority and its officers, but the heart of the book - and of the author - rests with the schools and the children, and there's much charm in the way he lets his feelings show. For example, in a passage on childhood pleasures, there's this: "In Lapworth, on Ash Wednesday in 1907, four pupils, returning from school on an icy day, decided to try to skate on a pond known as Spring Pit. All fell through the ice and were drowned. One died trying to rescue the others, including his own brother. A small memorial to this distressing event stands to this day in the lower part of the tranquil churchyard. As one stands at it, one cannot but reflect on the two or three hundred years of potential living that were destroyed on that spot in seconds, of marriages, children and grandchildren that might have been."

What makes these very different books work is that each author has tackled the job not just with relish and love, but with a clear idea of what will appeal to the insider and, as far as possible, to the general reader.

Anyone thinking of volunteering for this duty could start by looking at all three. It would be, in every sense, time well spent.

Gerald Haigh

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