Miss York brought literature to life. She was from an age when teachers had time to read to their classes

28th January 2005 at 00:00
I grew up in Leicester. My dad worked in hosiery and my mum was a cleaning lady. At Slater Street junior school there was only one class to each year; it had a wonderful relaxed atmosphere. I went from this tiny primary school to Beaumont Leys secondary modern, a big school with all the problems of big schools. It was a shock to me.

Miss York taught me English; she was also a drama teacher and an actress.

She was a character: tiny and with a pronounced limp. Before she came to Beaumont Leys I think she had only ever taught girls, although you would never have known it. She was the sort of teacher who could walk into a classroom of thugs - and there were some at that school - look over the top of her glasses and there'd be complete silence. She had that wonderful teacher's gift. If only you could bottle it, I'm sure every new teacher would buy it. She was that good. There was never the chance of anarchy in her class; you just got on with work.

She brought literature to life and was from an age when teachers had time to read to their classes. I remember her reading King Solomon's Mines; she used to do fantastic voice characterisations. The voice of Gagaoola, the witch, is always her in my mind.

She was inspirational. I suppose that, because of her acting, she knew how to hold an audience. You've got to have something to stand in front of a group of kids and hold their attention. But she had more. She reminded us of Margaret Rutherford, particularly in her Miss Marple role.

Despite her teaching, I didn't do well at school and I left with one CSE, in art. It's easy to blame teachers for your failings but that was me, I was a lazy little sod. As much as I enjoyed her classes, I didn't work.

We never had books in the house, but there was a good library round the corner. One of my greatest regrets is that I never read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe until my 20s.

When I was 15, my sister Kathleen, who was 18, died from leukaemia. She'd been ill for about three years. It was a nasty, drawn-out battle and it affected everybody terribly.

I left school and went to work as a car upholsterer. It was grim. We worked in an old Nissen hut that had no running water or sanitation. I had ambitions then to write. I would wander around with a notebook in my pocket and a copy of something by Seamus Heaney in my bib and brace. I would read that in my lunchtime.

After six years I went back to college and took O-levels and A-levels, then went on to university. From the age of 16 I must have completed about four or five novels and more that got no further than the first few chapters.

They were all rejected. It was so dispiriting and depressing. I thought:

"I'm going to write the next one for myself." I was convinced I wasn't going to write much more so I thought I'll write what I want and enjoy myself.

It took me about two years to write Cry of the Icemark. When I was about a third of the way through, I realised that the main character, Thirrin, was very familiar: she had red hair, green eyes and pale skin and her temperament was strong and a bit feisty. Suddenly I realised it was Kathleen.

I wasn't going to send it off but I wanted some reaction, so I gave it to friends from work to read. They loved it and one said: "You've got to send it off." I did, and, amazingly, the publisher took it.

I lost touch with Miss York, but when Barry Cunningham, publisher of Cry of the Icemark, heard about her he got the Leicester phone directory, and made contact. She said: "Yes, of course I remember him." I've been to see her since and she's still going strong. She's in her seventies and writes novels for Mills and Boon. She's a lovely woman.

Author Stuart Hill was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1958 Born in Leicester

1963-1974 Attends Fosse infants school, then Slater Street junior school and Beaumont Leys secondary modern

1974 Leaves school to work in motor trade

1980 Charles King college

1983 Works as an archaeologist in Lincoln

1984 Newcastle University

1987 Teaches English as a foreign language in Greece

1994 Works as a shop assistant in the Leicester branch of Waterstone's

2003 Sends manuscript of Cry of the Icemark to Barry Cunningham, the publisher who discovered JK Rowling

2004 Cry of the Icemark is published by Chicken House; wins inaugural Ottakar's children's book prize

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