The real lives of fictitious teachers

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Tough-minded and tinged with tragedy seems to sum up the profession, says Michael Russell

Sometimes it seems as if every teacher I meet has an unpublished, and sometimes even unwritten, manuscript about their person. A couple of months ago, I was approached by one such individual who knew that I wrote for a living and, moreover, that I had written several books. While asking me for my advice on how he should go about being published, he told me that he was, in his opinion, already very skilled in the trade and that he wrote extensively each day.

"Fiction?" I enquired, wondering if I had seen his name on any dust-jacket.

"No," he replied, "letters to parents, reports, lessons plans and suchlike - but it must be the same sort of skill you need to do your job."

Well, as Evelyn Waugh put it, "up to a point, Lord Copper". But swallowing that remark, I directed him, as I always do in such circumstances, to the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. Towards the end of his life, Hardy observed that, of the 20 young men that he grew up among who wanted to be writers, he was the only one who had done so. That, he wisely noted, was because he sat down and wrote.

Teachers, of course, do regularly make it through to publication and some with spectacular success; W H Auden was, for a short time during his career, a teacher in a private school (in Helensburgh of all places), as was the aforementioned Evelyn Waugh. The English author J L Carr, whose quixotic short works are once again becoming popular, was initially refused entry to teacher training college. Later, having gained the dizzy heights of a primary headship in Kettering, he did well enough in his chosen profession to retire at the age of 55.

His first novel after that watershed was The Harpole Report, which appeared in 1972 and which he intended as a "sort of textbook for teachers . . . it has been said that all teachers while training should read it . . . it was all I wanted to say about a job I did for nine years before the war and for 21 years after it."

The Harpole Report is funny and very distinctive, as all Carr's novels are, but their humour conceals a much darker world view as well as a deeply serious set of intentions. That is seen very clearly from the book he wrote when working as an exchange teacher on the Great Plains of South Dakota, The Battle of Pollok's Crossing. Tough minded and tinged with tragedy, it leaves a strong impact.

Tough-minded and tinged with tragedy might describe the attitude of many inside the teaching profession these days, and it is therefore not surprising that, when teachers do turn to creating works of fiction, they often choose to write about their own profession and their own experiences.

The process can also be cathartic, which may be why accurate, let alone critically successful, portrayals of what it is like to be at the chalkface are not thick on the ground.

This is particularly true when one considers television and radio, where real successes by screenwriters at showing school life as it is can be counted on the fingers of one hand, including the 1966 BBC series This Man Craig - starring John Cairney, who in memory seems only and forever to have portrayed Robert Burns - and the splendidly anarchic and almost Dadaesque Channel 4 offering Teachers, which came to the end of its fourth and final run earlier this year.

One book about the real experience of teaching, and some of its consequences, which has never been translated to the small or large screen is Robin Jenkins's The Changeling, though, like many of Jenkins's books, it richly deserves such treatment. That is particularly true of his most important novel, The Cone Gatherers (based on his experiences working for the Forestry Commission as a conscientious objector during the Second World War), which is one of the great unfilmed stories of our time.

Jenkins's death in March robbed Scotland not just of one of our most prolific novelists but one of the few teachers turned writers who did bring veracity, deep thoughtfulness and massive literary talent to his portrayals of children and schools. Jenkins taught in Glasgow and in Argyll before venturing much farther afield, working as a teacher and lecturer in Malaya, Afghanistan and Catalonia.

His first novel was not published until he was almost 40 but, in the remaining 55 years of his life, he produced 30 more, many of which feature teachers or pupils in some way. The Changeling, published in 1958, focuses directly on the relationship between a brilliant child, mired in poverty and alienated by it, and a kind-hearted but somewhat ludicrous primary teacher.

Set in Glasgow and then in a fictional village on the Cowal Peninsula, the tensions produced by the child's holiday as a guest of his teacher and the teacher's reluctant family during a week "doon the watter" builds first to a comic, and then a tragic, climax as the child fails to reconcile the impulses towards good and evil that are contained within him as well as demonstrated by others in their behaviour towards him.

The earlier school-based passages in the book present teachers as being insensitive instruments of the state, reinforcing the prejudices of society. But Jenkins also suggests that those who have different impulses should examine themselves carefully, for their motivation may be as selfish as their more brutal colleagues and the consequences of their actions may be even more harmful.

This is a bleak message, but Jenkins, even in his later more comic work, always had a bleak outlook on his fellow human beings and a discerning eye for their inconsistencies and personal deceits. Could that be because he was - once - a teacher?

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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