Review - Village of the adjective misery

12th October 2012 at 01:00

Are you the headteacher of a village school? Do you work with quirky staff and gem-spilling pupils? If so, get thee to a computer right now, because the publishing world wants your memoirs.

"But," you say, "I'm no writer. I have no idea how to write a book."

"Not a problem," the publishing world replies. "We want your memoirs anyway."

And so we have Educating Jack, the sixth (yes, sixth) book by one-time village headmaster Jack Sheffield. Straddling uncertain ground between novel and memoir - the narrator is called Jack Sheffield, but he recounts conversations that take place in his absence - Educating Jack tells the story of a Yorkshire primary school in the 1980s.

We know that it is the 1980s because, roughly once a chapter, someone refers to a story in the news. Pit closures? Check. Thatcher's re-election? Check. The launch of pound coins? And Channel 4? Check and check again. Cumulatively, the effect is not unlike being trapped inside a giant leg warmer and forced to listen to Culture Club on endless replay.

But Sheffield is not one for subtlety. Oh, no. He is what one might refer to as a details man. This is possibly a useful trait in a headteacher. It is significantly less helpful in a writer.

Every character who crosses the pages of Educating Jack, however briefly, comes complete with age, hair colour, height and, occasionally, shoe size. No device, gadget or cleaning product appears without a brand name. A casual mention of his car includes its "shiny yellow-and-chrome AA badge". An Atari games console has "woodgrain console, plastic paddles and stubby rubber joystick".

And it often comes all at once: "I leant my gangling six-foot-one-inch frame against one of the twin stone pillars by the wrought-iron gate." Stop! Please! Any more, and I shall sink my light-brown-haired head on to my wood-effect MDF desk and cry.

In between, some of his pupils say and do entertaining things. And the adults are a pleasant enough collection of Yorkshire stereotypes. Lager does not go down well with them, nor croissants. Those who live in council houses have a tendency towards malapropism - "men applause"; "cross aunt" - which might be mildly amusing were it not also a bit offensive.

Our more educated narrator, meanwhile, has a penchant for overwrought description. I suspect this is what he thinks is required when one writes a book.

"Life is a collection of moments," he says towards the end. "Some sear the soul like burning rain." What does this mean? Is it a reference to acid rain? Because - in case you have forgotten - we are in the 1980s. Is that Boy George I hear on the radio?

Educating Jack by Jack Sheffield is published by Corgi, priced at #163;7.99.

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