Daisy Waugh's latest novel follows the adventures of a new head trying to save a failing rural primary - and her dignity. Hilary Wilce talks to the author about sex, literacy and Lemsip
Evelyn Waugh had his vile bodies. Granddaughter Daisy has her vile teachers. Or, rather, vile teacher. Robert White, with his patchy beard and smirking innuendos, not to mention his open-toed sandals and perennial cup of Lemsip, is as odious a creature as ever haunted a staffroom, and Daisy Waugh spares us nothing of his soft, pink lips and ghastly private habits.
In fact her satire of modern village life, Bed of Roses, which centres on a small rural primary school, lets no one off lightly. Not the pushy, used-to-be-lawyers-in-London parents, Geraldine and Clive Adams, or the rapacious single mother Kitty Mozely, or the dysfunctional Guppy family.
Not even her heroine, the endearing Fanny Flynn, youngest headteacher ever, who flies in to rescue Fiddleford primary and soon finds herself at a village hall limbo party dressed in her bra and not much else.
Bed of Roses, Daisy Waugh's fourth novel, is a school story with several big differences. One is the prodigious amount of sex, boozing, swearing and smoking of aromatic cigarettes that the villagers of Fiddleford manage to pack into their daily lives. Then there is the plot, which, although hinging loosely on special measures, allegations of child abuse, arson and the gerrymandering of a governing body, bears, as Daisy Waugh cheerfully admits, only a glancing relationship with reality. "I have made pretty free with the systems of special measures and so on," she says. "Teachers may be irritated. But it's supposed to be light fiction. There isn't a message or anything like that."
However, whether it's describing school bureaucracy ("Fanny spends the evenings at home, alone at her kitchen table, wading dutifully through paperwork. It occurs to her at the end of her third, six-hour stint that she's made no noticeable dent in the stack of papers still waiting to be dealt with") or the truanting Dane Guppy (O'right, Miss?"), it's clear that Daisy Waugh has an ear for everyday school life, and drops in enough references to Ofsted and literacy levels to give it substance.
Occasionally, too, she catches the real undertow of school life: "As she crosses the playground towards the shadowy front porch she's suddenly very conscious of the generations of childish figures that have passed through this place before: of the hopeful voices, the carefree laughter, the lives that have started here, and been, and gone; and she feels, for once, the full weight of her own responsibility." To get it, Daisy Waugh used a patchwork of primaries, "and I must say, having worked as a journalist and then a novelist, people are always massively much more friendly and helpful to you as a novelist. Except the Metropolitan Police, who just say, 'Do you watch The Bill? Because it's all quite like that'."
For the "technical stuff on special measures and the protocols of disciplinary actions" she visited a primary school in west London. For the general flavour of school life she went back to her own old primary school, Kingston St Mary Church of England primary, near Taunton, Somerset. "She was very interested to see how it had changed since she was there. She spent a couple of days with us and sat in on assemblies," says former head Sarah Waters, who now heads a school near Canterbury, in Kent. "There was a dinner lady who was there when she was there, and some of the parents had been at school when she was. I'll be very interested to see what she's made of it all."
For the picturesque Fiddleford school building she has used the quaint Lydeard St Lawrence primary school, also in Somerset, "which is now somebody's house - the children are in a new school", although quite a lot of the spirit of its retired head Judy Fursland also seems to have seeped into the book via Fanny Flynn. "My philosophy was not to go by county guidelines," says Ms Fursland. "I tended to flout convention, as long as I remained within the law. I was head for 18 years and I loved every minute.
People could see the children were happy, the parents were happy and the results were wonderful.
"Daisy came and spent a day with us. She had all her feelers out. She was very astute. I always believed you had to have your doors open to everyone.
I used to say, 'Come in any time, only sometimes you might catch us with our knickers down!'"
This is a position not unknown to Fanny Flynn, who manages to fit in a fevered private life while also licking Fiddleford school into good enough shape for the inspectors to give her a "highly commended", and reaching out to all her children, even Dane Guppy. "Oh my crumbling Mondays," as he tends to say, "she's alright, Miss Flynn is." "The thing that really struck me," says Daisy Waugh, "is how gentle and nice it all is these days. Only one teacher gave me a flashback to how it used to be, with that kind of rote study, and slavishly following the national curriculum. The rest were wonderful in the way they inspired and encouraged the children."
Bed of Roses by Daisy Waugh is published by HarperCollins, pound;6.99.
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