Of such stuff are nightmares made

18th August 2006 at 01:00
Daisy Waugh continues our series that looks at how other professions perceive teachers. This week: novelists

I once wrote an article about the world of top-class, amateur competitive ballroom dancers. Every one of them worked for the civil service. Even the world champions had to have a job of some kind (the money for those skin-fitting tuxedos had to come from somewhere) and it is a fact universally acknowledged that the civil service tends to be more "understanding" than the private sector about employees taking a lot of days off work, whether for colds or stress or to waltz around Blackpool's Winter Gardens in quest of prizes.

Novelists, I think, tend to be attracted to teaching for the same reason.

The holidays are good. They allow for a second career the way other professions don't. Which is why so many successful writers started out as teachers in the first place - my grandfather Evelyn, to name but one.

A lot of novelists, less popular, continue to teach throughout their writing careers. Not so much from desire, I suspect, but because they can't afford not to. Of course there may be teacher-novelists out there who have been blessed with two burning vocations in life (where most people have none): to tell stories, and to deliver to those naughty, knife-wielding teenagers a little knowledge about the world they live in. I sincerely hope so.

In general though, I think teaching is looked upon by novelists as a fallback: a stopgap: as something to keep the bailiffs from the door until that precious moment when the publishers' bidding war begins.

Ho hum. Not for me. Over the years I've temped and I've waitressed, I've painted houses - but sadly, teaching could never be a fallback. I did too badly at school; left at 18 with three bad A-levels and no hope of a place at university. I think it's why, unlike other novelists, who are already at the coal face, I have a fairly romantic vision of what the job entails, at least at primary school level.

Writing is such a solitary profession. There are times when I yearn for a job which involves talking to people - to anybody, frankly, but especially to those oddballs and losers who by necessity must occasionally wash up in the local school yard.

Teaching, like few other professions, provides a never-ending source of new characters to chat to: or rather, to spy on, and I hanker after that.

So much so that last year I wrote a wish-fulfilling novel - a feel good, romantic holiday read - in which a young primary school teacher is the heroine. Her life, unlike mine, is filled with chat. And with odd balls.

And, funnily enough, with rich, handsome, divorced PTA attendees... If only life could be more like chic-lit.

In reality, I know I could never teach - and not just because of the A-levels. I grew up in a household which did not - how can I put this? - automatically encourage respect for authority figures.

Politicians, priests - and petty-minded, punishment-obsessed teachers were always targets for ridicule at home; school rules deemed pointless by the parents were joyously flouted by us children. In fact, now I come to think of it, we may have been the original ASBO family: hostile to instruction, arrogant, lawless... My mother says she regrets it now. She wishes she'd held her tongue; taught us children to respect authority a bit better. It would, apart from anything else, have made the four of us so much more employable.

A generation on I can see she has a point and I've sworn not to imbue my own children with the same sense of auto-anarchy. Among the power crazed sadists and other dross, after all, I had a few truly wonderful teachers and I have taken pains to tell my children all about them - often, and at self-conscious length.

But it's not enough. As the children grow older, and the school rules finally begin to bite (for example, when my eight-year-old daughter tells me she's been given "community service" for wearing her trainers in the wrong part of the school playground) I'm finding it increasingly difficult to affect my pro-authority front.

The truth is that even now, 20 years on, the merest smell of a school classroom gets to the hairs on the back of my neck. Has me grasping inanely for my peashooter. In real life I was a teacher's nightmare. And you teachers still people mine.

Bed of Roses and Bordeaux Housewives by Daisy Waugh are published by Harper Collins and available in paperback

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