Writing for a heartbroken little bookworm

A version of this article first appeared on the excellent Here Be Magic blog in December 2013, when I was celebrating the release by Hartwood Publishing of my SKY SHIPS novel A Flight of Thieves as an ebook. Hartwood will release that novel in print this year, which I’m thrilled about. I’m also adapting SKY SHIPS as a TV drama series right now.

It’s exactly the kind of adventure story I used to escape into when I was a heartbroken little bookworm.

Here’s the article.

I’m looking at a photograph of me, aged eight, with my Mum and sisters. Dad had died three years earlier, leaving us to live on in genteel poverty. When I was seven Mum moved us to Wallasey Village, where a line of her family had lived for hundreds of years, and we made our home there for the remainder of my childhood.

brokenhearted little bookworm

Mum had taught me to read before I started school, and after Dad died, during the frozen winter of my first school term, I immersed myself in books. My first teacher was Mrs Woods, a wonderful woman who cared for the clever little boy who’d suffered such a terrible blow. I loved her.

It was a good school where I was cocooned emotionally and stretched mentally. I was safe within a small group of warm friends in real life, and a big group of adventurous friends in the worlds of my books. It was the best place I could have been for those first two years after Dad died.

Not so the school I moved to at seven. Wallasey Village was a snobby little place in the 1960s, and St George’s Primary School was run accordingly. I expect it’s as good a school as any nowadays, but back then it was nasty.

They ignored my glowing report from my first school, refusing to believe that establishment could possibly meet their high standards, and they ignored my mother because she was a penniless young widow with zero social clout.

Classes in St George’s were streamed in four levels of ability, from A to D, and they placed me in the D class to observe me and decide for themselves exactly how able this allegedly “clever” boy actually was.

I made friends in that class. It was like a holiday for me, unaware as I was of the small town snobbery shaping my life, and my mother’s seething fury about it all. We played a lot, and painted. I read, of course. Mrs Williams was a pleasant teacher and I was happy with my new friends.

For four weeks. That’s how long it took whoever made those decisions to pluck me from my new cocoon and drop me into the cold, hostile, alien atmosphere of Mrs Midgely’s class in the B stream.

Not the A stream. I had an A stream brain, but a poor boy from a scruffy infant school in another town didn’t belong in St George’s A stream. So Mrs Midgely’s class it was. And she was a monster.

Four weeks earlier, at the very beginning of their junior school careers, my new classmates had started learning the times tables. I hadn’t. D stream classes didn’t do them. I didn’t even know what they were, and before Mum had a chance to start teaching them to me quickly, Mrs Midgely seized upon my ignorance of them in order to prove to everyone concerned that I didn’t belong in her class.

She humiliated me every day, in public, at the front of the class. Times tables were chalked on a big rolling board and she made me spend my playtimes and lunchtimes alone in there, standing right up against the board to learn my tables while my classmates were playing right outside the classroom windows.

I learned those times tables fast, but Mrs Midgely had marked my card and the rest of that school year was a hell of verbal assaults and public humiliations, as befitting the unworthy scum she’d decided I was.

The other kids were already cowed by her. No moral support there for me. They were only little children. I remember kind, sympathetic smiles from a girl named Fiona, who I think I sat next to for a while, but most of that year’s schooling was a traumatised blur for me.

I retreated into my books. Mum was worried sick about me. I don’t remember her using the word depressed, but, if I’d been the parent in that situation, that’s what I’d have been thinking.

There was a private space in our living room, between the upright piano and a warm air heating vent in the wall. I used to squeeze into that space with a book and a jam sandwich, and escape to somewhere else for hours of every day. Anywhere else. And then somewhere else again.

I got through it. We do, don’t we? I never recovered academically to the point Mum had dreamed of for me, and my teenage years were as troubled and underachieving as you’d expect. English language and literature, history and art were easy. Everything else, not so much. Maths, no way.

But in my 20s, several years after I’d kicked the dust of Wallasey Village from my heels forever, I discovered the joy of mathematics for myself and my studies enabled me to find pleasure in the sciences too.

More importantly, I fell in love with a wonderful woman and we built a warm loving family together, and no one ever got to treat our children the way I was treated in that bloody awful school.

I write my books for anyone who enjoys them. Including that sad, private, quiet, watchful little boy jammed in between the piano and the wall, with his head stuck in yet another adventure story.

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4 Responses to Writing for a heartbroken little bookworm

  1. I want to hug you as that little boy and all children who suffer such. I consider myself somewhat bullied as a youth for not wearing the fashionably labelled clothes. But at least the teachers didn’t make me suffer horribly. I’m so glad you rose above this to share your talents.

  2. Kay Walker says:

    Sorry I missed this when in my broken-hearted fug. My primary schooling in Australia also started badly but was quickly overcome, thank Ceiling Cat! In New Zealand they had advanced placement for kids who outgrew their age level so I arrived in Oz in the 3rd class of primary school, while here I was 6 years old and only worthy of 1st class. When the headmistress interviewed my mother (I wasn’t asked anything) she asked if I spoke English!! I was placed in 1B of course, when I should have been in 3A. I started to read on my own at 2 or 3 and had already demolished A Tale of Two Cities because my parents didn’t believe in furnishing me with appropriate age level books. Kids in 1st class were struggling with Dick and Jane, whom I had never met and thought were dumb-clucks! I got stuck into Readers Digest and was soon having little adventures in the Amazon (I said “amaze-on”) and pondering the effects of catastrophic strokes!! By 3rd class I had a Pears Cyclopedia, an Astronomy Atlas and some old nursing textbooks to ponder. Needless to say, at the end of 1B, I went into the A stream and never looked back academically. Lucky me. Poor you.

    • In my experience, kids will nearly always break free of unfair constraints the adult world places on them. Took me until my 20s before I qualified to start a science degree, but I got there. I’m glad you did too.

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