Two Weeks ago, I did something I never thought possible. I went back to my old school for a reunion lunch. Talked into going by a much admired old teacher who I’d met at a funeral, I regretted agreeing to it almost immediately.
Given that all my YA books are set at a fictional comprehensive school, I suppose that sounds strange. But the truth is, I didn’t enjoy school very much. In fact, I’ve always been slightly suspicious of people who claim to have loved it. The only bullying policies at my 1970s boys grammar school were the sophisticated persecution schemes of the bullies themselves, and as I walked into the hall for the first time in over thirty years – nasal hairs cropped in an effort to appear slightly less ancient – there was a definite shiver in the spinal area.
But as the wine flowed (the last old boy from the 1920s having recently died we toasted every decade from the 1930s onwards) I realised that I owed the old place quite a lot. It was in the school productions of Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan that I developed my love of music and theatre, and Jack Smithies the English teacher was so witty and inspiring he could turn ‘Paradise Lost’ into the most entertaining thing since the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.
Come to that, if my time at school had been unremittingly joyful, I don’t think I’d have become a writer. Happiness doesn’t make for the best fiction, and if I hadn’t experienced the opposite on occasions, it would have been very difficult to sympathise with my characters.
Of course the best thing about school has to be the friendships. So it was great to catch up with an old school chum who also happens to be a best-selling writer. Michael Simkins (or Simmo as he was imaginatively known) was the founder of the ‘playground police’ as well as playing Sir Toby Belch to my Viola in the school production of Twelfth Night. Nowadays he combines a highly successful acting career (you might have seen him recently on ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Foyle’s War’) with life as a writer. ‘Fatty Batter’ his Costa nominated elegy to cricket sold well over 80,000 copies and his latest book ‘The Rules of Acting’ (which I read on the train home) is a must for all aspiring thespians.
After a rousing rendition of the school song Absque Labore Nihil (‘without work nothing’) a straggle of middle-aged to elderly men drifted towards the late afternoon sunshine. And I was actually quite glad I’d gone. Maybe in ten years time, I’ll be ready for the next one.
PS. I forgot to mention that school improved immeasurably when it became a Sixth Form College and girls were admitted for the very first time.
Me and Michael Simkins. We were boys together – at least I was.