Thursday, 5 November 2015

How far would you go to get hold of one single book? A ReadItDaddy Editorial

I'm sure most ReadItDaddy readers wonder if I ever do anything else but moan about books but this week's editorial is a little different. It's a celebration of two things (well three really, the third being that patience does pay off with a possible option on a fourth thing which is a generic "sod's law" thing) so let's talk about teachers.

Teachers are, for a relatively short period in our lives a huge influence on us (unless you're married / are parented by one) and sometimes you'll bond with a teacher in such a way, that you'll remember them for aeons after you sat fidgeting in their classroom, picking your nose and flicking it at Karen Snow rather than paying attention to what's going on or being said.

Bounds Green Infants School was my first 'big' school, a huge rambling building that looked more like a Victorian workhouse than a school. It had outside toilets for the boys - inconveniently placed at the other end of the playground (no, I'm not kidding!) There was no grass to speak of, just hard tarmac all round - and the classrooms were those huge open-plan spaces that folk in the 70s thought would become the norm.

The teacher I'm thinking of wasn't even my first teacher. My first teacher was a scary lady called Mrs Taylor, who (like a lot of teachers in the '70s) looked a bit like she'd been lifted from the pages of a Grange Hill novelisation. Strict, no-nonsense and pretty terrifying.

My second teacher though, she was something else and I took to her more or less instantly. Miss Cox (we shared the same surname at the time for one reason or another) was like a spectacular blend of Morticia Adams (long before 'Goth' was even a thing), and Noosha Fox (OK get your google fu on for that reference because if you weren't a child of the 70s you sure missed out by not knowing who she was, and what her awesome band's music was like!)

By the time I fetched up in Miss Cox's class, I was something of an anomaly. I read voraciously, blitzing through books like a thing possessed. The only problem was the books themselves. Back then I was fed largely on a diet of Peter and Jane books...

"No, Peter. No, Jane. I will not play with you!"
All schoolkids go through a phase when they're on a reading programme of sorts, and ours was the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme which for me was like reading with the handbrake on, dragging a solid iron anchor, while tied to a block of concrete. The books frustrated me and because of my frustration I wouldn't read them properly. The previous teacher thought there was something wrong with me academically, but Miss Cox nailed the problem straight away.

"You can't read these books because you don't want to read them" was her summary. "I'm going to try you on this..."

The book she gave me to take home (unheard of at the time) was John Gordon's "The Giant Under the Snow". It was a bit of a scary moment, being given a book with very few illustrations in it and a LOT of tiny words, a book not meant for a 5 year old. Looking back on it, if the incident had happened now it might've ended up with Miss Cox explaining herself in front of the head teacher or being booted out of school by a 'concerned' PTA board, but what actually happened was that I took the book home. And read it. And re-read it. And read it again until I thought my eyes would fall out.

The floodgates were opened. I returned the book to her and she quizzed me on it. I'd read that damned thing to death so I swatted away each and every question she had about it so she knew I'd read it. She KNEW and it was like hitting all the right bumpers on a pinball machine.

Miss Cox switched me from The Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme (Sorry Ladybird, nothing personal!) onto a steady diet of books like "Stig of the Dump" and "The Hobbit" and "The Silver Chair". Whenever the book newsletters came round (other 70s schoolkids probably remember these book newsletter things that your parents could order books for you from) I skipped the picture book stuff and went straight for whatever the latest Methuen or Puffin Readers were, in the section at the back of the newsletter meant for the older kids.

The second part of this post concerns trying to get hold of a copy of "The Giant Under the Snow" some years later. My childhood copy had sadly got lost in any one of a zillion house moves. We moved around a fair bit as a kid but moving from London to Oxford, we lost so many things including a hell of a lot of books. From the age of 9 right up to my 30s I hunted high and low for a copy of John Gordon's "The Giant Under the Snow", sadly out of print and sadly (in pre-internet days) extremely hard to find copies of. Every time we went anywhere I'd always scour charity shops or secondhand book shops just in case I spotted that flecked blue cover and that amazing image of the giant and his leathery skeleton cohorts, and of course that menacing Sirius Black-like dog.

The book stuck with me, as much as the memory of Miss Cox did. Every time I tried to order it or even borrow a copy from a library it seemed to magically elude me.

My doggedness paid off though and I still can't quite remember the sunny day mooching around a car boot sale that I found the copy that's nestled inside our book case at home, but I remember spotting it, practically KISSING the poor sod running the stall, and handing over money and walking off blissed out not even bothering to wait for change.

They say you never forget your first love. I would bet that most people won't forget the first time they truly fell in love with a book. The irony was that, after all those years of searching, the bloody thing got reprinted the year after I found a copy (but the original cover is still miles better than the leafy green celtic nonsense of the reprint so I guess there is that, at least!)

A movie version of the book has been mooted for a couple of years now. Not sure how far the project has got but they'd better treat "my book" well or else!

So that inspired this week's editorial. Two great things, a hugely inspirational teacher who really truly changed my life (and I dearly would love to know what became of her) and a book that did too. Both things that are an essential part of being at school, and I truly hope our school kids never have to do without either.