Gentlemen and Players - About the Book
"Any skool is a bit of a shambles."
(Geoffrey Willans, Down With Skool!)
"No more fairy stories at nanny’s knee it is all aboard the fairy bus for the dungeons."
(Geoffrey Willans, How to be Topp)
Every time I bring out a new book, I’ve noticed the same set of conflicting reactions from some elements of the Press. One faction inevitably complains about how very different the present book is from the previous one (as if in resentment at my having escaped the Sisyphean fate of rolling the same book uphill throughout eternity), while the opposing faction sets out to prove how all of my books are exactly the same. Some reviewers are so sure of their ability to predict where I’m going next that they barely bother to glance at the book at all, with embarrassing results (check out the journalist who described Coastliners as “another of Harris’ sweeping historical epics”, or the one who based her entire review of Jigs & Reels on a single story and wrote how “once more, food and France play a leading role in this feelgood confection.”)
You may already know that I don’t like expectations. You may also be aware of how I feel about being pushed, stamped, marked, labelled, briefed, debriefed and numbered.
That’s why I published Jigs & Reels; to escape the box; to explore uncharted space; to prove that all roads do not necessarily lead to France, or food, or magic, or even the bond between mothers and daughters. From the many letters and comments I’ve already received, it seems that a surprising number of people are happy to follow me down those little roads.
The place is St Oswald’s, an old and long-established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of the School, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, Latin master, eccentric, and veteran of St Oswald’s, is finally – reluctantly - contemplating retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the School, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for fifteen years, is about to erupt.
Who is “Mole”, the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are gradually escalating towards violence - perhaps even murder? And how can an old and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?
I’ve wanted to write a school story ever since I left teaching. In a past life I was a teacher; I like to think I was good at my job. Certainly I enjoyed it; the child of a Head of Modern Languages and a Deputy Headmistress, I was brought up with real-life school stories from an early age, and I entered the profession with an unusual familiarity with the politics of playground and staffroom. I began my career at a mixed comprehensive, then I was offered a job at Leeds Grammar School, where I spent the next twelve years.
I have fond memories of LGS; the eccentric layout; the proliferating vermin (my room in the Bell Tower was plagued by mice and haunted by pigeons); the weird traditions; the boys and staff. Women teachers were few; political correctness was at a minimum; junior staff incurred the wrath of seniors if they happened to sit in the wrong chair; academic gowns were worn for Assembly and tours of duty; Latin was compulsory. I loved it; I’d gone from Grange Hill to Gormenghast in a single move, and I was all set to stay there forever.
Then, the year before I left for good, the school buildings were sold to Leeds University, and the entire school – bricks, guns and glory - moved to an impressive new site on the other side of town. It was a marvellous opportunity for boys and staff alike. But it wasn’t the same. The new rooms were brightly-lit and sensibly-shaped; there wasn’t a mouse or a pigeon in sight; the central heating worked; the tatty old Honours Boards had been replaced by nicely-framed pictures. For me, something had gone. In a way, I’m grateful. Without that, I might never have left.
Do you miss it?
Sometimes I do. I miss the adrenaline rush, the Common Room politics and the knowledge that, for some of the boys at least, my work will make a difference. Most of all I miss the ongoing soap opera that makes up the day-to-day life of a large secondary school and the “stories” I used to bring home (as my parents did from their schools). For, like all tightly-knit communities, schools are full of stories. Some are funny, some tragic; but the constant challenge and the flow of people year after year mean that whatever else happens, the stories never run out. For a writer, it’s a perfect environment. It’s invigorating; intensely sociable; riddled with the unexpected. It was inevitable that at some point I should try to tap into the rich vein of possibility that such an environment offered. I’ve been working up the courage ever since.
So how much of G & P is based on fact?
My loyal readers may already have noticed that I often write about vanished places. The island of Le Devin in Coastliners bears more than a passing resemblance to the Noirmoutier of my childhood; in Chocolat, the village of Lansquenet seems lost in time. Pog Hill in Blackberry Wine; Les Laveuses in Five Quarters; all have a Brigadoon-like quality about them, places that now exist only in stories. Inevitably, St Oswald’s has a number of geographical features in common with the original LGS. The Bell Tower - especially room 59, Straitley’s room, which was also my room; the Middle Corridor; the Quiet Room; the Porter’s Lodge; the games pavilion; the Chapel. It is by no means an accurate representation, however, nor is it entirely taken from a single source. If St Oswald’s is partly LGS, then it is also any - or all - of the following: St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; Wakefield Girls’ High School; The High School, Barnsley (another vanished place, soon to be converted to residential flats); Holgate Grammar School, also in Barnsley; The Oaks, Worsborough Dale; the Lycée de Garçons in Vitré - and many more.
What about the characters? Any of them based on real life?
It does sometimes happen that I base my characters on people I have met. As far as I know all writers do; although it’s never much more than a remembered feature here or a borrowed mannerism there. Creating a character isn’t like painting a portrait. It’s more like casting for a low-budget film. You look for a type to fit the role, knowing that the performer to whom you offer the part may have a very different personality from the character he is playing.
But although my characters may seem to follow recognizable types, anyone who has been in teaching knows that these types exist in all staff rooms around the country. I even wrote a list of them once, as a joke – a little illustrated booklet (heavily inspired by Molesworth) entitled Rough Guide to the Common Room – describing the typical fauna of the school staff room; the Jobsworth, the Suit, the Tweed Jacket, the Eager Beaver, the Dragon and the Low Fat Yoghurt. Almost every teacher I know has recognized himself somewhere on my list.
So what about the author? What’s your role in G&P?
Because I write so often in the first person, it’s natural to suppose that I identify strongly with my lead characters. To a point, this is true (though bear in mind that I am at least as much Reynaud as Vianne, at least as much LeMerle as Juliette). I have to identify; for the sake of the story and my own continuing interest in it. Which is to say that I have more than a little in common with both the narrators of Gentlemen & Players. I can see myself in Roy Straitley, the gruff old romantic with his Brodie Boys and his ongoing fight against the establishment. I can also see more than I like of myself in Mole, the impostor, taking pleasure in secrets, planning revenge with the meticulous coldness of the truly obsessed.
However, there’s a world of difference between the player and the part. A decent actor puts some of himself into his role. I like to think a decent author does the same.
And the plot? Is that based on real events?
What can I say? I’m a writer. I make things up. And yet I defy anyone to make up anything that matches the strangeness and horror of real life. I’ve seen things in my years of teaching that I wouldn’t dare put into a book – not least, because no-one would believe me. And so this story is entirely fictional – in the same way that the plot of Five Quarters is completely fictional - although the darkness that underlies it is only too real.
I’ve never been in a school that didn’t have at least a couple of skeletons in the stock-cupboard. They seem to attract them, and each has its own crop of violence, bullying, allegations against teachers, suicides, eating disorders, crime both petty and serious, sudden deaths, family crises, drugs and sexual impropriety. This is partly because of the sheer numbers that pass through a school every year. It’s also because the school years are a time of great intensity and disquiet; a time of raging hormones, peer pressure, social insecurity, anxiety about exams, wild enthusiasms, dangerous experimentation, terrible self-doubt. Who would ever be thirteen again? And who on earth would want to be around thirteen-year-olds, day in, day out?
Well, no. Not everyone’s cut out for the teaching profession. But for those who are, there is a unique satisfaction in being a teacher. For a start, everything you say or do in front of your pupils may shape the future. Young minds are malleable, for good or ill; yours is the responsibility to influence them for the better. Years later, your words may be remembered - with affection or with hatred. A sarcastic comment or a word of praise may sow unexpected seeds. All you have to do is to log onto Friends Reunited to know how deeply our schooldays mark us. Our closest friendships begin at school. Our oldest resentments hark back to that time. And sometimes, something happens that haunts us forever, that follows us into adult life and erupts, years later, into unexpected violence.
This is not a true story.
But it could have been.