Readers of the Books for Keeps News page will know that Gene Kemp has been awarded the Honorary Degree of Master of Arts by Exeter University – ‘in recognition of her work as a writer of children’s books’. Awards are not new to her – in 1977 she received both the Other Award and the Carnegie Medal for The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler.
Talking at her home in Exeter, she couldn’t have been less solemn or academic in her attitude towards books and particularly writing for children. Indeed she proved highly resistant to ‘labelling’ of any kind – about herself as a writer or about the children she has written of – ‘all these stereotypes bore me’.
Looking back with her over her writing career to date, there was a sense of tremendous energy and a refusal to be confined by anybody into any particular literary rut: ‘I want to write about everybody… but there’s not time… I always wanted to write but I was too busy living and I always believed you’ve got forever.’
‘I’d like to go on doing…’ was a phrase that cropped up time and time again and that ‘going on doing’ included plans for a couple more Cricklepit School stories, more novels in the vein of her first teenage novel No Place Like, more stories about the dreadful Fourth Year M13 (Dog Days and Cat Naps). Just published is the outcome of another new departure: The Well, a book which draws heavily on her own childhood in the Midlands before the war.
When talking about how she started as a writer this sense of not wishing to ‘get stuck’ emerged again along with a disarming lack of pretension about her own talent and achievement.
‘I didn’t think I’d got a great deal to write about and yet with the Tamworth Pig series I found I’d done something that was sufficiently successful. Everybody said: “Isn’t that a lovely little series – like Paddington Bear.” I wasn’t very aware about books for children except that as a parent and a teacher I was horrified at what I read that went under the name of conversation. The pig was really a link – the quality of the conversation between the children was the important thing.’
At the same time Gene was ‘sufficiently successful’ in another direction and making applications for junior Headships as the next ‘logical’ step in her teaching career. However, that step didn’t take place – a fortuitous cold led her to think again and ditch the applications – ‘I often bless that cold’. She had already started writing The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler.
Tyke partly sprang out of a dissatisfaction with the earlier ‘lovely little series’: ‘I found myself asking why do the children in my books bear no relation to the villains in front of me…?’ It is also a book ‘about language’. Gene at the time was ‘head of language’ in her school and involved in the post-Bullock interest in ‘language’.
‘I wrote Tyke for the rebel child at home – outwardly conforming but ready to speak up when driven, ready to take things up… I didn’t see Tyke as becoming a set piece… a ‘book’ to be used in teacher’s centres and taken over by the educational world…’
Being ‘taken up’ has also had its amusing consequences which appeal to Gene’s sense of fun – like visits from Japanese academics (Tyke is very big in Japan) and requests from translators boggled by the awful children’s jokes at the head of each chapter. She clearly prefers this to being thought of as ‘moralising’ or as having produced the ideal ‘set book’.
‘I’m not moralising – I’m not trying to impose something… Children count in a dignified way to me and I hope I count in a dignified way to them. So particularly when I go out into schools I’m not just an entertainer being served up to the kids like factory fodder. I’m not Tommy Cooper, would that I were!’
Reflecting on her next ‘Cricklepit’ book Gowie Corby Plays Chicken led Gene to develop in more detail her point about ‘moralising’ and her attitude towards what she is presenting about the lives of children in her books – the ‘little bit of knowledge I have’.
‘A teacher at a teacher’s course I was working on said: “How do you justify Gowie Corby? It should never have been written.” I couldn’t convince him that if you’re considered to be a ‘baddie’, like Gowie, by other people it doesn’t mean that you’re a ‘baddie’ to yourself. And just because Gowie’s deprived doesn’t mean that he hasn’t got a keen sense of humour. You have to understand how the glamour of someone like Gowie grows in an enclosed society, how they come to dominate the classroom. They carry more éclat then than they possibly do for the rest of their lives.
But Gowie Corby falls apart because of my cowardice. Gowie doesn’t reform… he doesn’t see the point and I wanted that to come across (if I could have been more honest). I wanted to get rid of Rosie and I still think she’s totally unconvincing whereas Gowie isn’t despite his awfulness.
But I’m not moralising… I’m just drawing a picture… All the time with children there’s a drama going on somewhere… like Tam Lan (Charlie Lewis Plays for Time). On the boat his family lived on baked beans for five weeks. They were kidnapped twice by bandits… and he smiles while he’s telling you all this. These things are going on and we come in with our platitudes… you can only just show the tip of the iceberg.’
Gene may seem to have moved a long way from ‘humour’ in these reflections but just as it’s irrepressible in the books – you can’t have the ‘seriousness’ without it – her own sense of fun and of the ridiculous quickly reasserts itself. This is something reflected in and fed by the writers she admires herself.
‘I’ve a great weakness for funny books – Damon Runyon, Thurber, Jerome K Jerome… nothing to do with merit or beauty except to me they have beauty… We’re fairly ‘involved’ people… we ‘belong’ and I sometimes feel I’m sick of ‘caring’. So this sense of the ridiculous is the other side of my writing and I’m not sure it isn’t the truest element in it altogether… like the awful rook in The Clock Tower Ghost – it’s so useless, so vulgar.’
Gene has another ‘ghostie’ one in mind as well as plans for making a collection of M13 stories – stories of that unspeakable Fourth Year which she describes with a mixture of great affection and horror.
‘These are nothing to do with making the world a better place… if the world were a better place you wouldn’t have them in it and I think one would be the poorer because of it.’
The book which Gene feels nearest to at the moment concerns the latest ‘year’ at Cricklepit School, Charlie Lewis Plays for Time. Early in our conversation Gene remarked – ‘There’s a lot of me in Charlie… Writers are in the observer class and so is Charlie which is why he’s nearer to me…’
Charlie Lewis is not a writer but a musician but he has clearly afforded Gene an opportunity to say something about creativity and the particular pressures on the child who is ‘gifted’.
‘Like Charlie says, it’s the prickle coming up the back of your spine and sometimes you don’t want to know – you’d just like to be Joe Plod. We underestimate the tolerance of children who are gifted… the way they learn to keep quiet about it and learn to camouflage and hide themselves.’
School which, as Gene remarked, can be a ‘sanctuary’ for some children is claustrophobic for Charlie. Going into the new term is like going into a tunnel. So Charlie has to protect himself from the tender mercies of Mr Carter, the supply teacher who takes over from Mr Merchant (‘Sir’ in the other Cricklepit books) – Mr Carter with his talk about ‘my music’ and purveyor of the elitism which destroys creativity and represses interest. Gene went on to make the point strongly: ‘The elitism of music is wrong… elitism of any kind is wrong… it puts up a barrier…’
Music is also important in No Place Like where it offers a refuge for Pete who at sixteen (and unlike Charlie Lewis) is ‘not one of the world’s high fliers’. At least, that is the judgement that school and the examination system have made of him like many of the characters in Gene’s books. Perhaps the best answer to the charge of moralising and the best clue to her own generosity of spirit came when Gene was discussing the qualities so often unused or unrecognised in the young people she knows of this age: ‘I can’t judge people by what school has pronounced on them…’ Not that there’s anything sloppy about her refusal to judge, rather a powerful reaction against the poverty and narrowness of the judgements which get made.
However, as with Gowie, she’s not completely happy about No Place Like: ‘I’m weak on plots… I like twists but not plots… it’s the people, the characterisations which are important…’ People and characterisations are certainly important in The Well, Gene Kemp’s latest book, an ‘autobiographical novel’. Another change of direction? ‘I want to edge out a bit… it’s an oddity, an indulgence but I don’t see why I shouldn’t and if it doesn’t do anything…’
In The Well, Gene Kemp seems to be not so much ‘edging out’ as edging backwards. If No Place Like is her comedy of contemporary family life then The Well finds her looking back to an earlier world and a very different kind of family. Not that she betrays any trace of nostalgia in her presentation of that world or a yearning for some kind of lost idyll – she’s too involved in the here-and-now for that. More than in any of her books she has captured the internal drama of a young child’s life – how susceptible they are, how richly invested with pain and excitement their world is. The setting may be ‘historical’ but what matters is the personal ‘history’ – the eventfulness of a child’s life in surroundings which by ‘modern standards’ must seem curiously limited and uneventful. What she also demonstrates is that significant ‘writers for children’ write out of a deeply felt connection with their own childhood experience.
(published by Faber, unless otherwise indicated)
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, 0 571 10966 7, £4.50; Puffin, 0 14 03.1135 1, £1.10
Gowie Corby Plays Chicken, 0 571 11405 9, £5.50; Puffin, 0 14 03.1322 2, £1.25
Charlie Lewis Plays for Time, 0 571 13248 0, £5.50
The Prime of Tamworth Pig, 0 571 11335 4, £1.10 pbk
Tamworth Pig Saves the Trees, 0 571 11493 8, £1.15 pbk
The Clock Tower Ghost, 0 571 11767 8, £4.25; Puffin, 0 14 03.1554 3, 95p
Dog Days and Cat Naps, 0 571 11595 0, £5.25; Puffin, 0 14 03.1419 9, £1.10
No Place Like, 0 571 13063 1, £4.95
Ducks and Dragons: Poems for Children (Ed.), 0 571 11523 3, £3.95
The Well, 0 571 13284 7, £4.95 (published in September)