Ask any school bookweek organiser which visitor she’d choose to top her bill and she’d probably say ‘Roald Dahl!’ Then she’d laugh and move on to a less awesome figure than the world’s most popular children’s author. One school bookweek organiser didn’t move on, though. Lindy Barclay tells all.
It started with a problem – my third-year English class. When I took them over last September I was immediately impressed with them. They seemed a lively bunch of 13-year-olds, willing to talk, and willing to listen too. One of my first questions to them was: ‘What did you read during the summer?’ Silence, blank faces, DEAFENING SILENCE. ‘Put it this way,’ I said, thinking that somehow the question was too vague, ‘who didn’t read anything at all?’ Unanimous response, all hands went up. ‘Now let me get this clear, 3.2, are you telling me that you went through the entire summer without reading a thing?’ Heads nodded. ‘Well what kind of summer did you have?’ I asked. ‘Boring’ said some, ‘not enough to do’ said others, ‘the holidays are too long’.
Now as an English teacher I have grown accustomed to pupils failing to link books with pleasure and in my own little way I have chipped away at the problem year after year. But this class ‘got’ to me, I was bothered by them, I talked to my colleagues about them, and all the time it kept festering away until I decided that I wouldn’t let it go. The problem wasn’t really a 3.2 problem at all, it was a whole school problem – many of our pupils simply did not like books well enough – and it was time for a whole school effort to do something about it. What was needed was a week given over to books, books for pleasure – that was it, a Redbridge BOOKWEEK.
At an open staff meeting I put forward the proposal and invited interested staff to a lunchtime meeting. The next day about one third of the staff turned up, supportive and full of ideas. After all, the other two thirds had probably forgotten the meeting or were asleep in the staffroom so maybe it was some kind of consensus. In the classroom the idea was put to my English classes. It went down like a rat sandwich. At this point I could so easily have given in, in the face of such distaste, but I reminded myself that this was exactly the reaction to books that I wanted to counteract. ‘There will be a Redbridge Bookweek, and you will like it. Got it?’
The planning began. The English Adviser arrived, and was very encouraging, full of ideas and, best of all, laid money on the table. It was a staggering act of good faith. Right, I thought, we’ll match this and make this into a proper event. We’ll go for some good speakers. Letters went out to local groups, writers, illustrators and fund-raising was soon under way. And all along a name kept tugging at the back of my mind. Don’t be stupid, I kept saying to myself, you can’t write to him.But why ever not, I argued back, his books are about the only books that these kids ever get enthusiastic about. And in the end I got tired of all this quibbling with myself and on 16 November I wrote:
Dear Mr Dahl,
We keep coming back to your name – so I’m going to write to you anyway even though you are the most famous children’s writer today. We aren’t going to be put off any longer by fame and fortune – we know you exist as a real person so why not treat you like one and communicate with you …
The reply, when it came, brought wide-eyed astonishment and a flush of pure excitement:
Dear Ms Barclay,
I have long since given up visiting schools because I’m getting old and infirm but you wrote me such a good letter that I am tempted to make an exception in the case of Redbridge…
Roald Dahl at Redbridge! A buzz went round the school. The members of staff who had been dragging their feet about Bookweek became instant converts. There was soon a queue of pupils at my door. ‘Is it true that Roald Dahl is coming to Redbridge?’ Yes, yes, yes, it’s all true and I knew there and then what Charlie felt like when he found the golden ticket.
It was some days later before the nerves set in. And then it was big nerves.What would I do with him? What if he didn’t like it at Redbridge? What would we feed him? Horrid new questions arose like pimples each day. I began to research the man, finding out his likes and dislikes from his publisher, reading Boy and Going Solo all over again, talking to people who had met him (‘well, he can be difficult, crusty, cantankerous’ … worse nerves).The planning for the rest of Bookweek kept me on the rails. Once the word was round that Roald Dahl was coming then our Bookweek grew almost overnight into a big event. There was no stopping us now. Forget the timetable for the week, forget formal lessons – the theme of Bookweek was to be books for pleasure and it was the pleasure principle which now dictated and underlined all the plans for the week. The pieces began to fall into place.
Redbridge Bookweek officially began on Friday, 22 January and must be the first ever school bookweek to run to six rather than five days. The truth was there was so much to fit in and the first event was so important that it had, by nature and design, to precede the week. It was the day that Redbridge pupils spent the money they raised (around £1200) at Harrington’s Bookshop, Winchester (who came to us rather than us going to them). For many of our pupils it was their first experience of a bookshop and they took to it like ducks to water (must have been something to do with having money to spend). The books purchased were stored in cardboard boxes marked according to tutor groups and on Monday, 25 January at precisely 8.45 a.m. the entire school settled into the ‘Silent Read’, scheduled at the same time each day for half an hour for the duration of the week. It was a resounding success (perhaps hinged on the fact that the staff also had to read for pleasure during this time). The arrangements for the rest of the week ran smoothly, well relatively so. The timetable took some figuring out but was a wonderful opportunity for staff-pupil consultation (Teacher: ‘Where do you think we’re supposed to be now?’ Pupil: ‘Well, the way I see it is that we’ve got to stay here until break then all go to the Drama Studio.’). The school was a hubbub of activity. The Company of Storytellers came and went, Joanna Williams – the book illustrator, Duncan Jeffery – the editor of The Echo, the Nuffield Theatre, Chris Thomas from the Central Children’s Library… and before we knew it Thursday, 28 January was upon us.
Mr Dahl had said he would arrive at 12.00 noon. At 11.40 I sent pupils out with large signs and posted them at spots along the way on the Millbrook housing estate: THIS WAY TO REDBRIDGE and HELLO MR DAHL and WELCOME. It was pouring. The kids got soaked, the colour on the signs ran.
When the dark grey BMW turned into Cuckmere Lane, Mr Dahl gave the children a wave. At exactly 12.00 he stepped out of his car… and there he was, shaking me by the hand, a giant of a man with a blue cotton hat, an old raincoat slung across his shoulder, a walking stick and a brief-case. In the visitors’ lounge (Room 37 with a jumped-up title for Bookweek and which is still touchingly called by pupils ‘the visitors’ lounge’) I offered him a coffee or a whisky (Famous Grouse, the publisher had said). He chose the coffee (I needed the whisky). Then the press arrived, and books were signed and at 1.00 p.m. we went downstairs to the Head’s office which was laid out for lunch. We arrived before anyone else. ‘I’ll have some of that,’ said Mr Dahl, spotting the sherry on the side. He saw me hesitate. ‘I’ll pour it,’ he said, ‘and I’ll take the blame.’ When the Head stepped into her own room to meet Mr Dahl, he said, ‘Would you like a sherry?’ ‘Yes, please,’ she said politely, then broke into a big laugh and shook his hand as I introduced her. For lunch we had sea food and salad and crusty bread (publisher again, he loves sea food). We covered a wide range of subjects over lunch and the hour passed with only one reference to the speech he was going to make to the whole school – ‘I’ve got to make them laugh!’ It was an astute comment, and a shrewd assessment of the nature of his audience – 12-16 year olds, pleased by his visit, no doubt, but being teenagers would be critical, and most definitely ‘laid back’ about showing enthusiasm.
At 2.15 I went on stage. The hall was packed. The seating arrangements were a wonder alone. I said to the audience: I have only two words to say to you, ROALD DAHL.’ Loud clapping, and as he passed me on the stage he said, ‘Thanks for the long introduction.’ Absolute quiet now. He began:
I imagine you’re all expecting a serious lecture on writing and reading. You’re not going to get it …
(Ripples of laughter)
I expect most of you have been forced to read some of my books recently…
(More ripples of laughter)
When I was a boy my mind was warped by the fact that I was not allowed to learn anything about the most important subject of all – it wasn’t English, or Maths, or Science, it was SEX…
And what followed was a hilarious description of the sex education given to him at the age of 11 by his prep. school headmaster. The hall rang with laughter. The teachers wiped away the tears. From there he rambled on to the subject of telling a man’s character not by the eyes, as is commonly understood, but by the ears, and the mark of a true ‘bounder’ is the tufts of hair growing out of the ears.
(Pupils now looking closely into the ears of the nearest male teacher – oh dear, poor Mr M. with those enormous tufts … )
Next he tackled the tediousness, for teachers, of writing reports and suggested to us all that we write a book of instant reports which, like the vicar’s book of sermons, could be used at will. He went on then to read us two new Revolting Rhymes -‘Dick Whittington and his Cat’ and ‘Jack and Jill’, both still handwritten on a scrap of paper. Both rhymes had the audience chuckling and giggling. Then suddenly he was finishing. He talked of the rate of heartbeat of a hedgehog, and of a frog, and then he said:
The heart of a human is much slower. But whatever the speed, I hope the hearts of all you young people here will continue to beat all through your lives – bravely, courageously, and with humour. Goodbye.
Redbridge School erupted. They clapped and cheered and whistled like I’ve never heard before. A huge cake was brought on for him – in the shape of a gigantic book, with pop-up characters from his books, and also a small basket of exotic food. He left the stage amidst another round of cheering. In the quiet of the Head’s office more photographs were taken, more books signed, another cup of coffee, and a cigarette (one of his ‘gaspers’). At 3.30 he collected his stick, hat, brief-case and raincoat, and without fuss or speeches I walked out to his car with him, shook him warmly by the hand and with a last wave he was gone. He had not only been the highlight of our Bookweek but also the heart of it.
The next week one of my pupils remarked that it was the kind of story you told your grandchildren and that same day a rather hard-bitten 5th-year boy wrote in his English book:
Roald Dahl has been and will always be the highlight of our school lives, pupils and teachers alike.
A touching and honest tribute to Roald Dahl’s visit to Redbridge.
‘I was on the first corner in Cuckmere Lane with a sign saying THIS WAY. I saw a grey-blue BMW coming down the road, so I thought that would be him. It was! He stopped, looked at the sign, waved at me and drove on. I shouted ‘It’s him!!’ and legged it towards the school.’
‘At the end of the speech I don’t think he was expecting a cake. I don’t think he knew what to say. At the end he said goodbye so sadly like he was going to cry. I liked all of Bookweek but Roald Dahl must have been the best!’
‘When he entered the hall the first thing I noticed was his hands, they were so large! He was nothing like what I expected … He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met and I’m trying to get all of his books. This was one of the best moments in my life and it’s one of those stories that we tell to our grandchildren.’
‘I was expecting to see an eccentric old man with nothing to talk about that would interest me. Instead I saw before me a remarkably young looking 71-year-old who captivated his young audience – a difficult task with a group of critical 12-16 year olds! He made the whole hall laugh and gape in surprise as he spoke of his primitive sex education. We all went in expecting a boring lecture about a lifetime of writing books and were all taken aback by the subject of sex.’
‘I wondered how he talked so long without some kind of script.’
‘Well, here we go, an old bloke talking about his books and stories. These were the first thoughts that entered many heads about Roald Dahl’s speech. Many people now know that this could not be further from the truth. He didn’t make himself look like a book-writing ‘Messiah’ but he came across as a man who just wanted to talk and make some school children laugh.’
‘I reckon that Ms Barclay should arrange another Bookweek next year.’
Lindy Barclay teaches at Redbridge Community School in Millbrook, Southampton.
Photographs by Richard Mewton (copyright Books for Keeps 1988)
Those teachers inspired by this account may like to know that the Authors and Illustrators List (with information about many authors and illustrators, and how to contact them) has recently been updated by the Children’s Book Foundation. Still priced at £1.50 inc. p&p (cheques/POs to Book Trust), it is available from the Children’s Book Foundation, Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ.
Local Arts Associations may also have lists containing similar information as part of the Writers in Schools scheme.