Posted in Reading

Why I’m Supporting Read With Me – A Charity Helping Children to Read

children reading in a school library

 

In this week’s post, I’m sharing news of a great cause that I’ve recently discovered called Read With Me.

Whether or not you have children of your own, I’m sure you’ll agree that anything that helps children to become competent and enthusiastic readers can only be a good thing. That’s why I really enjoyed my three years spent working for national children’s reading charity Read for Good.

headshot of Linda Cohen
Linda Cohen, founder of Read With Me

While Read for Good does a great job at a national level by running sponsored Readathons in schools, Read With Me currently operates solely within Gloucestershire and sends adult volunteers into schools to hear children read one-to-one. This individual attention and social interaction makes a vast difference to children’s progress, especially to those who get little or no support at home.

More About Read With Me

Read With Me was founded by Linda Cohen of Wotton-under-Edge,  just a few miles from where I live. As Linda explains on Read With Me’s website, children need to be able to communicate and to read. Without those basic skills their life opportunities are reduced and they face a bleak future.  The inability to read will impact on not only their outcomes but those of their children.

image of adult sharing story with children in park
The joy of reading should start at an early age

Teachers and head teachers agree that the ability to read is the key to all learning.

Children who are unable to read properly by the age of 7 never catch up. In the UK, 1 in 5 children leave primary school unable to read. These children do less well at school, have dramatically reduced employment choices and earning opportunities, and a greater chance of going to prison. The UK has the worst literacy rates in the developed world.

In addition to attending school every day, ideally each child should have 15 minutes of one-to-one time when they can be heard to read by an adult and have verbal and social interaction. But with large class sizes and busy timetables, it’s nigh impossible for teachers to provide this.

Read With Me has therefore developed a unique programme where local employers give employees half an hour twice a week to hear two children read in their schools.

“It’s amazing how something so simple can be utterly transforming,” says Linda.

Linda started by rolling out Read With Me’s service in Gloucester, because it’s an area with a huge need. She will be extending the service across Gloucestershire, but Read With Me will also support anyone outside the area who wanted to set up something similar, even if it was only for their local school.

“We want to create a blueprint which everyone can use,” says Linda.

Outside of term time, Linda also organises The Not So Secret Book Club, offering some fabulous free opportunities for children to meet to read in Gloucester parks, providing free books so necessary when many children don’t have any books of their own at home. They offer a huge selection, from simple board books to teen fiction. They also have craft materials available and inspiration for simple creative projects, and story sessions too.

Why Read With Me is Fundraising Now

Although volunteers donate their time to Read With Me for free, the organisation needs to cover essential running costs. One of the ways Linda planned to raise funds this autumn was by selling Christmas cards, and three local shops had kindly agreed to stock them: Fish Out of Water, The Cotswold Book Room, and The Subscription Rooms in Stroud. Unfortunately, lockdown has temporarily put a stop to that.

In the meantime, young volunteers have set up an online shop to sell the cards, so below I’m sharing more details in case you’d like to support this great cause by placing an order.

About Read With Me’s Christmas Cards

Designer and illustrator Molly Bult created three designs in mixed media of gouache paint and digital collage using scanned materials, which have been printed on quality board with a choice of brown kraft or festive red envelopes. They are sold in packs of 9 for £3.99 each, or £10 for 3.

The Christmas cards are one of two festive initiatives to raise funds for Read With Me. There is also an online shop of stocking-filler toys, generously donated by the new proprietors of The Cotswold Book Room.

group shot of christmas cards

Other Ways to Support Read With Me

  • Buy toys online The Cotswold Book Room generously donated their stock of pocket-money toys to Read With Me, and these are now available to order on its website here: https://readwithme.org.uk/product-category/toy-sale/
  • Volunteer to read with children in school If you’re in Gloucestershire, you can become a Read With Me volunteer, donating just two hours a week to go into a school to hear children read.
  • Donate books Donations of books for children of all ages, from board books to young adult novels are always welcome.
  • Donate craft materials Craft materials and activity books are really useful at Read With Me’s Not So Secret Book Clubs.
  • Help out at the Not So Secret Book Clubs Subject to restrictions, these will next be running on 22nd and 23rd December – announcements will be made on Read With Me’s website, Facebook page and on all the community websites.
  • Help sort books Volunteers are needed to help sort donated books to be sent to schools either to bolster their libraries or to provide children who have no reading material at home a selection of their own books.
  • Share fundraising ideas Linda would love to hear from anyone with creative fundraising ideas to boost Read With Me’s funds.
  • Support on social media “Like” Read With Me’s Facebook page and share their posts with your friends.
  • Make a donation There’s a donate box on the home page (scroll down till you see the yellow banner “Support Us” and its right underneath that.)

If you can help in any of these ways, please contact Linda via the Read With Me website.

Read on if you’d like to find out more about Read With Me via my informal interview with Linda and about the Christmas card designer Molly Bult, who has sent me her bio for anyone interested in her other design work. 

Interview with Linda Cohen

It’s great to be able to sell Christmas cards and stocking filler toys online, but how do fundraise at other times of year?

We are a start-up, so fundraising is in the early stages. We’ve been established as a social enterprise, so the aim is to be relatively self-sufficient, but we’ve received some wonderful help from Gloucestershire Community Foundation. We’ve held a number of virtual events, including the Wotton 10k in which our supporters took part across the world, some even in Hong Kong – a combination of elite runners and some more sedate walkers who punctuated the walk with tea and cake stops.

What will the proceeds from the sales of Christmas cards and toys be used for?

The proceeds from the cards, like all the other money we raise, goes towards the shoestring running costs of delivering our service.

It only costs £50 a year to deliver twice-weekly sessions to each child, but we need to be able to support 500 more places immediately after Christmas.

You mentioned the three shops kindly stocking your cards, and the amazing contribution of stock by The Cotswold Book Room.  Are there any particular local businesses that you’d like to mention as key supporters of the scheme?

Gloucester Services have been amazing. All their profits go back in to the community, so make that a destination stop for petrol! I’ve also set up reading schemes with partner schools for some of my PR clients.

What would Read with Me like from Santa this year?

I think Santa must have been operating throughout the year as we’ve already been the recipients of astonishing generosity from a number of the organisations and individuals, from teenagers to the retired.

The greatest gift would be the ability for our fantastic volunteers to all feel able to go back in to school safely and get on with their work.

However there is nothing to match the gift of a child’s face lighting up when they make a breakthrough or one of our littlest readers rushing to tell you that they’ve started reading at home.

Meet Molly Bult

stylised image of Molly Emilia RoseRead With Me’s Christmas card designer Molly Bult shares her bio.

“Hi! I’m Molly, Manchester based illustrator and print designer behind Molly Emilia Rose. Coming from a printed textiles background, my designs are led by my passion for colour, texture and pattern. I love to create mixed media artwork, marrying both digital and analog techniques. 

“Growing up in the South Wales countryside, my love of art and nature has grown hand in hand. My work is inspired by the biophilic connection we share with nature, a celebration of the abundance and variety of life and colour in the natural world. 

“More recently, I have become fascinated with people, human interaction and relationships which you can see has fed into my portfolio of work – often with elements of humour thrown in!”

 Follow Molly on Instagram at @Mollyemiliarosedesign, on Facebook at @mollyemiliarosedesign and at her Etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/MollyEmiliaRose.

Thank you for reading this post – I hope it inspires you to help this excellent cause if you can, or to emulate its success in your neighbourhood. Please don’t hesitate to contact Linda for more information.

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story – Picnic at Hanging Rock with Liza Perrat

cover of Picnic at Hanging Rock
An eerie Australian mystery, chosen by Liza Perrat

When I invite guest authors on to my blog to talk about their favourite book set in a school, I pledge to read whichever book they recommended – and I’m so glad I do, because it was pure joy to discover Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, nominated by this month’s guest, Australian novelist Liza Perrat.

There are so many things to love about this story: the well-defined characters, luscious descriptions of the Australian outback setting, the compelling portrait of the oppressive boarding school for girls, place, the mysterious and ambiguous storyline,  and the dashes of wry humour. There were also interesting parallels with the real-life story of the infamous dingo baby case, immortalised in the Meryl Streep film A Cry in the Dark.

But let’s find out why Liza loves this book so.

head and shoulders of Liza Perrat
Australian novelist Liza Perrat

Liza, can you first please share a brief summary of the story?  

It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared. They never returned…

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

Although it’s set in 1900, the book was published in 1967, and I think I was about eleven when I first read it, a few years before the film came out in 1975, which I was really keen to see. I reread Picnic at Hanging Rock last summer, so at age 58.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

I still enjoyed the mystery as much as when I was young. The spooky atmosphere of the setting and story still had me spellbound. I still wanted to know what happened to those missing girls.

When I was young, I remember inventing solutions as to where they might have disappeared: into some fantasy other-world, kidnapped by slave traders, a planned runaway to a new and more exciting life outside of their strict school lives.

This time around, solving the mystery wasn’t important to me; I was satisfied with the open-end story. Naturally, I found the writing and characterisations a little dated this time around, but in general I don’t think my perception of the book changed that much at all, over time.

What did you particularly like about this book and about the author? 

What I liked most was the mystery of the story and the ethereal, dreamlike setting.

Of course, being an Aussie, the wild and beautiful Australian bushland setting was very appealing.

I also enjoyed the simple plot which explores four girls going missing from a group picnic, and the subsequent search for them. I liked the author’s easy-to-read style, and loved getting “lost” in the gothic type mystery and setting.

William Ford’s painting, At Hanging Rock Mt Macedon, now in the National Gallery of Victoria, may have inspired Joan Lindsay’s novel. (Image in public domain)

Which character did you identify with?

No-one in particular.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

Reading it as a youngster, I convinced myself it was a true story (it wasn’t), which brought home to me the fact that people can just disappear off the face of the earth, and nobody ever finds out where they went. That fuelled my life-long interest (a bit of a morbid one, in fact!) of missing persons and all the different scenarios of what might have happened to them.

How did it affect your writing?

It most likely contributed to my tendency towards purple prose! Also that I tend to link characters’ emotions and moods to landscape, flora, fauna and the weather. Of course though, Picnic at Hanging Rock wasn’t the only story that moulded my writing style.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

A very average public primary and high school, filled with a wide mix of students from all walks of life, and many different races, as is quite usual in Australia.

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

I don’t actually recall any of my friends being as interested in this story as I was. However, I was a bookworm and spent my childhood either doing sport or with my head in a book.

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

Hmm, I’m not sure. Possibly with a niche group of keen readers, as I was, but the story and vocabulary and expressions might seem outdated for many young people. But I could be wrong, since my own children are grown up now, and I have no references as to what young readers enjoy today.

Thank you, Liza, for sharing your passion for the story – I’m so glad to become acquainted with Picnic at Hanging Rock and I am sure I will return to it again.


About Liza Perrat

cover of The Lost Blackbird
Liza’s latest novel explores a different kind of tragedy: the Child Migrant Scheme

Liza Perrat grew up in Australia, working as a general nurse and midwife. She has now been living in France for twenty-seven years, where she works as a part-time medical translator and a novelist.

Her latest novel, The Lost Blackbird, tells the story of a different kind of tragedy involving children in Australia – the infamous child migrant scheme. This is just one of her books set in her native country. She also writes novels set in France and is the author of the French historical The Bone Angel series – three stories spanning six hundred years, linked by an ancient bone talisman and bonded by living through turbulent times: the Black Death, the French Revolution, the WWII Nazi Occupation.

I also recommend Liza’s award-winning collection of Australian short stories, Friends and Other Strangers, which you you can read for free when you join her mailing list via her website, www.lizaperrat.com.

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The School at the Chalet – with Juliette Lawson

The seventh in my series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

cover of a modern edition of The School at the Chalet
I reread a modern edition of this story, nearly a century old now – original copies are now collectors’ items!

When last year I launched my St Bride’s series of school stories for grown-ups, I discovered that many of my author friends had a secret passion for school stories of one kind or another – from children’s classics (such as Anne of Green Gables) through affectionate parodies (Molesworth) to adult novels set in schools (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

I’m delighted that this month’s guest, Juliette Lawson, has chosen one of my favourite vintage children’s school series, Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, which was launched in 1925 with The School at the Chalet.


 

headshot of Juliette Lawson
Meet Juliette Lawson, Historical Novelist, whose debut novel A Borrowed Past I very much enjoyed

Hello, Juliette, and welcome to my blog! To kick off, could you please tell us a little about The School at the Chalet for the sake of any readers who aren’t familiar with it? 

This is the first book in the series. Madge Bettany sets up a school in Austria after her guardian dies; she believes the climate will help her younger sister Joey’s (Jo’s) fragile health. It attracts locals and boarders, girls of various nationalities. There are conflicts, disasters, and bad behaviour among the girls, but all ends well, with lessons learned and peace made.

I’ve chosen the first book in the series, but I read many of them while at school, all in hardback. I don’t think the library had all 64 of them though!

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

I was probably around twelve, because I remember our classroom was next to the library in that year, and I was always finding an excuse to go in there. I think I was attracted to the story after going abroad for the first time when I was eleven, to Switzerland and France with Girl Guides. Another favourite book was Heidi by Johanna Spyri, so perhaps I had a thing about mountains! I didn’t re-read any of the Chalet School stories until recently, and I’m 60, so it’s been a very long gap.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

It is still very evocative of the Tyrol and has a charm that has lasted. With hindsight I can see why it appealed to me at the time; there’s a sense of freedom, exploration and constant adventures, none of which I ever had. I was drawn to foreign languages (I did French, Latin and German at school and I have a Classics degree), so the idea of a multi-lingual school was fascinating to me.

The characters are still larger than life, full of energy and enthusiasm, and they navigate their way through various problems and challenges with gusto. My original reading was so long ago that I can’t remember if I was aware of the naïveté or whether the old-fashioned language felt alien to me, being from quite a poor background. Now all the interjections of ‘spiffing!’, ‘splendiferous’, and ‘tophole’ are slightly irritating. As an author, I can also spot lots of telling and head-hopping too, which obviously I wouldn’t have known about at the time.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

The action never stops – I was always gripped by the story and it kept me reading. I used to get in trouble for reading at the dinner table and not hearing my mother ask me a question (I have to confess it still happens with my husband; he despairs!) There was a core set of characters, but new girls were always coming and going, giving rise to different friendships and inevitable clashes. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have worked my way through so many of the series if I’d disliked anything at the time.

Which character did you identify with?

Joey – not in the sense that she was like me, but rather because I wished I could be as confident as her, full of ideas, likeable and very adaptable to whatever situation she ended up in.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I didn’t have a very happy childhood, so reading this series was an escape for me. I could let my imagination run loose, picturing myself in the setting. Because the school library held such a lot of titles from the series, I became very used to borrowing books; it probably influenced my lifelong love of reading and appreciation of libraries more than any works of literature (I started university reading joint English Literature and Classics). It definitely opened my eyes to the wider world and showed me that you could make things happen if you worked hard enough – Madge’s confidence that she could set up the school and make it successful was inspiring. One of my greatest pleasures as an adult has been travelling, and I’m pretty sure it gave me that global interest.

How did it affect your writing?

I’m afraid there was too long a gap for me to take lessons from it; I didn’t start writing until I was in my fifties!

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended the primary school across the road from my home, then passed the 11-plus and gained a place at the local high school for girls, the equivalent of a grammar school, which was run on a traditional basis; some of the older teachers wore university gowns and we all had to stand up when a teacher entered the class. After three years, it was merged with the grammar school for boys and a secondary modern to form a comprehensive school, which was a revelation. We were kept in our academic streams for O Levels, but it didn’t take long for the boys and girls to start mixing in the playground! The change coincided with me gaining more confidence, but I’m not sure whether there was a causal link.

I was very musical and from the time we went comprehensive I threw myself into more activities and clubs. School became my oasis, and I was always attending orchestra, choirs, or rehearsals for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. We also had an Archaeology Society and used to go to historic sites on a weekend in the school minibus, driven by our Latin teacher. It would never pass health and safety rules today: there were two benches in the back facing each other, and when we went round a corner, we’d often slide off into each other’s laps, which was great for a group of hormone-ridden mixed-sex teenagers!

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

In the earlier years of my secondary school, I found it difficult to make friends, so it was very much my own private world, where I could imagine being happy. I never felt lonely when I had my nose in a book.

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

I very much doubt it – they would probably be in stitches at the language and the old-fashioned tone of it!

Thank you, Juliette, it’s been great fun to share your delight in the Chalet School books. 


About Juliette Lawson

cover of A Borrowed Past by Juliette Lawson
Highly recommended: Juliette Lawson’s debut novel about an aspiring young artist in the north-east of England

Juliette Lawson writes heart-warming historical sagas, bringing the past to life through vivid characters in strong settings inspired by her seaside location in NE England.

Find out more about Juliette Lawson and her work at her website: www.juliettelawson.com

Follow Juliette Lawson on Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/juliettelawsonauthor

Join her Reader Club for regular newsletters and insights into her writing life: www.subscribepage.com/a7f7t3

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel

The Serendipity of Secondhand Books

In my column for the September 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about my love of secondhand bookshops and the unexpected treasures to be found in them.

cover of September issueAh, the joy of browsing through secondhand books! – one of the few things I missed about not having a summer holiday this year. Wherever we go, we always end up in vintage bookshops. They’re my main source of holiday souvenirs and more besides.

Last August in Norfolk, the proprietor of The Old Station Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea introduced himself to us as Harry Potter’s potter. Some years before, a film company’s properties scout had spotted the bookseller’s side-line in ceramics, nestled between the books. A few days later an order arrived, presumably delivered by owl, for two sets of matching pots in different sizes – one small version for Harry Potter and chums, the other scaled up for Hagrid the giant.

The film scout had clearly adhered to

my golden rule of second-hand bookshop shopping: never look for anything in particular.

On no account take a shopping list because you won’t find what you’re looking for. Instead, browse the shelves with an open mind, and let the books find you.

Timely Reading

The best second-hand books leap out at me with extraordinary timing. A vintage copy of Where No Mains Flow, Rebecca Warren’s witty memoir of restoring an old cottage, kept my sense of humour intact as we did up our own place.

 cover of Where No Mains Flow
I was so pleased to find another copy of this mid-century book, having loaned my original copy and never got it back

 

Just after I’d joined a VE Day 75 committee, the first book I saw at the Bookbarn near Wells was a slim hardback of The White Cliffs, Alice Duer Miller’s novel in verse written in 1940. (Yes, it predates the Vera Lynn song.) I’d never heard of it, but in its heyday it sold a million copies and was even credited with bringing the Americans into the Second World War.

cover of The White Cliffs
This book was the first one I saw displayed cover outwards when entering the Bookbarn – an extraordinary coincidence when i was working on a WWII community project

Just after my sixtieth birthday in January, I decided to reread Graham Greene. On my next visit to a secondhand bookshop, I picked up A Burnt-out Case. Wondering when it was published, I opened the book at the copyright page: 1960, same vintage as me. Suddenly I felt very old.

cover of A Burnt-Out Case
Same vintage as me – but I think I have aged a little better than the chap on the cover

For the Love of Covers

Then there are the books I’ve acquired simply for the sake of their covers. Naturally, it was during Storm Ciara that a vintage hardback of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon leapt out at me, its cover so atmospheric that you can practically hear the wind roar.

cover of Typhoon
I can feel the winds howling every time I look at this gorgeous cover

Best of all are the curiosities bought as talking points. Who could resist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman shorthand? Now all I need to be able to read it is an old copy of Teach Yourself Pitman Shorthand. But I’d better not go searching, or I’ll never find one.

sample pages of Sherlock Holmes novel in Pitman Shorthand
I confess I cant read Pitman Shorthand, but this was an irresistible find!

Sneak Preview of Developments in Wendlebury Barrow

cover of the Clutch of Eggs
My next book will be out in October

Such is my love of secondhand books that in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, I’m planning to make Hector Munro to start a vintage section in Hector’s House, the bookshop at the heart of this series. He already has a large private collection of what he refers to as his “curiosities”, and these occasionally play a part in my stories, such as a festive short story that I wrote last year – you can read it here for free if you can bear to think about Christmas just yet!

His curiosities collection also gets a mention in my new book, The Clutch of Eggs, the next in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series, which will be out in October – more news of that to follow shortly. (You can join my Readers’ Club mailing list here if you want me to notify you of the publication date.)

Then in the eighth book in the Sophie Sayers series, one of his “curiosities” will be at the heart of a mystery that takes Sophie and Hector from Wendlebury Barrow to the Scottish Highlands.  But first I must write the seventh – Murder Lost and Found, my November project, for the first draft, anyway!

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Molesworth – with Linda Gillard

The sixth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

headshot of Linda Gillard
Linda Gillard is the author of nine literary novels, the latest of which is the intriguing “Hidden”, set in both 1917 and 2017

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.

So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Helen Hollick on Ruby Fergusson’s Jill’s Riding School Stories, and Madeleine D’Este on The O’Sullivan Twins – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden, Scotland and England.

This month we’re staying in England for a series of school books that is quintessentially British, in the company of novelist Linda Gillard, author of nine novels, two of which became Kindle bestsellers. Linda will explain why she loves the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, set in a classic boys’ private school, St Custard’s. (Searle also created the equivalent girls’ school, St Trinian’s.)

Molesworth & Me

I needed no introduction to Molesworth. When I was a child, we had a well-thumbed hardback omnibus edition that all the family enjoyed, including my mother, a teacher, and my brother and sister, who both trained as teachers when they grew up. (I was never a teacher, but I did work in a boarding school for 13 years.) None of us had boarding school educations, but we still appreciated the witty satire about private school life, and I especially loved the anarchic use of language, full of quaint schoolboy slang, complete with painfully bad spelling which is an intrinsic part of the humour.

Linda Gillard & Me

I first got to know Linda Gillard online about seven years ago and it was a couple of years before we were able to meet in person, because she lives hundreds of miles from the Cotswolds in Scotland. However we have managed to meet at two very appropriate places – Leakey’s wonderful secondhand bookshop in Inverness, and at Foyles’ flagship store in London.

cover of Emotional Geology
An engrossing novel set on Skye, now optioned for film

Although Linda is English, and went to university not far from me in Bristol, many of Linda’s books are set in Scotland, and I particularly enjoyed Emotional Geology, set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, where I’ve often been with my Scottish husband.

(Leakey’s Bookshop and Skye will feature in the eighth Sophie Sayers novel, which I’m looking forward to writing – but first I must finish the seventh, Murder Lost and Found!)

Now, let’s find out why Linda has chosen Molesworth as her favourite school story.


Linda, welcome to my blog. I’m thrilled that you chose what for those of a certain age is a timeless classic. To kick off, please tell us a little more about it. 

Thank you, Debbie for inviting me to talk about my favourite school book. It’s been delightful re-acquainting myself with the works of Nigel Molesworth, “the Curse of St Custard’s”.

The Compleet Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, comprises four short volumes of memoir crossed with self-help manual, written by the fictional Nigel Molesworth, a pupil at a second-rate English public school in the 1950s.

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what ages (approx) have you reread it?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read it, but I was a junior pupil at a strict, old-fashioned girls’ grammar school when I was lent a copy of How to be Topp by one of my posher friends who had a brother at public school. (State education was apparently good enough for girls in the 1960s.) I was probably about twelve or thirteen.

I’ve returned to Molesworth throughout my life, just to dip in and chuckle. I owned Puffin paperbacks of all four books (Down with Skool, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane) and passed them grudgingly on to my children, then one day in a second-hand bookshop I came across a hardback omnibus edition. I pounced.

photo of Linda Gillard with The Compleet Molesworth
Linda Gillard with her prized copy of the omnibus of all four Molesworth books

I shelve that with children’s fiction, but like the William Brown books of Richmal Crompton, Molesworth’s oeuvre was in fact intended for adults. His diary first appeared in Punch and generated so much fan mail, four books appeared in the 1950s.

How has your perception of the books changed with later readings?

When I first read them, my response was (as it has been to a great deal of literature, including poetry and Shakespeare) a mixture of awe, delight and only partial comprehension.

I had a sense of opening a window on to an absurd and hilarious world: not just the appalling prep school, St Custard’s, but a new world of anarchic language (Willans) and illustration (Searle).

The books have enriched my life, my children’s and my parents’. I can’t think of any other books that have been enjoyed by all three generations. My respect for Molesworth has grown over the decades. He still makes me laugh.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

Every page is laugh-out-loud funny. You only have to mention The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter or The Molesworth Bogus Report to aficionados and they will start to smile. (Whenever I trimmed his hair, my father would quote a line from Matron’s Report: “We forgot to pack his combs. Simply couldn’t face it.”.)

The genius of the book is the perfect pairing of Geoffrey Willans’ economic text with Ronald Searle’s baroque illustrations. Searle is quite rightly credited as co-author, rather than  illustrator. The text would be nothing without the illustrations, but equally the deadpan text points up the grotesque humour of the illustrations. “Distance back to pavilion is now 120000 miles” is the caption underneath a picture of a seething, bowled-out Molesworth in the “Criket” section.

Which character did you identify with?

Nigel Molesworth, the rebellious anti-hero. I had a younger sister, two forms below me, so I understood the long-suffering tolerance of his annoying sibling, known as Molesworth 2. (“He do not share the charm and good looks of his elder bro, molesworth 1, hem hem. Strange that they could be related.”)

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I don’t think the books influenced me particularly, though they might have made me more tolerant of the Latin I had to study as far as O Level. Like Molesworth, I didn’t see any point in learning Latin. (I do now.) The books were just joyous entertainment, something I shared with my friends and family. I would feel an instant kinship now with anyone who said they’d read and loved them. They confer the camaraderie of the old school tie.

How did it affect your writing?

Nigel Molesworth’s total disregard for grammar, spelling and political correctness had no effect on my writing, fortunately.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended a girls’ grammar school in the 1960s. We weren’t allowed to talk to boys outside school, not even pupils at the Boys’ Grammar School across the road (of which Mick Jagger was a recent ex-pupil). We wore unflattering felt hats in winter and equally unflattering straw hats in summer, of a design that made even pretty girls look dowdy.  It was detention if you were caught turning your hat brim up.

The uniform was a horrible bottle green and we had to wear two pairs of knickers: white next to our skin and bottle green over the top of those. We were subjected to occasional spot checks to make sure we were wearing both pairs.

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

A friend introduced me to Molesworth. In turn I showed the books to my sister (Gillard 2) and eventually our parents, who probably recognised in Molesworth a natural successor to Spike Milligan and the Goons.

We all became fans and Molesworthian expressions crept into our everyday speech. As any fule kno, I have given it to the poor boys, Hullo clouds hullo sky and I diskard him were favourites. The fact that I was able to share the books in this way  with friends and family was half the joy. It gave us a common frame of reference, a shared, quirky language. Right up until their deaths, my parents would still quote Molesworth, smiling:

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

Searle’s illustrations are timeless and will be eternally hilarious, but Willans’ text is problematic. I doubt whether the books would appeal to young readers. Few children learn Latin now and there are a lot of jokes about the teaching of Latin. Most young people don’t regard correct spelling, grammar and punctuation as important, so I’m not sure they’d see the joke of Nigel’s cavalier literary style.

The books are also very much of their time. Corporal punishment is not a laughing matter now, nor are defective teaching or parenting. A public school education is no longer something to be envied or admired and the ridicule of wealthy, white, male privilege hardly seems subversive.

However, the popularity of the recent dramatisation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books made me wonder whether Molesworth could still be enjoyed as a quirky period piece by teenagers. You certainly don’t have to attend public school to enjoy Molesworth, but I do wonder if Willans’ wit would travel down the decades for those who enjoy a modern and enlightened education. “Caesar had some jam for tea” depends on familiarity with “Caesar adsum iam forte”. The books might now be dismissed as élitist, as Blyton’s are. Ironically the intention was to ridicule an élite and celebrate the indomitable and ingenious spirit of the British underdog.

Enuff said.

Thank you, Linda, it has been a joy to hear about your passion for the immortal Molesworth.


cover of Hidden by Linda Gillard
Linda Gillard’s latest novel, her ninth, Hidden, is available in paperback and ebook

Here’s an introduction to Linda Gillard’s highly acclaimed latest novel, Hidden:

A birth. A death. Hidden for a hundred years.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

In 1917 a sense of duty and a desire for a child lead celebrated artist Esme Howard to share her life and home – 16th-century Myddleton Mote – with Captain Guy Carlyle, an officer whose face and body have been ravaged by war. But Esme knows nothing of the ugliness that lurks within Guy’s tortured mind, as he re-lives the horrors of the trenches. As a child grows within her, Esme fears Guy’s wrath will be turned on them both. A prisoner in her own home, she paints like one possessed, trusting that one day someone will hear her silent cries for help.

A century later, Miranda Norton inherits Myddleton Mote and its art collection from a father she never knew and decides to move on after the end of an unhappy marriage. Inviting her extended family to join her, Miranda sets about restoring the house and turning it into a thriving business. When someone from Miranda’s past returns to torment her, an appalling act of vandalism reveals the Mote’s dark secrets, hidden for a hundred years.

For more information about Linda Gillard, her books and her writing life, visit her website at www.lindagillard.co.uk