Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story – Helen Hollick on Ruby Ferguson’s Jill Series

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

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

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, and Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden and Scotland.

Now at last it’s time for my home country to get a look in, as historical novelist Helen Hollick explains her passion for a classic English series: the Riding School stories by Ruby Ferguson.

Helen Hollick writes:

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

From an early age (about four years) I always had my nose buried in a book. My favourites, back then in the late 1950s, were Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. Not exactly school stories – although I do vividly remember one of them being about Fuzzypeg the hedgehog going to school and learning to read.

(Debbie: I love Little Grey Rabbit too, and recently bought a vintage copy of Fuzzypeg Goes to School!)

I do, vaguely, remember reading one school story. It might have been Malory Towers, but to be honest I didn’t like this genre. You see, I hated school. For my first year at  school I couldn’t see much because I was short-sighted and needed glasses, but it never occurred to Mum that this was the reason I was always bumping into or falling over things. And why I couldn’t see the blackboard.

I hated (even with glasses) always having to sit at the front. Hated being told off for bad handwriting. Hated being moaned at in sewing because I couldn’t see to thread a needle..  So there wasn’t much incentive to spend my own time at school. Even fictional ones.

School Stories with a Difference

Jill’s Gymkhana got Helen Hollick hooked on Ruby Ferguson’s classic series

Those school stories always seemed to have popular, clever, girls with friends. Lots of them. I didn’t have friends. I wasn’t popular or clever. I was shy, scared and unhappy. My friends were the characters I met in books. I met a special fictional friend when I was given a book for my ninth birthday. Jill Crewe in the book Jill’s Gymkhana.

You see, I was pony mad. Jill and her pony Blackboy introduced me to pony stories. From that day onward through my school days I read, lived, breathed – wrote – pony stories. Fiction made up for the pain of being so lonely and desperately wanting a pony of my own. (I had to wait until I was sixteen. Now at sixty-seven I have three ponies, three horses  and two donkeys in our fields here in Devon. Dreams do come true!)

The Jill books brought out the passion for ponies in a simple, funny, quirky and educational way. The first story follows Jill learning to ride and care for her pony, and I learnt with her. Then the second book brought in Mrs Darcy and the local riding school. That was it, I wanted to work there too. Funnily enough, when I did, eventually, get my own horse the owner of the riding school where I kept him reminded me of Mrs Darcy.

Classic 1950s Stories

There was a whole series of Jill stories to enjoy

The stories are very dated now – they are set in post-war England in the early 1950s. That in itself makes them interesting, for the historical detail of life back then. At the very least it wouldn’t be allowed in the 21st century for a girl of thirteen or fourteen to run a riding school! But this is exactly what happens in the second book in the series Jill Has Two Ponies.  Mrs Darcy has to go away so Jill and some friends offer to run the riding school in her absence. All well and good, but Mrs D’s valuable horse, Blue Smoke falls ill. Jill has to summon the vet:

“You girls clear out,” said the vet, cheerfully, “and let me have a look. Go and make me a cup of tea. I’ve been sitting up with a cow for hours.”

     We thought it very heartless of the vet to want tea, but we went into the house and made him a cup. We didn’t make any for ourselves, it would have choked us. Every time I caught Wendy’s eye she gave a gulp, and every time Wendy caught my eye I gave a gulp. We did nothing but gulp at each other. I set off down the yard with the vet’s cup of tea and slopped it all over into the saucer. Then suddenly I saw the vet before me. The heartless man was grinning all over his face.

“She’s just been playing you up,” he said. “A touch of a toothache, that’s all, but you know what these thoroughbreds are like, the least touch of pain and they act as if they were dying.”

(As a horse owner . . .  oh don’t they just!)

I still have that original birthday present hardback edition of Jill’s Gymkhana, and paperbacks of the others in the series – all somewhat battered because I read and re-read them as a teenager (along with many other pony stories). I re-read the first one not long ago and still thoroughly enjoyed it. Alas, I can’t read the others as I am now visually impaired and the paperback print is far too small and faded. A great shame that they are not on Kindle.

Modern Meddling

Jill was a victim of political correctness in later years and appeared in republished (awful) editions. The name ‘Blackboy’ was banned, (why, he was a black pony for goodness sake!). These re-writes completely spoil the feel of the stories – if you want to read them, get the originals!

(Debbie: It irks me too when publishers try to put a modern spin on timeless classics – such as reissuing Just William stories featuring William Brown sans school blazer and cap but with t-shirt and trainers instead. What nonsense!)

Inspiration for a Budding Novelist

The main thing Jill, her ponies, her friends and the Riding School did for me was to teach me to write.

Throughout those years I was either reading or writing. I had my own fictional pony: Tara, a palomino. (I must have heard of Gone With The Wind somewhere around then). I even wrote a story set in a riding school during a GCE exam. I’d finished the questions and had about an hour to kill. So I started writing a story about someone stealing a horse from the local riding school. I filled one A4 sheet of paper. Asked for another. And another.  I had quite a pile on my desk.

What I didn’t realise, the other girls in the class (Chingford’s, Wellington Avenue Secondary School for Girls) assumed I was answering exam questions. Like me they had only filled one A4 sheet and had no idea what else to put. But there was I, scribbling furiously…

They didn’t speak to me again for ages. I didn’t care, that meant they left me alone to escape into the world of ponies and riding schools.

© Helen Hollick


More About Helen Hollick

Thank you, Helen, that’s a fascinating insight both into Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books and into your own evolution as a writer.

I must admit that in my own childhood these stories passed me by, possibly because I’ve never been interested in horses, although my older sister remembers enjoying them. But given Helen’s persuasive tribute, I’m now keen to try one. As they’re all out of print now and have become collectors’ items, I’m going to have to keep an eye open in secondhand bookshops – a favourite haunt of mine, especially on holiday – until I can find one.

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
Me with Helen Hollick, a great friend and mentor to authors all over the world

Meanwhile Helen grew up to write award-winning historical novels, fantasy and historical non-fiction. I’ve especially enjoyed her pirate fantasy series, which is a must for anyone who is a fan of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, and her straight historical novels with Arthurian and Saxon themes are among my mum’s favourites!

She’s also become a firm friend and mentor to many, many aspiring novelists worldwide, well known for her generous spirit and kind heart. I’m thrilled therefore to have her as my guest on my blog today.

Find out all about Helen Hollick and her many books via her one of her links below:

Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Amazon Author Page (Universal Link) http://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome): https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/

Meanwhile at St Bride’s…

In the meantime, my own school stories are coming along nicely:

  • Book 2 in my St Bride’s School series will be published on 1st July 2020

    The first in the series, Secrets at St Bride’s, was a finalist in The Selfies Awards 2020, given to the best independently published fiction in the UK. With the paperback and ebook selling well, I’m planning to produce an audio version this autumn, narrated by Siobhan Waring, the voice artist responsible for the audiobook of Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. You can order the paperback here and buy the ebook here.

  • The second in the series, Stranger at St Bride’s, will be published on 1st July in ebook and paperback. You can already preorder the ebook here.

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – with Historical Novelist Clare Flynn

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

cover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Historical novelist Clare Flynn picks this modern classic as her favourite school story – read my interview with her to find out why

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

So far in this series we’ve had novelists Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables and Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking – to that’s a Welsh author on a Canadian story and a Finnish author on a Swedish one! This time, I’m pleased to welcome British historical novelist Clare Flynn talking about the Scottish modern classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!

Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.

Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?

Clare Flynn, award-winning historical novelist, shares her passion for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.

When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!

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

I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.

I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.

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

I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.

I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.

Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:

‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’

Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy.  Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.

Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.

Which character did you identify with?

I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.

The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends

‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’

I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.

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

As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.

In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.

How did it affect your writing?

Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!

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

I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.

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

Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.

Would the book still resonate with young readers today?

I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.

Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!

cover of The Pearl of Penang against Malaysian backdrop
Clare Flynn’s tenth novel was awarded the Selfies UK Award 2020

Connect with Clare Flynn

Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.

Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!


POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences

  • cover of Secrets at St Bride'sI mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
  • Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
  • I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!

For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.

Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

How to Be an Armchair Traveller

(This post was written for the January issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)

Cover of Sea Witch by Helen HollickJanuary is traditionally the time when holiday companies’ commercials start popping up on our television screens. What better distraction from our post-Christmas overdrafts than sundrenched villas and beaches?

In the depths of the January gloom, these adverts tempt us to raid the rainy-day fund reserved for moments of crisis, such as when dishwasher gives up the ghost. (Now there’s a middle-class problem.)

The Budget Travel Option: A Good Book

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
With Helen Hollick, creator of the fabulous escapist Sea Witch adventure stories

I for one will be resisting the lure of travel agents and instead taking refuge in a good book. This time last year, through the pages of Helen Hollick’s excellent historical novel Sea Witch, I sailed away with her enticing pirate Jesemiah Acorne. After an interesting stop-off in South Africa, we headed straight for the Caribbean, where thoughts of palm-fringed shores and tropic temperatures helped me shut out the dark nights and icy winds of Hawkesbury Upton. It may have helped that I was reading in a comfy armchair by a log fire, with what was left of our Christmas bottle of Lamb’s Navy Rum.

Photo of bluestockinged scarecrow with Books are my Bag bag and Little Free Library
My Little Free Library – offering armchair travellers an easy source of escapist books

Good books are much cheaper than holiday bookings – and you don’t even have to wait till the summer to enjoy them. And, as with radio, the pictures are so much better than on television. If your budget doesn’t run to a new book, check out the huge range of £1 books in the Hawkesbury Shop and Head Start Studio, or the free books available round the clock from the Little Free Library box on my front garden wall in France Lane.

Last January, my sorrow at ending my voyage with Captain Acorne was cut short when I realised that “Sea Witch” was the first in a series. I’ve been saving the sequel especially for this winter. So wish me bon voyage – I’m back off to the Caribbean via the pages of Pirate Code. I just wish I could bring back some duty-free.

OVER TO YOU What’s your favourite book for armchair travelling? I’d love to know!

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends!

And if you liked this post, you may also enjoy this anecdote that centres on reading a book on a plane, inspired by my avid travelling: Flight of Fancy: A Cautionary Tale

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

The Rewards of Being a Book Reviewer

(Rewards that reinforce my delight in reviewing other authors’ books)

Jigsaw puzzle with last piece missing
Only connect

As regular readers of my blog may know, I love reviewing books and do so in a professional capacity for a couple of magazines in two completely different genres – a British parenting magazine called Today’s Child and an international literary journal called Vine Leaves.

For Today’s Child, I pick books that will sit well in a feature with a different theme each month (the next one will be children’s diaries). For Vine Leaves, I’m sent a list of books to choose from, all of them written by contributors to Vine Leaves. I’m also able to pick a book a quarter from the Historical Novel Society’s list, as I review for their website too.

Of course these aren’t the only books I read. I get through at least one a week, often more, and I review these books for pleasure, usually on Amazon, sometimes on Goodreads (a site that’s hailed as social media for readers, but to be honest I find it a frustratingly clunky site so don’t go on there that much – and as it’s now owned by Amazon, it may only be a matter of time before my Amazon reviews are accessible from Goodreads anyway). When I have time, I also review books on my own website here.

Rising up the Ranks of Amazon Reviewers

The more books you review, the higher your ranking on Amazon’s list of reviewers. Exactly how it calculates reviewers’ ranking is a mystery, but it is certainly influenced by a mix of the frequency of your reviews, the quality, how often readers click the “helpful” or “unhelpful” button underneath each published review. It is not clear whether it also favours you if you bought the book you’re reviewing on Amazon.

About a year ago, I realised that I was swiftly moving up the list, and I’m now edging towards the top 1,000 (#1,307 today, though I’ve been higher), which earns the reviewer a special label alongside their reviews. That badge is about as meaningful as a child being given a sticker at school for good work or behaviour, but aren’t we all big kids at heart? I’m looking forward to the day I get mine! You can find more about the rules of being an Amazon reviewer on its website.

Complimentary Products for Top Reviewers

Anyone who reaches a certain level in this ladder is likely to start receiving offers out of the blue from sellers keen to have you review their product. At least, that’s if you’ve made your email address public on your profile, which I did a few months ago.

The smart seller goes through the list of top reviewers to search a match for their product – those who have written great reviews for similar products – and emails you a polite request, offering a free product in return for an honest review. You’re obliged to declare in your review that you’ve received the product this way. Since I made my email address public a few months ago, I’ve received some unexpected but appreciated products: a new card game, a bathroom scales, an in-car charger for multiple phones, and more. My latest Amazon package was a compelling autobiography by the American artist Marcia Gloster, 31 Days: A Memoir of Seduction. I was hand-picked by her New York agent. for the quality of my previous reviews. Gosh!

There’s no obligation to accept anything you’re offered this way, but it’s a bit of fun to receive the gifts you like. I can understand why some people become obsessed with reviewing and make it the focal point of their life. One of them has even written a book about it. And yes, of course, I reviewed it!

The More Important Rewards of Reviewing

But public recognition and free gifts are not the rewards I meant to focus on when I set out to write this article. What makes my heart sing after I’ve filed a new review is to receive a message from the author saying that I totally “got” their book. To know that I’ve read and understood and connected with their purpose feels like a creative spark has passed between us. Reviewing doesn’t get better than that.

Without wanting to sound like I’m showing off (ok, so I AM showing off), here are two quotes from authors whose work I’ve recently reviewed:

“Thank you for the insightful review, it captures what the story is really about.” This message came from Charles Booth, whose debut novel Olive Park I reviewed for Vine Leaves here:

This was waiting for me in my inbox this morning:

“Debbie, thank you very much for your wonderful review. You are an incredibly insightful reviewer, I can’t imagine my volume to be in better hands!  I greatly appreciate your fine writing. “

The sender was the Polish-American poet Joanna Kurowska, whose latest collection of poems, Inclusions, I reviewed on Amazon here. I also reviewed her earlier collection, The Wall and Beyond, for Vine Leaves, which is where I first encountered Joanna’s poetry.

The Joy of Discovering Fresh Talent

Cover of Quck Change flash fiction collection
Now with 10 4 5* reviews on Amazon – have you read it yet?

And that brings me to another bonus of reviewing: the discovery of new books and authors that I’d otherwise never have come across. My introduction to both Charles and Joanna came from Vine Leaves, which does an amazing job in drawing attention to great authors who deserve to be better known. (Vine Leaves is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to support their work – if you’d like to do so, you can contribute here.)The same can be said of the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Review programme, for which I review books written by self-published authors. The HNS scheme is now blessed with a new Award, thanks to the pioneering campaign by my lovely friend Helen Hollick, herself a bestselling historical novelist with a heart as big as a house.

Speaking of hearts, there’s one last reward of reviewing that I’d like to mention: that as an author myself, I know how heartwarming it is to receive an enthusiastic review for my own work, and the arrival of not one but two glowing reviews for my latest book, the collection of very short stories (aka flash fiction) has made my week already – and it’s still only Tuesday.

So if you’re a keen reader who hasn’t considered reviewing the books you read yet, do please consider it. They don’t have to be long or smart or original – the minimum length required by Amazon is just 20 words. And if you do, I’m sure you’ll find, as I do, that it’s not only the author who will reap rewards.

If you’re wondering about the origin of the jigsaw puzzle photo at the top of this piece, click on the link to read the post in which it first appeared on my blog:

Why Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle is a Bit Like Writing A Book