Author and former Children’s Laureate Anne Fine looks back on her days at Northampton High School in the 1950s and 1960s.
I came from a plain post-war primary school in Hampshire. Ushered into Towerfield, an annexe house on Derngate, halfway through term, I walked into a room crammed with the sort of wooden desks I’d only seen in old school story illustrations. Framed pictures hung on the walls and full length drapes – can they really have been velvet? – were half drawn against the sun. The girls were moaning about their reading book. (Bevis, by Richard Jefferies.) “So boring! Just goes on and on!” And my first thought was, ‘How can they sit in such a lovely room and be so ungrateful?’
I fell in love even before I’d seen the curious basement where we bought our buns, the magic garden with its hidden places, the large stone goldfish trough. I hadn’t thought a school could be like this. My interview had been terrifying. “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” Miss Marsden said. “What language might that be?” I’d guessed at 20 or more before she finally told me it was Spanish, so was convinced I’d failed. (The trauma ran so deep that, when the equally formidable Mrs Gee repeated the Ortega y Gasset quote over five years later, I recognised the sound of the words at once.) But I’d been an inventive language guesser. Miss Marsden let me in.
I loved the work – so calm, so orderly. Moving to the main school, warm Mrs Davies taught English and let me and Gillian Herbert read out chapters of our shared opus The Legacy, and What It Caused. Miss Sinton scared me rigid, but I’m forever grateful for all the chunks of Shakespeare I still know by heart. I took Extra Speech from Mrs Nichol, which was another poem learned every week, enriching everything since. I once stopped Miss Morgan and her gravity-defying hair as she walked past my desk. “Could I be a writer?” “Oh, yes,” she said. “You could,” as if it were far from a compliment. Still, I remember tucking the thought away…
“Mrs Gee sat with her legs spread comfortably under the table, exposing her unfashionable bloomers, as she talked of her passions: Lorca, Picasso, Spanish architecture.”
I was madly jealous of Alicia Jolles. So pretty, so clever, and prone to fits of such merriment she would be ordered from the room till she’d composed herself. I’d never seen confidence like it. I’m sure it was wanting to outdo Alicia that kept me working so hard.
Was Miss Marsden truly as strait-laced as she appeared? After Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, later Director General of MI5, left us for Benenden, she sent a letter back, care of the school. Summoned to slide it from the envelope and read it aloud, I came to the words, “And how is the Old Bag?” and magicked it into, “And best wishes to Miss Marsden.” But it was years before I realised that, behind those prim lips, she was probably amusing herself at my expense.
At 15 I had to drop English to study Spanish, and I’m not sorry about that. It means I come at writing freestyle, with readability my only watchword, and only one inner critical voice: my own. Spanish A Level in two years was hugely demanding. Countless hours learning vocabulary and endless struggles through Harmer & Norton’s grammar book (I still have mine). Mrs Gee sat with her legs spread comfortably under the table, exposing her unfashionable bloomers, as she talked of her passions: Lorca, Picasso, Spanish architecture. I spent whole weeks writing essays in Spanish, once without a single mistake! And what did she write at the end? ‘Prefiero que dejas esta afectación de la e griega.’ (I’d like you to drop this affectation of writing open Greek e’s.) I think of it each time I see a child dot an i with a smiley face or a heart. That habit wouldn’t have lasted long at Northampton High School.
But I’m so glad I did.
Anne Fine is one of Britain’s most distinguished writers for both adults and children. She has won numerous awards and has been twice voted Children’s Author of the Year.
Anne was Children’s Laureate from 2001-2003, during which time she set up myhomelibrary.org, a website that offers a host of freshly designed and freely downloadable modern bookplates to enthuse young readers to form their own home libraries from the second hand books around them. She also published three classic anthologies of poetry for different ages called A Shame to Miss 1, 2 & 3.
She has published eight highly acclaimed black comedies for adults, and her work has been translated into 40 languages. In 2003, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and awarded an OBE. Anne has two daughters and seven grandchildren, and lives in County Durham.