January is a right old fag-butt of a month. I’ve puzzled about it before: why we start a new year in mid-winter, when everything feels like it’s ending.
I think it’s because beginnings can be deathly hard. A fact we try our best to leap over, each new year, with our frenzied leaf-turning, our go-get-em #goals. But we don’t need to swallow the Shiny New Ass™ detox teas being rammed down our throat. There is so much more to January than snatching after fresh starts.
January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of thresholds, who looks forwards and backwards at the same time. (Skills). January turns to the past, as much as the future. It’s the doorway month: it sees where you’re coming from, as well as where you want to go.
My January started in an unusual place. In December, I ran 5 miles every day to raise money for the Bone Cancer Research Trust. 31 days straight, 176.4 miles in total. (Me! As if!) My 2019 ended on a tide of others’ generosity, a wave of unbelievable kindness. (Thank you to everyone who donated and cheered me on, you extraordinary lot. I can’t tell you how much it means.)
To begin 2020 full of awe at people’s goodness is a lovely thing. As is knowing an underfunded cause has more cash for vital research and support. But the truth is, I wish I’d never, ever needed to raise a penny. I ran in memory of my cousins’ cousin, Abe Vincent. Abe died of bone cancer five years ago, in January 2015, aged 21, his life ending as the year started.
Some beginnings feel like the end of the world.
Two-faced January is a good time to practise seeing things in double-vision. To realise how life braids grief and love, triumph and failure, freedom and loss. The philosopher Nietzche was obsessed with this: how suffering and joy grow tall together. How, if you spend your life cringing away from pain, you’ll only ever end up with a tepid sort of contentment. He believed you can only experience fierce happiness if you’ve experienced deep sorrow.
It’s as if those comedy and tragedy masks are fused, one carved onto the back of the other, Janus-like. Things fall apart; we all die in the end, says tragedy. We are silly and brave; love wins out, says comedy. Life shows us that both are true at once, all the time.
We can really feel this, in hungover January, where the year swallows its tail. January is all Samuel Beckett, or me on a run: ‘I can’t go on. / I’ll go on.’
January is a good time to slog away at the work of beginning, to wrestle the end of one thing into the start of something new. To open up the file, the screen bright in the dull grey day. Jump to where the blankness waits, and, cursor blinking, start to write.
Faith was an article of faith, growing up. Like George Michael, we knew we had to have it. So we just did.
I didn’t realise until later that this faithwas just one of a variety of flavours. Mine was good ol’‘Catholic AF.’
My school hours were spent under the gaze of a tiny dying man, pinned up on every classroom wall. At the end of the corridor, where the milk cartons waited by the radiator (hurl), there he was again, all blond and pretty, delicately parting his robe to show off his impressively sized heart, at once on fire AND twined with thorns.
My mum and dad had their wedding photos by the life size crucifixion scene outside St Elizabeth’s in Coventry. I think I was pushing thirty before I realised just how weird that was. Yup, there’s Our Lady, sobbing, and solemn-faced Saint John, book-ending the happy couple. There’s the big man himself, looming behind them, up on the cross. I mean, nothing says ‘marital bliss’ like a tortured corpse.
My mate’s mum has a hologram crucifixion clock in her kitchen. Walk past it one way, and Jesus is alive, blood running down his brow, eyes fixed beseechingly on heaven. Walk the other way and he’s dead, head sunk on his arm. Dead – alive – dead – alive – dead. Poor bloke. He must be exhausted.
Faith of this sort is a kind of blanket. Other people have woven it, and they wrap you in it. It’s old. It’s musty. It’s full of holes. But they tuck you into its folds, really really tight, irrespective of whether it’s actually cold outside. It’s ours. And that makes it yours. Forever and ever amen.
I threw off that blanket once I realised it smelt a bit odd to me and I found it unbearably scratchy. But growing up like this, with a blanket, makes you realise one thing. Religious beliefs offer different blankets. But faith, faith of any kind, is a woven thing. It is a gift that can only be given to you by others.
That sense of trust, of belief, of home in yourself, in the world – that thing we all need, to truly become who we are meant to be, to breathe out, to grow – this is something we make for each other.
I never got why the ancient Greek punishment of exile was so bad, seen as a fate worse than death. So your city threw you out, so what? You went wandering, met some new people, made a new life, no? The cult of autonomy, the creed of individualism, is so strong in our corner of the world, it’s hard to understand the kind of loss exile held within it. You weren’t just thrown out of your home town, you were locked out of yourself.
Over the past few years, wandering my own lonely ways, I’ve felt it. Without other people, who are you? How can you exist, except in relation, in connection? Without someone to speak to, you have no voice. Others don’t just witness who you are: they call you into being.
When you’ve lost trust in yourself and what you’re for, when you feel good for nothing, a useless, broken mess, not only are you cold without a blanket, you’ve dropped your candle. You are lost in the night.
You don’t see it, at first: you can’t, it’s too dark. But your people are there. They’ve picked up what you let fall, they’ve relit it, from their own flame. They’re standing there holding it for you, waiting, until you’re ready to take it back again.
And the glow of faith is yours to share, once more. Knowing that the most generous thing one human can do for another is to keep it burning.
There’s a photo of me racing on school sports day, aged seven: black pumps flying, face furious with determination. Around me is a lot of empty field.
‘Ooh!’ said my Nanna, when she saw this picture. ‘Where are all the others? Did you leave them all behind?’
Aw, Nanna. Even then I knew I couldn’t do a Trump (‘Sure, sure, left ’em standing, ran so quick I won next year’s race too, yeah, truth is, I’m the fastest kid you know…’)
I came so last there was no other kid slow enough to be in the frame. Although, if you look carefully, you can just see Shona Ferguson’s heel disappearing off the left-hand edge of the picture.
We all moan that time speeds up as we get older. But when I was small, life often felt stuck in super slo-mo.
It wasn’t just my stumpy summer-baby legs which never kept up. I was always the last to finish my work. Learning to write was torture.
‘Come on, slow coach,’ Mrs Garry used to tease, as my letters wobbled over the page, and each full stop was never the final one. All of a sudden, it’d be break time, and I watched everyone else throw down their pencils (done, already? how?) and go out to play. While I felt panic soaping me all over, that I still had so much to do. There’d never be enough time.
You can see why I always feel the ‘dead’ in deadline. And why it has felt so good to write ‘THE END’ on my latest work in progress. Even though I know it’s only the first of many, many, slow steps towards the book it might eventually become.
Yep, there’s no way around it. I am slow, and slowness isn’t cool. It’s frustrating, backwards. In our corner of the world, which values speed above all things, we’re all supposed to be hyperefficient, productive workers, rattling off the tasks, churning out projects, getting stuff done. We love quick wins, overnight successes, prodigies, shooting stars. We don’t want to wait for anything, least of all ourselves.
Creative work couldn’t give a crap about any of this. Things that need creating hang within their own time. The work takes as long as it takes, often in minute, perilous increments you can barely see. Like the ones that turn tiny buds into flaring leaves. Or a blue line on a plastic stick into a whole new person.
The funny thing about slowness is that, if you don’t rush it, it gets faster, all by itself. Most days I sketch people on the tube, never knowing when they’re getting off. I try to get someone’s likeness in a few stops. If I manage, it’s only because every every quick line contains all the laboured, unsure, gammy ones that went before it, ever since I first picked up a pencil. Slowness teaches you there are no shortcuts. Only doing the work.
If you’re a slow coach, like me, don’t let get distracted by feeling left behind. Life is just stickier for people like us, maybe because we let more of it soak in. Take your time. It’s no-one else’s.
After all, the world wants us to notice it. Stop, for a second, and listen to the astonishing puzzle of it, your here and now.
Go slow, it says. You’re going to want to remember this.
This is one of the more surprising things I’ve ever typed.
It’s me, after all. All my adult life, I’ve loved a drink, loved the unbuttoning that comes with a few glasses of something delicious, the golden softness the world takes on. How generous and glowing you feel, when you spill, just a little, over your own edges. When you can expand, loosen up, become yourself, only merrier, sillier, more buoyant.
A year, people have said, incredulous that I’d even try it. Are you – sure?
The year is over, and here’s the thing. It has been so, so easy. I feel like I’ve cheated, because the willpower involved has been zero. I have wanted this year, I have needed it. It’s felt like a gift, rather than a deprivation. A lifeline that has pulled me through 2018.
It’s only exhilarating to take your foot off the brakes if you’ve never crashed the car. When you’re secure in your happiness, hey, piñata it around all you like, see what falls out. You can ride the dodgems of deep drinking like I used to, all blurred control and whiplash-collision and hilarity edging to injury, if you’re whole, and your heart beats safely behind your ribs. I’ve been too insecurely stitched together, this last little while, too afraid of what would smash, all the bits that would fall off.
The trouble, I’ve found, with trying to drown one’s sorrows, is that there is a species of sorrow that, far from drowning, turns into a kind of crazed zombie mermaid instead, all teeth and tangling hair and bony grip, pulling you down into the blackness. There’s nothing for it but to drain the wine-dark sea, and go out hunting in the mud, harpoon in hand. I don’t know if I’m rid of them yet, or if they’ll be waiting for me, regenerated, the other side of a few wines. I need a bit more time to toughen up, before I find out.
I knew not drinking would be a counter-cultural experience. In my life, it makes you someone suspicious. Someone uncomfortably dull, your weird downer (be it religion, depression, addiction, self-discipline) casting a cloud over everyone else’s good times. I decided to do all my usual socialising, only with a soda and lime in my wine hand.
If you’ve met me for the first time in 2018, I’ve probably been been a bit quieter and more thoughtful than I would have been before. I’ll have listened to you talk, more than I’ve wittered away. I’ve held the silences, let myself feel awkward, not just blurted some nonsense at you for the sake of filling in the gaps.
I’ve danced and danced, more freely than I ever thought I would, for the sheer love of it, way into the early hours, with nothing to blur the bass. I’ve done my Kate Bush special at karaoke, partied to the end at hen dos, weddings, birthdays, Big Nights Out. I’ve spent a week living and writing with strangers who became new friends. Booze is no longer the ctrl+v shortcut that pastes in FUN. (‘What’s it like,’ old mates have asked, ‘out with us lot, sober?’ And I’ve laughed, and told them the truth. ‘Exactly the same.’)
Heading home undrunk, I have looked the night tube, the darkened city, square in the face, and the clarity has been power. Writer-me has devoured the extra time to notice, to really abide with what is there. In the early hours of the morning, you see how not-ok we are. For so many of us, the need to climb out of this social reality is overpowering; we burn for escape, ascension. It needs soaking away, the tyranny of obligation, that don’t wanna-go-to-school feeling you have to squash, your own exasperated parent, every Monday morning. Too often we end up stealing from ourselves the things that we need, to get the things that we want.
This year has confirmed what I’ve suspected for a little while: booze is a shit analgesic. Like tablets you pop for a headache, with ‘may cause migraines’ among the side-effects.
On which note, a year of no hangovers has been heavenly. It’s no small thing to know weekend mornings bring only light and peace and freshness, that the dawn is innocent of last night’s consequences. That I’m able to get up on the exact same level as my daughter, full of chatter and energy, without a banging head and a revolting stomach.
Rather than making me feel more grown up, not drinking has given me back my younger self. Kids live in this reality; they are irredeemably here and now. There’s no escape route, nothing to dull the edges. No little door you drink something to fit through, and tumble into another world. You feel everything, as it happens. Time and memory don’t slip away; your experience is one continuous reel, the camera held steady, the lighting unflinchingly true. It has been a return to having to invent and then build my own ladders out of the day-to-day. Which has been, this year of muling away in the world of my book, exactly what I have needed.
I’m too much of a sensualist to be tee-total for good. But I reckon I’ll need the gifts of sober 2018 for a little longer. Whenever you see me next with a drink in hand, you’ll know. The weather in my life has changed. I’m sunny inside again: cheerful enough for mischief. Knowing I can be a bit of a rogue, without fearing the pain that waits, two glasses down. I’ll be properly seamed up, scarred, but all of a piece. Wise enough for the pleasure of nonsense; strong enough to know that true joy has nothing at all to do with what pours out of a bottle.
One of my favourite Peep Show episodes is the one where Jez and Mark get lost in the country at night. Jez immediately wants to call mountain rescue, despite Mark’s withering ‘this isn’t the Matterhorn, Jeremy, it’s the Quantocks.’
Jez isn’t having any of it. ‘You’d prefer to die than ask for a simple piece of help,’ he huffs.
Oho. Help is rarely simple, to us Marks. It’s deeply, mortally awkward. It’s embarrassing. Inconvenient. We’re supposed to manage. Asking for help is the end of the world. It feels exactly like making a Matterhorn out of a Quantock.
Imagine if we could. If we all ran our worlds in beautifully functioning isolation, we’d exist like an archipelago, a string of atolls and islands. If everyone was perfectly fine, thank you very much, there would be nothing to bring us together. We wouldn’t know how to cohere. We couldn’t build.
Shame-meets-vanity about your struggles may feel like it keeps you safe; but it hides something far more important. What hurts you is pointless suffering, until you remember that other people are hurting too. Your time on the floor is what makes you even more precious to others, because the more you’ve been helped, the better you can help in turn. Your kindness becomes a patchwork of everyone else’s; your strength is topped up because of the breach in the wall which let others flood in.
When it matters, I write it down. If it defies the words at hand, I get drawing. Since we had cave walls to paint on, and fires to sing around, others have done the same. Refusing to believe that it is not important, what we love, what we lose; how we live. Knowing that the best way to honour human experience is to witness it. To, in T.S. Eliot’s cry, set down / This set down / This…
There is more help than you could ever realise, if you know how to let it find you. It’s in books, in poetry, in film, in music, in theatre, in art, heck, even in online articles and podcasts. Human beings you have never met, ready to slip their hand into yours. Some of them have been waiting for silent centuries. Their ideas, their stories, glint like sea glass among the pebbles, waiting for you to pick them up; you, someone they never knew existed. When you need to regather the pieces, fragments of their soul become yours too.
Here are just a few of the shining threads I’ve discovered, to stitch myself back together. Please, please. Help yourself.
On creative life ‘You are here to witness and celebrate. To witness and celebrate.’
Ray Bradbury blasts through writers’ block on Radio 4’s Invisible College podcast series
‘By the way that we tell what’s happened to us, [we are] giving it back to ourselves instead of being powerless within it.’
Jeanette Wintersen, 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival talk.
‘It doesn’t matter if your dreams come true, if agents swoon and audiences cheer… What matters is the feeling that you’re doing it, every day. What matters is the work–diving in, feeling your way in the dark, finding the words, trusting yourself, embracing your weird voice, celebrating your quirks on the page, believing in all of it.’
Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly and author of How to Be a Person in the World
‘It starts with passion even before it starts with words.’
Rebecca Solnit, How to be a Writer
‘The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.’
Zadie Smith, Fail Better
‘Olé to you, for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.’
‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’, Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk.
On retreat ‘I would it were not so, but so it is. Who ever made music of a mild day?’
Mary Oliver, ‘A Dream of Trees’
On the debt owed to truth ‘You don’t become a novelist to become a spinner of entertaining lies: you become a novelist so you can tell the truth.’ Hilary Mantel, BBC 2017 Reith Lectures
On making mistakes ‘Failure teaches us precisely what we need to know; it is intimate knowledge, custom made, which cannot be gained any other way. Failure is always forward motion.’
Anne Michaels, Infinite Gradation
‘I am rich I am poor. Time is all I own.’
Marie Ponsot, ‘Reminder’
On how not to be quite so much of an idiot The School of Life’s Book of Life
‘We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.’
Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy
On working out what you want to do when you grow up ‘For most of history, the question of whether we might love our work would have seemed laughable or peculiar.’
The School of Life, ‘A job to love’
On longing ‘When you are away, you are nevertheless present for me… I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.’ John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
I never wanted children. Not what you’d expect a parent to admit. (Especially one who wants her job to be writing for kids). But it’s true.
I’d got it all sorted out, aged fifteen, sat in Debenham’s coffee shop after school with my Mum. There must have been something particularly final about my wedge of chocolate cake, the thick seam of icing going hard, because I suddenly realised. Ok, I was going to die. So all I could do was face my death will as much courage as I could, and never inflict it on anyone else.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I was one of those teenagers.
Life loves to make fifteen-year-olds look silly. I’m still one of those teenagers, only with more frown lines, and my unexpected gift of a daughter, who has taught me things my fifteen-year-old self could never know.
One of them is this. There is nothing surer than the love I’ve been given for my daughter. Now it’s here, this love, it cannot ever un-be, no matter what happens to me, or to her. It’s a subatomic fact. I could go under a tube train, or lose every last one of my marbles to Alzheimer’s. I could get so sad I have to let the world go, or give in to pneumonia on the geriatric ward. It doesn’t matter a bit. Beneath the human realities of day-to-day life, the tiredness and tempers and the battle to pass on only the good things, there is a foreverness that is none of my doing.
And hey, this is just my stumbled-across turn-up-for-the-books. I don’t believe for a second it’s anything innate to parenthood. I don’t think that just because you’ve spawned yourself, you get a special insight into anything. Except maybe the value of sleep.
In fact, kids, or no kids: it’s kind of irrelevant. The buck of mortality can never just stop with you, because a good life is woven into other lives. There’s the family tree you’re born into, and beyond this, you grow your own branches.
Before you know it, there are the people you love, and the people you love on their behalf. A city of the heart, that you want to keep safe. The impossible prayer: please, not them. The blood you’d daub on the lintels, so that the angel of death would pass them over. Not this house. Please. But love is useless to stop the inevitable; this bizarre gift of existence must be snatched back.
A good life is a heavy one, pressed deep into the lives of others. A good life is more than yours to bear. It ripples out with meaning: home-grown raspberries in a stranger’s fridge, a face bright with joy at a winter party, a door knocked on a week too early. It’s all the arms that held you as a baby; all the babies you have held in yours. The weight of a good life can be unbearable, when black wings brush against the door.
Fifteen-year-old me was right to realise that being here isn’t something to pass on lightly. But she was wrong about the burden we’re born with. It isn’t death. Rather, it’s the heavy business of living itself, the Russian-doll sequence of love within pain within love. At times it can be almost impossible to tell which is which.
I think of the truth I nearly never knew. My something begun, that had always been there. I tell my daughter that we are never sure how much time we have; that the most important thing is to be as kind as possible, while we are here. Underneath this, something I’ll save for later. At the end, all you can do is gather up your useless love. Make it the place you furl yourself into, your last cry in the dark.
One Sunday about this time last year, I was sat on the rail replacement bus from Winchester, elated, my head fizzing. I was making my way back from my first ever conference for children’s writers and illustrators, organised by the lovely SCBWI. Stories twined out of my mind into the November dark.
The 2017 conference has just finished, with me where I thought I’d be then. Combing my SCBWI Facebook group for conference write-ups. Peering at Tweeted snapshots to try and feel like I was there too. This year, writer Annie Walmsley has been in my lucky shoes, the Margaret Carey scholarship helping her to be there, soaking it all up. Brilliantly, so was Louisa Danquah, who won a new scholarship for BAME writers, in this far too white, middle-class female industry.
One year on, my SCBWI tribe would be entitled to say: well, so, Ruth. What have you been up to?
To which I can only say: writing. Always writing.
I have written, I have needed to write, every day, just as I have needed to breathe, to sleep, to run. But here’s the thing. My manuscripts are no less sprawling and fragmented than this time last year. I haven’t turned out a stack of fat little projects. I don’t feel any closer to my name on a dustjacket in Daunt Books.
I knew, sat on that bus, that the year ahead would need my hardest work, my best words. I just didn’t know that the hard work would look like this.
Last year, amid the shining newness I was soaking in, the friendly faces and brilliant advice, I was coming apart at the heart. You don’t need the boring details; we all have our darknesses to bear. (‘A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,’ as one mate told me, quoting Roosevelt). But it has made me realise: when I am at a loss, I pick up my pen. Whatever else comes down, it is the last thing to fall from my hand.
This year, I’ve written short stories. A poem or two (bargle). I’ve written deeper, better ways into my eighteenth century world; replotted, made character breakthroughs, edits and redrafts. I made a new picturebook and started my next book idea. I’ve pushed some chapters into writing competitions here and there. But most of my words have been entirely beside the point. Writing which has had no use other than to keep me here: the thin biro scrawl which has sewn me back together, the looping blue thread that has pulled me up, made me follow it through the day into the next. All the days until this one: where 2017 is nearly dead and I cannot wait for a sunnier 2018. In which, at last, I’ll be able to write out into the world.
If I want to make a living by my words, it seems only right that words have to be how I go about living. And this year, that has never been truer. I write, just as I have mad hair and a spiky nose. It is part of who I am.
This bitten-lip cocoon of a year, quiet and unseen, with nothing to show the outside world: this is the year I can call myself a writer.
Tonight is the glorious highlight of my TV year. Never mind dragons and dead armies. Keep your top on, Kit Harrington. Forget sequins and cha-cha-cha and the low-fat yoghurt in human form that is Tess Daly. Tonight, ‘The Apprentice’ is back.
I adore ‘The Apprentice’ with a deep, dark passion. Obviously. Think about it. Money-worship. Shouting. Those fart-in-a-lift team names. Teeth so white they look blue. ‘Selling’ (wince). Staggering self-regard. The grandiosity of everyone’s CVs. Spray-on suit dresses. Undercooked business plans. Did I mention the shouting?
Oh all right,I don’t why I love it so much. I just do. (Most of all, I love the main man himself. Repeat after me: Alan Sugar is always right.) It’s probably something about the saga of learning, rewarded.
I got cross with myself earlier this year. I threw an internal strop about being in the middle of my life with everything still to learn. When will I stop being an effing apprentice? I wailed in my head.
2017 has shown me the answer. Never.
They say, if you write, you fall into one of two camps. You’re either a churner or a learner. Churners bash out the words, racketing up the chapters, splurging out rough drafts. Learners are always at a workshop or on a course or plugged into a podcast, struggling to get down more than a few polished sentences.
I know where I pitch my tent. I’m Team Nerd, always have been. Learning is my religion. Educational establishments are where I go to church. That feeling, when an idea flowers up and into the space over your head. When you realize something helium-true, which sends you floating high. It’s ascension and epiphany rolled into one.
With a greedy mind and a stable world and a nose made to poke into books, I was dealt a jammy hand. Formal education unfurled steadily for me, like a kind of academic escalator. The real learning has been done since I stepped off it.
These past years, I’ve been working out how to be a writer, and, the longer-term journey, how to illustrate. (Notice the lack of celebrities turning their hands to children’s illustration? It’s a technical skill you can’t blag.) I constantly have to remind myself that ‘done’ is better than ‘good’. Teaching myself with my own practice, I’m stiff and naïve and scattergun and obvious and mannered and narrow and all of these things, I realize, are remedied only by falling short again and again, each time, the gap closing a tiny bit more. Being a better apprentice. Endless doing, and redoing. Learning, and sharing what you learn, for as long as there is an eye to see, a hand to draw, a mind to dance over the page.
Stories come from everything inside one life. They might circle like sharks, sink down beneath you, resurface in another place, a flash of fin when you least expect it. There is always a fresh way to see things: a new technique to learn, a new medium to play with. It is the joy, the privilege, the endless path of the person who makes stuff. Sure, publication is one kind of mastery. Only: the moment your work is out there, finished, it is lost to you. It belongs to everyone else. But the work of making: that is never over.
Life needs us to learn all the time. Even if you’re Head Foreman or Medical Director or Chief Rabbi or First Sea Lord, you will always have to do something you’ve never done before. You’ll need to work out how to be kind, when your heart is broken. How to not roar ‘CALM DOWN!’ at the hyper toddler. How to do your tax return. How to stop memories fraying, the longer they trail behind you. How best to care for the people used to caring for you. How to feel the world aching for you to notice it. How to carry the weight of love without a home. How not to sleepwalk through another day.
We’ve never made it. We’re apprentices to the end. Especially us awkward sods, who insist on making stuff exist that wasn’t there before. We’re owed nothing; after all, no-one asked us to make it.
Lord Sugar is always right. And he’d tell you, it ain’t me you need. The business angel, Saint Alan, doling out the shiny reward, holding the golden keys to Success, he’d say: it’s down to you. What you weave with your life; everything you build from what you have within you.
Hear that, folks? You’re hired. You always have been.
Life at secondary school isn’t easy. (If you think it is, you’re the berkish little feck-face making it hard for everyone else.)
But there’s a special kind of school-time torment that only a few of us know about. The fate of the Teacher’s Kid.
You have no place to hide. Everywhere you go, you’re conspicuous. (It doesn’t help to choose a mustard, pink and purple shell-suit jacket to wear in Year 7.)
You can never, ever, not do your homework.
You hang out in the library long after the cleaners come round, part of the furniture. Only Jimmy the caretaker sees more sunsets over the blocky seventies buildings.
The only boys who actually want to go out with you have to be bit thick, a bit sad, or just a froth of hormonal desperation.
You’ve worked it out. Yes, I was a Teacher’s Kid. From the age of eleven to eighteen, before I could be me, I was always going to be Mrs Grearson’s Daughter.
‘Are you – Mrs Grearson’s Daughter?’
‘You’re Mrs Grearson’s Daughter, aren’t you?’
Eyebrow lift. Shrug. Jut chin. Wait for it.
‘Your mum caught the littlest Harkin smoking weed.’ ‘Your mum broke up a really wicked fight by the buses.’ ‘Your mum put all of 8CB in detention.’ A lower sixth-former, sobbing angrily in the toilets: ‘Your mum is a total bitch.’ As if I’d whip out a clipboard and make a note in the Grearson Family Brand Awareness Survey 1998: We Value Your Feedback.
I still get it, a scary amount of years later, out in Cov. ‘You’re Mrs Grearson’s Daughter?’ Nowadays, sometimes followed by: ‘Are you the one that strips?’, thanks to my little sister’s brief fling with pole-dancing at university.
Yep, Mrs Grearson is my mum. And Mum is a paradox. She’s the tough disciplinarian with no patience for anyone dicking about. Yet she’ll bend over backwards to help you if you really want to try. She loves seeing someone find their feet, leave school able to support themselves and their family. But as an art teacher, she also wants students to feel the value of new experiences, new ideas, new ways of seeing the world.
She’s the girl who failed her eleven-plus and was made to feel stupid, and who has spent her whole career trying to prevent any other child feeling the same. Working hard to make sure any young person can come good if they try enough. Passionately believing that comprehensive education should be precisely that: comprehensive. That all of us, no matter where we start off, should be able to go wherever life calls us, whether that’s a bang-up plumbing apprenticeship, a nursing degree, going to drama college or reading History at Oxford.
She’ll give feedback on UCAS personal statements into the wee smalls. She’ll spend hours on the phone sorting out someone’s admissions crisis, or helping solve a problem at home. She’ll tell her fellow teachers they are paid good money to work in the holidays. She’s retired now, but all that means is three days a week at a different Catholic comprehensive school in Coventry.
Mum was my first, best teacher. She stayed at home with me and my sister, baking bread and ploughing her love, fun, and creativity into our early world. But she wasn’t one of these soft, long-suffering, angel-in-the-house kind of mothers. You can’t get sentimental about her kind of parenting, because it was never self-effacing. Later on, the bread-baker became the breadwinner. She was there for us, always. But she was also out there, for everyone else too, showing us that hard work was as important a legacy as the love we were steeped in. She’s taught generations of Coventry kids. She’s now onto the grandchildren of her first pupils.
My secondary school experience was one long cringe, but in bearing it, I got to see Mum in her workplace every day. ‘I’ve never met anyone so committed to helping others develop,’ one of Mum’s colleagues told me, when I met him as a VSO volunteer. ‘Oof, she was hard on me,’ said the lad in Millsy’s last year, the one who was keen to know about my stripping CV. ‘But I needed it. Tell her thanks.’
We’re very different, me and Mum. I couldn’t be hard on anyone if I tried. Apart from being handy with a pencil, I haven’t inherited much beyond her deep frown. I ended up with my Dad’s boobs and most of his easy-going nature, too. Where I’m a puddle of reflection, Mum is a whirlwind of action. She is physically incapable of procrastination, and hates wasting time. Losing her father aged eleven, and her beloved brother in her early twenties, she’s always known that tomorrow might be too late. Something I, a born meanderer, with my sunny, peaceful childhood, have difficulty feeling in my bones.
But lately, I get it. How close it is, the place of no more time. Full of unsaid things, turns-not-taken, unwritten words. Simon Armitage’s lost, unfinishable business.
I need someone to show me how to be strong and kind and make sadness explode into hard work, and luckily, she is right there in front of me. Made of star-iron, fire, and unstoppability: my meteor of a mother.
So, yes, I am Mrs Grearson’s Daughter. I’m trying to be more so every day. And I’m trying to do her proud, because perhaps, then, she’ll see how proud I am of her.