I’ve taken Small Beginnings literally and gone back to the earliest existing examples of me coming to grips with the written word. In fact, written letters.
I turned up at school six weeks short of five years old. Storytelling was already a big part of my life by then – the revelation that it might actually be A JOB took another few years to happen. My family had always been big on books and full of stories, so I’d had a formula story that I’d told most days at Ballyholme Playgroup before lining up for one of the two classrooms at the sternly Victorian-looking Grangee School in 1968. In my stories, the central character, a bird called Tommy, would tumble into a toilet and be flushed all the way to a sewage treatment plant and another adventure among the poo and big orange diggers. My audience had all been four too, and what do four year olds love? Poo and big orange diggers. Since then, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so astute about writing effectively for a market.
But Grangee wasn’t about stories, at least not that first day. It was about taking the first faltering step up the steep slope that led to literacy. I opened my school jotter (it says ‘Jotter’ on the front) and, as Mrs Pollock directed, wrote a page of ‘O’s. Note the big pink tick. Mission accomplished. Then I turned over and wrote a page of ‘X’s. Another tick. Then we went home for lunch.
Afterwards I was horrified to learn that I’d be going back. And not just going back – going back most days for the next twelve years. I thought I’d had the school experience. I’d turned up, done my page of ‘X’s and my page of ‘O’s, got my two ticks. What more could there be to know?
Less than two years later, I’d learned enough to write the work that could, with generous definitional stretching, be called my first book. It’s a journal of a holiday with my grandparents in Yorkshire. I can remember sitting and writing it each night at the kitchen tables of elderly relatives and family friends – people who had featured in the books of James Herriot – putting a lot of thought and work into it, even though it comes across as just the facts:
Tuesday 7th July 1970.
It was hot and sunny so we went to Knaresboro’ to see Mother Shiptons dropping well, wishing well and cave
In the afternoon we went to Ripon and looked round the Cathedral and then on to Studley Royal Park where there is a large herd of deer.
If it had been overcast, would we still have gone to Knaresborough (I’m sure I picked up ‘Knaresboro’’ from a road sign)? I don’t know, but I can still remember the dropping well and its petrifying socks and teddy bears on strings. That stuff comes back to you in dreams at that age.
Since those days, I’ve turned to fiction, Grangee School has long closed and business seems to remain good at Mother Shipton’s, now in its 386th year as a tourist attraction. And my son, at the age of 6 1/2, is about to take a week off school for us to go to Hong Kong. In lieu of schoolwork, he’s been giving the assignment of keeping a journal of the trip.
Nick Earls has written more than twenty books for adults, teenagers and children. His latest project is the novella series Wisdom Tree, with a novella released (as a paper book, ebook and audiobook) on the first of each month from May to September 2016.