In hindsight, I believe that I probably got my desire to be creative from my mother. Apart from being a wonderful mum, complex, but inspiring, she was a source of creativity. At the Christmas parties, she was the one to create the games that we played, and some were quite ingenious, but it was her funny scripted poems that were my first involvement in performance. Her poems were full of joy, suitable for children, but with enough double entendres to satisfy an increasingly merry, and slightly rowdy audience of adult relatives. The humour was gentle and the scripts had an element of the Frankie Howerd about them. Those present were given parts and Mum had copied out sufficient scripts for everyone to share a copy and to be able to perform. The quality of the performances might have lacked polish, but it was a fabulous time for everyone to shed their inhibitions and just enjoy themselves.
As I got older, I was bought a puppet theatre with characters on wires that you slid onto and off the stage. I added to the theatre by fitting lights. I think the characters were from either Cinderella or Puss in Boots, and Mum and I wrote a script together and this was then used at one party. I worked the characters on the stage and everyone had to read the parts. I am sure that Mum would have been the main creative talent, as I was only young.
At Harehills C P School, creative writing, art and creativity in general were a big part of the system. Of course there were the basics of literacy and numeracy, and much of the time was spent on that, but we had to write a composition, as it was called, every week. We had about an hour to write a story, and with Mr Kelly I think that was Friday morning’s lesson. As a teacher, I know how good it is to set a class a topic and let children write in silence for an hour or so, but the trade-off was that they all had to be marked and that took ages. Having said that, I am not sure that the teachers were too thorough at that time, but the discipline of sitting and writing was a good practice for what was to come later in life. I know that we spent time on compositions as they were part of the Eleven Plus exams, as well as having to write a letter.
Prior to Harehills, Stainbeck Preparatory School started the children writing by writing diaries or journals of what we had done over the weekend, over the holidays, and on some of the nature walks. I must add here that science education at primary school was mainly limited to the nature table and the seasons of the year, but Mr Kelly did try some more ambitious lessons: dissecting a bull’s eye and a cow’s heart. The boys were all for this, but some of the girls found it a bit gruesome.
Even when we got to Roundhay School, creative writing was alive in at least the first year, and as we got older, it was used as a form of punishment, by teachers and prefects. The prefects, in particular, used to enjoy dishing out four sides on the day in the life of a piece of chalk, the history of a piece of coal, or something they thought equally witty and difficult. In truth, I never had any difficulty, and once, when found to have committed some misdemeanour by a particularly unpleasant older prefect, I was given the task of writing an essay on America. Being particularly irked by this, I wrote an essay bordering on pornographic, but ending with the young maiden sighing, ‘America’, and hence that was the reason for the naming of the continent. Now, I thought that I was being clever, but when handed over, the prefect delighted in ripping the pages apart, after reading it and telling me to do it again properly. Fortunately, the Head Boy walked past and he saw what was going on and told the prefect to grow up and that I had done the punishment. I was very relieved and was on the verge of thumping the prefect, an action that would have got me into a heap of trouble.
The rest of Roundhay’s education really offered little opportunity for writing creatively, but being in a band that wrote its own material, that did offer opportunity to write lyrics, write songs and to perform them. As this was the time of Leonard Cohen and a lot of singer songwriters who were soul-searching, much of my writing was self-indulgent, pretentious and full of teenage angst, but I didn’t really care and just enjoyed doing it. Even now, with eight books self-published, eight or nine music albums, and a host of pantomimes written, I can’t say that my motivation is other than that I enjoy the writing and creative process. The way I work is a voyage of discovery. I start to write and I have no idea how the story will pan out. I am as interested as anyone else in knowing what comes next. I used to think that maybe I was the only one who worked that way, and that everyone else had detailed plans. I have learnt that there are many writers who work as I do, which I find reassuring. Also, the question of ‘writer’s block’ is something I have never experienced. Whilst I am writing one book, I am thinking about the next. It is the same with these memories of Leeds and childhood. I keep thinking I have run out of ideas, but each week one appears, and often ends up quite different from the idea I had when I started. I know that there is quite a bit of repetition, but I think I have written well over two hundred Cup of Tea Tales, and there is something new in each one.
I went to Borough Road College in Isleworth, after Roundhay and A levels, and there I studied English and Geography, as well as education. In one English class we were set the task of writing a short story. I loved this idea and I wrote one called Cruiser Fix. Remember it was the seventies and I was nineteen, it was a story where someone is really upset, his girlfriend had finished with him. He lived in a block where there was a lift and he had a large crucifix around his neck, on a chain. He angrily gets in the lift and he swings around as the doors are shutting. The doors close around the crucifix and the lift goes down. The story is about his thoughts as he is strangled by the caught chain. Not a nice story, but I like it, and I got a decent mark for it.
When teaching, I was in the English department of a very large comprehensive school. There were middle school houses and a drama festival each year. Whilst I was there, I had to teach drama, despite not knowing anything about it. I adapted extracts from famous plays, took over the stage managing of the school stage and lighting and it was there that I was conned into taking part in a joint staff and student performance of Oliver. I was nervous about acting, despite being a show-off and having performed in a band. I was asked to go to the auditions for a small part. I was told to sing a song from the show; I can’t remember which one, but probably one of Fagin’s songs. The musical director and producer were there and afterwards I was told that they wanted me to be Fagin. I was shocked, very chuffed that they would think I could do it and frightened witless, but I was coerced into saying yes. In reality, I was delighted that I did, as I met my wife, another teacher at the school, who was brought in to take the part of Nancy, at very short notice, which originally was being performed by a sixth-former who had a bit of a crisis. The other reason was that I just loved doing it. Learning the lines was an ordeal, but being on stage was magical. We did five nights and a matinee, and all the time were teaching during the day. The kids in it were allowed to arrive late to school, but we were given no such dispensation.
After this, I took every opportunity to write pantomimes for the schools I taught in. These ranged from a ‘Special’ school, primary schools and middle schools. We even had two pantomimes in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, on the equator. One was, ‘The Mystery of the Missing Snow’ and we even had snowmen. Somehow we managed to find hats, scarves and gloves, and everyone had a great time, even though it was 30 degrees plus. I wrote and directed pantos until I retired at the end of 2014.
I decided to have a go at writing a children’s novel whilst I was deputy at Wesley College, here in Perth. I had started writing satirical anonymous notes about the goings-on at the school and leaving them in different staff’s pigeon holes. No one could figure out who was doing it, but I used this as the inspiration for the book where mysterious messages keeping appearing on the blackboard, claiming that the headmistress of Wickergate School, based on a school in Wakefield and Harehills CP, is a witch. The writer signs the messages ‘the Phantom Scribe’ and it leads to the history of the site of the school. If you ever read it there are characters based on real life people from my childhood and the villain is Mrs Killfeather. She is based on the home-help who looked after my brother and me, whilst my younger brother was being born at home. The family doctor, Dr Black, who practised at Harehills and at the top of Easterly Road, makes an appearance, and I know my mother thought he was very good looking and we always seemed to see him, rather than one of the other doctors.
I read the book to my classes and they seemed to enjoy it and I entered it into a literary competition for new writers in Fremantle, here in Western Australia. I came third, but I never did anything more for almost seventeen years. I finally self-published it in 2017 and the reviews were good, but sales only chugged along. I wasn’t put off, and since then I have written and published seven more books and my latest, ‘Dead Men Don’t Snore’, is a thriller set on Spain’s Costa Blanca, will be out in a few weeks.
I remember meeting a children’s author in Wakefield, Robert Swindells, and I was impressed by just how ordinary a man he was. He came from Bradford and he spoke to a class of children I was teaching and I thought that if he could do it, then I could. He had sound advice for the children and I listened with keen interest. Every writer in the world started out as a child writing compositions in school, and it is the inspiration of teachers who read stories to them, and encouraged their writing from an early age. Unfortunately, education has changed and I am not sure that creativity is fostered as it once was, and society will be the poorer for it. I can still vividly remember the inspiring teachers that I had at school, but far more, I can remember those who should never have set foot in a classroom.
There is great joy to be found in books and it doesn’t matter if that is traditional, eBooks or audiobooks. Long may we all read and I would encourage all of you who have told me that you would like to write your memoirs, or a novel, to start and do it. It is a great journey, and if you don’t start, you’ll never know if you can do it.