Somewhat to my surprise, my new (and first published) novel, The Last Day Of Term, was reviewed on Front Row tonight together with a TV play,Double Lesson, and documentary, Classroom Secrets, both of which sound very good indeed. My novel, many years in the writing, is about a teacher who is accused of child abuse and effectively has one day, the last day of term as it happens, to clear his name.
Toby Young, considering all the spats I’ve had with him, was remarkably generous about the book, calling the dialogue “authentic” and saying that it was quite good, but was, in his view, a “Tory novel” in that it depicts a feral Afro-Caribbean gang, an ineffectual politically correct headteacher, and a state school (an Academy) in crisis. Judy Friedberg, of the Guardian, felt that it was a novel about standing up to bullies. Some of the teachers I know who’ve read it say that it’s a fairly accurate portrait of a school in crisis — but that these schools are rare. In the 1990s I taught in a couple of schools like this, and have known of schools like this in recent years through various journalistic and personal connections — though I must stress I feel they are the exception, not the rule.
Local Schools Network founder, Melissa Benn wrote a powerful comment in the Guardian recently when she said:
“From the tabloids to Waterloo Road to the bestselling fiction of Sebastian Faulks and Zoë Heller, local schools are too frequently portrayed as out-of-control hell holes, sustained by a jaded and self-interested teaching profession and a complacent liberal middle class.”
Melissa has got a strong point; fictional representations of school have been overwhelmingly negative. My novel certainly falls into this category. Inevitably, I feel conflicted about this one. I do think the media, on the whole, seriously misrepresents state schools as hell-holes — I blogged about the Mail doing so this week — but I would like to plead a special category for fiction. Perhaps just in the same way that no one who watches Inspector Morse or reads Agatha Christie believes that Oxford is choc-a-bloc with psychotic professors and English country villages are full of murderous old ladies, few people who read fiction about schools actually believe, in their heart of hearts, that all of them are full of the venal and despicable characters who populate the pages of Barry Hines’s Kes, Heller’s rather brilliant Notes On A Scandal or even my novel. A definite suspension of disbelief happens. Fiction demands drama and action, whereas non-fiction benefits from a genuine marshaling of the facts. There are, possibly, schools like the chaotic one I depict in The Last Day Of Term, but they are few and far between.