About Robin Chambers
I was born a long time ago, in the middle of the Second World War, a few hundred yards from Gladstone Dock - then the biggest dry dock in the world, and a prime target for the German bombers. The Liverpool Overhead Railway started from there, and ran all the way to the Pier Head.
My mum and I lived at 126 Knowsley Rd. For two years we must have had each other for close company most of the time. My dad lived there too, but not until he came home from the war. My brother lived there as well, of course, but he didn't come along until 1945...
I mention these facts because they have had a major bearing on my life.
My father was a stern disciplinarian and an absolute ruler in his own house. He described us as upper working class, voted Conservative, did his best to isolate his children from the heavy, local accent and didn't allow us to play out in the street with other children. That wasn't any hardship for me, as I was terrified of him and the heaviness of his hand, and therefore shy and frightened of loud and vexatious children, who seemed to roam the streets at will and in threateningly large numbers.
One picture of me survives from those days. It was taken shortly before my father came home. He took one look at me and marched me across the road to the barbers to have all those girlie curls cut off. My mother was no match for him.
At the age of 4 they sent me to Miss Pride's Preparatory School in Litherland Park: to make sure I had a flying start at Gray Street Primary School back in Bootle, a hundred yards or so from where we lived. By then my consciously engineered vowel sounds and my obviously nervous demeanour made me an easy target for the tough kids that now surrounded me in a largely unsupervised playground. I don't think teachers then were anywhere near as good as they are now at spotting and dealing with bullies.
I really suffered. I still remember the name of the worst one. The one thing that kept me going was knowing that the cruel little toe-rag wouldn't pass the scholarship and I would. Once we got to 11 years old, he would disappear with so many others like him into the hell-hole that was St George's Secondary Modern, and I could take my chances with a fresh set of bullies in the three form entry Bootle Grammar School for Boys.
It was quite bad there too, for a while. What saved me finally was going to Boxing Club. I have to thank my dad for that, to be fair. I was a good pupil, and although I was always better at English and Languages than I was at anything else, I got pretty good at boxing quite quickly. There was some excitement at the club about how rapidly I was progressing, though I knew I had no interest in developing it any further after that blissful day when I faced down my main tormentor one day in the playground. I still remember his name as well. And when it came to it, he chickened out and wouldn't fight me. I never had any trouble with him after that. It was a valuable lesson.
Drama wasn't a school subject then; but once a year the Boys Grammar School put on a school play. We didn't have a stage, so those few of us who were interested used to perform on the stage in the Girls Grammar School on Breeze Hill. I can still quote the fulsome praise printed in the Bootle Times about one of my performances. I think it was in 1958 (but surely it couldn't have taken THAT long for my voice to break):
"To play the part of Lady Macbeth requires a good deal of acting ability, concentration and confidence. Robin Chambers appeared to have all three, and was well chosen for the part."
My mother and father didn't think I was clever. They described me to others as a "plodder". On and on I plodded at Bootle Grammar School for Boys. The headmaster persuaded my father to let me do 'A' levels (he had previously been planning to apprentice me to a plumber), and eventually I became School Captain and Head Prefect.
My final year there provided me with another formative memory. There was some joint occasion held at the Girls' Grammar School one evening that required me to stride around importantly in my little gown keeping my troop of prefects and (knowing me) everyone else in order. A girl I'd never seen before walked up to me and asked me my name. I probably arched my eyebrows as I told her and watched a look of profound disappointment cross her face. "Oh," she said. "You're not a bit like I imagined."
I hadn't known before that that I had been "imagined" by anyone.
I plodded on through University as well - as far as I know the first person in my family ever to do so: getting a good Honours degree in English at London University (plodding into the top 20 of 400 or so English graduates in 1964) and then spending another three years on a Ph.D. ploddingly entitled "Chaucer's Poetic Uses of his Native Vocabulary".
The grant ran out in 1967, and my Ph.D. was so massive I needed another year to finish it. What to do?
In those days you could walk straight into secondary school teaching without having a teaching qualification. Comprehensive schools had just come about, and Dunraven School in Streatham needed a suitably (i.e. academically) qualified "teacher" to take their new 'A' level English class (and of course a whole heap of other classes as well. I needed a part-time job, and they needed a .9 teacher (i.e. 4½ days out of the 5 day week). "I can do that," I thought, with the blissful naivety of total ignorance. "I'll have the evenings, and the weekends..." It's embarrassing to think of that summer in 1967 and wonder how I could have had the gall. Even more than that, how could they have let me do it?!
So there I was, walking up Mount Nod Road in plenty of time for my interview with the headteacher, and with my head full of the approximately 1,800 instances I had found in the Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer where consideration could legitimately be given to the apparently poetic use he had made of a word or phrase of "native" (i.e. Germanic) origin.
I got to the corner of the road where the school was, and it was morning break. About 500 children were running around apparently happily in the playground, and making a lot of noise. The enormity of what I was about to do hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. It stopped me dead, and tears came rushing unbidden out of some subterranean lake I hadn't known was there.
It was a "Road to Damascus" moment. I was sobbing uncontrollably and taking another fifteen minutes walking round an enormous block trying to get myself under control. Fortunately, by the time I got back, break was over and the children were all inside. It was quiet, and I made it inside.
I have a clear memory of my first class in September. The Head of English had armed me with a set of comprehension books and told me where the kids had got up to. I was to set them the next section, get their heads down and catch my breath as I got used to what it felt like to stand in front of a class of children I didn't know, charged with the responsibility of teaching them "English", with only my memories of being a pupil at Bootle Grammar School for Boys to call upon.
Fortunately, Dunraven was a decent little comprehensive school in those days, with a fair number of quite well-behaved children. That class took one look at me with my stack of comprehension books up to my chin and said: "Can we do Drama?"
One minute into my first comprehensive school classroom experience and I was faced with my first big decision. I put the books down, looked at the class, looked back at the books, took a deep breath and said: "Show me what you can do?"
The tears still prickle when I think of that moment. It was 46 years ago. The Ph.D. was never finished. After a term I was made full time and was given an "allowance" as joint deputy head of the English Department. In the four terms I was at that school I directed two school plays -the school hadn't put on a play in its previous nineteen years.
Another teacher at the school at the time gave me what she thought was a useful piece of advice. "What you do with a new class," she said briskly, "Is look round it, spot a child who looks vulnerable and make it cry. That way, the others know you mean business."
The woodwork teacher at Bootle Grammar School for Boys was out of the same mould. He had caned me twice for spurious reasons in front of the class in the very first lesson we had with him. I feared and hated him in equal measure from then on. Not that he taught me for long. If you had a functioning brain, you didn't do any arts or crafts beyond the age of 12 at Bootle Grammar School for Boys.
Jack Chisel the kids called him. He turned his own bats on the lathe. A favourite trick of his was beating out a tune on some tortured kid's backside. He would only stop when one of us guessed what tune was running through his head as he did it. He's got to be dead now...
I never took that advice, and in my first five years in the teaching profession, the children taught me most of what was worth knowing about the art and craft of teaching. They also showed me that for some reason I was good at it. Even I could not ignore that much evidence. Twelve years after walking into Dunraven School on that fateful morning in 1967 I got my first headship...
For a brief period in the early seventies, while I was Head of English at Hackney Downs School, I had tried my hand at writing stories. I had been successful enough at it to make me think that I should give it a serious go sometime, once I had retired from my all-consuming profession.
In 1980, the Secondary Heads Association informed its members that recent research had revealed the average life expectancy of a male teacher in a stressful inner city area, who went on until he was 65, was less than one year. They therefore advised all their male members in stressful social services areas to buy in as many years of pensionable service as possible, in order to be able to retire early.
Stoke Newington, where I was, had been designated the most stressful social services area in the country. It had the biggest police station in Europe. I had the option of paying up to 12% of my salary into the Teachers' Pension Fund (instead of the usual 6%). This I decided to do and over the next 13 years (11 of them as the first head of Stoke Newington School) I managed to 'buy in' 4 years, 311 days...
I remember the precise amount because in the autumn of 1992, the London Borough of Hackney invited its headteachers to apply for early retirement. They had more of us than they needed, and some of us were more expensive than our replacements would need to be. They offered up to ten years enhancement to our personal pension fund as an incentive.
I did the sums and discovered that I could retire on a full pension in the summer of 1993 at the age of 51. I had been in the profession just 25 years, but with that ten year enhancement I had 40 years and 19 days of pensionable service to my credit. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.
So why didn't I start writing for children again, when I got my life back in the 1990s? Because, as so often happens, other events intervened. I won't go into detail here and now; but if you'd like to know a little more about what happened between 1993 and 2011, click on My Blogs at the top of the Homepage and read the one entitled "Finally Getting Round to it."
I finally got round to writing again for children 17½ years after retiring from teaching in order to be able to do so. Between January 2011 and October 2012, I wrote pretty much eight hours a day, seven days a week. The first four books in the Myrddin's Heir series emerged...