Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The fat lady has sung

It was Children’s Book Week last week and I did visits to both my old schools. The second came first. James Allen’s Girls’ School (an education in the apostrophe in itself) is an Independent single-sex school in Dulwich. I went there in 1956 on a scholarship from the old LCC and stayed till the summer term of 1964, by which time I was nineteen and the oldest girl in the school.

In those days, if you wanted to apply to Oxford or Cambridge and were a girl, you stayed on for an extra term after your A levels, and took entrance exams for both. It was called the Third Year Sixth and there were eight of us. But I was also doing an extra A level, having taken English, Latin and Art in 1963, so had to stay on till the summer, studying Greek with three girls from the year below me.

Six of us Oxbridge entrants went to Cambridge and two to Oxford and some had places at both (not me). I can’t remember now what it was like to have only one subject to study but I didn’t do very well (a C, if I remember correctly). I’d been learning Greek for a very short time but I had got an A at O level (= GCSE) after eighteen months, so I should have done better with the more advanced exam. I think I was just too tired after 3 A levels and Oxbridge entrance and really too old still to be at school, though I’d made good friends with several girls in the year below.

Anyway, since then I had not been back to JAGS since 1964, except for once, in 1993, when they had some sort of 250th celebration. I had been quite unhappy at the school – partly because of the culture shock of being a scholarship girl in a middle class environment and partly because we had a simply awful headmistress hated by girls and teachers alike.

But it was a great influence on the rest of my life and I dreamed about it for years. So it was with some trepidation that I went back to talk to year 7s about Stravaganza. I could feel my heartbeat quicken as I walked through the gates. And of course I was shown up to the Staff Room, which was out of bounds to me in the past.

The Library had moved – the old one had been a sanctuary for me and a bolthole to escape to from Games. The new one was well-stocked and I did two sessions there with articulate (and multi-cultural) 11-year-olds before going to lunch in the still familiar dining hall. There I sat on the platform with the staff and there was an excellent salad bar. When I was a pupil the food was so awful I took packed lunches.

I sat with Cynthia the librarian and the Bursar. We talked about Languages and he said proudly that the school offered Classical Greek. “That was because of me,” I boasted. “I got them to teach it to me in the 60s to go with my Latin.”

After lunch I signed a gazillion copies of City of Masks and City of Stars and lots of postcards, for two Theas, an Indigo, several Sophies and Hatties and Hannahs. But also Sharmeen and Ashanti, who would not have been there in my day.

Then Cindy, the development officer took me on a guided tour. The beautiful grounds have been ruined by a new Sports Hall, and the wood, with its dell of wild garlic, reduced to a few trees. But the Hall is magnificent, containing a full Keep-fit suite and Olympic-sized pool among other facilities. Who knows if I might have hated sport less given such choices?

We did have our own swimming pool in my day, which was covered with a wooden floor in winter and used as an assembly hall and performance area. I remembered playing Anath Bithiah (the Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued Moses) in Christopher Fry’s “The Firstborn” in that hall. Now the girls have a full-scale theatre.

It was a much happier experience than I could have predicted. The girls were well prepared and the event beautifully organised – I was even given flowers! But that just made it a good school visit. What was poignant was seeing the bits that were the same – the old biology lab where Doctor Peach managed to get me through my only Science O level with the top grade, my first classroom where Mrs Grisbrooke, the History teacher, was form mistress for Lower IV 1, the room we third year sixers had as a common room, not much bigger than a cupboard and now a chemistry office.

The current Sixth Form have a comfortable Centre, where girls apologised that the kitchen smelt of Pot Noodles. It irked me that there were bits of my past I couldn’t precisely locate. Where exactly HAD the old library been? But the school had the same smells and I remembered the exact spot in the corridor where the PE Mistress had told me off for holding hands with Joanna Dodson (now a School Governor and a QC).

“It looks bad,” she said - though she was notoriously living with the Geography Mistress.

Cindy gave me the current magazine, once we had located the one I edited (1963). This new one is A4 and glossy. Girls had been to Italy a lot (Italian is taught there now – how I would have jumped at it!). And I read that Mrs Grisbrooke had died last year aged 71. A rapid calculation revealed that she must have been only 24 or 25 when I arrived at JAGS. This is astonishing!

She was one of the few married teachers, beautiful with dark hair and a huge engagement ring with a single orangey-brown oblong stone (topaz?) that was a little loose on her thin ring finger, so that she used to slip it round while she talked. Although very attractive, she had a somewhat lumpy figure, which made her look permanently about four months pregnant.

I overheard a parent congratulate her once on “expecting” and I remember her replying cheerfully, “Oh no, I’m not – I’m always this shape!” The magazine confirms that Maureen (I never knew her first name) Grisbrooke had no children. Her husband died a month after her.

The next day, after the staying the night with middle daughter Rebecca in Clapham, I went back to my old Primary School. I hadn’t set foot in it since walking out through the gates in 1956 to begin the rest of my life. I suppose I was lucky; one Primary school from Infants at five years old till leaving the Juniors at eleven, followed by those eight continuous years at JAGS.

Since a lot went wrong with this visit I shan’t name the school. It wasn’t the teachers’ fault and they were nice to me. Because of a mix-up with the organisers (a London cultural organisation with funding from the Arts Council), the school hadn’t known of my visit till the day before. Consequently the children weren’t prepared and there were no books for sale and no-one knew it was my old school.

But the children found that fascinating and they were a nice bunch. The social mix has changed since I was there – several children said their parents were editors or illustrators. House prices have rocketed; when I was a kid this was “Up the Junction” territory and a bit rough.

Still, there came a moment when I thought, “I am never going to do this again.” It was at the beginning of the second class when a little girl put her hand up to tell the teacher that Danny, or whoever he was, had just said, “Who’s that fat lady?”

The school didn’t know that it was Children’s Book Week or that there was such a thing as CBW. They had never had a writer in, in fact hadn’t had an outside visitor since the National Curriculum had been introduced. One teacher tried to leave me “for a few minutes” with the children and had to be told that it was illegal to do so.

And when I came out to drive back to Oxfordshire, thick with cold, I found a parking ticket on my car, next to the clearly displayed parking permit issued by the school. Sod’s law.

So not the best experience but that’s all folks! The fat lady has definitively sung and it’s all over for me with Primary schools. I shall accept the occasional Secondary school visit if students have specifically asked for me, in connection with Stravaganza, but I’m hanging up my Primary boots. It is far less stressful to write the books.