Winter Afternoons with Dylan

In the autumn of 1955, I first set foot inside the Herbert Strutt Grammar School. I came from Allestree, not the old village, but the newer part off Allestree Lane, and Belper was quite new to me. Opposite was the Babington Hospital, originally the Belper Union Workhouse, a massive stone edifice designed by George Gilbert Scott, though it was years before I realised this. The school was built some 70 years later in 1909, in a similar architectural style, but on a rather less grandiose scale. To me, however, coming from a small primary school eight miles away, it seemed enormous.

The school, on the whole though, was a warm and friendly place, and only the infamous canteen bore any resemblance to workhouse life.  Having a considerate mother, I was spared the joyless ritual of Latin grace, followed by a plateful of inedible substances, and took sandwiches after the end of the first term. The grace consisted largely of the word “Benedictuuuuuus” followed by a couple of lines of Latin, which according to our engaging Latin master, Mr Green, actually meant nothing at all. However, it was always intoned in a spectacularly monastic manner, preceded by an ominous silence, which inevitably started someone giggling until everyone else followed suit. Strangely, the word “benedictus”  has the same effect on Strutt School pupils to this very day.

The refectory  was a prefabricated building at the rear of the school, since demolished, but the original refectory was part of the main body of the school, later to became the Gymnasium, and above it was the Library, built as a memorial to the pupils and staff who had died in the Second World War. The Library was a haven of peace and quiet. It must have been quite new when my friends and I entered it in 1955, but to us, it seemed as old and established and venerable as the School itself. My first memory of the Library was when I was thrown out of it by Mr Quest for messing about. In fact, I think I was only plaiting my hair, but this was a Library Period, when I should have been sitting soberly READING something. I was in Form 2 Gamma then, and by the time I’d got into 3 Alpha, Mr Quest had become something of an ally. He was now English teacher for our year, and had noticed I was quite good at writing. He was the first person to seriously encourage me. To him, I owe a debt of gratitude. Exactly opposite the long table where we Juniors used to sit, was a memorial plaque to the war dead. At the bottom of the list was a single girl. Her name was to haunt me, until years later I researched her history and made it into a short story, ROSALIE JANE, which can be found in my book THE SIREN OF SALAMANCA.

At the time, we Juniors tended only to use the lighter and more frivolous parts of the Library, i.e. the Fiction Section, where we devoured the works of Agatha Christie and Zane Grey. There was something of a TV western boom at the time, and this sort of stuff I happily parodied in the guise of “essays” to  Mr Quest’s amusement, and years later did the same thing in the theatre. It wasn’t really until I was higher up the School that I discovered the more intellectual stuff and The Alcoves. The Alcoves, I discovered one day, were THE place where you could skive away a whole afternoon in lieu of a hated hockey lesson, and NOBODY WOULD NOTICE.

It was here, then, that I discovered the works of Dylan Thomas. Not the poems, which never particularly grabbed me, but the essays, radio pieces and most of all, the short stories. Despite Dylan’s later dismissal of them as potboilers, they were a revelation. Until then, I never realised language could be used in such a vivid and original way. Sentences jumped off the page, breathed fire in my face like a weird and wonderful Welsh dragon. Words sprang alive. Precisely when I discovered this, I can’t exactly say, other than as Phil Larkin put it, though for rather different reasons, somewhere,

“Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP”.

But I can vouch for the fact it was a dismal wintry afternoon and the light glowed in a  warm cosy yellow between the shelves, while outside freezing fog swirled around the Quad, making the clock tower into a spiky grey Gothic island, and I sat in an alcove all by myself and read a story called “One Warm Saturday” by Dylan Thomas.

Probably, if it hadn’t been for Dylan Thomas, Mr Quest and hockey lessons in the Belper mud, I might never have become a writer. Or a Librarian. At different times, I’ve been both. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the school play being “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, I might never have written for the theatre. Perhaps, if Miss Simister hadn’t taught us Shakespeare(and put the fear of God into us) I might have thought less about the use and value of language. If Norman Robinson, our geography teacher, hadn’t told us so much about local history and the Second World War, I might never have written about them. And if he and Michael Green, another inspirational teacher(not the Michael Green who wrote The Art of Coarse Acting, I was later disappointed to learn) hadn’t made us laugh so much, I might never have become a writer at all. But courtesy of all these factors, and the Herbert Strutt School, that’s what I did. And even if it hasn’t made me rich, I’ve never regretted it.

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