My first year of teaching was a hellish experience. I had spent three years studying under radical educationalist Ian Lister at York and knew all there was to know about deschooling, freeschooling and reschooling. I was familiar with A.S .Neill’s famously experimental school Summerhill, and also the attempts to liberalise education at state schools such as Risinghill, Countesthorpe and William Tyndale. So when I was offered a job as English and Drama teacher at Bretton Woods Community School in Peterborough I leapt at the chance. The school had a space-age design, ziggurat-shaped, plain yellow brick, open spaces instead of classroom walls. And that name “community school” surely meant community involvement, education for all, the polar opposite of the traditional grammar school I’d attended and so hated.
Alas, it wasn’t quite like that. The regime of the school was far more conventional than the school’s appearance. And the kids, largely working class, many from ex-London families drawn to Peterborough’s new town developments, were determined not to behave how I thought they should when treated, according to my beliefs, like equals. God knows, it is hard enough for any new teacher to gain respect, but wearing dungarees to drama lessons and greeting the kids standing on your head sure doesn’t make it easier.
I was ruefully amused when a reviewer of Yatesy’s Rap said “Jon Blake has a good ear for teenage talk when authority figures aren’t listening”. There was a good reason for this. Teenagers in my classes were able to be themselves, with no regard whatsoever for my presence. If they were in the class that is, not on a window ledge or hiding in a cupboard down the corridor. So quite often the dialogue I wrote was drawn directly from life:
“Why is it,” says Hatton, “that ever since I started speaking to this class, there has been a constant babbling noise right under my nose?”
“It’s comin’ from your mouf, sir” says Ol.
I didn’t regret my choice of career, therefore. Though it had always been my ambition to be a writer, I recognised that four years at college did not qualify me to talk about much. I needed experience, responsibility, a stripping away of ego. I sure got that at Bretton Woods and later at Chilwell Comprehensive in Nottingham. And little did I know it, but at that very time Puffin Books were seeking out writers for their Puffin Plus series, aimed at the kind of teenagers I was interacting with. Yatesy’s Rap was exactly what they were looking for.
Looking back now I can see that the idea of four misfit teenagers forming a band and succeeding against the odds was not quite so stunningly original as I thought at the time. But what lifted the novel above cliché was that it was a heartfelt catharsis after all the pain of my early teaching career; that and the fact I was able to draw on a range of experiences as a drama teacher and a musician in two multicultural cities, Peterborough and Nottingham – although the inspiration for Yatesy, the key character, come from a summer school I’d taught in several years previously, in Scarcroft Primary, York. In the middle of one of the activity sessions a teacher brought in a boy who looked as if he’d come straight out of a Victorian novel: dishevelled and scruffy-haired, he suffered from some kind of skin disorder, maybe psoriasis, which made his face pale and flaky. But he’d been brought in to sing, and sing he did, without inhibition: On Ilkley Moor Ba Tat, in a broad Yorkshire accent and perfect tuning. It was a gobsmacking event, never to be forgotten, and even though I knew nothing about the boy, he was simply someone I had to write about.
Once again I have to thank The Bodley Head for the fact Yatesy’s Rap was written and published. I’d sent them an earlier novel, Wingnut Falls Backwards, containing several of the same characters, but centring on the experiences of a young teacher. They recommended I wrote it from the point of view of a pupil, which I duly did, drawing heavily on Huck Finn for the first-person confessional style (the story is told as if to a much beloved teacher who has left the school). This was very much my way of writing at the time: I wanted the experience of reading my stories to be similar to being told a story in the playground. I did not want the reader to feel alienated, which is also the reason I never had dedications in my books.
In fact the Bodley Head not only went for Yatesy’s Rap but also a second novel, The Big I Am (of which more later). Halfway through the editing process, however, my editor became pregnant, at which point it was passed on to a second editor. In no time at all, so it seemed, she was also pregnant. I am not a mystic kind of person and did not delude myself that my writing was in anyway connected to this outbreak of fertility, but the unfortunate fact was that the Bodley Head did not have an endless supply of editors, so decided to shelve both my books, which, being in need of much revision, had still not gone to contract.
The loss of my first publisher might seem a mortal blow but was in fact a blessing in disguise, since senior editor Margaret Clark, by way of recompense, secured me the services of allegedly the best agent in UK children’s fiction, Gina Pollinger. I’d met Gina at the launch party for Misfits, the anthology in which I’d first been published, she’d obviously taken a shine to me, and set about representing me with whirlwind energy. Of course it is a great advantage, and these days even more necessary, to have an agent, but how useful they are depends on where they are situated and what lengths they will go to to get inside an editor’s door. Gina was a small woman, very posh, bright-eyed, an inhibited extrovert and first-class sales rep who was convinced I was the next big thing, even more so when editors at Puffin got so excited by the first stories of mine she sent. So it was not long before she had sold them Yatesy’s Rap for a four-figure advance and I was sent on my way past the cherry-blossomed springtime streets of Chelsea towards the giant penguin at the World’s End, where I sealed the deal with the Puffin editors. Yatesy became a lead title for a new series, Puffin Plus, aimed at a then little-developed market for teens. It came out just before I arrived in Cardiff in 1987, and I could find it in any of the many bookshops of the city in those halcyon days before Waterstones monopolised the market.
Yatesy’s Rap got a fair amount of marketing, with Lenny Henry publicising the new imprint and Yorkshire TV dramatising extracts of the book on a series called Under The Bedclothes. It was possibly the only book ever reviewed by Stock Aitken and Waterman boyband Big Fun, who I am pleased to say did not like it one bit, primarily because of the (mild) swearing. Tories have always been able to smell me at a hundred paces.
It was not a big seller. I’d written the book for kind of teens I’d taught, most of whom did not frequent bookshops, but the prospects of English departments buying whole sets of the books were severely dented by education cutbacks, the end of CSE Mode 3 and the new national curriculum. The kind of autonomy we English teachers enjoyed in the 70s and early 80s was over, as schools once more reverted to processing units designed to fail most of the working class.
Yatesy’s Rap did garner some good reviews though. I was described an “an author to watch out for”. Puffin published Showdown, a book of stories in a similar vein, on the back of it. I could maybe have written more teen novels for them, but Yatesy’s Rap’s successor, The Big I Am, was a very different kind of book and did not fit what they were looking for. I did go on to write a few junior titles for Puffin: Oddly, The Melody of Oddly, Roboskool, The Likely Stories and How I Became A Star, but none were huge sellers, though I’m still happy to have my name on them. For me having a hundred people absolutely loving a book beats a thousand quite liking it, but the people who tot up expenses and receipts for the major publishers don’t quite see things the same way.