Wendy Dawson, my first teacher at Ramsden Crays Primary School, was an anxious, plump, childless, married woman in her mid-thirties, often exasperated by her twenty-or- so pupils, and charged with the ordeal of trying to get some of us through the 11+ exam. Although she was often ill-tempered and strict, she had a powerfully suppressed maternal instinct, which benefited some of us with her occasional ‘Mumsy’ kindness.
This was something new to me. Up until now, my experience of women was that they were at worst out-of-control, cold-hearted sociopaths, or, at best, kindly German-speaking grandmas. She was a new breed of female ; and I watched her warily. I’d recently seen the 1953 film of J.M.Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’; and thought she resembled Wendy’s lovely mother , Mrs Darling. All warm pastel cashmeres and fresh, cotton clothing,
I wonder what she made of me: a feral, unkempt, unwashed, uncombed child . I saw that she winced slightly when she came near me,with distaste. But then, all of us country children were poor and a little wild.
She began well. In our first lesson she produced John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever for us to read and commit to memory.I was completely entranced by this remarkable prosody: languid iambic pentametres; trochees;alliteration; dactyls.
I immediately wanted to try and write poems – and, joy, this is what she asked us to do. My first attempt in class was thus:
‘ My bed is an island/with waves rippling near/and a beach of soft sand/comes close to me here’. Closely followed by an illustrated rendition entitled ‘April’ :
‘April is the child of spring/she reigns for thirty days/brings daffodils on hillocks greens/and daisies on grass-edged ways’.
Aged eight, I had become a poet.
I was hooked ( to quote the vernacular in this inelegant phrase). I now added Sea Fever to my repertoire of learned poems, which included : The Solitary Reaper, To a Skylark, and She Was a Phantom of Delight.
Back at the cottage, I read my way through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Verse. Entranced and mystified by it all at the same time.
And for light relief I would read ‘ The Wind in the Willows’, by Kenneth Grahame, over and over again, as it mirrored exactly the world of moorhens, baby stoats, rabbits, rats, moles and field mice that I inhabited.