Skip to main content

2. Helen

I met Helen Savva in September 1974. She had come that autumn to teach English at Vauxhall Manor School, a girls’ comprehensive school in Vauxhall, south London, where I had already been working for a term. It was my first teaching job and her second. A degree in English literature from Cambridge University, with no subsequent teaching qualification, had ill prepared me to teach English and drama in an urban comprehensive, but so few people were willing to work in state schools in inner London in those years that I had been offered a huge choice of vacancies when I had applied to County Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority, the previous April.

I had just returned from what I had intended to be a round-the-world trip with two friends. The trip had been curtailed for me by a bad and expensive bout of gastro-enteritis in Tehran, which had brought me home gaunt and broke. The woman at County Hall who dealt with job applicants riffled through a thick stack of cards, each representing an English teaching vacancy in an ILEA secondary school. There being no particular educational criterion for my choice of school, we agreed that she should send me for interview to the school nearest to where I was then living. The next day I walked across Vauxhall Bridge from Vincent Square to the school, was briefly interviewed by the school’s headmistress, and offered a job on the spot. I accepted on the spot, and started work two days later, on the first day of the summer term.

I stumbled through that term. During the day intervening between my appointment and my first encounters with children, I had written out lesson plans for the classes I had been given. The documents distilled the whole of Western thought since the ancient Greeks, at different levels of difficulty for the different ages I was to teach. I expected that I would complete the courses by the summer holiday, and then decide what to do next. I regret very much that somehow I have lost these magnificent documents of unrealism.

The children’s response to the grandeur of my ideas was less than complimentary. None of them could understand what I was talking about. Some were surprisingly polite, and steered me to filing cabinets and cupboards in the English classrooms, where more appropriate teaching materials were to be found. I abandoned my literary and intellectual tours d’horizon as quickly as I had conceived them, and handed out sets of creased paperback novels, written in demotic contemporary English and telling everyday stories of multi-cultural urban folk. The children in most of the classes were happy to take turns round the class reading these novels aloud. This took up a gratifyingly large amount of time. Then they suggested that they write a story pretending to be one of the characters in the book. It had never occurred to me that you could do such a thing with a piece of literature, and I agreed to the suggestion immediately. The children next proposed that they should act out some of the scenes we were reading, by breaking up into small groups and improvising the scenes in the corridors or on the stairways of the three-storey pre-fabricated structure in which I was working, and which had been hastily erected a year or two previously, when the school leaving age had been raised from fifteen to sixteen, a change which had brought with it an urgent need for extra accommodation. I agreed to the acting-out idea too, and here my difficulties began.

Although, to my amazement as I ran along the corridors and up and down the staircases checking on the progress of this small-group work, most of the children were actually inventing dramas which bore a relationship — often remote, I will admit — to the book we were reading, they did tend to prefer to enact scenes of violence, or at least of bad temper. This inevitably meant that voices needed to be raised. Not all of the teachers working in that building practised the teaching methods which I had so rapidly made my trade mark. Many of them believed that a teacher should keep his or her class confined in the classroom from beginning to end of a lesson. The materials which had been used for the partition walls of the building were lightweight and certainly not soundproof. When, in a moment of anger, a colleague would emerge from a classroom to demand what in God’s name a particular group of children was doing wrestling each other to the ground in the corridor outside, he or she was surprised to be told by those children, in a complacent tone, that they were doing drama for Mr Richmond. Before long, Jim Payne, my kind and sympathetic head of department, came to me to say that I would need to restrain this wildness. I realised that, whatever ideas I had half picked up from reading about A.S Neill’s methods at Summerhill School, or from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, I was going to have to make some compromises.

There was great resentment and almost open rebellion amongst the children when for the first time I forbade them to leave the class the better to express themselves dramatically. ‘But sir, we did it last week! We were good! Has that Miss Wilberforce [the deputy head] been telling you what to do?’ I couldn’t deny that a higher authority had indeed constrained me. I suggested that the class do some writing instead. Writing stories pretending to be a character in a book had been acceptable to the children until they had tasted the joys of uninterrupted drama every lesson. Now such a prospect was condemned as ‘boring’, a word they used more frequently than any other to describe an activity they didn’t want to do. In desperation, I suggested a spelling test, although I knew such an exercise to be a meaningless way of filling time. To my surprise, the children quite took to the proposal. The spelling test has game-like, repetitive qualities. It is like sucking habitually on a sweet. We had many spelling tests during the rest of the term.

Although I was managing to work out rules of engagement with most of my classes, admittedly from a position of serious weakness on my side, there was one class over which I had no control whatever. Our encounters were grim attritional battles. By the end of May I had abandoned any thought of teaching the children in this class anything. My task was simply to keep to a minimum outbreaks of anarchic and anti-social behaviour. I did this by reading aloud to the class for whole lessons at a time, refusing to allow any of the children to take turns in reading, and by making the class copy out long passages from an anthology of factual writing, of which I had found an almost complete class set in the back of a cupboard. The imposition of this task was justified only by my overriding need to maintain control, but I would give the drill some small educational colour ten minutes before the end of each lesson by drawing attention to some of the features of grammar, spelling and punctuation in the passage just copied out.

There were children in that class who would, suddenly and for no good reason, run yelling from the room. More depressing were those who sat slumped in postures of despair, as if they had abandoned any expectation of relief from the collective atmosphere of anger and gloom.

As June gives way to July in a London secondary school, a teacher can expect, with reasonable luck, that quite a number of his or her classes will be cancelled because of sports days, week-long school journeys to the Isle of Wight, or day trips to Margate or London Zoo. I did have reasonable luck with my impossible class, but I was not pleased to be told by Miss Wilberforce that I would continue to be their English teacher in September. I briefly considered resigning, perhaps to do a proper teaching qualification at one of the London colleges, but abandoned the idea when comparing the value of a student grant (then £500 a year) with my handsome annual salary of £1870. (That remark is not intended to be ironic. A monthly pay cheque of more than £100, after tax and other deductions, enabled me to do anything I wanted that summer in London, and to go to France for four weeks in August.)

On the morning of the first Monday of September, the first day of the new school year, the English department convened in one of the classrooms. The children were not coming into school until the Tuesday, so there was an atmosphere of phoney war about the place. There were three new members of department at the meeting, all female, whom Jim Payne introduced to us one by one, and who were asked to say a word or two about their background and, where relevant, their previous job.

In those years, one of the advantages to the young heterosexual male of working in a girls’ school, with a predominantly female staff, was that female colleagues felt no great need to dress in a way which would discourage the lust of adolescent boys, as they would in a boys’ or a mixed school. The small number of male staff were thought of, insofar as they were thought of at all from the sexual point of view, as eunuchs in a harem. It was thus wonderful to lean across the table and shake the hand of an olive-skinned, raven-haired young woman whose shapely embonpoint was only partially concealed by what I later discovered to be a linen blouse with lace ornamentation of traditional Greek design. My pleasure was increased a few days later when Jim told me that, because of the great difficulties I had had with class 1R, now renamed class 2R — great but understandable difficulties, he hastened to add, generously but falsely claiming that he would have had as much trouble with them himself — the same young woman would come to teach the class with me on a Friday afternoon, when by a cruel quirk of Miss Wilberforce’s timetable I had those children for an uninterrupted two hours.

Helen was my senior in age by three years as well as my senior in status. In those years of rapid promotion, she had come to the school as second in the English department after only four years in her first job. She is a working-class Londoner of Greek Cypriot origin. She has the ability to quell the most extreme disorder in a class of children with the barely visible flicker of an eyebrow. Our jointly led lessons with 2R began to seem to me something other than agonising, and even to yield occasional educational benefit to the children. After school on a Friday, we would talk and smoke in the staff room, and then with other colleagues walk down to the pub as soon as it opened at 5.30. Before long we began to go for meals together after the pub. The following February, by which time I had parted company with the woman with whom I had been living in Vincent Square, and gone to live in a flat in Camden Town, I invited Helen round for lunch on the Tuesday of half-term week. I cooked her a Spanish omelette, which we ate with a bottle of Burgundy, and we didn’t leave the flat until that evening, when we went to see Stomu Yamashta, the Japanese drumming genius, perform at the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm. Then Helen got the number 3 bus back to Herne Hill, where she was living with another man called John, who was, most conveniently for all of us, just coming to the firm conclusion that he was gay, despite having lived happily with Helen for five years.

Thus began my connection with the person with whom I still live. For a long time we liked to regard our relationship as permanently provisional. It seemed more exciting that way. But 34 years after our first meeting we did get married, for a mundane financial reason. In the sixth chapter of this memoir, I describe the house in Brittany we bought in 1990. When, eighteen years later, we came to make our wills, we discovered that, in the event of one of our deaths (or the less likely event of our simultaneous deaths in an accident), the French state would take far more money from our estate if we were not married than if we were. (I think that law has changed since.) So it seemed logical, as well as romantic, to get married in France. One sunny day in summer 2008 we took our passports down to the mairie in Cléguer, the commune where our house is, and casually announced to the receptionist that we’d like to get married. She was shocked. ‘Monsieur, ce n’est pas si simple que ça!’ We would need to supply our birth certificates, she said, plus a French translation of same, plus the results of a blood test each, plus an attestation that we were not mad or syphilitic, signed by a lawyer authorised by the nearest UK consulate. All these documents must be produced together within three months. This was far too difficult, so we opted for the less romantic circumstances of Camden Town Hall, where on 28 November 2008 we became man and wife in front of four witnesses and the registrar. The formalities had been minimal, although we had been interviewed separately by the same official in order to establish that ours wasn’t a marriage forced or arranged against the woman’s will.

Elsewhere on this website and in my book My Proper Life – Poems 1975-2017 there is a group of love poems for Helen, and I’ve also dedicated to her the whole of Bring Me the Sunflower, my book of translated poems. That says enough about my feelings of gratitude to Helen for her decision to spend her life with me.