By fourteen, I was comfortably bottom of everything – the lowest student in the lowest class, and more or less happy there, invisible with no expectations of anything interesting to come. There was, I think, looking back, an old-fashioned hope at my school that if you were thick, you might enjoy marrying a rich and equally thick young man in later life. Then a new English teacher arrived and things perked up a bit. When I think of Mrs de Pelet now, mid twenties with long blonde hair, about nine foot tall wearing bright red lipstick, I see her with her hands cupped in front of her shouting ‘The “O”, ladies, The Vaginal O’ as we read Shakespeare. In an all-girls school, in a class of young women who were not at all comfortable with anything much, least of all their own genitals, this was met with silence. I remember a girl getting teased because someone had tricked her into admitting that she had looked at herself naked in the mirror. She was therefore a lesbian. It was also thought that I was probably a lesbian, because I dyed my hair black, and so when de Pelet asked us what we thought was going on at the start of The Magic Toyshop, (‘The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a traced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortex, da Gama or Mungo Park.’) I took the bold step, for me, of talking in class. ‘She’s wanking,’ I said and my lesbianism was confirmed.
It was a stroke of teaching genius to stand up in front of a class of repressed girls and begin talking about books and sex with them – it made books part of life. It felt then like everything else was about sex, so why should books be any different? When I look back at textbooks from before our lessons with her, whole paragraphs are marked drily with words like Irony? Juxtaposition? and driest of all Humour? Words we were told were there and dutifully transcribed. But when she taught us, books began to seem like they came from somewhere that connected to us, that we could have an opinion on them that felt vivid and real and alive. I still have my school copy of The Magic Toyshop and I have underlined with greater pressure than was necessary lines like ‘ . . . he took a convoluted shell, all milky mother-of-pearl.’ And ‘He stopped short fingering the shell.’ And I’ve written Milky semen? Actual fingering? I might have a slightly different reading of that moment now, but I can still remember the excitement of discovery I felt then. Books were made as you read them.
Mrs de Pelet was also the first person to make me think about the people who wrote books. One Saturday, she took me to a lecture on Angela Carter. Up until that point I’d never really thought that there was a human behind the pages – personalities, experiences that impacted the words. I know there is no way that I would have ever have dreamed of writing myself, if it weren’t for those lessons.
My very first attempt at a short story was dreadful, of course – a not even thinly veiled version of myself walking up a hill and setting fire to herself, interspersed with lines from The Owl and the Pussycat, for no good reason. But the feeling from writing it, and the response de Pelet gave when I showed her, are things that I won’t ever forget.
So, towards the end of school, when I stood at the side of the stage, waiting to go up and collect The Poetry Plate – a prize that to my knowledge had never been awarded before and has not since, and was given to me purely because the school thought they ought to award me something other than a Rolo before I left – I wanted to say thank you to Mrs de Pelet. When the gym teacher handed me a green regulation canteen plate, and whispered, ‘You’re going to have to take that back down to the kitchen after assembly.’ I realised it probably wasn’t the time or the place. I never got to say thank you then. So I’m saying it now. Thank you, Mrs de Pelet.
Photograph © tutincommon