"HOW do you spell Czechoslovakia, Miss?” I had asked.
“Checkoslovakier? I’ve no idea,” the teacher said. To be fair, she was a student stand-in, a trainee, and these days the question would be a lot simpler.
“How do you spell Czech Republic, Ms?”
“Check Republic, I’ve no idea you precocious little twerp.”
We had been asked to write a story and set it somewhere unusual. Czechoslovakia seemed a likely bet to fit the definition.
Obviously I’d never been. I was only six and yet to get much beyond Scarborough, save for a trip to visit some former neighbours of ours who had done better than us and moved to Norfolk. It would be another 35 years before I would make it to Prague and my trip there did turn out to be somewhat strange, but that’s another tale.
My story that day in class involved a murder. About seven years after this project I wrote another that involved an altogether more gruesome killing and the teacher had a bit of a word, scrawling the phrase “good descriptive writing, but sick, C-” (better than usual, then) at the end.
These days I think you would probably be marched out of school and immediately referred to a child psychologist, or worse, be taken under the wing of someone charged with developing promising young authors of TV murder dramas.
I’m not sure where my youthful fascination in the macabre came from. By this point I had only read Enid Blyton and the Yorkshire Ripper hadn’t yet gripped my imagination through his sporadic appearances in nearby villages and towns (probably a good job).
Maybe it was because we weren’t regularly exposed to violent films or killings on TV that we used our imaginations (or was it just me?) to conjure up such grim yarns. The alternative to that argument is there was plenty of nice stuff I hadn’t yet encountered that I could have written about, but didn’t.
I had no idea what the others were writing about. I was too wrapped up in my own nasty little imagination to worry about that and was probably only saved by the entry of football and music into my world.
If, of course, saved is the correct word, for the likes of, say, Ian Rankin or Ann Cleeves, must have spent their childhoods dreaming up prototypes of the twisted people that inhabit their stories, before going on to become, not serial killers, but multi-millionaires whose books are regularly turned into TV series.
Saved, for me, meant writing about sport and music, trying and failing to turn either into a full-time occupation.
So, maybe I missed my calling and, if I did, I’m blaming that stand-in teacher who, while Mrs Stead — the one who rightly made me the first onto free choice reading in my class (probably to stop me writing those stories!) — was away failed to spot my obvious talent as well as not knowing how to spell Czechoslovakia.
To be fair, she did go and look it up in an encyclopaedia and come back with the answer, but by then my enthusiasm had disappeared along with my trust of teachers and I had, instead, set my murder mystery just outside Keighley, a far more realistic destination.