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Out of the Woods but not Over the Hill, By Gervase Phinn

Good work, but must try harder

For those of us of a certain age, Out of the Woods But Not Over the Hill is a wonderfully cheering title. When Gervase Phinn receives his peerage, as he surely should for services to good-heartedness, this will be the motto on his coat-of-arms: "Ex silvis sed non supra montem." You wouldn't have thought that there was a living in giving talks about his time as a teacher and school inspector, or that there were many laughs in being general advisor for language in Rotherham. But he has found them.

"How many sheep can you see in that field?," he asked a small boy in a Wensleydale primary school to test his number work. "All of 'em," was the answer. That may be an old joke, but another four-year-old in a cardboard box was surely breaking new ground when Phinn, hearing the "brmm, brmm, bmm" sounds he was making, naturally enough asked, "Are you in a racing car?" "No," the boy explained carefully, "I'm in a cardboard box." Of course.

Grown-ups have their moments too. At a different primary, he came across another cardboard box, this time on someone's head. A square cut-out revealed the head teacher, who addressed the pupils as if he was a television presenter. They switched him on and off. Children ask trickier questions: "Why are holes empty?" Some poor souls have problems more serious than philosophical conundrums. They are bullied for being blind or merely for being ginger. Richard McCann, whom Phinn heard giving a powerful talk to pupils, was five when his mother became the first victim of the Yorkshire Ripper.

Phinn enthuses about the literature he enjoyed when young, but these are not literary memoirs. Some of his anecdotes would obviously gain from being heard rather than read and, from the examples of his poetry given here, he is not going to put Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy out of business. To be blunt – and as a Yorkshireman Phinn wouldn't want it any other way – it has to be said that a rigorous teacher would make a few corrections in the margin: "know" instead of "known"; "disinterested" for "uninterested". Also, the editor of The Oldie is Richard Ingrams not "Ingram". Otherwise, this entertaining and moving homework earns a good few merit marks. Gervase Phinn is not going downhill yet, by a long chalk on a blackboard.

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