OBITUARY : Edward Blishen
Monday 16 December 1996
His main achievement was his series of autobiographical studies. These started with boyhood, went on to early employment, marriage, children, travel and finally to old age in a volume to be published next year. They concentrate on a rich cast of characters drawn from his immediate circle, made especially memorable by his blend of compassionate understanding linked to a wicked gift for humour. With only their proper names changed, ordinary individuals are regularly transformed into a gallery of nonpareils.
Like Chesterton, one of his great heroes, Blishen knew that everyday existence deserved to be revealed as extraordinary and diverse simply as it is. What was needed was sharp eyes, keen ears and a gift for language. Blishen demonstrably possessed all three.
Born in Barnet, an area he never left, Edward Blishen grew up under the strict eye of his martinet father, a minor civil servant with major attitude problems. This character has his chief outing in Sorry, Dad (1978), where affectionate remorse battles with some ancient childhood scars that remained a preoccupation for all Blishen's life. But however painful some of the memories the prose itself always crackles with energy when Blishen pere arrives on the scene to deliver one of his arbitrary cultural fatwahs. Uppity neighbours are ruthlessly put in their place, a demonstrable fad like opera is briskly damned, and dismally self-serving guides to successful living are testily outlined. Here was a father who could only be safely tamed and contained by the act of writing itself, initially within the diaries that Blishen kept as a child and continued up to his death. His mother, an altogether easier character, was affectionately recalled in Lizzie Pye (1982).
Life at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Barnet, meanwhile, was much more satisfying. Blishen's lifelong love of books was encouraged there by Spencer Vaughan-Thomas, an outstanding English teacher and brother of the well- known broadcaster Wynford. Fluffed exams led to Blishen's leaving school at 17 and working on a local newspaper.
When war was declared he registered as a conscientious objector, a decision sending his father into new ecstasies of scorned rage. Experience working on the land with assorted oddballs from ILP members to the odd British Tolstoyan is unforgettably recorded in A Cackhanded War (1972). An oral version of Blishen's pacifist years is now lodged in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
Three years teaching next in a Hampstead prep school (Uncommon Entrance, 1974) was followed by Emergency Teacher Training, recorded in A Nest of Teachers (1980). He then moved to a secondary modern school in Holloway Road, north London, where he wrote his first and best-known book, Roaring Boys (1955), suitably subtitled "A Schoolmaster's Agony". Blishen portrays himself as a martyr rather than the boastful messiah of other autobiographical classroom accounts published around that time. But behind the initial panic he never lost sight of the essential good- humour of the young tearaways he was in charge of. Gradually teacher and taught came to an accommodation satisfying to both. His account of those years is still the best book ever about life in the classroom. Lessons that did not work are described with a rueful honesty that makes descriptions of the more successful times to come all the more convincing.
Blishen left teaching in 1959 to get on with his writing. It was a brave decision for someone now married and with two children. Broadcasting followed, notably some important work on the BBC's African Service, where he encouraged a generation of new authors. A constant and acute reviewer and editor of children's literature, Blishen and his firm friend Leon Garfield won the Carnegie Medal for their retelling of Greek legends in The God Beneath the Sea (1970). Brilliantly illustrated by Charles Keeping, this book was described by Blishen at the time as "chasing the moths out of myths"; an ambition which resoundingly succeeded.
There was also part-time teaching at York University between 1963 and 1965 in the dynamic education department set up by Harry Ree, another intimate friend. Blishen devised a course built around different literary descriptions of teaching found in texts from David Copperfield to The Rainbow. Students adored this deceptively tentative figure who could turn into a lion should one of his favourite authors suffer attack.
Back in London, there was more broadcasting, including Stop the Week and A Good Read, the latter still going strong this year. And further auto- biography, describing most particularly marriage and fatherhood. His own own supremely happy experience of both never led to complacency, and there was always the figure or memory of his father to come tusking in should an extended period of calm ever seem to threaten.
Edward Blishen was never a big seller, but a devoted readership still waited eagerly for each inimitable autobiographical fragment. It is appalling that young teachers can no longer buy and learn from Roaring Boys or its sequel This Right Soft Lot (1969) - both out of print; books whose fans stretched from Kingsley Amis to Neil Kinnock. These works are too precious to lose to the bleak operation of market forces; a case for some judicious spending of Arts Council literature funds if there ever was one.
Edward Blishen, writer, teacher and broadcaster: born Whetstone, Hertfordshire 29 April 1920; married 1948 Nancy Smith (two sons); died Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire 13 December 1996.
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