Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Allan Ahlberg, children's author

'When I wrote, it was an inky mess'
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The Independent Online

Allan Ahlberg, 68, is the author of The Jolly Postman trilogy, which was illustrated by his late wife Janet and sold over five million copies. Other books include Peepo!, Burglar Bill, Each Peach Pear Plum and Please Mrs Butler. What's In The Book?, an exhibition of their work, is currently showing at Seven Stories, Lime Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. The Runaway Dinner is out now

I was adopted and grew up in Oldbury, in the Black Country. I went to a number of primary schools as my mother moved us several times; she was trying to get us into a house with an indoor toilet and bathroom. If you were a poor, working-class family - this sounds like something from Monty Python! - you put a notice in a newsagent's window and, if the landlords agreed, swapped with a family who wanted your house. It took her four houses, and by then I was 10.

My first primary school was The Good Shepherd; then I went to Tabernacle Street Primary, and, at seven, ended up in Rood End Primary. The classes there were big: 40 or 50, and the teaching pretty formal. I was quite dreamy and my reports always stated that I could do better. It didn't happen to me often, but if you were sent to the headmaster, he would take out a bamboo cane with one end burnt black to harden it, and bring it down on the tips of your fingers.

I was reasonably literate and numerate, and I managed to scrape through the 11-plus. Oldbury Grammar School was a fresh start, a place with blazers, satchels and homework. There were pupils of 18 years old: boys with moustaches and glamorous grown women (all my schools were co-ed). It was like a poor copy of a classic public school: there were prefects and the headmaster was a "Dr" in a flowing gown. It had a school song beginning, "Hurrah for the old boys of Oldbury!".

My highest mark from my English teacher, Miss Scriven, was seven out of 20. This was because she gave marks for handwriting, spelling and punctuation, but when I wrote I was in a state of high excitement, so she was confronted with an inky mess.

She wrote at the bottom of my work that she enjoyed the bits she could read and, when she invited some of us to read out what we had written, the others would often laugh at my light comedy.

In my mock exam for O-level English, we were given the essay subject of "The problem of a litter". I thought I wrote a rather good story about a man who lived upstairs in a house with pigs downstairs. I didn't get any marks at all. I hadn't read the question properly: "The problem of litter". Then I was ill and missed the English language O-level exam. I didn't do English in the sixth form.

From the age of 13, I became a bit of an intellectual snob. I was a member of three libraries, taking out 18 books at once, from Teach Yourself Mandarin Chinese to H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw. At A-level I did biology and chemistry. I did well in chemistry and got a job working for Dunlop as an assistant to a man who was doing research into synthetic rubber. All that I succeeded in doing was boring a hole in my hand, so that they had to rush me off to hospital.

Then I started a succession of jobs: postman, gravedigger, soldier and plumber's mate. Eventually, I'm a gravedigger in Oldbury. Mr McGibbon, the superintendent of parks and cemeteries, thought it unusual to have a man with a couple of A-levels digging graves. He suggested that I might be a teacher, and arranged for me to visit some schools. Eventually, I worked as a "pupil teacher" in Bleak House primary, where I had a lovely time.

When I left, the teachers and children bought me a book: Bleak House. I then went to Sunderland Teacher Training College. If I hadn't met Janet there, I might never have been able to become a writer.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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