GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS: A Review.
One of the last passages in this book made me smile: it describes a conversation between a newly qualified teacher who has aspirations to be a writer and a teacher about to embark on his hundredth term '...nothing good ever comes of a teacher turned scribbler...' says the old hand. This must be Joanne Harris teasing her readers - this teacher turned scribbler has, in fact, come to much good - shortlisted for the Whitbread novel of the year with CHOCOLAT, long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction with FIVE QUARTERS OF THE ORANGE and three of her novels reaching number 1 in the Sunday Times best-seller lists - clearly being a ‘scribbler’ has served ex-teacher Joanne Harris very well indeed.
The book is about revenge set in an independent school for boys and told in two different voices - the voice of Roy Straitley a Latin master who is coming up to his 100th term at St Oswalds and the mystery voice which we know from the start is one of the new teachers, has long associations with the school and is set on revenge. Part of the fun of the book is guessing the identity of this voice - the ‘mole’. As the events become more and more sinister the suspicions change. There is something about the book that is slightly reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY, although it is more light-hearted and funny.
Joanne Harris’s lightness of touch belies her many astute and poignant observations such as when Straitley wonders when he stopped running: ‘I remember running like that - surely not so long ago, when weekends seemed as long as playing fields. Nowadays they are gone in a blink: weeks, months, years - all gone into the same conjuror's hat. All the same, it makes me wonder. Why do boys always run? And when did I stop running?’
The novel is peopled with strongly-drawn characters recognisable to any teacher who has taught in a school: as well as the teachers (Straitley divides his colleagues into categories: Suits, Beards (mainly IT teachers), Eager Beavers, the Jobsworths, and the Tweeds - ‘a solitary and territorial animal’) there are familiar pupils and supporting characters too.
The pace never slows and interest is maintained throughout the book. The mystery of the unnamed character keeps the reader engrossed, and along the way there are messages about the teaching profession and the institution of school. It is an affectionate portrayal of how loyalty to a place can sometimes override loyalty to colleagues and also highlights society’s recent tendency to look perhaps a little too vigorously for corruption and consequently persecute innocent people on the basis of hearsay and vindictiveness.
Apart from sheer entertainment the book would be of value to those just entering the teaching profession - the narrative is dotted with pieces of advice from the experienced teacher turned ‘scribbler’ Joanne Harris - and newly qualified teachers could do worse than to take heed.
Clare Dudman: Do you have any connection with snails?
Joanne Harris: My gardener has constructed an enormous wicker mojo snail, a kind of snail god, because I don’t like exterminating snails very much. This snail god has worked very well. There are no snails on my strawberry plants but unfortunately they seem to have been diverted from my garden to the house.
C.D: You don’t have trouble with slugs as well?
J.H. No, not really, though I did spot one as large as a carpet slipper in the garden this morning. We have lots of hedgehogs as well so I think these should eat the snails and slugs.
C.D: What is your proudest moment?
J.H: Giving birth to my daughter.
C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
J.H: I have life-changing events everyday, but I suppose the main one was being given a second-hand computer when I was 19. I had been writing everything long hand but having a computer meant I could start sending manuscripts off.
C.D: When did you first start to write?
J.H: At a very young age. I had not a clear idea of what I wanted to write - I mainly did copies of work that I liked such as Edgar Rice Burrows: including subjects like forbidden cities and pirate crews.
C.D: Did this lead onto your first books - of gothic horror?
J.H: It took me some time to evolve my own style. There was a series of experiments. I didn’t like to write the same story twice.
C.D: You’ve written books in different genres - is that what you’d say?
J.H: I don’t believe that thinking in terms of genres is very helpful. It starts people thinking that there are some things they shouldn’t read. It is convenient for marketeers.
C.D: Would you call HOLY FOOLS an historical novel?
J.H: No, you could say the setting was historical , but it is not based on genuine figures - which is what I think of as an historical novel. Historical novels are more disciplined and factual.
C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
J.H: There are two ways to answer that - either flippant or not. I suppose the saddest things I saw were on my visit to the Congo-Brazzaville trip. But one of the saddest things I heard recently was that three-quarters of young girls want to grow up to be like someone like Jordan rather than J K Rowling.
C.D: What did you learn from your Congo-Brazzaville trip?
J.H: That water doesn’t necessarily come out of taps, that food doesn’t come from supermarkets, that we have no right to use the phrase ‘I need’ in this country. I think it is beneficial for anyone to spend some time in a third world country and to see the poor over there. It gives your own life a different perspective. It is not easily forgotten and it changes you for good.
C.D: Why did you go on this trip?
J.H: Because I gave the proceeds of my cookery book to Médecins sans Frontières and they wanted me to write a piece on their work for the Daily Telegraph. It was supposed to be a small trip but it changed into something larger.
C.D: Do you feel tempted to write about that?
J.H: Yes, that would be something very interesting to do. But it would be important not to trivialise it. I would need to spend more time there.
C.D: Why were the Médecins sans Frontières people there?
J.H: It was the general aftermath of colonisation and occupation, civil war and breakdown of law and order. It was not unique to that area.
C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
J.H: At the moment I’m on heron patrol. I look out of the window for the heron because he is catching the fish in our pond. Then I get my daughter Anouchka up for school and I have lots and lots of tea.
C.D: What is your typical working day?
J.H: After I have got Anouchka off to school I work until 1-2pm and then I stop. I still have a teacherly mode of working. I always have to have a break at 11 am and stop after lunch otherwise my brain gets in a mess. I then do something non-intellectual like gardening or read or go to the gym or watch a movie. I only ever work for six hours really well.
C.D: GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS is an affectionate study of school-life and teaching and I thought it excellent all the way through..
J.H: Thank you.
C.D: There is a lot of good advice for newly qualified teachers...
J.H: Well, I’d been a teacher for fifteen years...
C.D: I recognised things from my experience as a teacher even though I taught in a comprehensive not an independent school.
J.H: Well, I taught in both - there are lots of similarities.
C.D: Yes. I recognised a lot. Do you miss the teaching life?
J.H: I was a born teacher and I think it is difficult to get teaching out your system. There are things I miss but not enough to want to go back.
C.D: What do you miss the most?
J.H: The continuous soap opera, the perpetual farce - it’s fascinating - how everything can change and become horrible over night. Of course you are exhausted all the time because there is so much stimulus. Once you are stuck on your own, as a writer, you have to find stimulus elsewhere.
C.D: What do you miss the least?
J.H: Oh, the administration. Being endlessly in disgrace with the management.
C.D: How much of you is in Straitley (one of the protagonists) or in any of the other teachers?
J.H: Some of Straitley is me. There is a some of me in both protagonists. I like writing as a villain. There are things you can enjoy doing in print that you cannot do otherwise. I also enjoyed my other protagonist’s black humour.
C.D: Have you always wanted to write?
J.H: Yes, but it didn’t occur to me that it could ever be a job. At first I taught and wrote and had books published and found i could combine the two quite well but then it entered another phase...
C.D: With CHOCOLAT?
J.H: Yes. And then it wasn’t possible to do both. It would never have crossed my mind to quite teaching before that.
C.D: How long did it take you to get your first novel published in 1989?
J.H: A long time. It is so tough and there are so many people that want to be published. What people don’t realise is that there is no one in the publishing houses to read the manuscripts. There just aren’t enough people. You have to be represented by an agent.
C.D: Are you self-taught as a writer?
J.H: Yes. There was nothing available where I live. I am sure I would have benefited from a course. I made mistakes. I had to learn the hard way.
C.D: Was it a conscious decision to change tack? To write CHOCOLAT?
J.H: It wasn’t as big a change as it looks. I was writing lots of different things. I was several years evolving my own style.
C.D: Were you happy with the film adaptation of CHOCOLAT?
J.H: Yes. Perhaps it was sweeter, not as edgy as the book but I liked the end result.
C.D: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
J.H: Hard to say - maybe my pessimism and maybe my temper.
C.D: What is happiness?
J.H: Having a snowball fight with my daughter and husband on a sunny day.
Like Jonathan Trigell's and Freda Hadwen's interviews an abridged version of this interview is expected to appear in the Chester Chronicle.