Tilbury - Making a Difference - by Peter Leyland
Tilbury: Making a Difference
Starting out as a teacher in the 1970s I was an idealist. I was determined to change the world…
After a short spell teaching general subjects at a private school, I went to Tilbury with my then wife Viv, and started at a comprehensive school called St Chads, which doesn’t exist now. Apparently, it burned down but I haven’t been able to find out how. St Chad's was a converted secondary modern and looked it, except that an English department had been added - a bright new building at the back of the school - and that’s where I started with my own classroom. I had a BA (Hons) degree in English, and that’s all you needed in those days, no actual teaching qualifications. I could learn on the job.
And learn I did, mostly that a lot of the children I taught couldn’t read or write very well and if they did, were not very keen on it anyway. The school leaving age had just been raised to 16 and most of them were not very keen on that either.
My most difficult class were those known as the ‘rems’ because as well as not being keen on reading and writing they were disruptive. It was probably a mixture of the dyslexic, dyspraxic, autistic, slow-learners, and children who just didn’t want to be at school, but I didn’t know those words or expressions then. During my first lesson - for some obscure reason I was told to deliver Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men - they just sat at the back of the room and laughed and talked to each other, and when I shouted they shouted back. Luckily there were only about 14 of them so it didn’t make too much noise.
This could not go on as I had them for four hours a week, so I came up with a solution. I would ask them about themselves, who were they and what did they like doing? They had horses and bikes, ‘choppers’, they said and liked playing with them. They could show me…
At great risk to myself, and actually I can’t believe I did this now, we went into the fields surrounding the school and there I was introduced to their horses, tethered in parts of scrubby grassland, and I was shown how they rode their bikes with great skill. After one or two of these visits, I decided to take a portable tape recorder with me, and I recorded the conversations that took place. Some of them had very little part in the talking and I even think one or two absconded. This was a practice known as ‘hopping’ in the school community, which was descended from generations of hop pickers.
When I got home with the tape recorder, and you have to remember that I had four other classes to teach each day and was almost worn out by the end, I persuaded Viv to transcribe the tape with her typewriter onto a stencil, a grey roll on which you would use a pink correcting fluid for mistakes. In the morning I queued up with other staff - probably last as I was new - to use the automatic copier, and finally produced 12 copies of a script of the conversations I had had with the class who were no longer ‘rems’ but were actually able to articulate something about themselves. It probably sounds so simple now, but it really wasn’t then.
First, I played back the tape to them:
Is that me?
I don’t sound like that do I?
Mr Leyland, he’s…
They were absolutely fascinated at hearing themselves. It would be more difficult I guessed to use the scripts. After all, they couldn’t read, or could they? It was the next lesson on the following day and as I was to find out some could read, and those who couldn’t, could start. Words like 'cushty' and 'wafty', which were in the script, were their own language and they liked to see them written down.
It went on like this for about a year. I began writing very short plays for them, scenes that I had invented about their lives. If I had been more ‘savvy’, I would have sent them out and had them published but as I have said I was too interested in changing the world. At any rate I somehow survived my second year as a teacher.
But this isn’t everything that I wanted to tell you about. In addition to the teaching, and hoping to get more of an understanding of who these children were, both Viv and I had started working two nights a week at the local youth club which was just beside the school. She had remarkable skill at this, made a natural bond with some of the girls, and eventually produced a version of ‘Cinderella’ with these young people, who ranged from 13-18. It was a great success.
Now I don’t remember if Alix was involved in the production, but he had become drawn to us as a couple and we had sort of befriended him. He wasn’t at St Chad’s, but he was from Tilbury and went to another school, Palmer’s Boys in Grays nearby. I am going to use his own words from the book that he has recently published called My Brother, the Killer: A Family Story. It is another story about Tilbury, a grim one, and this is just a short extract that Viv sent to me recently. The extract concentrates on how we knew Alix and it illustrates what I mean by ‘making a difference’. I haven’t read the whole book yet but intend to.This is from p.174:
“My appearance at Chelmsford Crown Court in August 1975 marks a shift in attitude. Looking back at that whole experience – the fight and subsequent trial, and my narrow escape from the teeth of the British criminal justice system - I realise how close I’d come to wrecking my own life before it had really begun.
And so I start looking around for a way out of Tilbury. I befriend a married couple called Pete and Viv, young teachers who also work part time at the local youth club. They treat me like a smart and funny kid, as opposed to a beery yob. So instead of running around Tilbury drinking all night and getting into fistfights outside the chip shop. I spend evenings at their flat while they cook pasta and make salads, and then we sit around listening to records and talking about books and art, and drinking wine and even smoking the odd joint. I show them my drawings and we discuss rock music and street fashion. Although barely five years older than me, they both seem incredibly sophisticated. They have studied literature at university, and can quote poets and philosophers. Aside from the Old Man, Pete is the only person I have ever met who has been to New York. Eventually they tell me that I should stop wasting my life and go to art school. Vivien gives me a Thames & Hudson book by Eric Newton called The Arts of Man, my first step on a fumbling path towards an understanding of art history.
On their advice I start making drawings for a portfolio, apply to an East London technical college and gain a place on its Foundation in Art and Design course, the one-year primer course required before starting any degree course in art.”
Now Viv wasn’t a teacher, but the rest is mostly true and clicks into my abiding memory of that time. She worked on a magazine in London, commuting by train from Tilbury, but finally gave that up and began working at a local betting shop. I remember her bringing home a bag of nectarines, a present from a punter who had won some money. I had never tasted these before. After we had split up, she went on to become a reporter.
But to return to the book, My Brother the Killer. According to the review on Goodreads it is a harrowing story of a murder which Alix’s brother Stuart committed in Tilbury in 2001. As I said I haven’t read the book yet, but the reviews make it very compelling. They also tell me something about Alix’s life since the days when I knew him and about his subsequent career as a journalist. This made me reconsider my place in the lives of those whom I have encountered in my own life. While Alix’s story wasn’t a revelation, it made me think about how we can often make a difference in the lives of others. I still haven’t changed the world though.
Peter Leyland 15/09/21
My Brother the Killer by Alix Sharkey (2021)
My article on The Companionship of Books has just been accepted for publication by an International Journal