Mrs Shepherd, queen of the Bristol Grammar School library, has an unbelievable rogues’ gallery of authors in her acquaintance (she once taught J.K. Rowling, and scuttlebutt suggests she had some part in inspiring Prof. McGonagall), and through her deftly organised events I had the pleasure of meeting various grand old children’s literature personalities back when I was at BGS – among them Malorie Blackman, Eoin Colfer, Garth Nix, Morris Gleitzman and, best of all, Philip Reeve. Some months ago, one of my old English teachers pinged me on Facebook (yes, I have teachers on Facebook, shut up) to ask if I would be up for helping do an assembly with another author, a chap named Charlie Higson, in June. Mr Higson is one of those blokes who seems to have been everywhere and done everything: singer, comedian, decorator, actor, novelist, writer of various TV comedy things (he was part of the writing team that invented Lods Emone.) But, most recently, coming off the success of his Young Bond books (which I only ever really knew about through my mentor in my old Runescape clan, who went by the handle Young_Bond_4) he’s written a series of stories about a zombie apocalypse where the virus kills or zombifies everyone over the age of 14. And that was the hook upon which he was coming to BGS.
So I said yes, and emailed Mrs Shepherd back and forth about times and details, and not too long later three books about zombies appeared on my doorstep. (Verdict: perfectly tailored to the intended audience of teenage boys who like violence – good pacing, good sense of place, technically competent, in touch with what the yoof o’today like, unsentimental and pull absolutely no punches – but are all basically a series of gruesome bone-crunchin’ pus-squirtin’ murder-themed money-shots, and past the stock zombie-movie moral dilemmas avoid really challenging the reader in any way except the strength of their stomach. Mr Higson explained that he avoids putting in words that children wouldn’t understand. I would have loved them unreservedly if I were ten years younger.)
My active role was on Thursday morning, but I went up on Wednesday afternoon for the public event, with zombie-themed cakes and snacks, including biscuit decorations which actually looked like dried blood, and decorative bowls of jelly full of fingers, eyeballs and maggots (as represented by frankfurters, shallots, and grains of rice) and sat next to a bunch of amusingly enthusiastic boys from Cotham High while Mr Higson did his thing. The next morning, having prepared a couple of questions, I put them to him in front of a sea of young faces. Being very conscious of how much I’d loathed past “In conversation with…” people cracking jokes and pretending the show was about them rather than the author, all I did was ask questions, and it was slightly bizarre feeling like a flunkey who could have been replaced by a piece of paper, but I hope I did a good job. Mr H seemed a bit tense and standoffish beforehand – I got the strong impression that he hated waiting around for things to happen – but once he was on stage, spoke engagingly with total confidence and aplomb. Then he handed out prizes to the winners of a short story competition, and we went down to hobnob with the winners (the grandfather of one of which, having heard me introduced as a War Studies grad, cornered me to tell a round of war stories about the Berlin occupation and about knowing Sir Michael Howard; it was great). In the wait between that and another assembly, Mr H and I chatted briefly about writing, and the wish-fulfillment nature of zombie apocalypses, and so on. He struck me as a thoroughly good egg.
Going back to school is weird. It definitely hasn’t been long enough for me to have any fuzzy nostalgia for an institution which I was mostly indifferent to and a place where I was mostly unhappy, but it’s been long enough for it to change a lot. I don’t know anyone there any more except the staff, and many of those I knew have left or, as in the case of Mr Selwyn (my old year 10 form tutor and a generally brilliant and inspirational man), died. And it still feels terribly strange hearing teachers referred to by their first names. (“How’re you doing, sir?” “Please, it’s Roger now!” “What? No! You’ll always be Mr Cox. Sir.”) But I got to hang out with my wonderful old A-level English teachers, Mrs Maddock and Mrs Yemenakis, and while I won’t pretend that I didn’t find my time there (and my childhood in general) a ceaseless sequence of gagging misery, I also won’t pretend that it’s not a good school with great teachers.
And – holy of holies – I got to actually enter the staffroom and sit there like an adult. All I can say is, there was a lot more cereal than I was expecting.
About a year ago, back in Birmingham, I was sat at my computer chomping some rather truculent pork scratchings, when I felt a particularly large and painful crunch and found that part of one of my teeth had broken off. There’s a filling in the tooth (right-hand maxillary first molar), and while the filling remained, one side of the now-hollowed-out actual tooth had been levered off. Fortunately there were no exposed nerves, but it’s not fun having a yawning (ha) sharp-edged hole in your tooth, so I found an emergency dentist in Birmingham, rode a bus out to the far side of town, sat in a waiting room for half an hour, and they moulded a new bit of tooth into the hole with cement and I rode home texting godawful tooth puns to Fran. So when, while walking back from Asda chomping some crisps, I felt a particularly large and painful crunch and a yawning (haha) sharp-edged hole in my right-hand maxillary first molar, you could say I knew the drill.
The new NHS 111 line is terribly sensible – you ring it and a human appears to give you advice – but unfortunately the advice the cheerful, helpful chap at the other end gave me wasn’t very good. The first number he gave me wasn’t an NHS place; the second didn’t take emergency patients; the third had a five week waiting list. The fourth came good. Dad kindly drove me to the far side of town, and I sat in a waiting room for three quarters of an hour before a brisk, efficient Teutonic-sounding doctor moulded a new bit of tooth into the hole with cement, and I rode the bus home (no puns though.) It feels much stronger than the Brum one (and was much cheaper!) – hopefully it’ll last more than a year this time…