Tales Out Of School by Gervase Phinn
Gervase Phinn was a school inspector for many years, and it shows in the Top of the Dale novels, of which this is the second. Not that you need to have read the first to enjoy this well written book; the characters and the community generally are so well described and explained that it is easy to pick up the story. The novel revolves around the characters associated with the primary school in the village of Risingdale, where the staff are a remarkable mixture. Central to the story is Tom Dwyer, a young teacher who is trying to bring new ideas to the school in the 1980s, when the story is set. Phinn works hard to establish the time frame with small details and perhaps a certain innocence in days before social media and sophisticated children. This is a Yorkshire story of long memories, isolated farms and some fascinating characters.
The school is an important gathering place, as is the village shop in nearby Barton-in-the-Dale, run by the source of local gossip Mrs Sloughthwaite, who describes herself as “the very soul of indiscretion”. A lot of the humour in this novel comes from the children, who are nearly all from farming families and have very basic ideas about life as a result. The local vicar often visits the school, leading to some interesting situations. The family is strongly led by the family who owns the local big house and much of the land and many houses in the village, Sir Hedley Maladroit being powerful but often benevolent.
As the novel opens, a woman and a young boy are looking at schools, and end up at Risingdale. The woman appears to be very attractive to the local men, and the headteacher is no exception. She is renting the old Methodist chapel as a studio because she is a well known artist. Her son Leo’s arrival in Tom’s classroom causes some excitement, as his level of understanding is very different to the local children. Not that that is the only thing happening; Sir Maladroit’s son Julian has been causing problems for years, and his behaviour is not improving. Tom was greatly affected by the departure of a young woman in pursuit of promotion in his job, but now he begins to wonder if there are other options. The other teachers in the school include a Mr Caldwallander, who has a fund of army anecdotes and frequently has problems with his pupils. Miss Tranter has an interesting background, but during this book finds a possible alternative way of life.
This is more than a school story, involving an entire community at its most interesting. It is very funny, with gentle humour which emerges naturally from the situations drawn together in this novel. I found it very enjoyable and very engaging, with Phinn’s ability to find the natural humour in many situations. There are a lot of satisfying elements of this book which emerge from the behaviour of the people, especially as the setting with its challenging weather and memorable scenery makes a wonderful background. This is a lovely book to read which describes a time well within living memory, yet which is very interesting when described so well. I found this a really good read, and recommend it as a humorous book which tackles some serious points in community life