A series of books about a village school, told from the point of view of the Head teacher, set in the 1980s, is a familiar idea. “School’s Out” is the seventh book in the series, which seems to be continuing into this year with a prequel. These books are better read in order, but I am convinced that this book, like the others, could be read as a standalone. These books, and certainly this one, are essentially gentle reads set in a small community with all its foibles and events. Perhaps it is not full of great literary elements, and it will not change the world with either its narrative, language or character insight, but it is a delightful read in any circumstances.
This book is set in the academic year 1983 -1984, and no opportunity is overlooked in giving the details of the time; the price of sweets, newspapers and magazines. News and views of the day is referred to throughout, perhaps most poignantly in the references to the miners’ strike of the time. This is a book about people, mainly seen through the eyes of Jack, the head teacher of the school, as he records the real nature of events and daily life in the school in an unofficial school logbook. This is a book about the children, making their mark in the school, being scouts outside the building, and general contributing to the life of the village. It is about the staff, as they deal with their classrooms, their own relationships, and the change of teachers as they face the new technology of computers. Vera is the efficient secretary who has married the local lord of the manor, but retains an unrivalled knowledge of the village. Ruby is the cleaner, devoted to her own and all the children of the village, but who must face her own problems. The small stories of the people in the village, the hairdressers, the shopkeepers, the limitations of the of the local drama group, are all faithfully depicted, mostly in very funny ways. This book does not really build up into any great crisis point, but progresses through the school year with changing weather, various celebrations and always the funny and strange things that children do and say. The story of Jack’s own relationship with his wife Beth, her family, and the growing baby John also form a background to the novel, as they face the same decisions as couples have done over the years.
I enjoyed this book, with all its too human challenges and stories. As a teacher I recognised the sort of little anecdotes of what children say and do, and this being a village school there are many sorts of children, a fact recognised by Sheffield as he hints at what they will do in the future. This is a book which is immensely approachable, much in the same way as James Herriot wrote so movingly about the people and animals of the Yorkshire dales. It is special because this is a writer who knows his subject so well that he does not need to create the stories as much as order them and draw out their full humour. His painstaking recording of small details meant to anchor the novel in the time can be a little tiresome and breaks up the flow of the stories, but that is a minor quibble in an engaging read. This is a book with few pretensions, but is undoubtedly enjoyable and part of a fascinating series.
So many different sorts of books, so little time! This week (on Thursday) my review of “I am Heathcliff” is featured on Shiny New Books and I will hope to have some other reviews popping up hereabouts. In other news I start back at University for the second year of my M.A. course in Public History and Heritage this week, continue preparing my talk on Vera Brittain and the First World War, host a Macmillan Coffee Morning with much cake, and help with the Big Book Sale for Book Aid. I may read a book or two as well!