Berlie Doherty is the author of over 60 books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody; and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her most recent books are Far From Home and Joe and the Dragonosaurus.
I Remember and Let’s Pretend
The following is a short extract from my autobiographical essay, I Remember and Let’s Pretend which is published in full in Something About the Author Autobiographical Series Vol 16 (Gale Press, USA, 1993). The Continuing Story from 1993 was published by Gale Press USA in June 2016.
I am a baby in my mother’s arms. She is carrying me into a noisy room full of children, and I’m afraid. The children are painting and drawing; all playing. One of them runs up to me and reaches up to put a necklace round my neck. It is made of plasticine, and I can smell it, rubbery and sharp. It is cool against my skin.
I am about two or three, and the sun is shining. The tar on the road is sticky. I am sitting on the front door step with a little boy called Johnny. He asks me to kiss him, and I do. We laugh a lot.
I am three or four. I stand at a tram stop. The wind is cold on my legs. My father is holding my hand. When the tram comes he puts me on it and I start to cry. “Don’t cry,” he tells me. “You’ll be all right.” He waves goodbye. I cry until someone lifts me off the tram and tells me she is my cousin. She takes me to my aunt’s house and tells me I am going to live there. At night my aunt loosens her plait and brushes her hair in front of the mirror. It is very long and very grey. There are cobwebs dangling from the ceiling above my bed, and I think they are her hairs. My cousin has a pot-faced doll that someone sent her from America. It is bigger than a baby, and very beautiful. She keeps it in a drawer, and I’m frightened that it will die in there.
My aunt takes me on a tram to the ferry, and there is my father waiting for me. He doesn’t look like my father. The ferry takes us across the brown river from Liverpool to Birkenhead, and the spray is salty on my lips and in my hair. Gulls are screaming round us. The wind is so strong that I can hardly stand up. We go on a train that takes forever and my sister is waiting at the other end. She doesn’t look like my sister. We walk to a big house in a garden full of trees and my father holds me up to a window. There are lots of beds lined up. He taps on the glass and someone waves from one of the beds. “Sing for Mummy’, he tells me. “Is that Mummy?” I ask. I tap on the glass and sing “Woody woodpecker! It’s the woody woodpecker’s song…” and everybody laughs. When the nurse isn’t looking my sister takes my hand and we run into the ward together, and when the nurse turns round she hides me under my mother’s bed. That night I am taken back to Liverpool and put back on the tram. I cry. “Don’t cry”, my father says. “It will be all right.”
Somewhere in the world I have a big brother called Denis who can fly and who sends me picture postcards. I don’t know what he looks like.
I am four. I am living with my father and my sister Jean in a house in the country. There are geese in a field at the bottom of the garden, and I think they are calling my name. I run to them, and when they hiss round me I am frightened.
I am nearly five. We have moved to another house, a little terraced house near the sea. My sister is there, and my father, and my mother. Jean is happy because she has a new job and a new boyfriend and she has found a shop that sells chocolate biscuits. I am happy because we are together again, and my brother knows where we are because he sends me another postcard, and my mother is better.
We lived near the sea, and my shoes were always lumpy with sand and my knees sparkling with it.
We lived in a small house in a street of identical houses.
…On good evenings we’d sit on our steps gossiping, doing the veg for tea, and our mums would stand leaning in the doorways with cups of tea in their hands, calling across to each other and waiting for the bread cart to come round. It was driven by an elderly chap called Wallo and pulled by Peggotty, his horse. Peggotty and my mum got on really well together – I don’t know why, because she never liked animals in the house, never even let me have so much as a jar of caterpillars. If there was any bread over from the day before Mum would put jam on it and save it for Peggotty, and the horse would come to expect this little treat, and though she was pretty slow at getting about she would gallop past the last few houses on the street up to ours, and stamp on the step. If she didn’t get what she wanted soon enough she would come right in, or as far as the cart would let her, snorting and tossing her long head back until she got her slice. I didn’t like to be the one who gave it her, though – I didn’t like to feel the flat slap of her wet mouth across my hand, or to hear the solid chomping of her enormous teeth.
Sometimes she’d leave a payment for the bread and jam in a big steaming dollop on the pavement outside, and I’d have to shovel it into a bucket and put it into the back yard for Dad to take to his allotment. I didn’t mind doing that.… (Extract from The Making of Fingers Finnigan)
My friends and I used to play out in the street till dusk, when the lamps were coming on, and we would skip and play ball, or have concerts in the entry, and our chanting voices would bounce off the walls of the yards. Our mothers would call us, and in bed we would hear the older children still playing and shouting. I longed to be old enough to do that. I longed even more to be as old as Jean, and to wear high-heeled shoes and skirts that swirled out when you danced. She had a jar of perfume on the dressing-table and I drank it to see what it tasted like. When Jean had stomach cramps my mother would bring her warm milk with rum in it, and Jean would give it to me. I looked forward to being old enough to have stomach cramps of my own, and to have my mother’s attention and warm milk and rum.
Over the railway lines were fields, and there my father and I would walk, or on the hills that were covered with gorse and sandy tracks where lizards darted. My mother never walked with us. If I have inherited anything from her it is my love of daydreaming. She loved to sit in the firelight and watch the flickering of flames and the shadows they made on the walls. Years later she gazed at the television set in the same way, watching the flickering patterns there, for hours on end, daydreaming.
From my father I inherited stories.
When I didn’t cycle to school I went on the bus, and wrote stories or read for the whole journey. When I was ten there was a teacher whom I loved. Almost every day he used to save my life. In school assembly I used to faint, often, and he would scoop me up and carry me outside for air. “Did you die?” my friends would ask me, awed. “What was it like, dying?”
“One day,” this teacher told me, “You’ll be a writer.”
I think he was the gentlest person I have ever met, in a school where I witnessed frightening cruelty.
…How clearly I remember the day Mr Devlin nearly murdered Angelo Caravelli in class: Angelo who had the looks of a cherub on a holy Christmas card, and who had no sense at all about keeping still at his desk. I remember my particular terror because Angelo was my friend and because he sat in front of me, which meant that I saw the look in Mr Devlin’s eyes just before he did. Like a cat he pounced as the boy turned round to talk to me, and all our chatter flew away up and into silence like birds scattering into treetops, and in shock we watched as the boy was lifted from his chair and flung on to his desk-top and pummelled many times: and all the while this was going on we could only stare, locked in terror, till Mr. Heaney* from the next classroom came through and spoke quietly and released us all…
In my last year at that small school it was quiet Mr. Heaney who committed a terrible act of violence against himself. He killed himself. Some said he did it by slitting his wrists in his bath, till the water was cold and crimson with his own blood. So it wasn’t he who gave me the news but Mr. Devlin. He made me stand up in class while he told me that I had passed the scholarship to go to the convent school… (Extract from Requiem)
I went to the convent school by two buses or by bike. When I went by bike the chain always came off and I would arrive with my hands smeared with black oil. I was the only child in the street to go to the convent school. I wore a green uniform, which our parish priest paid for. There was no way that my parents could have afforded it, but my father hated accepting charity from a priest (he wasn’t a Catholic himself) and in fact never came in to the school, not even when I had the lead part in a show in my final term.
At school I was a relatively poor child among many very rich girls. I had to lose my Liverpool accent in order to survive. I had to keep my nails clean, and have my hair tied back in plaits. And at night, instead of playing out, I had homework to do. To my friends in the street, who all went to a local school, it was the ultimate betrayal. They never forgave me for it.
…Kevin said, “I bet you’d like to be an Indian princess, wouldn’t you, Julie?” Her eyes lit up. The star part! We looked at him in disgust and just stood there popping our bubble gum while he explained to her that she had betrayed her tribe and would have to be tied to the totem pole. …. We began to march round her, chanting very softly ‘How green you are, how green you are, how green you are..how green…’ and then louder and louder as we danced away from her still in our long Indian file, till we got right to the top of our street where we played another game altogether, totally ignoring the yells of fury from the lamp-post, and when our mums called us in to tea we all ran in and forgot about her… (Extract from How Green You Are!)
The convent school had beautiful gardens, a nuns’ burial ground, a forbidden glen, an overgrown pond, and the ghost of a drowned nun. I loved it. I loved the orderliness of it, the quietness of the nuns, the sound of their singing. Most of all I loved the chapel, with its sweet smells of polish and incense and flowers, and the jewelled patterns of light cast by the stained glass windows, the tiptoings of the nuns as they came and went, the susurrations of their prayers. I must have spent hours there, at peace with myself and daydreaming, and I understand now that it must have looked like prayer, and that my natural love of solitude and introspection must have made me seem a very holy child
…Mother Mary Joseph, hovering and beckoning from the doorway of her study. A spider. Her hand came across and closed, cold, over mine…
“It’s been quite apparent to us for a long, long time. We’ve been watching you, my child. Don’t turn your heart away. We will all welcome you.”
Mother Imelda’s gown was caught up in one of the bushes. She worked stiff fingers to free herself. Mother Agnes had come out into the garden now. Laughing, she went over to the old nun and leaned over to release her.
“You must not be afraid, child. This is a most wonderful gift.”
….I still couldn’t look at her. Outside now there were more nuns receiving the sunlight in their walled garden. Sparrows and finches were playing about on the dusty paths, lifting themselves up with sudden bright wingbeats as the nuns approached them. House martins darted along the eaves of the convent house, swinging and drifting across to the fields beyond. The spider voice went on, and again the cold hand closed over mine.
…“Oh Mother Joseph.” Helplessness flooded over me. “Please don’t make me.”… (from Requiem)
But indeed nobody made me, and it must have soon become very clear that I had no vocation to be a nun, because the matter was never referred to again. My commitment was to other things. I wanted to write, and I wanted to sing. My life has turned out in such a way that it has been possible to do both, and I know how lucky I am, though I never became the singer of my dreams, and my writing had to wait a long time before I put my mind to it properly.
It wasn’t always so. We had a local paper called the Liverpool Echo and on Saturday it had a children’s page. If you submitted a story or poem and it was accepted you received ten shillings and sixpence or a box of chocolates or paints or fireworks. It was wonderful to receive these presents and I thought it must always be like this for writers. My father used to type out my stories and send them in for me. He wanted success for me. You see, he was a writer too, in the sense that he loved writing and was compelled to do it. He occasionally had stories and poems published himself in the Railway Magazine (he was a railway clerk) and in the local paper. I grew up with the belief that writing was an everyday thing, the habit of a lifetime, that the typewriter was part of the furniture of the house, and that the next step after daydreaming was writing the daydreams down.
It came as a great shock to me, on my fourteenth birthday, to receive a letter from the editor of the Liverpool Echo telling me I was too old now to be published on the children’s page. I had to retire from writing, and it seemed to me then that my writing career had come to an end. I know that I withdrew into myself at this time, that my writing became secretive and experimental, that I despaired of my ability. Maybe this was the beginning of my seeking sanctuary in the school chapel. I was rescued from my introversion by two lay teachers, both of whom came in my last few years at school. One taught English, the other, music.
I don’t think anyone could have been happier than I was when I got married and my three children were born. I loved the creative side of motherhood, and set myself to make the most of their babyhood. I knew I wanted to have a different kind of relationship with them from the one I’d had with my own mother. Loving though she had been, her frequent illnesses had driven her inside herself. I don’t ever remember her playing with me or reading to me, or doing much beyond the absolutely necessary in any sphere. In many ways my sister Jean had more to do with my childhood than my mother had – she was thirteen years older than me and I idolised her.
And yet there was that ghost, waiting in the wings. Part of me stood on one side and watched and waited, and I was aware of her all the time. I was never frustrated or unhappy at that time. I just felt there was something else to come. And then, one day, a Welsh Gypsy knocked at the door…
…One day when I was at her cottage a Welsh Gypsy came to the door and told her she should have been a writing lady, and Gran laughed and said that information was worth two yards of lace, provided there was no nylon in it, but when she came back in her voice was scarcely steady enough to tell me that I should never listen to a Welsh Gypsy, ‘They trap the particles of your soul’… (Extract from White Peak Farm)
But it wasn’t my gran she was talking to. It was me. I had three small children and every minute of my day was accounted for. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I did come to write it was just by chance. It was about six years later. I often wonder what would have happened if that chance hadn’t presented itself, and whether I would be writing now. I needed it to fit in with my children’s school hours. Teaching was the only thing I could think of. I applied for a one year post-graduate course at Sheffield University, and was interested to see that there was an option to do some creative writing. I took it, remembering how I had loved writing at school. From the first time I joined the group I was nervous and excited. I was doing something that was very important to me, just me.
The tutor asked us to write a 1500 word story, and he said the subject was to be Black and White. My thoughts flew to the black and white habits that the nuns at school had worn. I thought about how the colour of the habit reflected the philosophy of their teaching – evil and good, sin and sacrifice, punishment and reward, hell and heaven. I wrote a short story called Requiem, about the death of the nun who had taught singing at my convent school. I had written many essays during my three university courses, but this one meant more to me that any of them. I was feverish with a new kind of thrill at the thought of writing it. I knew what I was doing. I wrote it as if I was in a dream, the way I had written when I was a child. I didn’t have to think about how to structure it or what kind of language to use. It was as if it had already existed, and was only waiting to be written down. It meant more to me than anything I had ever written, and it still does.
I felt quite anxious about handing it in. It was only a short piece. It would hardly contribute more than a fraction towards my final grade. Yet I lay awake at night thinking about it. Writing it had unlocked something in me, and it was a kind of emotional truth. The story was about coming through a psychological barrier; so had the writing of it been. I called it Requiem. It was indeed a way of laying to rest one part of my life, and discovering a new kind of peace. Twelve years later it became a full-length novel for adults, and a Radio 4 play, but a great deal was to happen before then.
The tutor liked the story, and recommended I should try to sell it. I was very excited. I showed it to a friend, a playwright, and he said, whatever you do, don’t push this back in a drawer. I had no idea where to send it, but I knew they sometimes broadcast stories on our local radio station, so I took it there. The producer, Dave Sheasby, bought it for eight pounds. Nothing, in the whole of my writing career, seeing my work on television and on the stage, winning two Carnegie medals, nothing has given me more joy than that first letter of acceptance gave me. I was away. I knew exactly what I was doing, and nothing could stop me now. I was writing feverishly, every night, drawing on my memories, on the journey of my own childhood.
None of the stories were about me, and yet they were all about me. When I talk to children and explain the process of writing I describe it as ‘I remember and let’s pretend.’ ‘I remember is where you start, it’s what gives the story vitality and truth. Let’s pretend is what the imagination does with it, the lies that a story-teller is allowed to tell. In How Green You Are! I was doing it on purpose. Now I can’t help it, and I know that every minute of the day something happens to me in real life that has its place in the story or poem or play that I’m writing – there’s no distinction between the real world and the world of the imagination – everything distils down into images – but the absolutely crystal-clear skill of the writer is in the process of selection and rejection, knowing what should go in and what should not, and how to wring the essence out of an image until it is almost beyond recognition, yet it’s there.
I had taught for eighteen months, during which time I had written How Green You Are!, reading it chapter by chapter to one of my classes. In a very real sense I was writing it just for them, anxious to know how closely it related to their lives and whether they liked it as a set of related stories. I didn’t tell them, of course, that I was the author! After two years with schools radio I was obliged to return to the school to fulfil my contract. I desperately didn’t want to be there. All I wanted to do now was to write. With no doubts at all in my mind I gave up my secure teaching job at the end of the year to make my living as a writer. I was supporting my three children and paying my mortgage. It had to work. I was writing every second of the day and night.
I don’t need to write in that feverish way now, but I still do. I love to have several things on the go at once – plays, novels, stories, poems. Always, always, my children have come first. But the spare minutes, the early and late hours, the quiet day-time hours, were all writing time. I’ve never worked so hard, nor felt so creatively fit.
Sometimes children say to me, ‘What would you do if you didn’t write?’ and the answer, now, is that I don’t know. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I feel as if I’ve only just begun, experiencing everything with all my senses raw, like the baby in her mother’s arms…