Simon Packham Talks To Bookbag About Going Back To School

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Simon Packham Talks To Bookbag About Going Back To School


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Summary: Simon Packham was surprised when he realisedhow much of his writing involved school. Now he realises that it was inevitable.
Date: October 2013

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External links: Author's website


It seems appropriate that I'm writing this on the first day of the new school year. Directly below me, the children of Horsham are making their way - with varying degrees of enthusiasm - towards the local comprehensive. I haven't been 'back to school' for several decades, (apart from plugging my books of course) but the spectacle still fills me with a feeling of dread.

Before I came to write this, I'd always thought that the school setting for my Young Adult fiction was largely a coincidence; a device enabling me to write standalone contemporary novels that could be marketed as part of a series. I now realise it was inevitable.

Looking back on my reading and viewing habits, I'm genuinely amazed how often they've involved school. My favourite film of all time is If (A 1968 satire on life at a British public school), The Inbetweeners easily makes my top five sit-coms, Tom Brown's School Days is a vivid, early reading experience and more recently I'm a huge fan of John Green's, Looking for Alaska.

The school story is a particularly British (and latterly American) form. It's not nearly as popular elsewhere, although I believe in Soviet Russia it was sometimes used to illustrate how individualistic behaviour could be corrected through proper schooling. The only books I've ever collected are battered editions of Talbot Baines Reed (1852-1893) whose stories were originally serialised in The Boys' Own Paper. Set at ancient public schools, they mainly involve noble friendships, caddish bullies, new pupils trying to fit in, crucial sports fixtures, and the falsely accused being finally vindicated. The 1907 edition of his most famous work The Fifth Form at St Dominic's sold over 750,000 copies. And the thing is, I absolutely love them.

So it may surprise you that my school days were by no means the happiest of my life. But if a 1970s boys' grammar school had its drawbacks, (caddish bullies, trying to fit in, anything to do with maths!) there were certainly some interesting characters about. Take the art master, known affectionately as 'Killer', who kept a sword in his store cupboard, which he would occasionally smash down on an unsuspecting boy's desk.

So what is it about the school setting that I find so inspiring? For a start, it's the perfect place to mix comedy with tragedy. In some ways school is a readymade dystopia. A group of youthful victims who will do almost anything to survive, presided over by a seemingly capricious ruling elite. But it's also the funniest place in the world. I've never laughed as much as I did at school. What could be more hilarious that the 'in joke' you share with your mates?

As a writer, it's a real pleasure working with characters that are thinking and feeling things for the first time. Passions run high; for music, football teams, boyfriends/girlfriends – politics even. Everything is that much more exciting. As an actor I was lucky enough to be involved in several first nights in the West-End, but nothing came close to the thrill of performing HMS Pinafore in the school hall.

The scope of the school novel is massive. For all the witchcraft and wizardry, Harry Potter is very much in the tradition of Talbot Baines Reed. As for young adult contemporary fiction, setting my novels at St Thomas's Community College (a fairly typical comprehensive) has allowed me to explore numerous topical themes: cyber-bullying, child carers, our complex relationship with technology, self-harming and internet pornography for example. Ultimately a book lives or dies by its characters, but there's a tremendous freedom in being able to observe almost any area of modern life without flinching.

Well almost any area. As I listen to the banter of the school kids in the street below, I sometimes wish I could do full justice to their colourful language.

(Simon's latest YA novel Firewallers was published in May. His next book Trust Games, also set at St Thomas's Community College, is scheduled for May 2014)


1. The Inbetweeners (sit-com and film)
2. Tom Brown's School Days (Thomas Hughes novel)
3. Looking for Alaska (John Green novel)
4. Gentleman and Players (Joanne Harris novel)
5. Bad Education (sit-com)
6. If (1968 Lindsay Anderson Film)
7. The New Boy (William Sutcliffe novel)
8. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark novel)
9. Unman, Wittering and Zigo (Giles Cooper radio play)
10. The Willoughby Captains (Talbot Baines Reed novel)

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