Friday, 23 January 2009

Book review: "Teacher, Teacher!" by Jack Sheffield

"Teacher, Teacher!" is the first book in a series by Jack Sheffield, recounting in fictional form the life and work of a new headmaster in a Yorkshire school in 1977. It is a light-hearted, compassionate book that frequently made me laugh out loud.

The characters are all very well observed, from Ming, the Vietnamese boat girl who spends a few weeks at the school, to Ruby, the large yet infinitely caring school caretaker. There is a lightness to the writing, which means that some of the villains (for instance Stan Coe) can appear slightly one-dimensional. However, more complex characters may have been to the detriment of this wonderful book.

The format of the book is interesting - each chapter describes a particular event (e.g. 'The Governer's Meeting', and has an extract from the school logbook at the start giving potted details of the event. As such, the book can be seen as a collection of anecdotal chapters with a loose theme (of love and the passing school year) running though it.

There are a few magical scenes in this book, foremost of which was the description of the headmaster's visit to a special school. This scene, and particularly the ending, actually had me in tears.

What fascinates me are how real some of these anecdotes feel. Mister Sheffield was for many years a headmaster, and I can easily imagine most, if not all, of these anecdotes having occurred at one time or another. I can only hope that the school and village of Ragley-on-the-Forest are firmly rooted in fiction.

There are some downsides to this book. For one thing, the author tries too hard to root this book in its period, and to make it easy for people to remember back to how things were thirty years before. For this reason, he mentions brands and prices frequently, in a way that becomes all too intrusive after a while. This frequently seems like unnecessary detail. For instance:
Ruby put on her cotton winceyette nightdress, which her daughters had bought her from Boyes in Ousebridge for £5.50...
However, this is a minor foible in what is otherwise an excellent book.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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