I have a new non-fiction book out in November, published by Little, Brown in hardback. It’ll be one of the Christmas display books at Waterstones. I guess lots of people will see it, and of course I hope lots of them read it.
But mainly, I hope lots of people see the first page… and that someone will recognise the name there.
Because on that page I’ve dedicated the book to someone I last saw when I was 10 – some 33 years ago – who probably had more to do with it being written at all than… well, even me. I need to let her know.
Who is she?
Back in 1977, I was one of the first intake at a tiny school called Lowbrook Primary, in a small town called Maidenhead in Berkshire. It was an extraordinary place for a number of reasons. It was an experiment, I think. There was a computer, and a smart, 30-year-old headteacher called Graham Sullivan who – in 1978 – was telling us all we’d need to learn to code.
But there was another teacher who inspired me personally a great deal there – seven-to-10-year-old as I was.
Her name then was Mrs Sue Evans, though she’d been born Susan George. (All the teachers used to laugh about the fact that we had a famous actress in the school, and we laughed too, though we had no idea who that actress was supposed to be.)
I remember sometimes I’d answer questions or hand her pieces of language work, and she’d occasionally look as if she’d seen a ghost. Often, it seemed like quite she liked the ghost she was seeing, or found the ghost a very curious creature indeed. This interested me. Once, I said a word she hadn’t expected me to know (it was ‘megalomaniac’) that made her ask if I’d seen her write the word on her pad. I hadn’t. Then she laughed and looked at me funny.
I realise now how much these odd, startled reactions meant. I enjoyed getting those reactions, and in the sort of natural, unconscious way that kids adapt, I realise now that I began to strive to make them happen more often.
We had an assignment in which we were to compare colours to things we’d seen in nature. When I wrote that a kind of creamy off-white was the same colour as a songthrush’s throat, Susan Evans stopped and put down her book and with a sort of half-smile, said she bet I’d end up being a writer.
Well, I realised later that it was from that point that I began thinking of that. When annoying uncles would ask what I was going to be, I didn’t just say a footballer or a soldier or a fossil-hunter any more. Writer was possible. Writer was a thing.
Writer is now a thing. And, fool’s errand as it seems, I’m trying to track her down to tell her that I’ve dedicated my new book to her… because it’s partly down to her spark that I’m making a living from writing books 35 years on.
Something happened there that opened a tiny chink of light in my head, and that made all the difference. A great teacher at primary age is worth a hundred any time after that, and she was just such a one. And I’d very much like to tell her I’ve remembered her, and what an impact she had.
Sue Evans née George is a very hard lady to track down at this remove, though.
I think she came from Wales, and I know she lived in Maidenhead. Her colleagues remember her with fondness, but eventually they left the school too – one in 1983, one a year later – and lost touch. Some think she moved back to Wales – her family might have been from South Wales. Others recall she may have split from her husband when she moved away. She’d be in her early 60s now, I expect. Her name might be back to Susan George or Sue George again… or she might have remarried and it might be something completely different again.
So this is an appeal to the public, as my other avenues of enquiry begin to peter out. The National Union of Teachers have put a call out in their magazine. I’ve been in touch with records offices (huge numbers of possible Susan Georges born within the date spread, no record of a Sue George marrying an Evans), the school, former colleagues, local papers in Wales, and an extravagant – no, an embarrassing – number of Susan Evanses and Susan Georges and Sue Georges. And even some Sues who are teachers and around the right age.
My apologies to all the bewildered Sues.
So why am I bothering? That was 33-35 years ago, and I was just another of the saplings. She certainly won’t recall one little kid she inspired from the late 1970s by now anyway. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell her how important her enthusiasm and interest remain… and that I’m prepared to testify to that in the window of Waterstones.
So please, spread the word. And if anyone knows her – if you bump into her, or have friends in common, or even suspect your Sue or Susan is this Sue or Susan, then tell her. The things she did mean a lot, more than ever maybe, even now in 2014. As it says on the book: Better late than never.