Mr J. was the first man to seduce me with his voice. Not that he intended to seduce me particularly. I think though, that he knew his voice was magical and used it to seduce everyone. It’s just that he was particularly effective with 13 year old girls, especially those with literary aspirations.
Mr J. was the first actual English teacher I’d ever had – as opposed to just a general teacher who worked us through whatever text book the curriculum prescribed. Mr J wrote the textbooks. He was pale-skinned, dark-eyed and terrifying. He told us once that as a young man he would be sent to represent his family at funerals because – he smiled – he looked the part. His teaching style was physical; he paced the floor, flung doors open, filled rooms with his presence.
He was Welsh, and his voice – at once both subterranean and mellifluous – could make taking the roll sound like Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas.
To win his praise was to experience a small private orgasm in a damp, crowded classroom.
Most days, he read to us. Dylan Thomas of course. But also Steinbeck, Pasternak, Tolkein and Janet Frame. He made us read to him. He made us write for him – not the dry essays and childish short stories other teachers demanded. For the first time we were freed of structure and narrative; he asked that we give voice to our feelings. He played us music, brought food into class, showed us photographs and demanded our response to these stimuli. With the same ease I found in writing about the experience of eating cinnamon flavoured pastries, I wrote about my childhood, my fears, the way I felt about my alien teenage body.
Mr J. taught us to enjoy the sound of words and even now I read my sentences out loud to try out their rhythm and their melody. I do it even in “work mode” when I’m writing reports or instruction manuals that will never be read aloud.
Mr J. taught me to love the sound of the human voice; reading, singing, seducing. He made us say our names – out loud to the whole class. ‘Susan, Susan’, he repeated, and never had my name sounded so sensuous. I came from a working-class Fifeshire family where the sound of my name was clipped, harsh and unappealing. He made it sound sexy and magical and desirable. He said it was the softest name in the class and looked at me kindly. I was in love.
When we had to write about “what I’m going to be when I grow up” – he expressed disappointment – even anger when I discussed becoming a plumber. Writing, he assured me, what I was born to be. During that year, he encouraged and nurtured me and just seemed to accept writing as my fate. Had I stayed at that school long enough to be in his 6th form class – well who knows?
But it wasn’t to be. My parents, who christened me Susan and then spoke it as a punishment, decided to move away. I left that school, left school altogether and travelled a path that was paved with words rather than copper piping. But they haven’t been my words. I became a copywriter, making a living articulating the voice of my clients.
Ironically perhaps, when I decided to explore creative writing a few years ago one of the exercises I was given was to imagine meeting someone from my past who had championed my writing, and talk to them from “the present day”, to negotiate their presence back in my writing life. Unsurprisingly, Mr J was my chosen champion and this is what I wrote.
This time around I won’t be quite so imtimidated by you; by your voice, your carefully cultivated, darkly brooding presence. I won’t be impressed by your dramatic entrances. Don’t slam doors. I never liked it.
I guess this time too, I won’t be so flattered by your attention. I’m not the infatuated schoolgirl any more. You’re not the dashing deputy principal. Even your Welshness has lost its magic. I’ve moved on from Dylan Thomas (well a bit anyway).
This time around we can talk.
Yes, I know you wrote the textbooks. God, I’m in them. You write about writing. Perhaps you need a champion too?
You were always so positive about my work. So enthusiastic, so enraged when I said I wanted to be a plumber when I grew up. But you were right. You said I should be a writer and I am. Not quite in the way you intended perhaps. But it’s ok. I don’t feel bad about taking money to sell stuff with my words. I don’t do cigarette ads and I don’t sell military hardware anymore. I see myself as a performer as well as a writer. Perhaps “the copywriter” is just a character in a bigger story. I have created her; I sustain her. But I do write. Do you?
This time around, how will it work? Well you can get your bum off my desk for a start. I like to work alone, at least in the early stages. I’d prefer to bring you pieces for discussion. Yes, like school. You set the assignments and I’ll bring them to you for comment. I don’t want you to actually be there with me when I’m tapping the keys. No, I’ll be self-conscious and end up using your words instead of my own and that really defeats the purpose. Perhaps it’s time you made use of your words.
So, I’ll come to you afterwards. We can make a feast of the reading. It’s the best bit anyway. The glamour bit. Oh yes it is. You’re a performer too, so stop kidding yourself. And if we find more than words between us? Let’s just take this one step at a time shall we.