A mum, teacher - and a novelist, too
Could you work as a teacher, raise four children of your own, and write a book?
Could you work as a teacher, raise four children of your own, and write a book? Bryony Allen is managing to juggle all the balls. Steven Russell asks how and why she does it
REVENGE is a dish best served cold. In this instance, in cold type. Bryony Allen's school had an Ofsted inspection many years ago - something of a bruising time - but she didn't file away the experience in a mental box marked “Do not open - ever!” Instead, it provided the inspiration for her debut novel - which sees an inspector discovered dead in the staff room. Was it murder or an accident? The fictional Beaver's Brook Primary School had received a justifiably scathing report . . . The fragile lives of the teachers are held open to scrutiny and ridicule. Their hopes and aspirations crumble beneath a diatribe of no-holds-barred mockery, in which love, ambition, jealousy, passion, guilt and innocence collide - with disastrous consequences.
“I just started thinking, 'What would happen if . . .' and it went on from there,” says Bryony of the writing process. “Obviously none of the characters are real people! I just took some of the more obvious character traits of people I know or knew, whether at work, socially or just by reputation, then blew them up to bigger proportions.”
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Nothing in the generally humorous story is a precise reflection of what actually happened, but the experience proved the catalyst for fiction - and cathartic. There is an edge of revenge within the pages, “against a couple of people . . . but they wouldn't recognise themselves!”
So what happened at Bryony's real-life inspection, which she remembers as a “really, really horrendous” period?
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“It was quite a long time ago. Ofsted now come and go, and yes it's stressful, but they're not there to rip you to pieces; whereas the one we had was really very personal. Nowadays, if you're really bad, they will say 'This teacher's failed', which is fine. But it's never 'This teacher's failed. You're rubbish. Leave the job.' And there was so much passing the buck . . .”
When she comes up with an idea, Bryony tries to visualise it. “Then I write down what I see and feel, as well as what I want other people to see and feel. Usually, I try to picture characters in a certain setting and think about how they would react.”
She's been a primary teacher for 17 years, working at numerous schools as either a full-time member of staff or as a supply teacher. Latterly, she's been part-time at a village school about 10 miles from her Stowmarket home.
With four children aged between seven and 19, husband John often working away during the week, lessons to prepare and work to mark - and a mad springer spaniel to walk - it's hard to see where there was time to write. So, how on earth . . .
“Late at night! Mostly. I don't find you get tired if you're enjoying something, anyway. So, yes, you have to see to the children's needs first, but every free moment, really.” Sometimes the clock would creep round to 2am. Ooh, that's tough. “Yes, but I've had children that don't sleep. I'm well used to it!”
Bryony, 41, has enjoyed writing since childhood. She grew up in the Middlesbrough area but moved down to London at 18, where she did a degree in English and drama at Roehampton University.
“In Middlesbrough, the ambition there was you either got pregnant at 16 and (got) a council house, or married a squaddie. I ended up marrying a squaddie anyway, but it wasn't in Middlesbrough!” she laughs.
That was a few years down the line. What did happen at university was that Bryony fell pregnant with George and took a year out between her first and second years. Oddly enough, she did apply for and was offered a job with the EADT at that stage - and had to turn it down. She was five months pregnant and faced the prospect of a 16-week training course.
“I thought 'I'm a single mum; I can't.' There was no way. I wish I had, but at the time it didn't work.”
So she had a baby to care for as well as her studies. “It was great,” she coos, going a little dewey-eyed at the memory. “It made me grow up. Which I needed, really. I had to stop drinking and partying. But you've got to do it some time . . .”
Bryony graduated with a 2:1. There was a meeting at university and the thought of going to study for a teaching qualification at Homerton College, Cambridge.
Not acting, then? (It had been a thought in the past, when she moved south.)
“No. When I first went to London I worked there for a year, and I met an awful lot of people who'd moved to London to be actors and actresses, and most of them were so revolting and pretentious and horrible. I thought Ugh. No!”
Bryony's boyfriend at the time was a musician and they used to go to clubs and sometimes meet stars.
“One of them came up to me once - he was in Grange Hill at the time - and said 'What do you do, then?' I said I was a student. 'Oh . . .' (dismissively.) I thought 'You're that tall, you're weasely, you smell and you think you're better than me because you're “an actor” . . .' No . . .”
Who was he?
“I can't remember. But he was only in the series for a short while and he's done nothing since. He wasn't one of the top characters. He probably works at Topman or something like that!”
She does recall meeting Susan Tully, who was in Grange Hill and became famous as Michelle Fowler in EastEnders. “She was lovely.”
The Homerton course was great, though Bryony admits she went without a desperate and yearning ambition to become a teacher - “and 17 years later I still don't!”
After Cambridge she worked in Stowmarket - her parents are in Suffolk - and met husband-to-be John in the town about 16 years ago. Where? “Jokers nightclub . . . Of all the romantic places to meet!” Nearly 15 years ago they had “the first Army Air Corps wedding in Stowmarket”, she laughs.
John was at nearby Wattisham. The couple moved to Andover for a while, before returning to Suffolk and for a while living at Needham Market. “We're a bit mongrelish in my family. Our kids don't know quite which accent to use!”
John left the forces about eight years ago, going into computer engineering, “which he much prefers, because he can grow his sideburns!”
It's her husband Bryony credits for insisting that her work is brilliant and setting up a website. He also persisted in sending the book off to publishers after his wife had been deterred by rejections and decided “Can't be bothered to do it anymore . . .”
Oddly enough, the publication of Mystery, Deceit and a School Inspector still feels a bit unreal. “I don't feel like a 'published author',” she muses. What would make a difference is for someone she doesn't know to read her books and say something nice about them . . .
Another novel is in the pipeline - largely written in the summer holidays last year and aimed at a teenage readership. Feeling ostracised from school society and the “popular” clique, Alice takes refuge in this strange cafe with its equally mysterious owner. As their friendship develops, the “Populars” begin to suffer. But, for Alice, there's a price to pay.
“It's basically about bullying, but about a caf� that's a bit of a changeling, depending on who goes into it,” explains its creator. “It's about manipulation, but it's not quite as clear-cut as it seems.” Her girls were happy and keen to offer advice along the way.
What's the buzz that writing gives her?
“I think it's just a release. When you wake up in the middle of the night and think 'That would be really good . . .' and then that thought's out and you can sleep again, it makes you feel good.”
After seven years in their home in Stowmarket, the family looks like being on the move again this summer. John's got a new job in the Midlands, Bryony's resigned from school, and an offer's been made on the house.
She'll be sad to leave East Anglia. “I really like it here. It's just so safe and relaxed.”
The future, then, is something of a blank canvas, though writing is destined to prove a constant. “It's weird. I've never not worked, unless it's been babies. Something will come up . . . Though I wish I knew now! I'm too impatient.”
I suppose the ideal would be to win the lottery and stay at home and write full-time?
“That would be absolutely amazing. My dream come true. Definitely.”
An avid reader, Bryony Allen has been known to have her nose in a book even while cooking the tea
Her favourite authors are Ian Rankin (she loves the Scottish background and the plots), Ruth Rendell (“I think her way of pulling you into the book is fascinating”), and Daphne du Maurier
She says teaching is hard and frustrating at times, but it can be fun. Bryony has written school plays at Christmas, tailoring characters and scenarios to the children. A couple of years ago, for instance, they did The X-mas Factor, panto-style, with their own version of Simon Cowell
Children: George, 19; Kim, 13; Michaela, 12, and Charlie, seven
Mystery, Deceit and a School Inspector is published by Pneuma Springs at �6.99 and is available via www.pneumasprings.co.uk and online stores such as Amazon MP, WH Smith and Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-954551-09-4