It’s never too late to try something new in life, is it?
- Credit: Archant
The great thing about life is that there’s always opportunity for adventure, given a fair wind. (Like driving a combine harvester. Or post-retirement backpacking in Greece.) STEVEN RUSSELL meets two newish friends having fun
If only Janet Wightman’s teachers could see her now…
Way back, when she was at school, Janet was one of those children whose ability to spell and write was limited by dyslexia.
Only, in those days, it wasn’t a recognised condition and there was precious little help for those who just couldn’t quite crack words. It’s very different today.
Thank goodness. One of her great-nephews is dyslexic, but he was taken under the wing of his school and is now a teacher himself. “In my day, you’d just come bottom of the class or you were ‘stupid’,” she says.
Did any teacher actually say that? Rueful laugh. “Well, no. But you could see it in their eyes, couldn’t you?”
The irony is that Janet’s essays were frequently read out in class. (She was also tops at algebra, come to that.) “It would always be ‘Your imagination’s first class, Janet, but your spelling is atrocious.’ It used to embarrass me.”
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Wouldn’t it be great if we could time-travel? We could pop back and show her teachers a 36-page children’s book Janet has co-created – about Elida the spider, who has seven short legs and one very long. Good going for someone who still reckons “my spelling’s not very good. It’s been edited by my husband – old clever-clogs”.
The illustrations are by Christine Clements, a long-time teacher who in retirement is building quite a reputation for her artistic endeavours. In fact, if we had that Tardis, we could transport Christine to Janet’s classroom. For Christine spent many years specialising in special needs and dyslexia.
She’d have had some good tips – and, as she says, “Some of the most creative people have dyslexia, like Richard Branson”.
Elida the Spider tells the story of old Lady Macintosh and cat Boris posing a threat to Morris the mouse. The arachnid springs into action to save the day.
It just goes to show that you don’t have to be a teenager or in your 20s to do something worthwhile and have fun. (At 52, I think I can probably get away with saying that…)
And Christine, a grandmother four times over, isn’t long back from a back-packing holiday in the Greek islands with her husband.
“Didn’t book anything, apart from flights and the first night’s B&B in Athens, and just did it on the hoof,” she says.
“Our one ‘mistake’ was that we booked the return flight. We should have just gone out there and come back when we were ready, because we were not ready. It was just the most fantastic holiday.”
Janet fixes me in her sights. “Don’t ask me how old I am, because I’m not into ages. It’s a disease of the calendar and people should not worry about age!”
Elida the Spider has been long in gestation – 25 years or more, maybe. “It started way, way, way, way back,” says Janet. “My husband and I used to go for walks. I don’t know where it came from… I know the story of a spider called Elida… He said ‘What’s that about?’ ‘Well, this one’s a funny one, because it’s got seven short legs and one very long.’”
And there it rested – “It was all in here, but nothing on paper,” she says, tapping her head – until she decided to write it down about 18 months ago. “This is just my silly imagination…”
Ah, but that’s the vital ingredient for a storyteller, and Janet doesn’t ever seem to have been lacking it. In fact, she admits hers has always been vivid.
“When I was at school, I remember Mum let me stay on with a friend to go and see Great Expectations (the film). On my way home on the bus it was pouring with rain and the wind was blowing, and I’ve never been so scared in my life!”
The opening scene of Dickens’s great novel is set in a graveyard, where young Pip is accosted by on-the-run convict Magwitch.
“I remember coming in the farmyard and running up, panting. ‘Whatever’s the matter?’ I didn’t want to tell her (Mum). She wouldn’t have let me go out again!”
Great Expectations was one of young Janet’s favourite books, along with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
She was born on a farm at Cretingham, near Framlingham. “I was never very clever at school”, she says, but that can’t have been true. It just depends how you define “clever”.
Janet worked as a nurse in Suffolk and Essex before coming back to help run the family’s 125-acre farm about 10 miles from Ipswich.
“I was a farm labourer. Drove a combine. Very proud of that. I could do the baling. I could do lots of things. I could never back a trailer, though…
“That’s how I came to be on the combine. My brother and I changed places. I said ‘It’s all right for you up there. That’s an easy job.’ ‘You try it,’ he said. So I did. The neighbours used to take the mickey – I was a woman – but I didn’t care.”
Janet got married about 35 years ago. She and husband John have for 11 or 12 years lived in a converted barn a literal stone’s throw from what used to be her family’s farmhouse. (She remembers vacuuming the cobwebs when it was still a working barn.)
It’s a lovely spot.
The stair-rods of the morning rain have gone – replaced by gentle sunshine and birdsong. A moorhen calls outside the window. A camera rigged up to monitor the night-time scene has captured images of deer (“like Rudolph”), foxes and other wildlife.
When she’d written Elida the Spider, Janet wondered about finding an illustrator to give it the full works.
She was put in touch with Stuart Wade, who runs print and web design company Suffolk Digital, and he suggested Christine. They met and realised they could work together happily. “She’s really made the book. Seriously, it’s very colourful,” says Janet.
Christine: “Janet was a very easy client to work with. Whatever I did, you always happened to like!”
Janet again: “If there were bits I didn’t like, I would say so, but it didn’t happen very often. She’s a clever-clogs, you know.”
The illustrator did ask for a couple of things to be changed, along the way, but deferred to Janet if the writer felt strongly about something. “I’m quite assertive in my way,” smiles Janet.
She also says she’s long been quite a shy person – “hopelessly so. I’ve been dreading this morning. I’m not now. As soon as I saw you and spoke to you, it was OK.”
I do have that effect. Even some of my colleagues reckon I’m scary…
Christine had gone to art college after leaving school, but then opted to go into teaching. Her career spanned 38 years, off and on – the last 16 or 18 years spent at Ipswich schools such as Dale Hall and Ravenswood primaries.
When she retired three years ago, she thought she’d go back to art. Christine drew cartoons, and has developed a handy line in producing caricatures commercially – to mark workers’ retirements, for instance, or long service.
She usually works from photographs. And sometimes she gets invited along to meet her subject. “This one man, I told him off! They sent me his photograph and he had a beard and a moustache. When I went to his presentation do, I said ‘You weren’t allowed to shave them off!’ But the eyebrows were the same!”
On her tablet, she calls up other examples of her work. There’s a caricature alluding to husband Richard’s long-held desire for a classic Mazda sports car. “In your dreams”, it says! (He’s got one now; picked up for about £1,000.)
Then there’s a series of “We expect better” anti-bullying posters she did for a school, bearing messages such as “We will not scare or frighten others”.
With Elida, an image formed in her head fairly quickly about how the drawings might look. “I was captured by the thought of this spider who has seven short legs and one very long. I thought that was quite an enchanting idea for children.
“When I retired, my present to myself was the biggest iMac! Oh, fantastic. It’s perfect for doing all my graphic work. [With Elida] I would draw the picture, black ink on white; scan it in and then digitally colour it.”
Will there be another book? “Oh, I haven’t thought about that,” says Janet. “I can’t think where I’d go... Might be a glow-worm…”
You heard it here first.
Elida the Spider costs £4.99 (plus P&P). www.elidabooks.uk