Gene Kemp recently died, and I was led back to her marvellous Cricklepit Combined School books. Best known for the wonderful The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, Cricklepit remains one of the most realistic depictions of life in an inner-city primary school in fiction that I have ever read. I must have first encountered Tyke shortly after publication in 1977- maybe in 1978 or 9, when I was 10. I adored the book. The school was not like my small Church primary school in South West Hertfordshire, but like enough for it to feel authentic. I happened to find copies of two of Kemp’s other books set in the same school, Gowie Corby Plays Chicken (1979) and Charlie Lewis Plays For Time (1984), in one of my local charity shops and I happily re-read them this weekend. I read both of these books back in the mists of time when I was completing my PGCE in Leeds; Gene Kemp was one of the authors we were recommended to read.
Cricklepit Combined School is in Isca, as Kemp calls Exeter. The books have a wonderful sense of place, and even though I have never been to Exeter, I feel as though I’d recognise Cricklepit- the new estate where Rosie and Gowie live, the terrace where Tyke and her family live, and the bigger houses where the ramshackle Moffats live, with Charlie Lewis’s gentrified house next door. The street round the corner from the school, down which Gowie is chased by the Team, has a Woolworths, a Co-op, a Tesco, a Boots and a library. Charlie Lewis, Trish and Rocket Moffat get the bus to the hospital to see Mr Merchant after his accident. It feels real.
The crises that the child protagonists face- the threat to Gowie’s collection of pet rodents, the unsympathetic supply teacher, stuck in his ways, who replaces Class 4M’s beloved Mr Merchant, the threat of Tyke’s best friend Danny being sent to special school-are skilfully used by Kemp to discuss the bigger problems in their lives. Gowie’s dad is in prison, and his oldest brother Joe was recently killed in a bike crash. Charlie doesn’t know his dad, his concert pianist mum is away touring and he is lonely. Sometimes these problems can be solved. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes the solution doesn’t, to the adult reader, seem sustainable; for example, I don’t believe that Gowie’s brother Mark’s experience has radically changed his racist attitudes towards Rosie’s family, and I am not convinced that Boris Karloff the rat is safe.
The books feel of their time. Not just because of the pop references in Charlie Lewis Plays For Time, or because of Gowie’s platform boots, but because the time and space given to the children to solve their own difficulties seem unbelievable now. If they were being written today, the level of adult intervention would need to be far higher to make them credible. In addition, the swearing in the books- mild, but still present- would not, I think, be tolerated by many teachers or parents in texts aimed at 8-12 year olds. However, I sincerely hope that Puffin or Faber reissue them, and the rest of Kemp’s books. The level of respect given to white working class children in her novels is so lacking in many books; very few contemporary writers for children come close; with honourable mention to Jacqueline Wilson, Helena Pielichaty and Tom Palmer.