Three Gifts and a Camel

April 14, 2014

           I was in Limerick last week visiting schools and book shops. The local kids were so warm and enthusiastic that it felt almost spiritual to simply be among them. They are hugely interested in books. I asked one fifth class,

           “Who wants to be a writer?” 

            A forest of high hands waved at me. But there was one half-raised arm, resembling a branch stunted by an out-of-season storm.

            “Are you keeping your options open?” I asked the owner of the half-raised arm.

            He shrugged. “I think that I might want to be a writer but I’m not any good at school stuff.”

            “Oh yeah,” I said, “What’s your favourite book?”

            “Holes,” he answered. 

            Hmm, I’ve heard of it. I know that Louis Sacher wrote it but I don’t know anything about Mr Sacher. I’m not even sure how to pronounce his name.

            “Em, what other books do you like?” I asked.

            “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he said, “because it is weird and funny and kind of sad, like you feel so sorry for Charlie in the beginning because he is really poor and it’s very imaginative.”

            “Roald Dahl,” I said triumphantly, “he wasn’t much good at school either, at least, not according to his teachers.”

I dug around in my handbag and pulled out a library copy of Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

“There’s a story in this book about how Roald Dahl became a writer and it wasn’t because his teachers thought that he was destined from brilliance.  Here, page 203, here are his school reports word by word:

‘Summer Term (aged 14): English Composition:

“I have never met a boy who so persistently writes the exact opposite of what he means. He seems incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper.”

Easter Term (aged 15): English Composition

“A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.”

            The half-raised boy laughed.

            “So what do you think?” I asked him.

             “Why did Roald Dahl’s teacher call him a camel?” he asked.

              “Well, he definitely didn’t mean it as a compliment.  He was trying to imply that Roald was an ugly writer with an awkward and ungainly command of English . . . and that he was plodding and lacking in creativity.  But, come to think of it, being compared to a camel is not a bad thing for a writer at all.  I mean, seriously, if you can survive for long periods of time in the desert on next to nothing and keep moving forward, you’ve probably got the makings of a successful writer.”

                 Another boy in the class raised his hand.

            “Was Roald Dahl’s teacher talking about a camel with one hump or two?” he asked.

            “Em, I don’t know. Let’s maybe not get too fixated on the camel although I admire your attention to detail. Let’s move on. Who wants one of my bookmarks?”

            I left Limerick laden with three gifts.  The first was a drawing in pencil of the horse named Bobby in my first Evie Brooks novel. I gazed at the eleven-year-old artist. She was no amateur. She had perfectly caught the image of a horse in motion. Her horse looked alive. “For Sheila Agnew” she had written at the top of the picture and she signed it with her initials. I was so touched that I felt a rough, scratchy, tickly feeling in the back of my throat.  I cleared it nosily so I could say “thank you.”  My second gift was from another eleven-year-old girl. She offered me her hand. I shook it.

              “I loved your book,” she said. “Here, this is for you.” 

It was a page torn out from her copybook scrawled with the words, “Dear Sheila, I think you are brilliant.” 

            “You are clearly remarkably intelligent,” I said. I wonder why my boyfriends have never been as astute as that girl.

            My third gift was a copy of an amazing story written by a twelve-year-old girl. She wanted my advice.  I enjoyed reading the story very much. If I thought I could get away with it, I would probably steal some of her lines. I think that she is the one who should be giving me writing tips.

            I arrived back to Dublin on Saturday and early the next morning, I was in a jubilant mood because my book was reviewed in three Sunday newspapers; two in the U.K. and one in Ireland. Then a family member gave me a copy of an article from a newspaper last week describing how the overwhelming majority of successful authors earn less than minimum wage.

                 But they don’t have to wear the uniforms and the hairnets, I thought sulkily.

                  It is the assumed duty of a writer’s family and friends to keep the writer grounded in reality. I cannot perceive any obvious advantage in living permanently rooted in reality, quite the reverse, but I will concede that brief visits now and again just to check-in are probably not a bad idea. But here’s the thing. The article never mentioned anything about the kind of presents that writers receive, like my three gifts, because, well, if you can’t trade them for cash, they don’t seem to count. But they do count. They are the count.

Many thanks to the wonderful students, teachers and staff that I met in Limerick. I can’t wait to go back. 

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