Three little maids from school are we,
Pert as a schoolgirl well can be,
Filled to the brim with girlish glee,
Three little maids from school!
Everything is a source of fun,
Nobody’s safe, for we care for none!
Life is a joke that’s just begun –
Three little M-a-i-d-s – from school!
(From ‘The Mikado’ by Gilbert & Sullivan)
This is the second of my ‘Writer’s Life’ posts, where I revisit the days of writing for Jackie magazine, in company with my old friends Helen Leadbeater and Mary Cutler. We began contributing to Jackie while we were at school together, and all three of us have continued to write professionally. Recently, we’ve been comparing notes about how it all started.
I knew from the age of about four that I would be a writer. That might sound strange, but it was a simple, matter-of-fact kind of knowing, although I soon embroidered it by imagining myself as a popular children’s author, famous for my exciting adventure stories. In the end, my real genre turned out to be what I call ‘creative non-fiction’. I like to write about subjects that I’ve experienced and researched, and to share these with others, with a strong leaning towards ‘wisdom traditions’ and social history. The list is varied, from Russian folklore to life stories, Tarot and alchemy. I still occasionally dream of unlocking a brilliant novel from deep within, but I also know that it’s highly unlikely to happen. Perhaps a writer needs an impossible ambition as a kind of motivation, to keep writing in the genre she does best.
We had excellent English teaching at my secondary school in Birmingham. Our Miss Flint was a real-life Jean Brodie without the sex scenes, though her prim exterior belied a passionate heart. ‘A dramatic tragedy,’ she told us, ‘should leave you exhilarated and wanting to dance out of the theatre’. We didn’t practice ‘creative writing’ as such, although I do still have an epic poem I wrote at the age of 12 about ‘The Minator/His roar’. Instead, we learnt how to construct essays and arguments, to understand poetic rhythm and metaphor, and to put words together in concise and meaningful conjunction. Our year at school produced other writers as well, notably Lindsey Davies of the ‘Falco’ Roman detective series.
Jackie on the horizon
Although our formal education was high-minded, we wallowed in popular culture; we read teenage magazines, watched ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, tuned into Radio Luxembourg and in our mid-teens swooned over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (see ‘Mick Jagger and the Cigarette Butt’) And then it occurred to us that we could be participants, not just consumers.
My diary entry for Oct 16th 1966 reads:
‘Helen and I have decided to prostitute our art form and try to write for teenage magazines to earn some money. I’ve knocked off one crummy story, which I’m going to send up to Jackie. With a nom de plume, of course!’
‘Jackie’ was published from 1964-1993 by D. C. Thomson & Co, based in Dundee, who describe themselves as ‘Family Publishers since 1905’. Their vast range of magazines and newspapers has included ‘The People’s Friend’ and ‘The Beano’. They have had a strongly Protestant Christian stance, and certainly in the Jackie era this fed through into their editorial policy – good clean fun, and nothing ‘below the waist’.
I was living at Helen’s house during term-time, after my parents moved to Shropshire, so we had plenty of time to cook up our schemes. Helen has a great talent for story-writing, and although my first offering of a ‘crummy story’ wasn’t published, hers was snapped up in an instant by the delighted editor. It began: Raphael was an actor. Not a very good one, though I used to tell him he was marvellous. I think he just liked dressing up. We met because he hurled a sword at my feet in Regent Street, then we had a drink, and he upset everyone by saying: ‘Hamlet died in this shirt once.’
I kept trying, and managed to get a few chat pieces and (I think) one story published in Jackie, and the cheques started rolling in.
Then Mary joined us: ‘So after you two got your feet in the door, I had a go, and my first story The Boy at the Bus Stop was accepted.’ (I’ll round off this piece with her tale of how that came about.)
Two more Jackie covers from the 60s – on the left is the very first edition, from Jan 11th, 1964
A meeting with Mr Small, aka Mr Big
The editor, Gordon Small, was not only delighted, but excited – he saw possibilities for brightening up his fiction team. He came down from Dundee to Birmingham to meet Helen and Mary for tea in the Grand Hotel on Colmore Row. They came after school, and arrived in their uniforms. He was astounded. ‘We clearly weren’t at all what was he was expecting – maybe not his idea of a Jackie reader,’ Mary recalls. (And perhaps the same was true the other way round. ‘He wasn’t small at all,’ says Helen.)
But after all, no laws were being broken, so he suggested they might try writing a serial together as a picture strip story, different to the narrative stories they’d produced so far. These Jackie strip stories were illustrated by a team of Spanish artists, who enjoyed creating characters with pouting lips and flowing hair.
‘They were sent the scripts and the drawn artwork would be back several weeks later’, writes Anne Rendall, a former member of the editorial team. Everything had to be done by post, and there were also language issues. ‘One script called for a one-armed bandit, i.e. gaming machine, to be drawn and when the storyboard came back we had a gangster minus a limb…’ ( ‘A Little Bit of Romance’ in Jackie: 50 Years)
For Mary and Helen, the process didn’t quite go as expected, as Mary relates: ‘We talked a bit about the serial and then spend a hilarious evening in Helen’s bedroom thinking one up about two girls – basically me and Helen- and their various adventures. I remember us being very partisan about our own characters- it was a lot of fun. Clearly he [the editor] didn’t think so, and told Helen so, but he did want to see her again.’
Helen confirms this: ‘He did offer me a job on Jackie, but it was in Dundee and I had a university place waiting at Kent. I think if it had been in London I might have been tempted.’
Mary continued working for Jackie into university days (as did I): ‘But I did go on writing stories,’ she says. ‘Three or maybe four – I remember I bought my winter coat for Cambridge with the last cheque. I’m fairly sure that was for twelve guineas. It didn’t start off as that much, but I’m sure about the guineas – a bit eighteenth century even then. I haven’t got copies of any of the stories, I’m afraid. The disadvantage of always living in small places with no storage space, is that anything I want to keep usually ends up in damp sheds or garages.’
A Fall from Grace
My writing was on a different tack. I wrote some opinion pieces – one on how hard it was to find shoes when you have big feet, I recall – and then I was offered a regular slot doing ‘On the Spot’ interviews. The desk editor sent me a question, and the idea was that I would stop young passers-by and ask them their opinions. The one which sticks clearly in my mind was, ‘What nationality of boys or girls do you fancy the most?’ (or words to that effect) And with a heterosexual slant, of course. Well, I tried. I went out onto shopping streets and halted promising-looking teenage girls (mostly) and boys (sometimes) and not one of them had anything interesting to say. Maybe I was a rubbish interviewer back then. In this particular case, I happened to know a couple of very handsome boys from Mauritius, living as art students in Birmingham, and I thought they would do nicely, so I invented a quote from an imaginary girl about how gorgeous Mauritians were.
Temptation had crept in, and gradually I began to compose all my pieces this way. I knew I could write far livelier and more fascinating answers than I was likely to gather on the street. I kept on with the column in my first year at university, and was coming to rely on the cheques, when disaster struck. I got a letter from the very pleasant female desk editor. I was rumbled.
‘You don’t mind, I don’t mind, but I’m afraid the editor minds,’ she said.
What had happened was that the magazine had begun to ask for names and partial addresses for each interviewee. Some young and hopeful readers had tried to write to the person quoted, presumably looking for a date or pen pal. And their letters had been returned, undelivered. I was sacked. I was also ashamed, as I’m not a duplicitous person by nature. Oh well!
With hindsight, perhaps they had a bit of a cheek to get rid of me, as the agony aunts of the famous ‘Cathy and Claire’ problem page didn’t really exist either. Former editor and contributor Gayle Anderson reveals: ‘I was an agony aunt. Well, I was two agony aunts: Cathy and Claire for Jackie magazine. Yes, the shock news is that they weren’t real and they were one person. The letters were initially sent to a Fleet Street office, mainly to give the illusion of a hip, cool London base. Then they made their way in overnight lorries to the magazine’s actual home in Dundee.’ OK, but she and the team were sincere. And so was I – more or less.
However, I’m proud when I tell people that I used to write for Jackie. At about the same time, author Jacqueline Wilson began her career as a staff writer for D. C. Thomson, and Sue Arnold was a fellow contributor, so the three of us were in good company. I did go on to write articles and even a story or two for other magazines, including Good Housekeeping, and I’m glad to be an occasional contributor nowadays to a variety of magazines, on topics drawn mostly from subjects covered in my books. I’m not primarily a journalist, though, so a toe or three in the water is enough for me.
Helen Leadbeater (left) and Mary Cutler (right) went on to excel in their chosen fields of writing. Both worked as regular scriptwriters for the Archers – Mary was recently honoured for completing 40 years as an Archers writer, and she has also dramatized her friend Lindsey Davies’s Falco novels for radio. In this link, Lindsey says: ‘My feelings about these adaptations are that Mary does the best possible job.’
Helen has also written for the television drama ‘Crossroads’, and more recently the acclaimed ‘Pargetter Triptych’, with actor Graham Seed, as the ghost of Nigel from the Archers. (Whose fall to his death from the roof of Lower Loxley, her friend Mary was responsible for writing.) Listen to them here, enticed by the following description:
Nine and a half years after the deadly fall from his roof, in three lockdown soliloquies, Graham Seed wonders whether the ghost of Nigel Pargetter may be unquiet in his Borsetshire rest. Nigel revisits the places he was familiar with in life, remembers the people he knew, and worries at the questions that keep him there – what really happened that night on the roof? Was the fall an accident? Or could it possibly have been something more sinister?
Voiced by ‘Nigel’ himself, back from the grave; in the guise of actor Graham Seed. Written by Helen Leadbeater, former writer of ‘The Archers,’ who knows ‘Nigel’ so well as she helped create his character alongside the then editor William Smethurst in the 1980s.
To finish with, here is Mary’s account of her first Jackie story, written especially for this blog:
The Boy at the Bus Stop
This was my first story for Jackie. The heroine was a plain, but clever and interesting girl, who against all the odds gets her man – a basic romantic trope since Jane Eyre. It was completely autobiographical. When I was in the Sixth form I had a hospital appointment which meant I varied my usual route to school. That’s when I saw the eponymous boy standing at a different bus stop I could tell from his uniform that he went to our brother school next door. He had big brown eyes and looked a bit like Paul McCartney. I was smitten. That was odd, because John Lennon was my preferred Beatle. I picked him out the first time I was shown a cover of ‘Please, Please me’.
‘I like that one.’
‘Oh Mary, you can’t like that one, my school friends chorused. He’s married!’
Anyway, I digress. Naturally, after that I varied my route to school so I could gaze from afar at my beloved. In the true tradition of romance that was as far as it got – although he did smile at me once. And then, tragedy – I heard on the school grapevine, which had supplied me with his name, too- that he was going out with a girl from another nearby girls’ school and apparently she was everything a teenage boy could desire. I had no chance.
Besides, ‘You can’t like him, Mary. He’s got a girl friend.’
Still, he gave me the inspiration for the first piece of writing I ever got published – and paid for- so not all bad.
About twenty years later I got friendly with one of the other Mums at my daughter’s nursery. We both worked for the BBC in different capacities and it turned out she was a native Brummie, too and had attended the girls school near to mine… You can see it coming, can’t you? I confessed my illicit passion for her boyfriend. She was highly amused, particularly at the idea that she had been some kind of teen goddess. ‘If only you could have seen me’, she said.
We became very good friends and I was invited to her to her fortieth birthday party. And guess who was sitting across the table from me? At last I gazed into those big brown eyes. Just for a couple of heart beats I was transported back that bus stop. But alas, dear Reader, this has no Jackie fairy tale ending. I enjoyed talking to him- he was very sweet. But he really wasn’t very interesting.
Books by Cherry Gilchrist