Over Hill and Dale
Phinn returns to the Dales for a second slice of Yorkshire life.
Continuing where THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DALE ended, Gervase Phinn begins his second year as a schools inspector in Yorkshire. His colourful cast of characters are now becoming firm favourites - the mostly mad staff at County Hall, the teachers who range from saints to stand-ins, and of course the children themselves who find ways of embarrassing school inspectors with innocent ease. Gervase's colleagues rag him unmercifully about his faraway look whenever the name of Christine Bentley of WinneryNook Nursery and Primary School is mentioned, and he realises it is time to take action - but how to put the question? Gervase Phinn has an extraordinary talent to entertain, and OVER HILL AND DALE will make you laugh out loud.
Dr Gore, Chief Education Officer for the county of Yorkshire, smiled like a hungry vampire, the sort of thin-lipped, self-satisfied smile of Count Dracula before he sinks his fangs into a helpless victim.
‘And how are you, Gervase?’ he mouthed softly, showing a glimpse of teeth.
‘Oh … er … very well thank you, Dr Gore,’ I replied, attempting to sound cheerful and relaxed.
‘Good, good,’ the CEO murmured. He stared for a moment over the top of his small, gold-framed spectacles and then, resting his elbows on the large mahogany desk in front of him, steepled his long fingers and nodded thoughtfully. ‘And how have you found your first year with us in Yorkshire?’ he asked. His voice was soft as the summer breeze.
‘Oh … er … very well, thank you, Dr Gore,’ I replied for the second time and shifted nervously in the chair. He continued to smile and steeple his long fingers without saying a word. In the embarrassed silence which followed I heard the slow ticking of the clock on the wall, squeaking footsteps in the corridor outside, the distant hum of traffic on the High Street and a slight buzzing of a faulty fluorescent light in the outer office. ‘I think, well, quite good actually, quite successful …’ my voice trailed off. I sounded incredibly inarticulate for the County Inspector of Schools for English and Drama. ‘Not too bad,’ I said finally.
‘Good, good,’ the CEO said almost in a whisper. ‘I expect you are wondering why I sent for you so early in the new academic year?’ he continued, smiling and steepling.
‘Yes, I was wondering,’ I replied nervously.
The morning had started off so well. I had arrived at the Education Office in Fettlesham that first day of the new term, bright and early and keen to be back at work. A warm September sun had shone in a cloudless sky, the air had been fresh and still, the birds singing and everything had seemed right with the world. Over the summer break, while the schools had been on holiday, I had managed to clear my desk of the mountain of paperwork. Reports had been completed, guidelines written, courses planned, correspondence dealt with and documents had been filed away neatly. I had surveyed the empty desk with a sense of real satisfaction and achievement.
It had been a fascinating first year, occasionally exhausting and frustrating, but for most of the time full of variety and challenge. The colleagues with whom I worked and shared an office had been immensely supportive during my induction into the profession of school inspector. There was Dr Harold Yates, the Senior Inspector, Sidney Clamp, the unpredictable and larger-than-life creative and visual arts inspector and David Pritchard, the small, good-humoured Welshman responsible for mathematics, PE and games. We got on well together and were supported and kept in order by Julie the inspectors’ secretary.
That first year, I had worked alongside teachers in the classroom, organised courses and conferences, directed workshops, rum seminars, and attended governors’ meetings and appointment panels. The most interesting part of the job, however, had involved visiting the small rural primary schools in the heart of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, to spend a morning or an afternoon observing lessons, looking at the children’s work and reporting on the quality of the teaching and the learning.
As I sat at my empty desk, thinking about the quiet, uneventful, stress-free day ahead of me, I heard a clattering on the stairs, telling me that a moment later Julie would totter in on those absurdly high-heeled shoes shoe was so found of wearing. In my first year Julie had been invaluable. Not only was she very efficient, good-humoured and extremely comical. She had those qualities often possessed by Yorkshire people – generous to a fault, hard-working but with a blunt nature and a fierce honesty, characteristics which often got her into trouble. With her bright bubbly blonde hair and bright bubbly nature, Julie was a breath of fresh air in the drab and cramped office. That morning she struggled into the room, breathing heavily and loaded down with assorted bags, papers and files. I jumped up to help her.
‘I feel like some sort of peripatetic car boot sale!’ she cried, dropping her load noisily on the nearest desk. Before I could open my mouth she continued, ‘I started off with a handbag and a bit of shopping but collected all this little lot on my way from the bus stop. As I was passing committee Room 1, Debbie – you know, the big woman with the peroxide hair who always wears those awful pink knitted outfits – asked me to take Mr Pritchard’s briefcase which he left there last term. Forget his head if it wasn’t screwed on. I mean, that briefcase has been there for six weeks. It wouldn’t have done Debbie any harm to bring the briefcase up herself. The climb up the stairs would have given her a bit of exercise. She could do with losing a few pounds. Anyway, when I got to the Post Room that Derek – you know, the gangly lad with the spectacles and big ears – asked me to pick up the inspectors’ mail since I was going that way anyway, Then I had these confidential staffing files pushed into my hands when I reached Personnel. They weigh a ton. I don’t know why Dr Yeats didn’t pick them up himself. I must have looked like an old pack horse, stumbling along the corridors on County Hall.’ She shook her head and breathed out heavily. ‘I’m too good natured by half, that’s my trouble. And I’ve snagged a nail.’ She began to root about in her handbag and continued chattering on without pausing. ‘Anyway, how are you?’ I attempted a response but without success. ‘I had a nail file in here somewhere, I’m sure I did,’ she continued. ‘I don’t know about you, but I could murder a strong cup of coffee.’ Without waiting for an answer she disappeared out of the room.
‘Good morning Julie!’ I shouted after her, at last getting a word in. I thought of the wonderfully descriptive and rather unkind Yorkshire expression to describe a person, just like Julie, who so enjoys talking about anything everything that it becomes almost a running commentary: ‘She’s got a runaway gob – talks and says nowt and she’s said nowt when she’s done.’
A few minutes later, when I was sorting through my mail, Julie returned with two steaming mugs. I watched as she set one mug down on my desk and cupped her hands around the other.
‘you’re very quiet today,’ she said. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Nothing at all Julie,’ I replied amiably, putting my letters into the in-tray on my desk. Then I asked a question which I immediately regretted. ‘How was your holiday?’
‘Not too good then?’ I hazarded, looking up and reaching for the coffee.
‘Awful! I went to Majorca with my boyfriend. It took months to persuade him, because Paul’s about as adventurous as a dead sheep when it comes to holidays and, of course, his mother has to put her two pennyworth in about foreign food, plane crashes and hijackers. Anyway, the flight was delayed so we had a four-hour wait at Manchester Airport with him moaning and groaning. Then I was stopped at customs by a horrible little man in black. I got Spanish tummy the day after I arrived and Paul fell asleep in the sun and woke up like a lobster with an attitude problem. The he came out in blisters the size of balloons and wouldn’t leave the room. He said he looked like something out of a horror film and when I agreed he didn’t speak to me for two days. The hotel was only half built and the pool was full of spoilt, screaming children. We had karaoke every night until two in the morning with a tone-deaf Dutchman singing “I did it my way” at the top of his voice and a woman from Dudley who sounded like a sheep about to give birth. And if you got down after eight o’clock in the morning you could say goodbye to the sunbeds. We’ll go to Skegness next year in his auntie’s caravan. Anyway, what was your holiday like?’
‘Oh, very restful,’ I told her. ‘I managed to get away for a few days and –‘
before I could elaborate, Julie dived in with her characteristic bluntness. ‘And did you see much of that sexy teacher you were taking out?’
‘Unfortunately, not a great deal,’ I replied smiling and thinking of what Christine’s reaction would be to Julie’s comment about her.
I had met Christine almost exactly a year earlier when I had visited the infant school where she was the Headteacher. She had appeared like some vision and I had been bowled over by those large blue eyes, warm smile, fair complexion and soft mass of golden hair. After a long period spent summoning up the courage and with constant nagging from my colleagues in the office, I had asked her out. We had been to the theatre and the cinema, to a concert and various school events and as each day passed I felt sure I was falling in love with her.
When I had first met Christine she had had a boyfriend – miles. He was everything I was not; strikingly handsome, with the sort of sculptured features of a male model. He was lean, athletic, sophisticated and suave and he was also very wealthy. But Miles had those flaws of character often possessed by men who are rich and handsome: he was arrogant and self-centred. To my delight, Christine had, in Sidney’s words, ‘given him the old heave-ho’, which was when I had chanced my arm and asked her out. Over the recent summer holidays I had not seen very much of her. She had spent three weeks in Chicago, staying with a cousin and a further week writing up a dissertation for a masters degree. We had enjoyed a day walking on the North York moors and been to the theatre and out to dinner a couple of times. This term I was determined, I was going to see a whole lot more of her.
‘So what’s happening with you two then?’ asked Julie. She was not one to beat around the bush.
‘what do you mean, what’s happening?’
‘Well, are you getting it together? Is it serious?’
‘I’m not sure … ‘ I started.
Julie folded her arms and pulled a face. ‘Typical of men that – “I’m not sure.” Just like Paul.’ She put on a sort of whining voice. ‘”I’m not sure about going to Majorca, I’m not sure that this is the right flight, I’m not sure I’ll like this Spanish food, I’m not sure –“’
I decided to change the subject. ‘Am I the only one in the office this morning?’
‘It’s always the woman who has to make the decisions. What did you say?’
‘I asked if I was the only one in the office this morning?’
‘Just you. Mr Clamp’s planning his art course, Mr Pritchard’s meeting with the newly qualified teachers and Dr Yeats is at a conference. There’s not much mail either, by the look of it.’
‘So,’ I said happily, ‘it looks like a quiet start to the term.’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Julie. ‘Mrs Savage phoned last Friday.’ At this point her lip curled like a rabid dog and her voice became hard-edged. ‘She wondered where you were. I said, “People do take holidays, you know.” If she’d have bothered to look at those wretched inspectors’ engagement sheets I have to send over to Admin. every week she’d have seen that you were on leave. She just like the sound of her own voice and it’s not her real voice anyway. She puts it on. I don’t know who she thinks she’s trying to impress.’
I began to chuckle and shake my head. ‘You’ve really got it in for Mrs Savage this morning, Julie, and no mistake. She’s not that bad.’
‘she’s unbearable. “Ho,” says she, “well tell Mr Phinn, when he returns, that Dr gore wishes to see him in his room has a metter of hurgency at nine hey hem prompt.” Made you sound like a naughty schoolboy. Then she slams the phone down with no trace of a “please” or “thank you”.’ Julie’s face screwed up as if she had chronic indigestion. ‘That awful voice of hers really gets under my skin.’
Mrs Savage, the CEO’s personal assistant, was not the most popular of people in our office nor was she the easiest woman to get on with. She had a formidable reputation with a sharp tongue and a stare that could curdle milk; she definitely was not a person with whom to cross swords. I had kept a wary distance after battling with her the previous year.
‘And speaking of getting under people’s skin,’ said Julie, ‘I reckon she’s had her face done.’
‘Who?’ I asked.
‘Mrs Savage. When I saw her last week in the staff canteen I didn’t recognise her. Her skin’s been stretched right back off her face. She looks as if she’s walking through a wind tunnel. All those wrinkles have disappeared. And she did have some lines on her face, didn’t she? Looked like something out of that shop in the High Street where they sell all those wrinkled leather coats. Those two pouches under her chin have gone as well.’
‘I don’t remember her having pouches.’
‘Of course you do! She looked like a gerbil with mumps. And I think she’s had the rhinosuction because she looks a lot thinner as well.’
‘Liposuction,’ I corrected her.
‘She’s that thick-skinned, I think I was right the first time. She gave me such a glare, I can tell you, if looks could maim, I’d be on crutches.’
‘And she said Dr Gore wanted to see me?’
‘She’s unbearable that woman,’ said Julie with venom, ‘you would think –‘
‘Julie!’ I snapped. ‘Did Mrs Savage say that Dr Gore wanted to see me?’
‘At nine o’clock prompt. That’s what Lady high and Mighty said.’
‘I wonder what it’s about?’
‘She puts on that posh accent and that hoity-toity manner but it doesn’t fool me. Marlene on the switchboard remembers her when she started as an office junior. That’s when her hair colour was natural. She had a voice as broad as a barn door and as croaky as a frog with laryngitis. Then she went through all those husbands like a dose of salts and was promoted far beyond her capabilities and she now speaks as if she’s got a potato in her mouth.’
‘I think the expression is “a plum in her mouth”.’
‘With a mouth like hers, it’s definitely a potato. When I think of the times –‘
‘Did she say what Dr Gore wanted?’ I interrupted. I was feeling rather uneasy about this interview with the CEO so early on in term. A small cold dread was settling into the pit of my stomach.
‘No, I never gave her the chance. I keep all conversations with that woman as short as possible. Anyone would think she was royalty the way she carries on. It might be promotion.’
‘Why Dr Gore wants to see you. You know, a step up. Doubtful though – you’ve only been here a year and a bit. Could be a complaint from a governor or an angry headteacher.’
‘That’s all I need the first week back,’ I sighed.
‘Then again,’ said Julie, with a mischievous glint in here eye, ‘it could be one of his little jobs.’
‘oh no!’ I exclaimed. ‘Not one of his little jobs! Please don’t let it be one of his little jobs!’ I was well acquainted with Dr Gore’s little jobs, having been given several in my first year – and they were never ‘little’ jobs. There had been the county-wide reading survey and the full audit of secondary school libraries followed by a detailed report to the Education Committee. There had been the investigation into the teaching of spelling, the production of a series of guideline documents for teachers, and the organising of the visit of the Minister of Education. All this was extra work on the top of the courses, inspections and report writing. I prayed it was not one of Dr Gore’s little jobs.
Dr Gore, Chief Education Officer for the County of Yorkshire, continued to smile like a hungry vampire as he leaned forward in his chair. He peered over his glasses, his eyes glinting like chips of glass. ‘Well, Gervase,’ he murmured, stroking his brow with a long finger. I just knew what he was going to say. He was going to say, ‘I have a little job for you.’
‘I have a little job for you,’ he said.
Ten minutes later Julie was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. ‘Well?’
‘A little job?’
‘Right first time.’
‘I’ll put the coffee on.’
I followed her into the office. ‘Actually it’s not too bad.’ I said cheerfully, rattling the change in my trouser pocket. ‘Dr Gore’s asked me to organise a visit of one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors for later this term. He wants to look at some schools as part of a national information gathering exercise on literacy standards. I just have to nominate a number of schools and arrange things, nothing massively demanding in that. I can ring round the schools this morning and get a letter off to the Ministry. There’s not much else for me to do today. The only fly in the ointment is having to liase with Mrs savage.
Julie pulled the screwed-up face again and clattered out of the office. ‘Forget the coffee,’ she said. ‘I’ll get the brandy.’
One bright morning, a week later, I was looking casually through my post when I came upon a frighteningly official-looking document. On the envelope there was a large royal crest with a lion rampant and rearing unicorn and topped with a crown. The letter inside had a black embossed heading – The Ministry of Education – and ended with a large flourish of a signature. I recognised the name: Miss W. de la Mare.
Miss de la Mare, Her Majesty’s Principal Divisional Inspector of Schools, had contacted me the previous year when I had been given the ‘little job’ of arranging the visit of the Minister of Education. She had barked down the telephone at Julie that she wanted to speak to me to discuss the visit and then had promptly hung up. Julie had told me that the speaker ‘was like a grizzly bear with toothache’ and had given me a name which sounded like ‘Deadly Stare’. In the event Miss de la Mare’s bark was far worse than her bite. In the letter I had now, she requested that I arrange a series of visits to schools ‘which demonstrate good practice in the teaching of reading and writing’ and which ‘show good breadth, balance and continuity in the curriculum’. She was particularly interested in poetry.
I knew just the school for her to visit: Backwatersthwaite Primary, the very first school I had called at when I had started in my new career as an inspector a year earlier.
It had been the first week of the job. After a frustrating two-hour search up and down the dale, along muddy, twisting roads, across ancient stone bridges, up dirt tracks and through countless picturesque villages, I had eventually discovered Backwatersthwaite School. The Headteacher, Mr Lapping, a tall, lean man with grey, frizzy hair like a pile of wire wool, had not been expecting me but was entirely unperturbed when I informed him that I was a County school Inspector visiting to examine the children’s work and scrutinise the school documentation. I had called at the school again a couple of times during the year and had been immensely impressed by the quality of the education. The children were polite and well-behaved, they answered questions with enthusiasm and perception, read with confidence and expression and wrote the most poignant and vivid poetry.
I replied promptly to the letter from the Ministry of Education suggesting five schools for Miss de la Mare to visit and offering to accompany her to Backwatersthwaite. I certainly did not want her to spend half the day, as I had done, travelling backwards and forwards through the dale in search of the elusive school.
A couple of days later a second rather sharp-sounding letter arrived from the Ministry of Education informing me that Miss de la Mare was grateful for the list of suitable schools and for my offer to accompany her on one of the visits but she would prefer to go alone. I immediately telephoned the headteachers at the chosen schools fore-warning then of the HMI’s visitation.
‘Well, thank you very much,’ sighed George Lapping down the line. ‘Thank you very much indeed. I know now who my friends really are.’ I could guess from the tone of his voice that he was secretly pleased but he made the pretence of displeasure. ‘I have attempted, Gervase, over the many years I have been a teacher and headteacher in this vast and beautiful county, to avoid the attention of school inspectors. My school is isolated, difficult to find and subtly disguised to resemble the façade of a private dwelling. I have kept my head down, got on with my teaching and not done too bad a job, even if I do say so myself. Now, with your recent arrival in the county, Backwatersthwaite has been put firmly on the map. I guess there will be coaches creeping up the dale full of educationalists and researchers, maybe day trippers and school parties. Now I have and HMI putting me under the microscope.’
‘You should be very flattered that I recommended your school, George,’ I replied. ‘It’s a mark of the excellent work which your pupils achieve. As Shakespeare would have put it, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”’
‘But I have an HMI thrust upon me. Well, I just hope he has the same difficulty finding the school as you did when you first came here, Gervase. I can’t be doing with visitors. They interrupt my teaching routine with all their questions. Anyway, when is this visit likely to take place?’
‘Oh, some time this term,’ I replied. ‘I’m not exactly sure, but I should imagine that you’ll be given very good warning. By the way, George –‘ I was about to tell him that the HMI in question would be a woman, but he cut me off.
‘And I do not intend putting on anything special for him. He’ll just have to take us as he finds us. Anyway, if he intends coming out in November or December, he had better reconsider. It’s like Tibet up here in the winter.’ I tried again to explain that the HMI intending to visit him was not a man but Miss de la Mare, and quite a forceful character at that, but he never gave me the chance. ‘I shall have to go. Break is over and there’s children to teach. I’ll let you know how I get on.’ With that the line went dead.
As soon as I had replaced the receiver, however, the telephone rang. I snatched it up.
‘George,’ I said, assuming it would be the previous speaker, ‘I meant to say that the HMI –‘
The voice which relied was coldly formal. ‘This is Mrs Savage.’ I jumped as if someone had poured a bucket of cold water down my back. ‘Is that Mr Phinn?’
‘yes, yes, Mrs Savage,’ I said. ‘I thought you were someone else.’
‘Mr Phinn,’ she said primly, ‘it was my understanding that you and I were going to liase?’
‘Going to what?’ I asked.
‘Liase,’ she repeated. ‘I understood from Dr Gore that we were going to liase over the visit of the HMI.’
‘Oh yes, he did sort of mention something about that.’
‘Mr Phinn, Dr Gore does not sort of mention something. Dr Gore is always very specific and precise and he clearly informed me that you were going to get in touch to liase about this intended visit of the HMI. I was to deal with all the administrative arrangements.’
‘I see,’ I said lamely.
‘Clearly you do not see, Mr Phinn.’
‘I have not heard a thing,’ she said tartly. When I did not respond she continued. ‘I did telephone earlier in the week but your secretary – who is not the easiest person to deal with I have to say – was in rather a tetchy mood. Something had obviously got under her skin that morning.’ At the mention of ‘skin’ and Julie I recalled the earlier conversation about Mrs Savage’s plastic surgery. I winced and held my breath to keep from laughing.
‘Are you still there?’ came a strident voice down the line.
‘yes, yes, I am.’
‘And then this morning, as I was dealing with Dr Gore’s correspondence, I came across a letter from the Ministry of Education informing him that the visits have already been arranged.’
‘The thing is, it was a pretty simple task, Mrs Savage,’ I said. ‘I saw no reason to bother you about it.’
I heard a sort of clucking noise down the telephone. ‘So I take it that you have contacted the schools, arranged the visits and organised everything else as well?’ I could imagine the stiffening of the shoulders, the hawk-like countenance and the flashing eyes.
‘Yes, I have.’
‘I see. Well perhaps you will do me the courtesy, next time we are asked to liase, of letting me know that you intend to do it all yourself.’
‘As I said, Mrs Savage, it was not an onerous task and –‘
‘I shall, of course, be informing Dr Gore of the situation. I expect you have sent him all the details?’
‘It is in draft now,’ I said pulling a clean pa of paper towards me, ‘and he will have it in the morning.’
There was an embarrassed silence followed by the clucking noise again. ‘Well, there seems little more to say.’ With that she replaced the receiver.
I took a deep, deep breath, turned to the window and exhaled noisily. The morning had started off so well. How things can change in a matter of hours, I thought to myself. I prayed that I would see little of Mrs Savage in the term ahead. As things turned out, my prayers were not answered.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: