An interview with Gervaise Phinn by Phil Penfold
Writer, author, columnist, poet, a man with no less than four honorary doctorates, plus another quartet of fellowships, and a man who is the Past President of the School’s Library Association, and President of the Association of Teachers of Speech and Drama. Just a few things that you ought to know before Gervase Phinn, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, tells another story. It seems that Rotherham-born and bred Phinn was on holiday, not so long ago, with his wife Christine.
“To Majorca. Lovely place”, he recalls, “beautiful sunshine every day. I used to go down to the pool around about seven or so with a glass of orange juice – I never ever eat breakfast – and I’d find a little space of a sort of jetty that stuck out into the sea, and I’d settle down with only Jose the pool guy for company. I say ‘first one down’, but someone had been up even earlier, putting towels on every available lounger.
“I’d been asked to review a few children’s books for one of the papers, and I’d taken them along with me. Christine didn’t join me until well after nine, and one day I looked up to see this great big burly bloke coming towards me, all tattoos. He arranged his towels, and departed. Then he came back just before noon, with a wife who was almost identical, and two children, who both had faces like a slapped backside, and who clearly didn’t want to be there. They were totally monosyllabic. They only gave grunts.
“Anyway, I’m reading these kid’s books, and after a while he leaned over toward me, and he said, with a smarmy grin, ‘’Appen you’ll get t’the big books soon’, which he clearly felt was very funny indeed. So I decided to play him along, and I put a very sad face on, and I said: ‘That’s actually very hurtful. Here I am, trying my hardest at my time in life, to try and learn to read, and all you can do is look down on me, and make disparaging remarks. I’m more than a bit wounded at what you’ve just said’. And he looked very guilty, got up, and moved away.”
Gervase says: “Then, about half an hour later, his son came across to me, and offered me a pint of cold lager. And as he handed it to me, he said ‘Me dad says sorry. He didn’t know that you were backward!’ I made sure that I moved where I sat from that day onwards!”
Born in 1946, just after the war and brought up in a country still very much in a ‘make do and mend’ mood, Gervase believes that his mother (his was a Catholic family) may have prayed to St. Gervase of Milan when she was not too many weeks away from his birth. “I cannot think of any other reason”, he chuckles, “why I should have been given the name that I got. I was at a lunch with Sebastian Coe not so long ago, and he said to me that if you were raised in Sheffield, as he was, and you were called ‘Sebastian’, you pretty soon learned to be a fast runner. I said to him ‘And if you were brought up in Rotherham, with a name like ‘Gervase’, you had to be learn pretty darn quick to be good with your mouth, and have a sense of humour!”.
To this day, says Gervase, who is one of Britain’s most prolific authors, and sought-after public speakers, and who lectures on cruises, as well as filling theatres all over the UK with his wit, wisdom, and his observational humour, “I cannot stand bullying. I loathe it, detest it completely. Of course, it was a little different when I was a child, because it basically took two forms – name-calling, and maybe physical violence. And we were all told to retort ‘Sticks and stones may hurt my bones….’ But today, it’s been taken onto an even more sinister and unpleasant level, with cyber-bullying, which is dreadful. Texting and messaging, things like that. You just cannot believe what some youngsters are going through. That’s why I am a solid supporter of Childline, and a great admirer of everything that Esther Rantzen does.”
In fact, this busy man, who lives in the picturesque “large village” of Tickhill, in South Yorkshire, finds time in his life to support several charities, both large – and small. In fact, he’s a proud Patron of many of them. They range from the NSPCC and the Army Benevolent Fund to Doncaster Homestart. And, since he started his working life as a teacher, he is passionate about getting children to learn to read as early as they can, and to enjoy the process, emerging with a love of books. One of his books is the hugely popular The Road to Reading, which guides adults on the selection of books for young children. “I’m no Luddite”, says Gervase, “but I love books. Proper books. Books that you can hold and where you can turn the pages. Watching someone with a Kindle, well, I don’t know. I despair. Where’s the pleasure in that?” He has been known, he reveals, to contact a school that he’s seen mentioned in the newspapers, and to offer his time for a day or so, talking to the teachers, and meeting the pupils. Once a teacher, it seems, always, in part at least, a teacher. “Teaching,” he says, “is simply the best job that there is. I always tell that to all the young would-be teachers I meet. And if the old cynic sitting in the corner of the common room doesn’t like it any more, well, they know where the door is, and where they can put in their resignation”.
The cosy lounge where we’re sitting is floor-to-ceiling lined with books on one wall, and his upstairs study is the same. Reference books, biographies, some novels, autobiographies. There’s only one of his own books on view.
In fact, the Phinns have two houses in Tickhill. One is where he works, and where there is no television, and no radio to distract him, and the other is just along the road, where he goes home to Christine at nights. “She leads a far more social life than I do”, he admits, “she’s the one who enjoys creating the garden, singing in choirs, things like that. I don’t have any hobbies at all, if I’m honest. I like reading, I do two serious crosswords every day, I like listening to music, I like travel, and that’s about it. I’m going to London for a week soon, to complete a book I’m currently working on, and in the evening I shall take in as many shows as I can. None of the West End stuff. No Jersey Boys for me. I love the fringe stuff. Always far more interesting and rewarding.
“I never watch the tele, because most of what is on when I accidentally stray in front of it seems to me to be absolute rubbish. I listen to Radio 4 and Classic FM most of the time, and then mainly in the car.” And then he laughs: “Christine and I are heading toward our fortieth wedding anniversary, and she always says that if we lived in the same house all the time, we’d have headed for the divorce courts many years back. But, with things as they are, we always have something to talk about, something to discuss. A friend of ours is a divorce lawyer, and he told me that I wouldn’t believe the number of women around the 60 mark who come to him for advice about separation – because their husband has just retired and they can’t stand him around the hours twenty-four hours a day, every day in the week!”
He admits: “I shall never retire. Not from writing I don’t see that as the remotest possibility. I think that most writers feel like that. They have to keep on putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. It’s part of what we are. Other men might be able to stop driving trains or selling shares on the stock exchange, but writing is in me, and will always be there.” And so, you suspect, will be his urge to tell stories. “Well, I suppose that’s part of my gene pool”, he says, “because there’s a lot of Irish in both my mother’s and my father’s families. One branch came from Galway. My Grandmother, what a character she was. She’d come out with some wonderful expressions. Like ‘Her? She’s got a mouth on her like a torn pocket’. Then there was my Uncle Ted, who had been through some terrible experiences in the war, and he’d come into the room when she was talking sometimes, shuffling in his tartan carpet slippers, and just stand there listening, before shuffling soundlessly out again. She’d look at him as he went, drop her voice, and say ‘He comes into the room like a drop of soot’. Another of hers was ‘You can’t bar a door with a boiled carrot’. Priceless, and wonderful. Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said that life would be perfect if ‘we could teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen’?”
What makes Phinn’s books and conversation come alive is his acute attention to detail. His Uncle Ted didn’t just ‘come in’, he ‘came shuffling in, in his tartan carpet slippers’. “I just love description”, he says. “I forget who said it, but I do believe in ‘Every good book is different, all bad books are the same’, and I just want to write good books”.
He is, he says, “one of the world’s worst eaves-droppers – but in the nicest way, I hope. I just cannot help listening to people, and the way that they say things. But then all writers do that, don’t they? Characters come to life through good dialogue, and nothing ever beats a writer putting down what he or she has heard, there on the page. I’m always talking to people as well, at bus stops, in shops, where-ever it may be. Because you get some cracking conversations. And yes, I always carry a little book and a pencil with me, to note it all down. Christine and I got back from Japan not so long ago, and we met up with a lad at St. Pancras on our way home, who asked us to look after his bags while he went for a beer, and by the end of three-quarters of an hour, we’d found out that he’d just been teaching in Korea, the people out there, what life was like, oh it was fascinating – and informative. I just love people, me”.
He works behind the counter at the Grove, an independent book shop in Ilkley, every year on World Book Day, and there, says Gervase, “I’ve heard some corkers. One woman came in and asked if I knew who had written The Diary of Anne Frank. I said that I thought that the title rather gave her the answer. And then she said, ‘Yes, but who DID write it?’ Another came in and asked ‘Do you stock James Joyce’s Useless?’ You couldn’t make it up, could you?”
He vividly recalls holidays as a child, when he and the family “Would go off to Blackpool, and we’d take in a few shows, and I always loved the acts that took liberties with words. Like Hylda Baker, who is almost forgotten now. She had a line about being so shocked at something or other, ‘that I nearly fell prostitute on the floor’, and another which went ‘And I say that without fear of contraception’. I love that risqué stuff – people like Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Max Miller, they never used a four-letter-word. They were very naughty, but always had that twinkle in the eye, which I hope I have, as well”.
He’s also working on another book, looking at the way that the natives of these islands mangle their own language, “and how we use so many euphemisms, particular about sex, the toilet, and death. People ‘pass away’ instead of dying, for example. I heard two lovely ones for going to the loo the other week. I was at a naval dinner and these senior officer next to me excused himself by saying that he was ‘going to shed a tear for Nelson, and at a Ladies Luncheon club a frightfully posh lady asked to be excused while she ‘went to turn the vicar’s bike around’. Amazing’.
Is Gervase Phinn ever lost for words himself? It seems so. He tells the story that, not so long back, he was asked to speak at a dinner held at Simpsons in the Strand in London. As he and Christine entered, the top-hatted doorman asked him to step aside, and told him that The Manager wanted a word with him. And the Manager, apparently, was very, very angry with him. “Christine said to me ‘You’ve been here before, did you nick any of the napkins or the silver?’ and said ‘Of course not!’ and sent her to the bar. I went up the stairs, quaking, and knocked on the door. A voice said ‘Come’. And this man, maybe early forties, beautifully dressed, and behind a huge mahogany desk, asked me to sit down. I said ‘I don’t know what this is all about, but I hear that you are very cross with me. And he said ‘Yes, indeed I am. Extremely angry.’. And I thought ‘Oh heck’, and asked why.
“And he said: ‘Because you never believed me. I told you, all those years ago, at Brinsworth High School, in Rotherham, that I couldn’t produce my homework, because the dog had eaten it, and you said that that was the lamest excuse you’d ever heard. But, Mr. Phinn, it was true. No lie at all!’
“And I said ‘Stephen Burford….is that you?’ And it was. And he thanked me for teaching him, and his sister Anne, and told me that there was no way that I was going to pay for any drinks that night.
“But yes, he had me going, and yes, I was speechless.” He laughs: “ It’s not often, I admit, that that happens!”
‘An evening with Gervaise Phinn’, May 29, Doncaster Civic, Tel (01302) 342349 Doncaster Civic Theatre