Gez Walsh. A Style All of His Own.
At first glance it is clear that Gez Walsh’s books will not be entered for the Man Booker any day soon. Certainly, the title The Spot on My Bum does not appear to lend itself to literary acclaim; nor do his stories, written in a way that every creative writing student is carefully trained to avoid. But before you push them to one side, you need to think about the readers these books are written for. The Spot on My Bum. Horrible Poems for Horrible Children is highly rated by poet Ian McMillan, who calls it ‘the voice of the playground’ in the foreword. That assessment says it all, and begins to reveal the reason behind Gez’s writing, which is about improving literacy. He is not someone who has come through the official channels of teacher training. But, like many people who are brought into schools for the purpose of creative writing, he has a canny knack of getting to the heart of what is needed by a bit of lateral thinking and his usual writing style.
One thing that’s immediately obvious with your books is that they’re not written to the type of standard format that a large publisher would be used to. But there are a lot of things in stories and poems that kids would find absolutely hilarious. In fact the books seem to be written in the way that you might actually tell a story to somebody as a storyteller.
I never set out to be a writer. I was a social worker, and quite happy doing that for a living. The reason I started writing was because my son, Lee, is dyslexic, and we couldn’t get him to read and write. One evening we were working with Toe by Toe by Keda and Harry Cowling, which is very good for dyslexic children, but can be boring after a while.
My wife carol walked into the room and started to complain about a small spot on her face. My wife always has perfect hair and make-up, so my son and I thought this was funny.
I said to Lee, ‘Let’s write a poem about your mum.’ Then I said to him ‘What rhymes with mum.’ Lee said ‘I don’t know.’ So I said ‘Change the first letter to ‘B’, and Lee fell about laughing. So The Spot on My Bum was born. This is when I started writing the poems. They were all aimed at getting him to read.
The idea of my first book The Spot on My Bum is not to be patronising, but to write as if I were a child. Julie Thompson who did the illustrations, came back with some wonderful pictures, but I said ‘No, I want them to look as if a child’s drawn them. The whole book has to have the feel of the child.’ If you look at Quentin Blake’s drawings, they look like a child has drawn them. But Julie tells me they’re technically very difficult to do, because they were drawn with so few lines. So although Julie’s first illustrations were wonderful, they weren’t what I wanted. She ended up redoing them about three or four times until I got the pictures that I liked.
The Spot on My Bum is actually one of the bestselling children’s poetry books of all time, because teachers picked up on it and started using it. So all the books, everything I’ve ever done, has had that in mind. Now I devote my whole life to working with children. I work with kids that nobody else wants to work with. I’ve also written some books for their parents too, because you got vicious cycle of having parents who can barely read who won’t buy a book for a child because they don’t put any value in it. That’s why I wrote the ‘Twisted Minds’ series of books, where I try to keep chapters two pages long. This was because lots of people that are not au fait with reading a novel, or not happy about reading, won’t want to read the chapter that is 150 pages long. But if you’re up to chapter 6, and you’re only a few pages in, then you feel like you’re romping along.
I’ve structured the plot, and the way the story is told, to make it sound like a friend telling you the story. That’s what, hopefully, should encourage them to read. That’s the audience I’m aiming for now, the parents of the children that I’ve been working with.
I also have a blog, which is really difficult to write, because there are lots of subjects I want to have an in-depth conversation about and rant about, because as a writer this is what we want to do. But I’m aware, because of the audience I want to read the blog, I can’t do that. I can’t have it more than a page long. There are also certain words I can’t use. For example, I got an email from someone the other day, from America, asking me what a misogynist was, because I’d used misogynist on the blog. But then I realised I should have put woman-hater. This is important otherwise I’ll alienate the people that I want to reach.
I think we do get complacent about using words and also that we forget exactly what they mean. When I was a social worker, I worked with a young man who had Down’s syndrome and it was the first time I had to stop and think how we use words. He had done something and I had said to him ‘Do you think that’s appropriate?’ I waited for an answer and then asked again. In fact I asked him three times. Then I realised what I should have said and asked him ‘Do you think what you did was right? Should you have done that?’ and he said ‘No.’ This made me really aware of the language we use when we communicate with each other. As a writer I need to be able to communicate with children from all backgrounds and to be able to communicate with people on all levels. That for me is the art of writing.
You books don’t fit into the type of style that large publishers would be looking for in a children’s book.
Strangely enough I have been approached by quite a few publishers. This is mainly because the books sell really well. That’s a big draw for them. But I don’t want to go down the conventional route. I spent some time talking to one representative, from a very large house, but I could see, as we carried on talking, what I was trying to do would disappear with what they wanted me to do. I found they didn’t understand the ethos of everything that I do and what it’s about. It has to be the way I’ve done it for it to work. So this is why do prefer the small publishers.
The schools I work in are tough to say the least. I’ve seen authors come into schools when we done events and they’ve left at lunch time, because they just find it too difficult to work with the problems they face. This is because it’s about us engaging the children and it’s not about children being engaged with us. The whole idea of the books is to try and engage these children on their level and using the way that they speak to tell the story.
What sort of changes in children have you seen when you’ve been working with them?
It’s about communication, and many of them don’t have good communication skills. They’ll communicate by punching each other or shouting at each other. It’s about breaking down barriers. The workshops are stripped back to the very basics. So I’ll start with a four line stanza about a teacher. Then we’ll do a two/four rhyming pattern. Once they’ve mastered that I then say to them ‘You’ve just written a poem.’ In the end it’s about putting pen to paper for them, because they have no confidence, because they’re worried about the spelling or the grammar and about their handwriting. I have to keep telling them that they can’t progress if they worry about that to start off with, the first thing that got to do is put pen to paper and have fun with it. As soon as they start writing the teachers will help them with their grammar and the spelling.
I work for a radio station and I have a radio show. So the children come onto the show and we’ll do little radio plays and we podcast them out. It’s about confidence. I’m a co-founder of Relight-ED which is an organisation that takes young people and gives them a chance to do a one-off event related to literacy. It is a major event, and we’re doing a big film at the moment. We’ve done flash mobs and all sorts of things. It shows young people who take part why education is important, because a lot of parents of these children have never worked and their grandparents have never worked. But there’s a man at the end of the road with the big BMW and selling various products, and to them that’s their aspiration. That’s what they want to be. So this project is about breaking down cycles. I could go in and start chattering about Wordsworth, but it’s just not going to do anything, it has to be the approach I use.
Tell me a bit more about Relight-ED.
In certain parts of the country parents have come into the schools and threatened the teachers. The kids have picked up on it and have gone home to the parents saying ‘Do you know what so and so has said today.’ It has ended up as ‘them and us’ situation. So what we’ve done is get the teachers to turn the tables and say ‘Come into the schools.’
I set up an Italian cooking session, because I’m half Italian (I do all the cooking at home). I’m in the kitchen with the parents and we mess about a bit and have a great laugh. At lunch time, we eat all the food we prepared with the teachers. This means that parents can sit down with the teachers, have a meal with them, have a laugh, and talk about all sorts of things. So instead of ‘us and them’, it’s two friends sitting enjoying a meal together and all the boundaries and barriers disappear. All of a sudden they start comparing notes and because of this they’ve got the parents on the side of the teachers. They’ll often get the parents saying ‘I was rubbish at school’. Then the teachers will say ‘Well come on in, I’ll show you how to use a computer.’
So the parents go into the school, and all of a sudden the schools become a focal point of the community. Which is how it should be. It’s just simple things like that, breaking down barriers, which is what we try to do with the Relight-Ed programme. We try to work with the parents, as well as with the young people . We have young people doing films and flash mobs. We’ve booked 2000 seater theatres. They put their own plays together and we get professionals to come and work with them. We get young musicians working together and bring them into recording studio. We get young people to come to my radio show and do things live on the radio show. Giving them a chance to show them there’s bigger world out there. The world isn’t just that street, that little area that they live in. It’s much bigger than that. They should go out and explore it and live in it. That’s basically what it’s about.
I was that horrible little kid that didn’t want to know. I was that horrible kid no teacher wanted to go near. I was the strange one that was quite violent. I don’t want the children to fall into the same trap as me. I want to show them that there is another way. That’s basically the reason for everything that I do. To do this I have to break cycles. One of the cycles is the parents. So I have to get to them, which is why I’ve written ‘Twisted Minds’ books in the style I have. It’s why the posts on my blog are so very varied.
Even when parents do read well, it can still be difficult to get a child to read. My own experience is that it can be particularly difficult to get a boy to read, and if they do they prefer non-fiction. Schools do lay down a very prescriptive list of books they expect children to read and these don’t necessarily suit every child. This can have a very negative effect when it comes to encouraging a child to read.
Yes generally boys do prefer to read non-fiction. I prefer to read non-fiction, and as I’ve got older, I’ve become particularly fond of books about lists, which is strange. I do, however like Terry Pratchett. Again there’s lots of snobbery about his writing. Terry Pratchett has a fantastic outlook on humanity. He understands it. He understands the people that he writes about. His characters are actually people you know, or you’ve met, or spoken to. and the type of person that sits next you on the bus, and they’re all put into Discworld. The images, the descriptive work that he uses is just fantastic. I’ve just rediscovered him, because I’ve been so busy writing for the last four years and I always buy his books in hardback as soon as they come out, but not had a chance to read them.
Do you go round with a notebook or is it just that you’re able to remember things you’ve seen?
The second book in the ‘Fearless Four’ series was a dream. I woke up and I thought ‘I know what’s going to happen.’ I sat down and wrote it all there and then, more or less. I pretty much didn’t leave the computer until I finished it. The first book in the series was supposed to be a story about a friend of mine myself. ‘Burp’ Dawson is actually a man called Mick Dawson who I’ve known since we were children and we’re like brothers. He was famous not for burping but for something else, but I didn’t want to put that in, because I thought it would get a bit too much by the end. I suddenly realised, when I read the book back, it wasn’t really about Mick and me, it was about me and my older brother. Strangely enough the Wilf character, was my older brother and I’m actually the Burp character. My older brother is a worrier and thinks about things. Before he does anything he takes a careful look at it and sizes it up. I crack jokes about everything and take the Mickey out of everything and just jump headfirst into whatever I’m doing. So it was interesting to see how the story had actually worked out.
The boy’s relationship with the girls is also very interesting, because they are very respectful towards them. It does appear to be very much in equal partnership when they get into the action.
I’m half Irish and half Italian. I was brought up by my grandparents. My parents were alive, but I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Every woman I knew was very strong, and very powerful. Not women that you mess about with. Lots of my friends are female, so I’ve always been in an environment with intelligent, strong women. In the 1970s when everybody was going on about women’s rights and the new laws were coming in, because of the experience I had with the women in my family I remember thinking ‘how many rights do they want? This was because I thought women ran everything. They certainly did in my world. It was the men who were the weakest sex. I had no idea how people went on in other relationships. So the girls in the books do reflect the relationships I’ve always had with females as I’ve grown up.
So although this book isn’t really autobiographical this quite a bit of you in there?
Well as a writer you know yourself, one of the rules of writing is to write about things you know. Even if you’re writing about deep space, you would research it and then you use your experiences and experiences of other people as to what would happen in that situation.
Again it is important that the readers can identify with the story they’re reading. How useful are your poetry books and the ‘Fearless Four’ books?
The poetry books are used for guys who just will not read anything. They are also
used by dyslexia associations. The ‘Fearless Four’ series was supposed to be the next step up, but I don’t use those much in schools.
What I do for prose workshops is use horror stories, because kids love horror stories and I have the world’s scariest story it’s an old hypnotism trick and what it does is draw you into the story and at the end there is a big finale and it scares everybody when I do it. I also do other stories and get the kids to tell me their stories and experiences and whether they believe in ghosts.
How did your poems develop?
I used to work evenings. So what I used to do when I went off to my shift, was say to my son ‘I’ll write you some poems and you write me some poems and tomorrow we’ll swap them.’ These poems were never meant to be published. One day he fell about laughing and wanted me to come down to his school to read the poems to his friends in school. I told him I couldn’t.
Being Irish/Italian, I had received the sort of Catholic education where this sort of thing wouldn’t have gone down very well in my school, and I probably would have been thrown out of it if I read those sorts of poems. But I went down my son’s school and asked his teacher and she told me it would be fine.
All of a sudden I had loads of teachers ringing me up saying ‘Would you like to come into our school and read the poems that you’ve written.’ I couldn’t understand how they’d heard about me. But I didn’t realise that teachers have a network and they were telling each other that I visit schools and read poems for an hour, and I didn’t charge anything.
Debbie, Steve’s wife (Rudd of The King’s England Press) and I used to work together as social workers and she’d got into publishing at the time, so I said to her ‘What do you think of these Debbie, everybody seems to like them?’, and she was instrumental in getting them published. The books went on to sell in the hundreds of thousands.
What I find really interesting is the poem ‘Grandad in Space’ (where the grandfather’s flatulence launches him into space)
This used to be the killer poem. I used to read the poem towards the end of my session, the teachers get it on one level and the kids get it on another (It’s a fine line I tread). Kids used to fall about laughing, but now they don’t laugh at it anymore. Something in the psyche of children has changed in the last 15 years, where that particular poem is not considered funny anymore. The one they consider funny now I really can’t read in school is the poem called ‘My Name Is’ (probably because the last word is the name of a girl called Fanny, which is now held to have certain sexual connotations).
I had an email a while ago, where one of the poems was used in the Royal Variety performance in New Zealand.
Do you think your background as a social worker has helped?
Yes, and certainly with the young people I work with. Although I do work with all sorts of different people, we are working on a festival with private schools at the moment. But the young people I usually work with can have lots of problems. Most teachers are 50% social worker 50% teacher. So working with the children’s understanding of their background and understanding the way to talk with them is really important. It is about boundaries, because most of these children have never had boundaries, so it’s about setting boundaries. Even so it still possible to have a laugh.
Usually the teachers will set the boundaries before I go in. The first thing I do when I go in and show them that this is going to be fun. I’m worse than they are. They see the act, they see the comedy, and a look at the teachers as if to ask ‘Can he say that?’ Once they realise it’s all going to be fun and a laugh, then they usually are on my side. You always get some who are too cool to be fooled.
Take, for example, people like me who left school when I was thirteen because partly I was an idiot and I thought I knew more than anybody. I usually tell kids in schools when you get to thirteen you go to bed one night as a lovely young person and in the middle of the night the knowledge fairy flies into your bedroom and touches you on the forehead with the finger of knowledge. You instantly become the all knowing being, which makes you realise that all the intelligence has been sucked out of your parents and teachers. So for four years all you do is grunt at people.
Mark Twain’s known for saying ‘When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.’ This is so true of us all really.
Kids are kids, it’s just that they have different baggage, and you just have to remember that. Under all that tough exterior, there’s still a vulnerable kid in there. Once they realise they’re not in charge, and you’re going to tell them what to do, they usually quite happy. What they’re scared about is that they don’t want to be in charge. Once they know where the boundaries are they settle down. It’s a matter of taking time with them and showing them a bit of respect. That’s all we all need as human beings.
The other thing that helps me as well is that I used to be British kickboxing champion, which is always stood me in good stead. When I left school I thought I could be world champion kickboxer and a stuntman. I thought I didn’t need any education. So I stopped going to school when I was thirteen. I never did become world champion kickboxer instead I became a joiner like my father. I built up my own business which was quite successful, but I woke up one morning and thought ‘I don’t like this.’ So I had to go back and do my education all over again, which was really difficult. I actually got to the stage where I was going to do medicine, but my wife got pregnant and we’d just bought a new house, so I had to go back on the sites again to make some money and I just couldn’t get back into study. So I did a degree in psychology, not that I found that any easier! I think I’ve just fallen into everything all my life.
Now I keep wondering when I’m actually going to work for a living. Making kids laugh and travelling all round the country and the world is wonderful.
How do you work on a poem with children?
I use a flipchart or whiteboard if I’m constructing a poem. Everybody thinks that they can’t write a poem, so I make teachers take part in the workshop as well. I want the teachers to laugh and I want them to struggle in the workshop, just like the kids do. So we construct a four line poem, there’s lots of comedy to get to it. I say ‘We don’t want the stupid word on the second line.’ Then I say ‘I’ll give you five pounds if you can rhyme a word with bulb.’ There are two words that rhyme with bulb. Then we move on and it’s £20 if they can rhyme with the word ‘oblige’. There’s only one word that rhymes with oblige. I read in a book that there are no words in the English language that rhyme oblige, so for a laugh I thought I would use that to try and get the kids working.
A friend of my brother’s, who is a professor of English, got me the rhymes for bulb (because I couldn’t find them). So for a joke I offered him £10 and I said ‘Peter if you can find a word that rhymes with ‘oblige’, I’ll give you £10.’ He told me the word straight away and I was stunned, because it’s a word we use every day, and nobody ever thinks of it. In all the time I’ve used it, there’s only one 10-year-old boy, in Bristol, actually got the rhyme for oblige. The kids love this. There’s one particular school I work which has a really bad reputation, but the kids are obsessed with the rhyming game. So we change the words in the poems and the words you think you could rhyme are actually difficult.
The only time this financial incentive didn’t work was in Luxembourg, which is the richest country in Europe. They were singularly unimpressed by my offer of €20.
You were saying earlier that being dyslexic is not a barrier to becoming a professional writer?
Scott Fitzgerald was dyslexic. It’s not a well-known fact because dyslexia wasn’t recognised in his day. The spelling, punctuation and grammar of The Great Gatsby were so bad, half of it was nearly rewritten by the editors. So it’s not just these kids, even great writers have problems. Andrew Fusek Peters, called ‘The Tall Poet’ (he’s six foot nine inches) is very dyslexic. We met up in Shropshire and had a great day together and swapped books. Some people don’t realise that you can still have a career in writing, even if you’ve got dyslexia, you just have to find a way of getting the writing down and find someone who’s good editing. We all learn in different ways. We all communicate different ways. We all live in different ways.
You cannot have a one size fits all education system. A good example of how different we are is an experience I had walking on the moors with my illustrator and saying, ‘Isn’t that amazing you can hear the sound of the water just bubbling down in a small stream and you can hear little sounds of birds.’ She said to me ‘Isn’t that strange. Because I was just looking at the hues of the heather and the plants over there, look how they’re all changing.’ She was seeing the moors I was hearing the moors. We were both there at the same time, yet we were both having different experiences of the environment.
Tell me about your new book ‘Diva Dave and Fat Sue’.
It’s another one for ‘Twisted Minds’ It’s a comedy romp, where two young people try to win a national talent competition, and end up causing chaos.
It’s written like a film script. So you could actually just take the book and make a film from the book. Everything is dialogue, with very little descriptive work. What the descriptive work does is just to set up the scene. But it still reads as a novel. I wanted it to be that way because, young people nowadays are more interested in watching a DVD or a film, than they are reading. So I thought I’d give them a book that’s like a DVD. You can freeze it in a certain place and pick it up later on. The way that it is written is like two people talking to one another, two people having a conversation, and that’s what drives the plot.