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Adele Parks on her childhood and the debt of gratitude she owes her teachers

PUBLISHED: 11:19 05 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:01 10 May 2017


Author Adele Parks moved to Guildford from London 12 years ago to replicate her idyllic, chaotic, home-spun childhood on Teesside. She’s written 16 books in 16 years; sold 3m copies and is published in 26 countries. Her books – including The State We’re In and The Other Woman’s Shoes – have been borrowed more than 1.5m times from Britain’s public libraries - which delights Adele, since she spent a large proportion of her early years in them

Published in A+ Education Spring 2017

I was born in Eaglescliffe, a small town in Stockton-on-Tees in north east England.

It’s on the River Tees and for ceremonial purposes is in County Durham, a fact that confused me as a child because I never felt sure which county I was from.

To add to the confusion, the name Eaglescliffe is thought to be derived from a misspelling of the nearby village of Egglescliffe, meaning a church on a hill.

Another common myth is that in Victorian times, the sign for the new railway station turned up incorrect because the sign writer thought that Egglescliffe was a mistake and altered it.

I remember pondering this a lot when I was young. I’ve always had an interest in words and why getting the right one was so important.

It’s why, I think, I was the kind of child teachers like: diligent, clever enough, polite and conscientious. I can still name all of my teachers, in primary and secondary school.

My mum Maureen, dad Tony and sister Andrae - older by three years - lived within driving distance of our extended family, who were all Teessiders too.

I had a full set of grandparents on both sides and three great grandparents and we spent a lot of time with them.

My sister and I were the first grandchildren and we were spoilt. We had more sweets, dolls and craft kits than most other kids; plus we were spoilt by the amount of time everyone had for us.

We lived on baked beans and Smarties, Findus Crispy Pancakes and Angel Delight.

There just wasn’t the nutritional knowledge there is now - I’m really strict with my son Conrad - but we always had a Sunday roast and I still make one now, even though I’m vegetarian.

The weekends were full. We baked, made crafty things - you know, petal perfume, paper flowers, badges.

My parents dragged us around stately homes, something I resented then and appreciate now, and my sister and I had unsuccessful vegetable plots.

My paternal grandmother made clothes for us which would be a source of embarrassment to kids nowadays, but at the time we thought we were so lucky. We could point at something in a fashion magazine and she’d be able to whip it up for us.

Mum and my maternal Nana could knit, so we had it all sorted.

My sister was the prettier but shyer one and I was the family comedian. At the time, I wished people commented on my looks. Girls are taught to value those sorts of compliments far more than they should. As I’ve grown up I’ve found the value of being a person who can make others laugh.

I spent so much time with my family that my best friends were twins, Vivian and Ian, who lived next door to my grandparents. I found them exotic on every level.

Firstly, they were twins, secondly they were redheads, and their birthday was on Christmas Eve.

We spent most weekends together until we were 11, when my grandparents moved.

I remember being heartbroken. We often put on plays for our parents and grandparents - made props and costumes, wrote scripts, sold tickets and served choc-ices from Nana’s freezer.

­We had a fat, lazy ginger cat, that I adored, a cheeky, troublesome Yorkshire Terrier, a budgie and a terrapin. Our pets all lived incredibly long lives, although with a great sense of dramatic timing, the budgie died on the first evening I was left alone, aged about 12.

My parents still live in the 1970s house I grew up in. It had two bathrooms and three loos, which was quite a thing back then.

Mum was always decorating. She was house proud and stylish and she still is; it wasn’t unusual to come home from school to find she had repainted a few walls.

My husband Jim and I designed and built our own house in Surrey. My love of interior décor came from Mum.

My parents didn’t send us to the school round the corner, but Durham Lane Primary, a little further away, because it was stronger academically. It was brilliant.

I’m state school-educated, not a single hour’s tuition, and I had a terrific education taught by amazing, dedicated teachers.

Our classes were big - 30 children at least - but teachers were supported by parents and children behaved well and wanted to learn.

We walked the mile to and from school every day, which seemed longer when it snowed. I loved it.

We always stopped off at the local library, sometimes visited the fruit shop to buy a quarter of cherries and we dropped in at the sweet shop more times than I’d allow my son to.

As I got older and walked home with friends, this mile was a perfect opportunity to gossip and flirt.

My primary school had a couple of hundred pupils; my secondary, Egglescliffe Comprehensive, over 1,000, all from different social backgrounds and with different expectations.

Some thought it was a pre-party for whatever they had planned in the evening but the majority took their studies seriously.

I was extremely happy in secondary school and I’m still in touch with some of my friends.

Last summer we went on holiday with my old school friend, Louise, and her family; one of her sons is my godson.

When I was a teenager, a lot of my friends, including Louise, lived in outlying villages and had to take a school bus home.

That meant opportunities to see one another outside school were limited to weekends and of course there was no social media.

It had to be an emergency to think of using the telephone. I suppose this is why I studied so much - I didn’t have a lot else to do.

My parents valued education. Books were important, as was trying our best and persevering, which was a good basis for academic achievement and my career as a novelist.

Novelists depend on self-discipline and self-belief and I’ve always been ambitious and simultaneously incredibly hard on myself.

My parents’ biggest challenge was keeping me from becoming too stressed when exams approached. They used to come up to my bedroom where I was studying for O and A-levels and beg me to come downstairs to watch TV.

It used to frustrate me that they didn’t know how hard I felt I had to work to get there. Now I’m a parent, I see they were just trying to keep me sane and balanced, but everyone around me worked incredibly hard. Being a shirker was frowned upon.

Mum and Dad encouraged my sister and I to be anything we wanted to be. My sister always wanted to be a teacher, and she is; an extremely good one. I wanted to be a writer. No one discouraged me but they didn’t take it especially seriously either.

When I was 13 I was taught English by a northern Irish feminist called Ms Maguire. She was fabulous. Bold, demanding and controversial, she pushed us to think about the infinite significance of writing; nature of truth, importance of recording accurately, the fact that words make history.

She wanted us to understand the magnitude of striving to communicate, the power of persuasion. I still remember many of her lessons in great detail.

I admired her enormously but I never openly admitted as much - that would have been too embarrassing, but I hope she knew. I wish I could thank her for opening my mind.

My O and A-level geography teacher, Mr Beddow, had incredibly high standards and I can still quote things from his lessons because he drilled his pupils so well.

He taught me how to revise and study effectively and I attribute much of my exam - and life - success to him. He was strict but kind, incredibly interesting and ambitious for his students.

It was Mr Beddow who suggested I should go to university. I hadn’t known anyone who had gone to university, except him, and his belief in me gave me such confidence.

He inspired so many and showed great compassion to anyone who needed help. I talk about Mr Beddow often. He’s quite a legend in my family.

I had some marvellous lecturers at Leicester University too, but my secondary school headmaster, Mr Oliver, who taught me Shakespeare, offered constant encouragement while he challenged me.

One of the high points of my career was receiving a letter from him which said he very much enjoyed my novels.

It was a proud moment. It means a great deal to me that he admires my work, I have such huge respect for him; a cultured, calm, considerate headmaster.

The biggest life-lesson I’ve learned is success is not final, failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.

Winston Churchill said this and I believe it wholeheartedly.

Throughout life I’ve had some fabulous successes, lucky breaks, unexpected wins and I’ve also had some awful luck, some frustrating results and poor return on huge amounts of emotional and physical effort. That’s life.

That’s how we learn and we’re all learning all the time.

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