The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the JackalThe Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A slow-burning thriller with a first-class cast of characters, with the focus on the eponymous Jackal and the police detective tasked with tracking him down before he completes his assignment to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle.

The book is divided in three parts. The first charts the preparations by the Jackal–whose actual name we don’t ever quite know for sure–to do the assassination, after having been engaged by a French terrorist organisation (the OAS, which really did exist) in high secrecy. This involves a range of trips across Europe to gather false identities, and, crucially, to find a weapon capable of being hidden and to do the job at range.

In the second part, the plot is uncovered but the French police have no idea where to begin to look for the Jackal. After intensive investigations, Paris police detective Claude Lebel, gradually pieces together enough information to get on his trail. The Jackal however, seems always to be a step ahead. The narrative, jumping to the perspective of both the detective and the assassin, intensifies the flavour of the manhunt and shows the two men almost sparring at a distance.

In the third and final part, the Jackal closes in on Paris and prepares to do the killing. The police know that he is in the capital under a false identity but lose track of him as the Jackal goes to ground in the Paris underworld. Much to the frustration of his superiors, Claude Lebel can do no more than keep his ‘eyes and ears open’–he has an idea of the day the Jackal will strike, and the opportunities he will have. But will he get to him in time?

A first-rate thriller that not only entertains but gives historical flavour with a host of practical details about people, places, and how things work, done in a way that really adds to the story.

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The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth

The Fourth ProtocolThe Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first of the Frederick Forsyth books that I read during the Covid-19 lockdown period. A fascinating ensemble of characters from across the British and Soviet secret services, including the real-life traitor Kim Philby. Apparently, when this book was first published in the 80s, a copy was actually requested by Philby, who still lived in Moscow at the time.

Without giving too much away, the plot centres around a dangerous yet audacious covert attempt by the USSR to swing the result of the 1987 British General Election in favour of the Labour Party. This, given the right circumstances, they believe, will enable the hard-left to take over swiftly from the then party leader Neil Kinnock, and usher in Britain’s first Marxist-Leninist government. Their template was the takeover by Ken Livingstone of the Greater London Council earlier in the decade.

How will they do it? Will they succeed? Personally, I thought the tenets of the conspiracy were ever so slightly implausible, given that it would be difficult in practice to dislodge a national party leader who has just won a general election in the very circumstances the conspiracy demanded. Also, the legislative programme apparently intended for this new government, primarily the change in British foreign policy to withdrawal from Nato, would likely require votes in Parliament. A split Labour parliamentary party (which it would be), would by no means simply acquiesce.

However, none of this detracts in the slightest from a gripping drama that goes spans Moscow to London to Johannesburg, all the way to small English towns. One of the great aspects about Forsyth’s writing is that even the most minor of characters is as rounded as possible–hearing the mini background stories of, for example, the Glasgow police officers or a KGB driver, is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading his novels. Because of all the real-life characters mentioned or alluded to, the Fourth Protocol makes you feel like you have stepped into an alternate reality and brings to life the dangers and suspicions of the Cold War, many of which continue to persist today.

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The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

The Odessa FileThe Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d previously watched documentaries on YouTube about the Odessa, the supposed covert organisation that assisted former SS officers to escape detection. It seems that in real life, it didn’t necessarily exist in the single coherent form described in the book, but variants of it, smaller groups around Europe and South America, almost certainly did. The presence of high-ranking Nazis in South America, particularly in Argentina under the Peron regime, is well known. I approached the book with anticipation, then, wondering how these topics would be dealt with.

The main character, Peter Miller, is a young journalist enjoying life in 1963 Hamburg, out at night on the day of John F Kennedy’s assassination, doing a spot of ambulance-chasing, when he encounters the apparent suicide of a middle-aged Holocaust survivor. Upon obtaining this man’s diary, Miller is drawn, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at first, on a manhunt to apprehend a certain SS officer called Eduard Roschmann, the ‘Butcher of Riga’ (who really did exist).

The story adds a strong plot thread in the form of the involvement of the Israeli Mossad who want to prevent the Egyptian regime under Nasser from obtaining rockets that could be used to attack Israel. As Miller is drawn into infiltrating the Odessa to track down Roschmann, the Mossad are keen to use him, as a non-Jewish German, to find out about German scientists helping the Egyptian regime.

Excellent, gripping storytelling and good characterisation–I certainly enjoyed it, while learning a great deal of post-war political history poignantly combined with the tragic and horrific realities of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

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Writing Good Setting

Recall that there are three components to any novel: character, plot and setting. Let’s take a look at the latter.

Most ideas for new novels begin with one of the above. Either you have an idea for a character but no full story yet, or a story but not the characters, or perhaps you have the setting. A hotel, a workplace, a distant land, a country estate, a forest. I personally have been motivated several times to start writing based on an idea for a setting that captivated my imagination. To a large extent, setting will affect both your characters and the plot. Of course, all three aspects should be completely intertwined, such that the characters will affect the eventual settings, the setting will affect the course of the plot, and the plot will affect the characters themselves.

Now, how do you portray setting in your novel? Most writers think they need to write lots of description in their scenes, conveying every little detail. That is not necessary, and makes for bad fiction. To illustrate my point, look at each of the following words and then note what comes to your mind.

  • House
  • Mansion
  • Garden
  • Office
  • High street
  • Greengrocers
  • Car

Now, most likely what happened was that your mind conjured up images of each of these things, based on your own memories and experiences. When you read the word “mansion,” your mind instantly brought up an image of a mansion, perhaps something you saw outside, on TV, or perhaps your own house…

My point is that readers are not blank slates that must be fed everything about your story. They bring their own memories, thoughts and ideas with them and will superimpose them on your story, including your characters, your plot and your setting. You don’t need to go into detail to describe, for example, the colour of the car, unless it’s important to your story. That’s the key point to take away: don’t put something in your novel unless it moves the story forward. This ties in with one of my earlier posts about using adjectives and adverbs. Just write “car” instead of “blue, shiny car.” The moment the reader sees the word “car”, they will tend to think about their own car regardless of whether you say it’s blue or it’s shiny. It doesn’t add value to your story. Don’t go into lots of detail describing scenery, unless, for example, your character is an artist and his observation of the scenery is part of the story. I think you get the idea.

So, when adding description, stick to the basics. Keep it simple, but not simplistic. Your scenes should be 90% action, dialogue and introspection, just 10% description. Don’t leave it out altogether, but be sensible about where you add it.

Remember that the best setting begins in the mind of the author, but ends in the mind of the reader.

Bad use of alliteration

When reviewing your writing, take the time to read the text aloud to get a feel for the rhythm and fluency of the writing. Prose has a sound of its own, just like poetry or even music. Do the sentences flow smoothly into each other, or are they choppy and awkward? One of the worst culprits is alliteration in the wrong place. For example:

The man held up the can.

Try reading that aloud, noticing that the alliteration between “man” and “can” makes the sentence awkward to read. If this sentence was part of a paragraph that described a tense or a fast-moving scene, the tempo would be completely destroyed. Try rephrasing, perhaps by using the character’s name or even completely re-writing the sentence or paragraph.

Colin held up the can.

He held up the can.

Here’s another example, where the first part of the words is in common:

Kerry spotted the spider on her lap.

Here, “spotted” and “spider” cause an alliteration, spoiling the sentence. Much better to rephrase:

Kerry noticed the spider on her lap.

Kerry realised the spider was on her lap.

Chapter Titles

Should you have titles for the chapters in your book? Some writers do it and some don’t, and arguably, some stories are better suited to them than others. The trick is thinking of a name that identifies the key event of the chapter without giving too much away! Also, you have to beware of clichés—I personally have a bad habit of thinking up names like those in the Famous Five novels. Also, it’s sometimes quite hard to think up a good name, especially if the chapter is short and is character-centric.

Try to think of what is happening in the chapter from a birds-eye point of view, and especially what is happening in the middle point of the chapter or just before the chapter ends. This part of the chapter is a good candidate for picking a title. You can’t pick a title based on what’s happening at the end of the chapter because that would give your story away (which is a no-no, of course). Now, all this is assuming that your chapters end on a cliffhanger or soft landing (I called this a ‘bouncy cushion’ once).

If an unexpected event occurs during the chapter then you might want to think about whether the title should hint at this or not. Perhaps you could arrange the chapters so that the unexpected event happens at the end of the last chapter, so that the title of the new chapter can reflect the consequences of the event rather than the event itself.

Now you may wonder whether it’s worth having chapter titles at all. It’s all up to you, but it looks like many children’s novels do have these titles. Novels for older readers sometimes do have them. Some writers also like to include quotations or symbols for each chapter, as might be relevant to the story.

Storytelling workshop at Real Action (Queen’s Park school)

I first came across the literacy charity Real Action when I responded to a post on the neighbourhood social networking site Nextdoor (which, by the by, I wholeheartedly recommend). One of their teaching volunteers was looking to collect old children’s books from neighbours to add to the charity’s excellent library. I offered a free copy of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger and suggested I might be able to come along for a reading or writing workshop sometime. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to Real Action, and its founders Roger Diamond and Katie Ivens.

The origins of the charity go back to 1995 when North Westminster’s Mozart Estate had high levels of youth crime and gang violence. Roger, and other local residents, realising that many of these young people lacked basic literacy skills, decided to organise a summer reading course based on the ground-breaking Butterfly Method developed by the author Irina Tyk. The success of this course eventually led to the establishment of Real Action as a registered charity in 1998. They are now based in the Learning Store on Mozart Street and continue to provide reading/writing classes for adults, teenagers and children, as well as English language lessons for adults. These are based at the Learning Store as well as Queen’s Park Primary School, Rugby Portobello Trust in North Kensington, and Bevington Primary School.

I visited Katie and Roger at both their HQ in Queen’s Park (the excellent Learning Store on Mozart Street) and the Saturday classes at Queen’s Park Primary School. I observed some of their lessons based on the Butterfly Method and found them highly effective—I’m sure some of their teaching methods could well be adopted more widely. Their pupils are organised by reading ability, not by age, so you often have pupils of different ages in the same classroom. The reading programme itself is based on a highly structured approach using ‘synthetic phonics’ that, on average, helps improve a child’s reading age by a year with just twenty hours teaching (according to Real Actions’ reports).

We agreed that I would deliver a series of writing/storytelling workshops at each of the schools. The first one would be on the last day of term at Queen’s Park, where all the children of older reading ages would be brought together in the assembly hall. The challenge was preparing a lesson that would hold the attention of a mixed age group for two hours, and teach them about the basics of writing a story. No easy feat!

On the day itself, I arrived in good time and began setting up my laptop with the presentation slides and hooking it up to Katie’s mini projector. Of course, technology being what it is, it’s never quite that simple, and the children were already filtering into the hall while I was frantically (OK, exaggerating) trying to get it to work in time!

Finally, with everyone settled, and the projector behaving, we started the lesson in earnest. I began by asking the children about what they understand by a ‘story’, and the fact that you need a character, a setting, and a problem. At its most basic, a story tells us how the character solved the problem (the plot). I also talked a bit about why all around the world, no matter where they lived, people have always told each other stories. It’s also interesting that so many old stories from around the world are so similar in form and often content.

We then explored the ways in which a story can be told. This could be oral, written down, poetry, song, or even a visual form like film or theatre. The next bit was about the ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. The ‘who’ is about the characters in the story; the ‘where’ the setting, and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ the plot. I then went into how we put together the story through narrative (things happening), dialogue (people talking) and description, and by creating individual scenes that have a little bit of each. A story is basically then a collection of scenes, one after the other.

Then came the fun part, which I always enjoy: creating a story together with the whole class! We started out by picking a main character, some supporting characters, a setting, and a problem. Putting together the eager suggestions coming from the children, we arrived at a story about a boy with two good friends who he falls out with after a fight, steals one of his friends’ computer games to get his own back, then steals money from his parents (far too much stealing in this story!) and bribes his classmates to come to his birthday party! At the party, his friend finds the computer game and the situation gets worse for him…it’s always amazing the things they come up with!

The final challenge was for everyone to write a scene from any point in the story, making sure they put in a bit of narrative, a bit of dialogue, and a bit of description. Anyone who wanted to could then read their piece aloud in front of the whole class, and the best entry would win a copy of my book. Plenty to motivate! There were some fantastic entries, and some made everyone (including the teachers!) laugh.

The morning was a great success and really enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Meet the Author event at Lincoln Library

I first met the Lincoln-based artist Charlotte Kessler at Leadenhall Market in the City of London, where she was exhibiting and selling her paintings. I was working nearby at the time, and often popped into the market to have lunch at a small café that served hot meals like large chicken escalope with chips and beans…mmm! (No, I’m not remotely recommending that for lunch every day…)

On one of these afternoons, I was milling about the various stalls for a few minutes before heading back to the office. That was when my eyes caught a beautiful painting of a girl with locks of hair flying in the wind near rocks along a coast, with a lighthouse behind her. I approached the stall, and eventually got into conversation with the artist, Charlotte, who almost managed to persuade me to buy it. In the end, I opted not to make an impulse purchase of expensive art at lunchtime (!) and instead bought a small print of the painting. She gave me her business card and I promised to keep in touch.

Time flew by. A few years’ later, when I was in the process of publishing the first Jennifer Brown novel, I thought how good it would be to have a piece of original artwork for my book cover, rather than something generic. Charlotte’s painting (by then framed and on my living room wall) was exactly the sort of thing I had in mind, and her style seemed a good fit. I fired off an email to her to ask if she’d be interested, and the rest, as they say, is history. Charlotte has a great blog post showing how we developed the concept together.

A few weeks’ ago, when Charlotte was exhibiting some of her recent artwork in Lincoln Library, she invited me to join her for a joint book signing session on a Saturday. I was of course delighted to go up–I had been to Lincoln only once before and it’s a lovely cathedral city. I particularly wanted to walk up the ‘Steep Hill’, which is a street along a literally steep hill that leads up to Lincoln Cathedral and is lined with small shops, pubs and tea rooms.

I got up early to head to Paddington station to catch the train to Lincoln. I’ve always been a train person and there’s nothing more pleasant than an early morning train ride whisking you out and away from the big city. (Yes, assuming you have a seat and the carriage isn’t jam packed…one can dream!).

It was a warm, sunny day when I got to Lincoln station, and just as well as I was only wearing a light shirt! I had brought a bag full of books with me, and obviously I was hoping I wouldn’t be dragging them back to London at the end of the day! Charlotte had recommended that I go to a small coffee shop across the road from Lincoln Library (apparently where they serve the best coffee in Lincoln!) and meet her there before the event started.

Charlotte arrived and we headed into the library. We were greeted by the staff, who had already put up a small table for us to sit at. Charlotte had brought some home made brownies to keep us (and the children!) going, and we dutifully munched through them all day. As the weather was nice, things got to a slow start (who wants to go to the library on a Saturday when it’s sunny outside?), but luckily it wasn’t too long before families starting wandering towards our table and we were kept busy answering questions and taking turns to sign copies of the book.

We took a short break to see a little music event taking place in one of the rooms for hire in the library. A man (well known in the area, apparently!) was playing a tune using musical instruments he had made out of various mechanical items.

I always enjoy answering the different sorts of questions that both children and adults will ask about my stories. At the library, one child asked how I got the idea for Jennifer Brown whilst another wanted to know when I’m going to finish writing the second book! Several of Charlotte’s friends came by with their children and I was also pulled into various conversations about how long it takes to write a book and what it’s like to live in London.

After the event wrapped up, we went for a drink before driving to Charlotte’s mother’s house for a long dinner and lots of conversation, which veered off into politics (why couldn’t we just talk about fairies…!?).

It was getting late, so Charlotte drove me to the small bed and breakfast in the outskirts of the city, where I had booked to stay. By the time I got there, it was way past midnight. Rather than going to bed immediately (which I probably should have done), I ended up chatting for over an hour with the couple running the B&B. Finally, after a good night’s sleep, I got up early in the morning to catch the train back to London.

Dyslexia Scotland talk

A couple of weeks ago, as part of National Dyslexia Awareness Week in Scotland, I was invited by Dyslexia Scotland to give a talk to two Primary 7 classes at Oxgangs Library in Edinburgh. I planned a 45 minute presentation to introduce the children to what dyslexia is and how it can affect those who live with the condition. I’d originally wanted to weave in examples from Jennifer Brown, but in the end decided to keep things simpler and focus on dyslexia itself and give as many real world examples as I could.

I took the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Edinburgh. I enjoy travelling by train generally, and even though it’s sometimes a little exhausting, it’s nice both to have the time all to yourself and be able to watch the country as it rolls by.

I arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning, several hours before I was due to give my talk. It was a few days before Remembrance Sunday, and there were poppy sellers all around. I had a stroll down the Royal Mile, buying my poppy and taking a moment in the Garden of Remembrance. I then went to a coffee shop and spent an hour or so just reviewing my talk and practising (in my mind…!) what I was going to say. You can never prepare too much, in my opinion.

I tend to avoid buses wherever I travel, for the simple reason that it’s (a) not clear how you’re meant to buy the ticket, and (b) it’s not easy to tell where they’re actually going to take you! Or maybe it’s just me, who knows. Anyway, my talk was at Oxgangs Library, down in the suburbs of Edinburgh, so walking there was definitely out of the question! In the end, I decided it would be best to just get a taxi.

There was still over an hour to go when I arrived near the library, so I bought a few snacks from a nearby shop and took a little wander. The area reminded me in many ways of where I grew up–a small town in central Scotland. Places like this still (by and large) have a sense of community that, sadly, has tended to wither away in many other parts of the country. I could somehow still get a feel for that as I walked around, even in the mostly quiet streets. After all, it was a Monday afternoon and most people would be at work.

It was finally time to go to the library. After the various introductions, we began setting up the chairs, stands, and hooking up my laptop to the TV screen (keeping fingers crossed that the tech would just work!).

The children arrived with their teachers, and everyone began to settle down. After briefly introducing myself (cringe!), I moved on to a little chat about words and all the places where we can find them, and how important they are to helping us understand the human world around us.

When addressing an audience, especially children, I always find myself paying keen attention to whether what I’m saying is holding their interest or not, or if I need to adjust in order to keep them with me. When they’re completely silent, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether they’re bored or spellbound (or at least more the latter than the former!).

The talk continued onto an overview of what dyslexia is, and its different symptoms. The parts the children (and I!) really enjoyed were the exercises that helped them gain some understanding of the kinds of difficulties that dyslexic people can face. I had prepared two reading exercises and several writing exercises. The reading ones involved switching the regular sounds of the alphabet to totally different ones, and then trying to read a sentence written out in the new ‘alphabet’. The difficulty in trying to individually remember what sound each is supposed to make gives a good idea of what some of the symptoms of dyslexia.

Before starting, I asked if any of the children were dyslexic themselves, as I thought the exercises would be double trouble for them! I was a little surprised that none of the pupils (out of a class of 30 or more) were dyslexic, but it might be that the children simply didn’t feel like putting their hands up in front of everyone. Perhaps all the more reason for more events such as this to remove some of the myths of dyslexia.

The writing exercises created the most commotion while the staff and I handed out paper and pencils to the children. The first task was to try and write their name using the ‘new’ alphabet from the previous exercise. Next, to try and write their name as if they were looking at it in a mirror.

Next, I got them to try writing their name with their opposing hand. Finally, to make things really hard, and build up the frustration, I asked them to combine both tasks, i.e. to try and write their name in mirror writing using their opposing hand!

The rest of the talk gave a summary of some of the other symptoms of dyslexia, but also to a bit of ‘myth busting’. I also shared my own memories of being at school, and of one or two children who may well have been dyslexic but didn’t receive all the support they might have. As I’ve tried to show in Jennifer Brown, dyslexia doesn’t just stop at reading and writing. The problems caused at school can often have knock-on effects in so many other areas of life, and, if left unchecked, can seriously affect confidence and self-esteem.

Afterwards, I did a short reading from the first chapter of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger. When I finished, the children all lined up to get my…autograph! 😮 I found it so sweet how they all waited patiently for their turn.

It’s always so satisfying to come away from a school or library visit with the feeling that you’ve not only given the children a bit of a fun time and a break from regular lessons, but also contributed to raising their awareness and understanding of something they may not have known so much about. It certainly made the long journey back to King’s Cross a whole lot more bearable!

Visit to Coston Primary School

Earlier this year, I had an author visit to a school I’d been to before. No, not one where I’d gone before any time recently. Instead, I’d attended Coston Primary School in Greenford, London when my family had been living there for a year and a half back in the early 90s. Yes, it’s been a while! This visit was the first time I’d stepped back into that school ever since we’d left London all those years ago.

As I got on the Underground for the journey to Greenford, I began wondering if I’d recognise anything from the school. I remembered the outdoor ‘huts’ where some classes were held. I remembered the Y2 form group I’d been in, the Swallows! I also remembered the assembly hall, where I’d once been ‘named and shamed’ as one of the naughty pupils of the month! Most of all, however, I remembered the teachers. There were two that sprang to mind. My main class teacher, whose name I don’t recall, and another teacher, who took our class once or twice a week, called Mrs Brown. I always looked forward to her visits because for some reason I didn’t seem to get into trouble with her so much, and the lessons felt like a relief. At least, that’s how I remember things. Childhood memories, as with all memories, do have a habit of behaving like a deck of cards sometimes.

Now, if the name Brown rings a bell (a certain Jennifer, perhaps?), you might wonder if I named my character after that teacher. Truth is, I don’t know. I didn’t consciously, though the unconscious mind does have a way of making its presence felt.

Arriving at the school, I was greeted by the head of English and taken to the assembly hall. I was very touched and pleasantly surprised to see that my photo had been put up on one of the corridor walls along with various recent historical figures who had lived in Greenford! Somehow I’d turned into a local celebrity!

The assembly hall looked so much smaller than how I remembered it. Then again, perhaps the fact that I wasn’t about to be punished had something to do with it as well!

It was the start of Reading Week at Coston, and I’d prepared a short talk on the importance of reading and all the benefits it can have. I was then asked to spend time with two Y4 classes. In the first one, I spotted some posters the children had made about myths and legends, and what these were. I decided to do a little workshop on how legends start. This turned out to be great fun, and the children joined in enthusiastically. It’s always great when this sort of thing works out!

During breaktime, I had coffee in the staffroom and chatted to a few of the teachers. I took the opportunity to ask if anyone remembered Mrs Brown, and sure enough, a few of the teachers said they’d heard of her. Clearly, she’d left long since. However, one teacher did say that she had apparently been very strict, which I found intriguing. Totally at odds with what I remembered about her!

In the second class, I did an author Q&A, followed by a group exercise on creating a story. This involved getting the children to come up with ideas on characters, setting and plot. Oh, my, this was fascinating! We settled on the main character being a little girl who is generally nice and quiet, and doesn’t ever get into trouble at school. When I asked if she had any brothers or sisters, someone suggested that she had an older brother…the next suggestion was that this older brother was an, er, gangster!

I decided to go with the flow and see where this would lead. Well I never cease to be amazed at the tales that children will come up with! Bit by bit, a really interesting story developed: the girl was struggling with her lessons and worried that she wouldn’t pass her exam. So, she gets her older brother (the gangster) to break into the school and steal the exam papers. The brother is caught red-handed.

At this point, I asked the class how they thought the little girl felt about the situation. I asked them to bear in mind the personality they had chosen for her, namely someone who is a nice person. The answer I expected was that she’d be feeling upset or guilty about what had happened.

Well, that was never going to happen. Instead, one eager girl put up her hand and said, without any hint of sarcasm:

“Well, she realises that you can’t always be nice and kind…!”

Goes to show the unexpected ways in which different people, of different ages, can think about these situations. Given the same scene, we can derive different conclusions. Still, it was great fun working with the children on this. I stayed for a while longer, helping them with their poem writing lesson. When my time was drawing to a close and the head of English arrived to say goodbye, I was almost sorry to leave. Some of the children were saying “Please sir, don’t go…!”

Remembering my own days at school, I understood. It always made a nice change to have another adult in the classroom, such as another teacher, a visiting student, or a speaker. Little did I ever think that one day it would be me!