25/11/2003

The Other Side of the Dale (by Gervase Phinn)

Several people have recommended Gervase Phinn's books to me, but it took a while to get around to reading one of his books.

'The Other Side of the Dale' is a semi-biographical account of a school inspector in Yorkshire. The author was advertised as 'The James Herriot of schools', which sounded very appealing to me. I love the Herriot books, and I was involved in my sons' primary school some years ago while they underwent OFSTED inspection, so I thought the combination could make an excellent read.

The author, who was a teacher until 1984, and later on a school inspector for English and Drama in Yorkshire, tells the story of his interview and appointment to the inspector's job, and his initial visits to various schools in his district. Rather like James Herriot's books, it's hard to know what is true biography and what is an embellished anecdote for the sake of effect! I assume that names and exact locations have been changed, for legal reasons, but this isn't actually stated.

Gervase Phinn himself, who speaks in the first person throughout, comes across as a likeable chap who begins his new job with an idealistic view of how he can help all the struggling local schools. He gets along with people on the whole, sometimes by using learned techniques, and has a good sense of humour, sometimes portraying himself as looking rather foolish. I found myself warming to him in the early chapters, and generally enjoying his style.

Unfortunately - and this is where the book does part company from James Herriot's - most of the other characters are rather flat. Not that he doesn't give good descriptions, and excellent dialogue: Gervase Phinn is a great writer, and includes plenty of wry observation on the people he meets. It's just that most of the other characters have such small roles in the book that I didn't feel I could get to know them properly.

Each time I picked up this book and read another chapter, I enjoyed it. The insights into the school system, Gervase's growing awareness of all the things he didn't know, and his gradual adaptation to a scenario that had been far from his previous experience, are all very interesting. The book is certainly well-written in a readable style, with just the right amount of humour for my tastes. The children seem realistic, and he recounts several amusing or heart-warming incidents, where he is usually the one learning something new from the children rather than the reverse.

However, I never found myself inspired to read more than one chapter at a time, and whereas I can usually read an average-length novel in a weekend, it took me three weeks to get around to finishing this. It read like a collection of individual short stories rather than a biographical account. Had it focussed on just two or three schools, in more depth, I would probably have enjoyed it more, since character development is important to me in a book.

Still, on the whole I thought it was an amusing light read, and I look forward to reading the sequels one day - although I probably won't buy them new.

(My rather longer review of 'The Other Side of the Dale' can be found on the Ciao site)

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