Conversation with David Duncombe

AM. It is almost thirty years since I moved into a house in Matlock and found that living just down the road from me was an accomplished and published poet. Our conversations over the intervening years have certainly motivated me in my writing and I’ve also benefited from your critical reading of various drafts of things I’ve written. I’m wondering about the origins of your literary interests. Were you from a ‘bookish’ household or were there any particularly inspiring teachers in your schools?   

DD: There were few books in my very happy working-class home, but my rigorous primary school encouraged us to join the local library.  Once it was clear that I was a keen reader, my parents bought me books like the Books of Knowledge (a kind of encyclopaedia) and The Empire Youth Annual, which I still have.  

I started school in wartime and loved stories of adventure, travel and combat.  None of them seemed to feature people from my background, however, so I never felt qualified to write anything like them.  In the first wave of 11+ children at grammar school, I was certainly inspired to learn, but not to write creatively.  At university, reading English in the era of F.R. Leavis and L.C. Knights, I became a trained critic, able to recognise good writing.  The poet of the time was T.S Eliot, someone else with whom I had little in common.  Only my own years working in Africa, the army and the RAF gave me the confidence to realise that I now lived in the world that I had previously only read about, plus the view that any walk of life had its interest.  In my late thirties I then wanted to write, but it was a broad ambition and an idea could as easily be for a novel, a play, a short story or a line in a poem.

AM: David, you have already raised a number of interesting avenues I would like to explore. Perhaps firstly we could talk about class? Like you I came from a working class background – the respectable end of our council estate, mind you – and went to the town’s grammar school. However, unlike you, I found the formal study of literature impossible, an alien experience. At an earlier age, I’d devoured the ‘populist’ Famous Five, William and Biggles books, and loved our public library, but I didn’t have the patience or application for the more ‘improving’  hardback ‘ Childrens’ Classics’ that kindly aunts sometimes bought me as Christmas presents. By adolescence I was struggling with, and in the main part rejecting, what I, at the time, judged to be reading matter for ‘posh’ and conformist kids. I’m curious about what you think it was about your experience or you yourself that held you into the academic study of literature? (Conversely, of course, I’m curious as to what it was about me and mine that, at that age, didn’t).        

DD: I grew up in Coventry, a ‘boom’ town of car factories and well-paid workers hopeful that their children would not follow them on to the assembly line. 

I had no specific ambition, apart from wanting to travel away to places I had only experienced in film and books.  I read the Biggles and Just William books too and those boys’ papers like Hotspur, which were also full of adventure, often featuring public school types.  
I was not technically or scientifically minded, but found myself enchanted in the world of literature and history.  Dickens, of course, was no more distant from my generation than Lawrence is to the present one and of course was not, in his own time, a ‘classic’ writer, but rather widely read and extremely popular.  Perhaps I was ‘conformist’ in a way, but I think conformist to the new post-war working-class movement in which we felt we were as good as anyone else and the good things, literature included, should be accessible.  Only a narrow part of my education was in school, since much of my life was church-based: scouts, choir, altar service, youth club, sport.  I was confident in these areas and further encouraged to learn.  The King James Bible was certainly an early introduction to the beauty of language.  Paradoxically, I think I was fortunate not to have been exposed to any vocational guidance, and so stayed open-minded until after university and National Service 

AM: I see why we have no problem conversing for a whole day whilst out walking, we share a strong enthusiasm for some interests and have some similar influences whilst also having had interestingly diverse life experiences in other respects. I too loved those boys’ papers like the Wizard and the Hotspur and, although I’ve long been distancing myself from religion, the language of the King James Bible has been popping up unbidden in my thoughts since my first acquaintance with it in childhood. I find it interesting that you didn’t want to write until your late thirties – ‘the famous novelist with the uncontrollable compulsion to produce stories since very early childhood’ seems to be such a cliché these days – and I understand the rationale you have outlined. Did your relatively late start mean that you were able to by-pass the embarrassing ‘early works’ adolescence (and beyond) of many writers? Can you say a little about your early efforts and publications?

DD: Yes, I recognised good writing for what it was, but simply lacked the self-confidence to produce my own work.  Then I met my wife Shirley, left the RAF, became more politically aware, and my life, which had previously been exciting and enjoyable, also became a time of change and greater possibilities.  I started to write poetry and from the beginning, I had some success in publishing my poems in the local newspaper, magazines and like you, Andy, enjoying success in competitions.  I remember a magazine called Ostrich, which I think was quite political.  I still enjoy competitions because of the anonymity of the judging.  Because I was a late starter, I suppose I had plenty to write about.  And I continue to write poems based on events from years before, recorded briefly in notebooks and diaries, finding that the important issues stay fresh and other detail happily fades away.  The topics came from all quarters: nature, love, sport, social situations.  A year or two after I started writing poetry, I tried my hand at stories and drama; in fact the ideas came thick and fast and at first I didn’t know if a new idea would become a line in a poem, or in fact a novel.  I wrote two novels, both published, for children before I found that it was not a good way for me to escape from my day job as a teacher.  The main successes with my drama and short stories were with the BBC, whom I can’t praise enough as an organisation which does give new writers a chance.  I had enormous energy, having great enthusiasm for my work in a good progressive comprehensive school, a young family, a busy political and social life – and the ability to get up at 5 a.m. like Anthony Trollope and write for a  couple of hours before the rest of the day’s activities.

AM: Great stuff, David. Unlike Trollope and yourself and one or two others I’ve known, I’ve never been able to be coherent or even alert in the very early morning. I do agree about the virtues of competitions. My own achievements in this respect, although fairly modest, have been a terrific boost to my sense of myself as a writer and competitions do allow ‘beginners’ to submit work under the cloak of anonymity with confidence that it will be considered fairly alongside the offerings of the great and the good. Additionally, I suppose, success can tell established poets that their work is still considered of high merit and that they are not merely riding on their reputation.

Can we go back to youngsters and literature? After the RAF, you became an English teacher, and later a head teacher, committed to the comprehensive ideal. I’ve said above that I didn’t really switch on to literature at my grammar school and I accept that that may have been more about me than my teachers or the curriculum. May have been. So I wonder, looking back, how you view the success of your endeavours in this respect? Do you have any views on continuing educational developments especially in relation to kids and literature nowadays? What advice would you give to somebody like your younger self just starting out as an English teacher?  

DD:  “Don’t start from here!” I’d have to say.  The modern curriculum, with its centrally directed platitudes from people who simply do not know the vast majority of children, is simply crippling.  Inspired teachers have always brought their enthusiasms to the task.  I do not think it matters what those enthusiasms are, but they will always transfer.  For me the answer was to encourage students, from eleven-year-olds with learning difficulties to Cranwell cadets, to write about themselves, to find the poets inside themselves.  I would let them write without hindrance: there were other times and places to correct grammar to teach conventional sentence construction (and I cared very much about those things too).  A touch of Kes, I suppose, but it works.  The computer can help – children who have physical difficulty in writing, spelling and so forth can still get their thoughts down.  I would tell them not to worry at all about punctuation, but to use line breaks.  Creative expression was vital and achieved so well through poetry and drama.  In fact, the spelling, grammar and punctuation would follow successfully when the pupils had something they actually wanted to say.  The other point is that young people who regard themselves as poets/writers do not feel excluded from the world of literature.  The teacher, naturally needs to introduce them to books they will relate to, in the first place.  The two children’s novels I had published both centred on children from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds: a boy on a council estate who becomes an amateur boxer; another who belongs to an airforce family and gets lost overseas.  Not all children are drawn to fantasy or historical novels; they need to start nearer home.  The rest will follow.  Oh dear, the years of retirement seem to have melted away.  Sorry for the lecture.  I’m particularly sad that inspired teachers are no longer allowed to choose the literature for the English syllabus in the old Mode III way.  We did that because we respected literature and wanted the best for children, which was not some watered down version of what happens in public schools, but something vital and relevant and likely to lead towards the classics rather than away from it.  Time I stopped.

AM: Stirring stuff, David. Good to hear it. Let’s find a barricade and go man it. I worked as a teacher briefly for Alec Clegg in the old West Riding forty years ago and loved his view that teachers needed to be nurtured and encouraged to become artists themselves. So, we were frequently given help to become better painters, musicians, writers, dancers(!), in the belief that if our enthusiasm was genuine then it would transfer to kids. Technique, the discipline of the craft, could then be more easily learned once driven by a genuine creative pride. What a long way from today’s centrally prescribed curriculum and the interminable, Ofsted-fearing box-ticking.
I started this conversation by referring to the help you have given me with my writing over the years. I still have some early drafts of pieces from ‘Hanging in the Balance’ with your pencilled comments on them. Looking at them now I realise even more how helpful they were to me, both in terms of improving those pieces then  but also in terms of teaching me broader principles that I’ve continued to benefit  from – cutting out excess verbiage, not being pretentiously ‘creative’, reigning in a tendency towards too much obscurantism. Also, trusting my own judgement more once I’ve given a piece its final, very critical read through. You’ve continued to help less experienced writers in various ways. Could you say a little about your activities in this respect and, if you can, about the sorts of help you find adult writers need and seem to benefit from?        

DD:  Adult writers have two advantages:  life experience and the motivation to express themselves.   Having something worthwhile to say is the first requirement, whether it is an unusual narrative, observation of a relationship, the impact of something in the natural world or powerful emotion.  All of us are moved in these ways, but aspiring to be an original and effective poet is a huge ambition.  When I have run workshops my first advice has often been to write down your thoughts on the supposed subject (it can often change in the process) quite rapidly, with little thought as to line length or indeed any of the crafting process.  It is surprising how much can come out.  Then you can think about shape, sound, exact vocabulary.  We are all generally better at editing and correcting than getting things right first time.   
Obviously there’s not room here for the kind of compendium of advice that so many tutors and literary advisors have produced, but there are one or two pointers.  One is to cut out anything which tries to explain events or emotions already expressed: you must leave the intelligence of the reader to find a meaning; a degree of mystery is always beguiling.  I don’t understand the intricacies of climbing, for instance, but love your use of the technical terms – they add authenticity – and your climbing pieces are complete metaphors in themselves for the challenging events and relationships that the reader can apply them to. 
Also, I like to see poems with concrete language, i.e. not ‘cruelty’, ‘passion’, ‘love’, ‘unhappiness’, but actions, observations that show these processes.   Often poets want to comment on important public issues: I advise an oblique approach.  If you write directly about e.g. political events, you may for a short while be topical, but it will soon date.   And you would need an extraordinary talent to write directly about say, the Holocaust or a war you had not experienced, though you may have material about a survivor or a historic place you have visited which could provide a poem or story.  You can often make a breakthrough when a piece of work doesn’t seem right, by changing from first to third person or vice versa.  If you are putting down an experience you have directly experienced, making the narrator ‘he’ or ‘she’ can provide freedom to achieve a poetic truth rather than the narrow historical one you started with. 
I’ve said nothing about submitting work to magazines and publishers, but honestly I think that would have to be very specific advice to an individual to be effective.  There are general tips in all the guidebooks.   I could go on, but will end by simply advising any writer to make sure to share their work with somebody along the way.  I still have a monthly workshop with two accomplished poets whose opinion I trust.  Sometimes your strengths and weaknesses show themselves simply in the process of reading the poem aloud. 

AM: Thank you so much for all of this, David. I hope that others reading this interview, whoever they may be, can gain some of the benefits that I have had from our conversations over the years. I hope also that others will want to seek out your work if they are not already familiar with it and I am including here a link to your latest publication, ‘Borders, Baggage’:    

The image of Major Cheung in the park early morning with colleagues from his old military days alongside the calligraphers with their evaporating characters seems both strong and wistful and a good one with which to conclude. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Conversation with David Duncombe

  1. wow. what a teacher.
    & such spot-on writing advice too
    thank you, gents

  2. David’s poem, ‘Going for Silver’ was featured yesterday on the website, Winning Words, as their ‘Poem of the Day’

    This website is a national project that aims to surround the Olympics with verse and David is in amongst some of the greatest. Well done and much deserved!

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