Beyond the Demon Headmaster

by Gerry Lynch last modified 02 Oct, 2015 04:50 PM

An interview with Gilian Cross, award-winning children's author and Dorset churchwarden

“Fiction develops empathy, which is central to what God wants us to do.” 

North Dorset seems just the sort of place one might expect a children’s author to live in. Coming south out of Shaftesbury, the A350 winds through a series of deep valleys devoted to livestock farming that seem to have walked straight off the cover of This England magazine. It’s not the most relaxing drive, however, as the road carries a stream of juggernauts from the ferries at Weymouth and Poole around improbably tight bends towards the conurbations of Bristol and South Wales. Tucked behind a hedge as it is, few of the thousands who drive past every day will notice the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Compton Abbas. That’s where Gillian Cross is one of the churchwardens.

As I drive down the last narrow lanes to her home, I wonder if she will greet me in the manner of her most famous character, The Demon Headmaster with his evil hypnotic powers, pulling off sunglasses to reveal a pair of devilish green eyes. He was one of my childhood favourite fictional baddies.

“You are feeing sleepy”, he would say, ”very sleepy”, before brainwashing his hapless victims into his endless schemes for total control first of a school, then the country and finally the world. It was a chilling lesson in the nature of totalitarianism, perfectly pitched for children in the low double digits age range.

Instead, Gillian ushers me into her study with a cup of tea and a round of biscuits, full of the hospitality rural Anglicanism is rightly famed for. A plaque on her wall catches my eye, displaying the the distinctive round-edged grid that is the symbol of All Saints’, Margaret Street, the great Central London Anglo-Catholic shrine where I was once an altar server.

“My father, Eric Arnold, was a devoted parishioner and assistant organist there for many years”, she says, ”In fact, both my parents were faithful parishioners of two different churches! Possibly because the services at All Saints were so long and a bit much for young children, we children worshipped locally with my mother at Harrow-on-the-Hill Church, which was much more conventionally C of E. 

“I’ve always loved church services, and as a teenager, I had a very serious, intellectual, Christian faith which I slid away from at university, like so many people. Religious themes weren’t far away, however, as after finishing a first degree in English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, I did a doctorate in Sussex on G K Chesterton and the Decadents. About that time I married my husband, Martin, and we’ve been married for 48 years now. 

“Indirectly, that’s how I got into writing. I was trying to juggle doing a D Phil with bringing up two toddlers, the first of my four children. Through their playgroup, I got involved in setting up a Children’s Book Group around where we lived in Lewes. That got me into a children’s literary world where I found myself socially and intellectually comfortable. At the time, the world of adult fiction seemed to me more interested in form than story, and I’m passionate about stories. Writing children’s fiction seemed the best way of telling them.

“At first, my writing didn’t exactly pay the bills, so I did several jobs, as a baker’s assistant and then a childminder. Then, when we moved to Gravesend in Kent, I was an assistant to the local MP. 

“I was close to giving up writing, as I had been trying to get published without success for about five years, when all of a sudden I got two acceptances in one week. I went with Oxford University Press and they’re still my main publisher today. That was in 1979, and the novel they accepted, The Iron Way, has only gone out of print after 35 years.

“My big breakthrough came with The Demon Headmaster in 1982. The concept of a novel about a headmaster with hypnotic powers came to me out of the blue and I thought it was so obvious that I had to get the story written quickly before someone else had the same idea! That led to a series of six books, which were adapted into a BBC Children’s TV programme in the mid-1990s. Even after more than 30 years, The Demon Headmaster is still my best-selling book.”

I can attest from personal experience that The Demon Headmaster books were ubiquitous for anyone whose schooling was in the 1980s and 1990s. It deals powerfully with themes of oppression, creative resistance, learning to love those who had seemed to be the enemy within and the distinction between good and bad authority. Under the slogan ‘the man who can create order shall rule the world’ the Headmaster creates a world of dull conformity and rote learning under hypnotism for the majority. The tiny number of children immune to his powers are subject to segregation and bullying by tyrannical prefects. Their rejoinder to the Headmaster’s slogan is ‘the man who can bear disorder is truly free’. The hypnotised and the immune alike are denied a meaningful education. I won’t spoil the story - it’s a gripping and worthwhile read, for adults as well as children - but it is a captivating tale, not a heavy sermon. 

Many of Gillian’s books deal with mature themes and real world issues. Her most recent book, After Tomorrow, is set in a fictional near future where the UK has suffered an economic and social collapse, and two British boys are forced to flee to France as refugees, only to face new dangers. Gillian is, however, admant, that she does not write to send ‘messages’.

“Apart from anything else, it doesn’t work”, she says, ”All ‘messages of wisdom’ are ultimately wrong, except the Gospel. I write because I love stories, and my readers buy my books because they love stories. 

“I do like writing stories about people in difficult or dangerous situations, because I’m interested in seeing how the characters I’ve created cope. That often means dealing with challenging issues. Last year After Tomorrow won the ‘Little Rebels Award’ for ‘radical children’s fiction’, which I’m quite proud of. Perhaps my biggest literary accolade, however, was winning the 1990 Carnegie Medal for Wolf, a young adult novel dealing with communal living, terrorism - and wolves! 

“That medal is awarded by the Library Association (now called CILIP), and one issue I am really passionate about is libraries. It’s important that public libraries should be free and open to everyone.” 

That brings us back to faith. When we last discussed it, Gillian’s faith had ‘slid away’ at University. So why, in the middle of a busy literary life that takes her on trips from Mexico to New Zealand, does she make time to be a churchwarden?

“About 20 years ago, I came back to faith through the church in the Midlands village where we lived. Housegroups were important in that. Housegroups and friends. To my surprise, Christianity just ‘fell into place’ and seemed real for the first time. In contrast with my rather intellectual teenage faith, my renewed faith was about giving my emotions to God, not just my mind.

“My husband Martin is originally from Bournemouth, and we moved to Dorset in 2009. We had a period where we had no churchwardens at St Mary the Virgin, so two of us decided to volunteer together and we’re in our third year now. 

“It’s a vital role in making a church run smoothly, especially in a team ministry with nine churches, where clergy work in more than one. We’re in the Shaftesbury Team Ministry so its a mixture of small village churches and larger town ones.

“Compton Abbas is a tiny parish” - the 2011 Census found 215 people - “long, thin, and rather scattered. There’s another hamlet called Twyford to the west where quite a bit of that small population lives, and the original church was quite a way off to the east. The tower of that church is still standing and Grade I listed, but the current church only dates from 1868 when it was moved closer to the population.”

As in so many small villages where schools, shops and even pubs are increasingly distant memories, church “is still a vital gathering place” for the whole community. Especially at times like Harvest, coming up, one of the busiest times for a rural churchwarden, when Gillian will help organise the Harvest Supper and Apple Day.

As I drive back up the A350, the rain is pouring and the spray from the juggernauts is high, but I’m in good spirits. It has been uplifting to meet a great storyteller whose life is rooted in the greatest story ever told.

Gerry Lynch

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