A Proper Job


When I was a younger man, much younger (we had electricity, and trains had dispensed with the bloke at the front waving a flag, but we weren’t far beyond that), I decided I wanted to be a writer. But not just any writer: one who worked at a university and taught the brightest and the best; who wrote his plays and screenplays at the same time as he argued with passionate undergraduates and obsessive MA students – never mind the staff with whom he enjoyed fizzing chats about the arcane rules of Restoration Drama or the little-known significance of Brecht’s use of the semicolon, or Tarantino’s tendency to set films in worlds about which he had no actual experience whatsoever. That was the dream. And finally, after forty-five years or so, I’ve got there! I’m an actual lecturer in an actual university and actual people will sit and lock intellectual horns with me. And I am thrilled! I really am.

William (Billy) Ivory with writing companion

I should explain first that education means the world to me. My mum and dad were born in the early 1920’s, to working class families for whom schooling was obligatory but largely inconsequential in affecting one’s circumstances. In the case of my mum, when she was 14 she was given a set of dentures as a present – to clarify, all of her own teeth were pulled out and a false set substituted instead – which meant, for her future, no dental bills (this was before the NHS) and no financial millstone around the neck, or jaw in her case. Because of this sort of experience of the inequities of English society and the inescapable class system which underpinned it, my mum especially, but also my dad, were understandably zealous in their determination that my two sisters and I should ‘do well’ as youngsters, and get as far away from the sort of existence they had known as possible. And by then, the Education Act of 1944 had established a system by which this could happen: education could change lives. And, they drummed it into us that it would.

Subsequently, my sisters did do well: both passed their exams, got good degrees, and went on to became successful teachers. On the other hand, I failed my eleven plus, went through the mill in my teens, met a teacher I adored at 16, and got good enough A level results to go to university – which I packed in after a year to become a council dustman. To say my mum was disappointed is an understatement. My aunty Stella told me – after mum had died, which was before I’d had any kind of success – that mum had said, deep down, she knew I’d be alright, and she wasn’t worried. But I’ve always felt guilty that I subjected her to what I know would have been a stack of anxiety after I jettisoned everything she had felt sure would guarantee a happy life.

So, now, as I take up a post at NTU, as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, I hope she’s smiling because she would see it, finally, as the most wonderful vindication of her hopes for her children. And she’d be right. I feel extraordinary pride at becoming part of the team at NTU – not only because I DO feel I’m laying a few ghosts but because I think NTU is such a terrific university – and the Creative Writing Courses run here are some of the very best in the country. I know that from experience, having given guest lectures on those programmes many times over the past decade. To have the chance, therefore, to join the academic staff – even now, at the age of 121 – feels such a coup!

Billy with much-missed previous writing companion

I really do think the teaching offered here at NTU is special. I suspect that’s partly because the value of creative writing was understood so many years ago by the University – only the third in the UK to establish such courses, after all – which means, for longer than almost anywhere, there’s been a confidence about creative writing as a discipline, and a robustness, too. And not only in terms of what creative writing offers those who intend to pursue the discipline as a career but for those others for whom the course satisfies a passion or provides a route to a different kind of employment. They will discover, too, in the un-fussy, inclusive, supportive, yet challenging way in which students are encouraged to dig into their inner lives and expand themselves in order to uncover what they want to set down on the page, a whole host of (I can barely write it) transferable skills will emerge to do their bidding. They’ll get more confident at being them, and standing by it, which is the only way ANY of us manage to stagger through life, halfway thinking we’re winning.

As Billy is often overheard saying, ‘the closest tram stop to Clifton Campus is Rivergreen, about five minutes’ walk away’

Anyway, I’m here. That’s the point. I’m around. I have a pencil and an eraser and all the gear you need. So, any student who wants to talk and wonder, and delve into plays and films, search me out at NTU. I’m a teacher. It’s what I do.

(P.S. I’ve recently written another film, called The Great Escaper, starring Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, which – God willing – will be released next year. I was given the option of writing about that instead for this blog post, but here we are.)

William Ivory, a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter and playwright, joined NTU this summer as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, with a focus on screenwriting, after several years as Visiting Professor on our MA Creative Writing.

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