Comic tales from Yorkshireman

JON WELCH Gervase Phinn’s comic novels based on his life as a schools inspector in the Yorkshire Dales have drawn comparisons to James Herriot. JON WELCH spoke to the best-selling author as he prepared to bring his storytelling show to the region.


He's a man of many talents, Gervase Phinn. But while he may be a teacher, lecturer, schools inspector, visiting professor of education, poet and broadcaster, he's best known as an author.

His four autobiographical novels, recalling his days as a schools inspector in the Yorkshire Dales, have sold more than half a million copies in paperback.

The most recent, Up and Down in the Dales, sees him not only grappling with the joys and concerns of his job but also getting used to life with his wife Christine, who is expecting their first child.

But it's the children he meets, with their uncanny talent for philosophy and their ability to charm and floor him in equal measure, who continue to steal the limelight.

His novels have topped the bestseller lists, as well as proving highly popular readings on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week.

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Their Yorkshire setting and their gentle humour have led Phinn to be dubbed “the James Herriot of schools” after the famous vet-turned-author.

What does he think of the tag? “I'm quite happy with it,” he says.

“My style of writing is similar: there are a lot of incidents, anecdotes and very varied characters.

“They're all about a young man in a new job, meeting people. They're not corset-rippers. There's a market for that kind of gentle humour.”

A TV drama of Up and Down in the Dales is also in development for the BBC, although Phinn says it's been put on the back burner for the moment due to a surfeit of Yorkshire-based shows currently on TV: Heartbeat, The Royal and Last of the Summer Wine to name but three.

If and when the show does get screened, who would bet against it being a success in the vein of All Creatures Great and Small, the much-loved series based on Herriot's books?

Phinn's latest book is A Wayne in a Manger, a collection of anecdotes from school Nativity plays.

Every primary school teacher has a story to tell about these end-of-term productions, such as the one about the innkeeper who, when asked if there was any room at the inn, answered “Plenty!” and ushered the startled Holy Family inside.

Then there's the occasion when Mary dropped baby Jesus, immediately bursting into floods of tears as the large pink doll rolled off the stage, and the time that the Archangel Gabriel informed Mary that he had tidings of great joy to bring but had completely forgotten what they were.

And how about the memorable moment when a giant cardboard star, which had been suspended on a wire above the stage, fell on to Joseph, who rubbed his head and exclaimed: “Bloody 'ell!”

Phinn taught English in a range of schools until 1984 when he became general adviser for language development in Rotherham.

Four years later he moved to North Yorkshire, where he spent 10 years as a schools inspector, a time that has provided much of the inspiration for his books.

Today he's in demand as both an educational and after-dinner speaker, and on Tuesday night he will be hosting An Evening With Gervase Phinn at Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre.

According to one glowing newspaper review: “Gervase Phinn is one of the most accomplished public speakers of any kind.

“A natural storyteller, he combines the timing of the professional comedian with palpable warmth and the ability to deliver a message that is much more than just a series of jokes.”

Phinn's looking forward to his Norwich appearance. It seems he gets a warm reception most places he goes.

“People say Yorkshire people are generally blunt - they speak their mind - and good-humoured, but I don't really feel that,” he says.

“It doesn't matter where you're from - Norwich, London - people are different everywhere. I've met friendly Yorkshire people and I have had some marvellous reactions in Catford and Worcester, for instance.”

His books, although based on real events, employ some artistic licence.

“I take a story, a little nugget, and embellish it,” he says.

“All the incidents in the books are true, though - I haven't got the power of imagination to make them up! The positive characters in the books are real, but some of the negative characters are inventions.”

Phinn, who is married with four grown-up children, has based his books on journals he has kept since the age of 21.

“When I was at university, a tutor told me 'The best advice I can give you is this: read, read, read and read. And secondly, always write things down.'”

Now anything interesting people say to him gets jotted down - something to bear in mind should you ever find yourself in conversation with him.

Phinn is certainly prolific. As well as his Dales series of novels, he's written a number of academic books, along with children's poetry and fiction.

Whatever his work, it's always infused with humour. “We live in a world that's full of conflict, worries and stress. We need to laugh,” he says.

“I think in this world we do need an injection of humour. It bonds people together.”

Gervase Phinn's latest book, A Wayne in a Manger, is out now, published by Penguin, priced £10. The author will be signing copies of the book at Ottakar's, Lowestoft, from 1.30pm to 2.30pm on Tuesday, November 29.

An Evening with Gervase Phinn is at The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, at 7.30pm on Tuesday. Tickets, priced £14.50, are sold out but please call the box office on 01603 620917 in case of returns.

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