Johan Strobbe remembers Jan

During the last decade of her life, Jan spoke with great enthusiasm about her work in Flanders. Having spent 20 years dashing about Britain to schools and libraries (and, increasingly, abroad), it seemed she had struck a special affinity with a group of readers in Belgium. I established contact with them only after her death, and was delighted to see the website they had built to celebrate their work together. All the photos accompanying this piece are from the website. Please visit!

By way of an introduction, here are some notes on janmark.be:

In 1996 a number of Torhout teachers started discussing ways to innovate the teaching of literature. There seemed to be a gap between the world of the students and the world of literature. Yet, they were convinced that literature had to be part of their curriculum because nothing could enrich the students’ language in a more efficient way and nothing could be more motivating to learners of English. Thanks to links between the Torhout teacher training college and Westlands School in Sittingbourne, England, we had just learned to know two British writers for young people, the poet Robin Mellor and writer Jan Mark. We were thrilled when we read their work, because we immediately realized that their writing would appeal to our students. It was literature that created a world that the students would be able to recognize, protagonists that they would be able to identify with. We hoped we had found the missing link.

And now, I’m especially delighted that Johan Strobbe – former staff member of the teacher training department of the University of Leuven – has written this new piece for janmark.net. Thank you, Johan!

In 1996 and 1999 ten West Flemish schools were involved in the project Invite a British Writer to Your Class. One of the authors that we had invited into our classrooms was Jan Mark.

My wife and I had the honour and privilege of giving Jan accommodation in our house. I remember the evenings very well. We had such a lot in common to talk about: literature – of course – but also good food, cats, travelling and the news. The nights usually ended with watching the BBC News. And that was sheer fun… listening to Jan’s critical, often humorous comments on the events, on the decisions made by the politicians… The nights usually ended late and sleep was short.

Too short, but not for Jan. The next mornings she was wide-awake and ready to meet my students. I remember the enthusiasm with which she talked about her short stories, about her novels, about the differences between writing short stories and novels. She also gave a writing session for my students. As a teacher it was fantastic for me to see how she could inspire my students to write stories themselves, how she managed to arouse their enthusiasm for story writing and for literature in general.

Jan’s writings have definitely changed my ways of teaching English. She was one of the people that showed me how great young adult fiction is in ELT. In my reading lists, for instance, I included two books of hers as an introduction to Shakespeare. A lot of what happens in Heathrow Nights, for example, is recognizable to young readers and it may convince them of the fact that Hamlet is not just compulsory (and boring?) school reading but that the plot is closer to their world than they might have thought at first. In Stratford Boys Jan takes us back to late-sixteenth-century Stratford, where the young Shakespeare – Will in the book – is growing up. To some of my students this book was not an easy read, but it did serve as a perfect introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play we attended at the time. My favourite short story of Jan’s is ‘Nothing to Be Afraid Of’. I used this story in my classes every year and my students loved it!

We did not meet Jan often after the project in 1999. But I have fond memories of the warm welcome into her house when we visited her in Oxford. And we exchanged Christmas cards every year. Hers were always very personal. It was more than just Christmas cards. They showed how thoughtful she was and how well she ‘knew’ us. In 2004 we found a signed copy of a book by her in our mailbox. It was dedicated to Willy, Lieve (my wife), Johan (hey, that’s me!), Jan and Ludo and all my friends in West Flanders in the hope that when the time comes, we may float. The book is entitled Useful Idiots.

We have always known Jan as a strong, inspiring and above all ‘beautiful’ person. The news of her death came as a complete shock to us. We are thankful of the fond memories, some of which I was happy to share with you.

Johan Strobbe, April 2020.

For more wonderful accounts of working with Jan as a teacher and mentor, please click here.