Our Friend Flea

I contacted Jane Sherman after seeing her fabulous piece about They Do Things Differently There. She shared more about her friendship with Jan. ‘Three of us went around together: Jan for all-round creative talent; Bernadette Watts, a descendant of the artist who had inherited his gifts; and me representing the academic wing, with a talent for passing exams. Flea went to art school in Canterbury, Bernie went on to become an illustrator of children’s books, and I got absorbed into education and working for the UN. I am sad that I lost touch with Flea, but discovering all her books after a whole lifetime was a totally unexpected wealth.’

Yes, that’s right – for reasons unknown, Jan was known as Flea.

Jane was in touch with Bernadette, and suggested I contact her too. So here we have Jane and Bernadette’s recollections from shared days at Ashford Girls’ Grammar School (now Highworth Grammar School).

Bernadette and Jane are in the front row, fourth and eighth from the right. 
Jan is right in the  middle.

Neither Jane nor Bernadette can recall exactly how they befriended Jan, who was in the year below. Bernadette suggests, ‘I should think we walked from school through Ashford to Vicarage Lane from where all the buses departed to take us home. It took about forty minutes unless we took a shortcut through Woolworth’s. Next to Woolworth’s was Geerings Book Shop – a proper bookshop. Sometimes one of us would stop by in this bookshop and the other two walk on.’ Stories were certainly shared between friends on the way.

Jane remembers, ‘We both came from left-wing families marooned in the conservative heart of England.’ (The MP for Ashford at that time was the true blue Tory, Bill Deedes, scion of the gentry, editor of the Daily Telegraph, Conservative MP.) ‘We were both slightly out of the social mainstream; both excited by music, literature and theatre; and both with a capacity for ridiculous imaginative inventions. Some of this Jan captured in They Do Things Differently There, which rang many memory bells for me. I have the impression that these games resulted in a lot of giggling, which sometimes attracted the disapproval of the school establishment.’

‘Flea and I were in my recollection the entire membership of the Ashford Young Socialists (I may be doing them an injustice). The Party expected us to make money for the coffers, stick up posters for local elections and represent Labour policies where necessary. I was actually sent on a Labour Party summer school to beef up my potential. We did our duty: we stuck up posters, knocked on doors, collected junk and recycled it at a jumble sale (this way we got to know Ashford well house by house and I had the feeling that some scraps of this experience went into They Do Things Differently There). We also ran for the Labour Party in the school mock election (1959) and garnered about ten votes. You have to be young to see all this as fun, which we did.’

Neither friend visited Jan’s home or knew much about her family life. ‘I don’t recall she ever spoke about her family,’ Bernadette says. Jane adds, ‘She on the other hand got quite a good peek into mine. She came to visit me two or three times in Woodchurch, deep in the country about eight miles from Ashford.’

Bernadette well remembers the awe-inspiring announcement in front of the whole assembly that Jan was runner-up in a Daily Mirror short story competition at the age of 15. Both friends remember Jan’s favourite teacher, Miss Gertrude Mary Mitchell – to whom Dream House was dedicated. Jane describes her as ‘an inspirational teacher of literature, who indefatigably ran the Ashford choir, the school choir and madrigal group, and produced the annual school play. She was noble as well as gifted and tireless. For me she was an older Jean Brodie, someone who expected homage. It is probably mainly due to her that my musical and literary education went beyond Gilbert and Sullivan and GB Shaw, and for Flea I think it opened a world of books and music.’

Jane adds, ‘Although [the school] favoured academic success, it also knew how to use and foster creative talent. The staff were a sterling bunch of women. Many of them must have lost husbands or fiancés, real or potential, to the Second World War. Some gave their hearts to the school and some were much loved and/or respected:  Miss Francis (Fanny) the maths teacher, Miss Smith (the head), and Miss Hammond the deputy head.

‘Flea and I were members of the town choir and the school madrigal group, and took part in the school plays and house plays. Flea had a lovely true voice, and got to do solos in some of the school plays and hymn services. In Much Ado About Nothing, she was Balthasar (I was Don Pedro) and she sang “Sigh No More, Ladies” while Beatrice and Benedick spied on each other in the cardboard cutout bushes. Bernie often designed the costumes for the school plays and illustrated the programmes, for example for Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera.

‘Flea also teamed up with a hot-shot pianist called Fenella in her class, to produce and present an operetta called The Golden Touch about King Midas. There have been several renditions of The Golden Touch, starting with Disney, but it appears that Flea’s and Fenella’s version was not very derivative. Some novelties were big roles for King Midas’s wife and mother-in-law (me), who had their own songs; a strong political theme with satirical songs and choruses about the Soviet Union; and Flea’s own dialogue, which we all thought was very witty.’

The manuscript of The Golden Touch survives to this day …

After they finished school, the friends lost touch. Jane went to Oxford University. Bernadette went to Maidstone College of Art. ‘Among my tutors were Brian Wildsmith and David Hockney. Of course the art college was actually the right place for me although I still nursed aspirations to write books.’ Perhaps too for Jan who attended Canterbury College of Art: ‘Maybe going to art college fed her wonderful imagination and her individuality much more than if she had gone to university and been constrained, to a certain extent, by a rigid curriculum. Art students in the 1960s did much as they wished , each one going his or her own way.’

In the late 1970s, Bernadette was living in Kent and heard that Jan Mark, formerly Janet Brisland, was speaking at the grammar school. ‘I went to the talk and I was mighty impressed by Janet – not only by her eloquence and supreme confidence but also by her appearance.’ She remembers a more confident, physical transformation. ‘I felt quite inferior to Jan when I went to her talk and I don’t think I even spoke to her. Lots of the schoolgirls of course knew her work very well and crowded her with questions.’

Jane remarks, ‘A lot of Jan’s sunnier books are about adolescents at school.  I think she really enjoyed school, and so did I. But until I read her stories I had no idea how much she must have been picking up and storing away. The recall and observation are phenomenal.’

Bernadette reflects: ‘What a strange life it is.  Janet gone. Jane maybe sitting in the sun among her Italian olive trees. And I’m sitting here writing as I do every morning before getting to my drawing board.’

Thank you, Jane and Bernadette!