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SIBA - truth and fiction

Earlier, Mick asked me why I (me, not the story character) was sent to boarding school.

In junior school, I was sat in the corner, called dumb, and had a teacher that refused to teach me because I was distruptive and stupid.
Actually, I was bored.

You see, while the other children were reading easy-reader books with a picture on every other page - I think "Elf light and Candle light"? Me? I was happily working my way through various John Wyndams books - "Chocky" and "The Day Of The Triffid". Mom got me lots of books. I remember the story of "Robber Hopsika" was weird, some sort of highwayman versus cartoon villians story with fair maidens to save. I probably read all of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" before I realised that a mongoose wasn't some sort of bird. And, of course, the Enid Blyton's Adventure series, Secret series, many Famous Five, some Secret Seven, all of Mallory Towers and all of Saint Clares - the latter two series aimed at girls and set in boarding schools. Nothing like the boarding school I knew, though.

So, when confronted with me reading a Wyndams book written for adults, the teacher's response was simple. No, I'm not. Really, that was the response. Either I or my mother was clearly lying. As opposed to the method mom used which was to ask me questions at the end of each chapter. But she couldn't do that, it might prove I wasn't the retard she categorised me as.

After various visits to a child psychologist (a person more messed up than I ever was, if you ask me), my category was amended. Dyspraxia (motor co-ordination problems), dyscalculia (like dyslexia but with numbers), and hyperactive. I'd probably be diagnosed with ADHD and somewhere on the spectrum, but that stuff didn't exist back then.

Why? Well, I was blue and functionally dead for the first four minutes of my life, born premature. If I was born as recently as a couple of decades prior, I'd no doubt have been written up as a stillbirth. But the right people were in the right place to get my idiotic carcass going. But, you know, any duration of oxygen deprivation at such a delicate stage is going to have consequences. So I won't ever be a fighter pilot, I might struggle to play the piano (both hands doing things independently is difficult) and I may suck at maths, and I may see the world entirely differently to "normal" people, but that's okay. Normal is overrated. I like seeing the world differently. It's like having a benign superpower.

So I was sent to a boarding school that specialised in dealing with children with educational difficulties. By and large, it was a blast. I enjoyed my time there, the good and the bad. Essentially the entire SIBA series is a great big love letter to my time in a boarding school in the countryside of the south of England in the eighties. The only downsides were that many of the children suffered from dyslexia, and as an avid reader, you can't imagine how frustrating it was to have somebody read out a single sentence in the time it would take me to read a chapter. Plus, the school library sucked. I had it made if I wanted to read Iliad, but there was practically nothing there that didn't have a ton of dust on it. I mean, I'd have enjoyed some J.G.Ballard or Philip K. Dick...
The other downside is that sometimes being with people all the time means there's not much peace or privacy. I was known for climbing trees, sneaking onto the roof, or just disappearing to walk around the woods. Why? For some bloody peace and quiet. As an introvert, I really appreciated time on my own.
The final downside? My emotional development with girls stops at about the age of 12. That may be why I've never had much interest in girlfriends and such. But, then, peace and quiet... ☺ But enough of that because I'm forty-mumble years old and any further thought is going to be illegal in May and Rudd's Brave New Britain...

I should point out that my disposition means I'm unlikely to want to sit at the front of the class. This is important because it wasn't until I got to boarding school that anybody realised that I am fairly myopic. Of course, I would not be aware of this because it would just seem to me as if this was normal. I think I must have been in third form before I was diagnosed as short-sighted. I did better at boarding school as classes were smaller, both in number of students and room size, so the whiteboard or projector board was closer to me so easier to see.

So by now you've probably guessed that "Sunnyvale College" is actually based upon a real place. Correct, it is.

People? Many of the little anecdotes that you will come across along the way are based in reality, but all of the characters are fictional. Sure, some people may notice some attributes of themselves, but I was careful not to specifically base any one person on actual living people.

The closest I get are:

  • The chemistry teacher. She was an American, and she was really big on woman's rights and not referring to her as "Miss" (or "Mrs" for that matter). I carried this into the SIBA series because it was quite a novel mentality for a person teaching at a boys school, and because she was just a brilliant person. Everything else, her mannerisms and behaviour are all made up so won't necessarily resemble the real person. This is "inspired by", not "based upon".
  • The chemistry teacher had a daughter. I think I met her once when I was in first or second form and it was a Sunday evening, her mother was doing duty that day, and I was like "why's there a girl here?". Anna is a completely fictional person.
  • The maths teacher. My first maths teacher was prone to running ahead with the smart kids and simply ignoring the others. I guess that makes him a bit of a rubbish teacher. So I just got up one day, walked out of the class, and put myself in the intermediate level class. A great teacher, a jolly Irish bloke who could belt out dozens of ballads on his guitar. That bit in the second story with the smelly stuff and the fart? Totally happened. He's probably the closest I get to an actual person, but he appears more as an anecdote than an actual character.
  • The P.E. teacher was Welsh and tended to shout. We had a mutual hate-hate relationship - he thought I was a lazy git (I was) and I thought he was a bully (he was). I took the two attributes of Welsh and shouty (the most memorable things) and rolled them into the otherwise fictional P.E. teacher.
  • Most of the other teachers are generic characters with some attributes of real people, though it's a bit mix and match (for instance, a mannerism of, say, the biology teacher may be assigned to the history teacher). This will be important in the third episode of the series...

  • As for pupils - everybody is made up. Some of the people I used to know might spot some of themselves in one or other of the characters, but I based David, James, and Amy (etc) on people that I invented to fit specific positions in the story - the ballsy one, the technical wizard, the soft one... I think one of them might be more closely related to a character from the Jupiter Jones' "Three Investigators" series than anybody I ever personally knew.


SIBA - some locations

Amazingly, not so long ago I found my old copy of the school prospectus in a box when I was looking for something. I think the prospectus is from around 1988 or so.

I have blurred everybody's faces so nobody is identifiable.

Here's the main hall, with everybody at assembly:

That dark wooden door to the back of the lobby (through the arch on the right) is a door through to the dining room. The wooden staircase is not visible, but it is to the right of that. The closer door through the left arch is the headmaster's room. The main front door is to the left.
Note the wooden frame at the bottom of the piano. The teacher playing the piano decided it wasn't in a good place one morning, and instead of moving himself and his bench, he pushed the piano. You can guess what happened next...

Here's a dormitory:

This is one of the smaller dormitories, it will be one of the junior ones in the semi-attic. Through the window you can see the parapet wall. I know that window wall, having been tricked to go out and rescue something that had been thrown out there, for the bastards to close and latch the window behind me. I got "six of the best" which hurt like hell, but on the plus side the headmaster prolonged the punishment long enough that I missed having to go to church that Sunday. I view this as a "some you win, some you lose" situation... and, yes, I found church such a tedious waste of time that I'd have tolerated maybe "four of the best" (six is just excessive) as an alternative option to going to church.

Here's a study:

When we hit fifth form or sixth form, we are supposed to take things seriously (supposed!) so rather than being in a dormitory, we were grouped in twos or threes depending on the study. I had a study to myself because I was "weird". ☺
Notice the white shirts. Boys wore blue shirts. Prefects wore white shirts. A little detail I don't think I ever mentioned in the stories...

And, finally, here's me in the computer room:

The non-blurred face is me. I thought the prospectus was made in 1989/1990, but I'm not wearing glasses so it must be earlier. 1988? Because it was the prospectus, we would be shown seated at the Master Compacts (the rest of the room were Beebs). There's me, that's EdWord, and even with my one-finger typing I had a screenful of text in the time it took the camera guy to set up his equipment. That's why the teacher is looking at my screen. Thankfully the reflection on the nearest monitor is me so I didn't need to blur it. So you can see that kid cheated and double-spaced his text.

Unfortunately I don't have other photos because back in those days it was 35mm film or 110 film and processing was expensive. I did have a cheap camera with a roll of 24 exposure 35mm, but some bastard swiped the camera on my last day. So any photos I did take likely would have been binned. These days, I would have taken pictures of the building and places, but when I was sixteen? I probably took pictures of stupid things. So all of the locations that are real are from memory.


SIBA - Tropes

A trope is a significant recurring theme in media. For example:
  • if there is a car chase in a movie, a vegetable stall or some other sort of outdoor market will be trashed
  • if somebody is carrying a bag of groceries, there will almost always be a big leafy vegetable, because nothing says "groceries" like a big leafy vegetable
  • two guys fighting over a gun, there's a single shot, cue expression of horror from the good guy that goes on for a good few seconds...until the bad guy keels over
  • bunch of horny teenagers in a cabin in the woods in a snowstorm
  • there's no noise scarier to a hostage than cocking a gun, so if the bad guy really wants to keep people's attention, expect him to repeatedly cock his rifle because, well, it's a really scary noise, chk-chk
  • the evil dead vampire zombie thing can walk with a limp and still outpace running teenagers who exist purely to flaunt parts of their bodies until they die
  • everybody buy everybody leaves their car keys tucked into the visor, who needs to hotwire a car when you can just flap the visor down and grab the falling keys
  • so the hero gets into a fight with an army of bad guys, who will obligingly wait patiently as the hero dispatches them one at a time; reality is more like the dozen odd bad guys will beat the living crap out of the hero
  • who needs a lab test for drugs when a cop can just stick a finger into the powder and taste it
  • everybody suffering a nightmare will awake by sitting bolt upright
So now you know what a trope is, let's look at some of the sorts of recurrent themes you should expect to see from SIBA. This is an incomplete list because... spoilers...

  • Adorkable
    The protagonist, when he was young. Since he's an author avatar, I'm talking about me. Now I'm just this grey-haired fart that's a bit of a dork, but not in the cool grandpa way...
  • Artistic Licence
    It's a tiny village in southern England. The local school is actually just a Primary. The older kids go to school in another town.
    Anything involving outside organisations (police, etc).
    Anything where reality is mundane and Rule Of Cool is more interesting.
  • Based on a true story
    While some aspects are fictional, there's an awful lot that derives from real events. How much? Not saying... ☺
  • British Boarding School
    Well, it wasn't exactly "if..." but then it wasn't exactly "Tom Brown's Schooldays", and it certainly wasn't "Mallory Towers"...
  • Britishisms
    So very much. From the obvious language aspects ("realise" with an 's' and "colour" with a 'u'), the punctuation aspects (sentence structure comma never ever goes within speech marks) to the widespread use of British slang. If you aren't British you might find things a little hard. Google Is Your Friend.
  • Class Separation
    People like me did not get to play Cricket as Cricket is the sort of game that sons of trustees play. I could have been the best bowler in all the Home Counties, but my merit counts for little compared to who my daddy was. [yeah... what-ever!]
  • Deadpan Snarker
    The characters, the words of the story... it was Pink Floyd that said something about "dark sarcasm in the classroom"; sarcasm is a common element of British humour; so expect sarcasm, sardonicism, and a world of snark. But don't forget the value of ironic understatement, another Britishism.
  • English Lesson
    Imagine the dialogue delivered by Daniel Craig or Jason Statham. At a push, maybe Captain Jean Luc Picard would suffice. If you can't imagine that, Lily Allen or Keira Knightley in her film roles. At any rate, if the dialogue contains audible 'r's after vowels, you're doing it wrong. Like oh-so-many Americans who think they can pull off a British accent...
  • Epic Eighties
    This is basically a love letter to growing up at a boarding school set in a pretty part of the country in the eighties. The eighties. Damn, man, just listen to the playlists...
  • I Am Very British
    Something of an obsession with tea.
  • Introspection
    The series is practically fuelled by introspection. Expect many anecdotes and observations along the way.
  • Lampshade hanging Sometimes the character may point out a trope or some other element that might threaten the reader's willing suspension of belief. It's a subtle form of medium awareness.
  • MacGuffin
    SIBA itself is the MacGuffin, the device that pushes the plot along.
  • Mary Sue
    The protagonist is a total Mary Sue. So much so that in the original stories he was named "Rick". I've reworked the dialogue so that apart from the guest-written story, the character is never actually referenced by name. Because, come on, bloody obvious Mary Sue is bloody obvious.
  • Averted trope: Midnight Feast
    Sorry, I was at boarding school for five years and we didn't have a midnight feast. Not once. Maybe it's something that happens at girl's schools?
  • Mood Whiplash
    Overlaps with Tone Shift.
  • Politically Incorrect
    In one of the stories, a character refers to somebody else as a "flid". This was a word thrown around quite a lot and used in the same sort of sense as an American of the same sort of era might have used "spaz". It wasn't until many years later that I found out that it referred to Thalidomide victims. But, hey, none of this PC stuff existed in the eighties, and it was something we said, so it gets an airing.
    The N-word gets an airing too. Be sure to keep reading and enjoy the outcome.
  • Prefects are bastards
    Oh dear God, where do we start? Pretty soon on they are described as such. Then they become the nominated villains of the piece. Then it gets taken up to eleven.
    And then there's the third episode...
  • Rule of Cool
    Quite a lot. Kids that are like 13 years old running a pirate TV station?
  • Running Gag
    The protagonist rarely bothers to change out of school uniform after classes end on Saturday, coming up with all manner of excuses to justify what is basically him being too damn lazy to go change. Of course, such a thing never ever happened in real life. Oh no. <innocent whistling>
  • Spot of Tea
    Expect many references to tea. Whenever anything happens, anything at all, from the second story onwards (reason explained in-universe), expect somebody to put a kettle on. In fact, just expect a kettle to be on the verge of boiling at any moment, including now in 2017 as you read these stories.
  • Taken Up To Eleven
    Often overlaps with Rule of Cool. Remember, guys, this is fiction. ☺
  • Tone Shift
    Overlaps with Mood Whiplash.
  • Unreliable narrator
    The entire series is filtered through the experiences and understanding of the protagonist. So things that happen out of his experience are usually "unknowns", a good example being where the hell did all those guns come from?
  • Values Dissonance
    If you think "bloody hell" is a swear word, stop reading now...
  • Weather of suck
    It's pretty much always raining. Expect the main characters to get wet. A lot. Because this is a world where the sun only shines when the plot requires it, otherwise it just chucks it down.
    [this is actually poking fun at foreigner's perceptions of the British obsession with the weather]

You can probably think of more - head to the comments. But... no spoilers for episodes after the second story.



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GAVIN WRAITH, 5th October 2017, 11:23
My myopia was only discovered when I left my first school (in Brackley, Northants) and started at my second (in Winchester, Collegium Mariae), when I was twelve. So I wore glasses from the age of twelve. But after I was seventy, and had two cataract operations, the lenses in my eyes were artificial, and I could dispense with glasses for most purposes. Growing older has its benefits! 
The main hall of your school looks like a beautiful room. Only later in my life did I begin to appreciate how one can read rooms and buildings and landscapes, and infer the pretensions and aspirations of those who created them. No need to believe in ghosts or ghostly influences. 
One thing my schools, and I, did not discover was the inability of my eye muscles to react sufficiently fast. This, in retrospect, explained why I was hopeless at most sporting activities. I always considered sport merely a means of stopping children from reading, or an opportunity for middle-aged men to bully them.
Clive Semmens, 14th March 2019, 13:07
"While some aspects are fictional, there's an awful lot that derives from real events. How much? Not saying... ☺" 
:-) Almost word for word what I said about my first novel, "The Reminiscences of Penny Lane" - and about the first few chapters of my other first novel (they overlapped in the writing), "Pawns." Still true but to a much smaller extent in all my novels.

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