Spotlight shines on South Shields author

The Word, Market Place, in South Shields.
The Word, Market Place, in South Shields.

The life and work of a South Shields author, along with three other famous people and writers, provide the inspiration for a new exhibition being staged in town.

Newcastle-based textile artist Richard Bliss has used themes found in the works of South Shields-born Elinor M Brent-Dyer along with the Venerable Bede, Lewis Carroll, Phillis Wheatley and Julia Darling, to design and make a series of men’s shirts.

Elinor Brent-Dyer books.

Elinor Brent-Dyer books.

And the resulting exhibition, Shirt Tales, is now on show in town at The Word, the National Centre for the Written Word.

Elinor M Brent-Dyer, who is best known for her Chalet School series of books, was born in South Shields on April 6, 1894, and educated in Westoe Village between 1906 and 1912. A blue plaque now adorns the wall of the former St Nicholas School which was run by the Stewarts.

Her first book, Gerry Goes to School, was published in 1922 and became the first of the La Rochelle series.

She was inspired to write the Chalet School series after holidaying in the Austrian Tyrol at Pertisau-am-Achensee. The first book in the series, The School at the Chalet, was published in 1923.

In creating the garments, Richard, whose work has been exhibited across the UK, has drawn on the feelings and inspiration he experienced when reading texts by all of the writers.

Tania Robinson, head of marketing and culture at The Word, said: “The Scribe’s Shirt echoes the colours used by Bede and his fellow monks to create the imagery in the Codex Amiatinus.

“The Archivist’s Shirt draws on the character of Gert in author Julia Darling’s first novel Crocodile Soup. Gert works in a municipal museum, cataloguing its exhibits, and Richard has used the record cards typed by archivists such as Gert as his inspiration.

“The magical, illogical and sometimes disturbing worlds created by Carroll, who regularly visited his cousins at Whitburn, are explored on The Logical Fantasist’s Shirt, while The Head Girl’s Shirt is inspired by South Shields author Elinor Brent-Dyer, creator of the hugely successful Chalet School books, first published in 1923.

“The garment combines the values of leadership and decision making with the practical uniforms of British girls’ schools in the inter-war period.

“Finally, The Painter’s and Poet’s Shirt celebrates the life and times of Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped into slavery at the age of eight.

“Her collection: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773 – the first book to be published by a black woman during her lifetime.

“The shirt celebrates, not only Phillis, but also artist Lubaina Himid, who became, in 2017, the first black woman to win the Turner Prize.”

Richard himself said: “I am interested in how our ideas about clothing are caught up with conventional ideas about colours, styles and patterns.

“And in these five shirts, I’ve attempted to break some of the ‘rules’ of what a man’s shirt should be.

“The idea is that they move beyond simple clothing and become blank canvases upon which to tell story in their own right.”

The free exhibition runs until June 2.

Tania said it provides “a wholly unique and creative interpretation to our response to the written word”.

The Word is situated at 45 Market Place, South Shields, NE33 1JF, telephone number (0191) 427 1818. Opening hours are: Monday to Thursday, 9am-7pm; Friday, 9am-5pm and Saturday to Sunday, 10am-4pm.

For more information: www.theworduk.org, www.facebook.com/worduk, www.twitter.com/theword_uk

The front cover illustrations for Elinor Brent-Dyer’s books bring back memories of the dust jackets for the much-loved Enid Blyton adventure stories.

There can’t be many readers who are unfamiliar with the characters in the Secret Seven and Famous Five series of books.

As a youngster, I seem to remember going weekly to the local library to replace one with the another, delighting in the adventures of the children who seem to spend forever on holiday, with no other thoughts in the world than to solving some mystery or other.

The world, of course, has moved on since those innocent days and children would not be able to just wander off willy nilly – but the writing still stands the test of time.

What are your memories of such books and the places you got them from? Please get in touch with your memories.