Dave 'Pep' Anderson was a coal miner, a butcher and a welder's mate (among many other things) before becoming a teacher and then a deputy head teacher at a school in the UK. However, his burning passion has long been poetry for children. In 2020, Pep will be bringing his unique poetry workshops to Thailand, where kids are surely in for a lot of fun.
Pep, a very warm welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. Let's begin with the future before we talk about your past. You are hopefully coming to Thailand next year and bringing your poetry workshops to schools here. What's the actual plan (will it be some sort of tour / road show?) and why Thailand? Are you taking in any other Asian countries while you are over in this part of the world?
Hi Phil, yes I’m 100% coming to Thailand in October 2020. I’m bringing all the characters with me from my first book: ‘Peter Pants & His Collection of Silly Poems.’ The exciting news is they will be joined by a whole host of new characters from my second book: ‘Quentin the Squirrel,’ due to be released July 2020.
I’m planning on embarking upon a tour of the International Schools in Bangkok and Pattaya. The workshops are interactive, engaging and very amusing. The children get the opportunity to hear me recite my poems and then they will then have a go writing and reciting some of their own poetry.
A friend, and former colleague, moved to Thailand over 23 years ago and he’s been asking me for two decades to visit. Now that my children are older, the opportunity has arisen, I’m taking the chance and coming to see you all.
The workshops vary and the children get the opportunity to:
a) Plan, write, edit and perform their own work.
b) Perform poetry confidently.
c) Explore the whole process of writing a book from first draft to published article (more suited for KS3.)
If there is enough interest out there in my poems, there is talk of me also taking in Vietnam and Cambodia. My friend is helping me out with the arrangements and bookings, basically, if they want me, I’ll be there!
I was looking at your very nice website and you do a number of these poetry workshops for schools in the UK. Let's say a school books you for a half-day workshop. Typically, what activities would the kids enjoy doing (they certainly look like they're having a lot of fun)?
The workshops are split into: Mornings, afternoons or full day workshops. Whilst I’m in school the children get the opportunity to hear me recite my poems. The children can then dress up as some of the characters from the book and recite the poems themselves, using the different accents and dialects that are to be found in the UK.
I recite my poems in many different UK accents and dialects. So your young learners, will have to brush up on their Scottish, Brummie, Geordie, West Country and Liverpudlian accents.
Depending on the workshops: They will have the opportunity to listen and write their own poems. I’ll give them tips on how to perform and project their voice.
There will be dressing up opportunities and we’ll finish with a Q&A session.
There’s further information on my website - https://www.pepthepoet.co.uk/
It's fair to say your life has been a real roller-coaster ride to get to this point. Born in Scotland in 1963, it sounds like you had a tough childhood and your school-days are not something you look back on with any great fondness?
I was a product of the 1960s & 70s Catholic Education System in England. I can’t really remember any teacher showing me a morsel of kindness. I learned to read using the ill-fated ITA reading initiative (Initial Teaching Alphabet):
I was baptised David Tracey Anderson and the youngest of five children. I am the only boy and (according to my wife Paula) totally spoiled.
I grew up as a little, tubby, Catholic kid, with a girl’s name, living on a rough council estate; I was also a spoilt little mummy’s boy to boot. My school’s days were spent dodging name calling bullies and avoiding the punishment from over zealous teachers.
From school leaving age at 15 to the age of 30, you had this incredible range of jobs. I was left wondering if there was anything you didn't try your hand at during that period. Was it just difficult to find a career you were happy with?
I left school with barely any qualifications. Two CSE’s Grade 4 (as they were called back then.) in English Literature & Environmental Science. As I had no notable qualifications to speak about, I went through a series of low paid, manual labouring jobs.
The list of jobs that I didn’t do are just as varied as the jobs I did. I had this awful habit of putting people on pedestals and longing to copy them by doing the jobs that they were doing. My Uncle Robert, was a dog handler in the police force and I wanted to do that. My friend Rob, was a chef in the Royal Navy and I wanted to do that. Another friend was a baker and guess what, yes I wanted to be a baker.
You decided to train as a teacher at the ripe old age of 34. Wasn't it a mate who suggested you got into the teaching game?
At the age of twenty seven I began working as a teaching assistant in a residential school for children with autism and communication difficulties.
My mate Tony, who was the teacher I was supporting, always told me to become a teacher. A few years after starting at the school, I was explaining something to his little four-year-old daughter Grace (My god-daughter) - incidentally Grace is now a 26 year old qualified teacher, working in Birmingham UK, after spending a year teaching in China. However, I digress somewhat!
Anyway, back to Tony. After I’d finished explaining to Grace what I was explaining. Tony said, “David do me a favour please, go away for four years, get a degree and come back and teach in my school.”
That’s what I did, I went away, studied for five years and at the age of 39 obtained a BA (Hons) in history and a PGCE in primary education. Sadly I never got to teach in Tony’s school, although I did deliver some training there a few years later.
As a mature student, how did you support yourself while you were studying?
You may have seen above, the varied jobs that I have undertaken. I worked in a school as a leader of a study support group. I was a youth leader. The most horrific job that I did was delivering for a well-known UK builders merchants /DIY store. I have never worked so hard in my life. I had a van and I had to deliver building materials to people’s homes. It nearly broke me.
I remember one day I was carrying a load of paving slabs up some steep steps of a customer’s house and the sweat was dripping from my brow on to the slab. I just kept telling myself:
‘David you’re going to be a teacher one day, just get through this.’
Little did I know that some years later in teaching, I would have swapped jobs and carried those slabs for miles. Only joking, I love my job as a teacher.
Pep, I don't want to dwell too much on this but there have been health issues along the way haven't there?
Like I said earlier, I didn’t have the most inspiring upbringing. I always say I came from a loving, dysfunctional, insecure and often violent background. My family were loving and supportive. But arguments between my mum and dad were commonplace and as a little boy they frightened me. My sisters were always very supportive and looked after me.
I was known throughout my school days as Tracey Anderson (where in fact I was baptised David.) All this led to name calling and sly jibes. I suppose now looking back it was bullying: as it was systematic, regular, relentless and never addressed. But like all great jokers and survivors, I masked the pain and feeling of inadequacy with humour: Couple this with an over-inflated ego and a low sense of self worth and I became almost a caricature of myself.
My low self-esteem and low self-worth have followed me into adulthood. In my late teens through to my mid-thirties, I became very alcohol dependent. I suppose this was the anaesthetic that I used to numb the pain. I have been sober now for over 20 years.
But stopping drinking was the easy part. Dealing with the aftermath of all my character defects (that I had accrued over the years) had become my primary purpose. My everyday shortcomings and obsessive behaviour came in many forms: addiction to food, shopping, writing poems etc. I also suffered being neurotic, I was a compulsive over thinker. I had hatred of myself and others, paranoia and that insecurity, that comes with the feeling of impending doom. Self-loathing and being super sensitive in all situations were also other character defects.
This all came to a head in November 2017. When I had (what can only be describe) as a nervous breakdown. I was off work with anxiety and depression for nearly three months. However, the great news is this is where my ‘REAL’ recovery started.
I had a program of counselling, tried Reiki, Shamanic Drumming, ditched all the dark dismal clothes in my wardrobe and replaced them with splendid colour. Started wearing ‘happy socks.’ If you haven’t seen them check out their website, Happy Socks saved my life.
I also did a lot of work on the family of origin and inner child. As a result, I was able to identify the root of every single one of my fears. I also belong to a beautiful fellowship of like-minded people whom I talk to everyday. They are my CPU, my close protection unit, and they keep me safe and well.
I now sit here today totally and utterly free from ‘FEAR.’ The anxiety sometimes comes and goes. When he pops his head up, I acknowledge him like an old friend, then politely ask him to go, as he’s not real and completely made up by me.
I practise mindfulness, meditation, prayer and gratitude lists on a daily basis. I feel absolutely wonderful. It’s funny, as I’ve programmed my brain to write poetry and design mental health courses for children. Whereas before, my brain worked on auto-pilot planning my own demise and was continually clearing the wreckage of my future.
I can honestly say with confidence today: “The real David Anderson has stepped forward”
I think it's fantastic that you have recovered so well from all those set-backs. So tell us, where does this love of children's poetry stem from?
The love of poetry comes from my mother and my Auntie Agnes. These were the ones who played country and western music when I was a child. I think it’s known today with the sleeker title of country music, artists like Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Kris Kristofferson and of course Dolly Parton. Couple this with the dulcet tones of the classic Irish folk music of the Dubliners and a child has a whole treasure trove of lyrics and tunes from which to pick.
Poetry comes in lots of different forms. I’ve always loved the manipulation of letters and sounds and the effect they can have upon the human soul. A few carefully selected lines can make people float with excitement, laugh out loud or cry uncontrollably. This is the power of poetry.
One of your influences is that great poet and British institution, Pam Ayres. Have you ever met her?
Pam Ayres is my #1 influence. I first remember seeing her on TV in 1975, when I was about 12. I love the fact that she writes about everyday things that happen to her. Her famous poem, ‘I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth’ is timeless.
In her book Pam Ayers, The Works: Selected Poems (BBC Books 1992). Pam gives an absolutely wonderful definition of her take on poetry. This is something that I’d like to adopt.
“Poetry seems to be a very serious and profound business, and I (Pam) was essentially looking for something to make people laugh ... I see poetry as ‘the pleasant shuffling round of words to get comic effect.”
Someone said the other week about my poems, “You know David your poetry reminds me of ‘Pam Ayres.” I was so chuffed.
As of yet I haven’t met Pam but I’d love to. I’ve tweeted her a message the other day on my Twitter account and she liked it, so small steps forward.
You've said you are a deputy head. Would you ever give up that role to do the poetry thing full-time. Does that feel like too much of a gamble?
I’ve loved my time in school, as a teacher and for the last five years as deputy head. The only problem being is that being deputy head takes you out of the classroom. I miss standing in front of children and engaging within that learning connection.
If becoming Pep the Poet full time puts me in front of children all day every day and having the opportunity to make a difference and scatter sunshine wherever I go, then I’d love to become a full time poet.
Being a full-time poet is something I don’t see as a gamble. I feel that now is the time for me to follow my dreams.
I only catch the occasional headline in the Guardian education section, but it sounds like it can be a tough gig being a teacher in the UK education system these days?
I calculated the other day that in my 18 years of teaching, we've had 10 Secretaries of State for Education. That works out at about one every 1.8 years. Every time we have a new one, they have their own agenda, their own set of ideas. They produce a lot of initiatives but by the time these cascades down into the classroom and become imbedded within your practice, the whole system changes once again.
I read an article the other day, it was possibly in the Guardian, that stated around 20% of all newly qualified teachers will leave the profession within two years. This figure goes up to 40% within the first five years.
It’s really, really sad to see wonderful practitioners broken, disillusioned and their mental health suffering. As of last week, the Tory government have been re-elected for another five years. I believe one of their initiatives is to introduce ‘no-notice’ OFSTED inspections. In my humble opinion, this is just another rod to batter the teaching profession.
Let's talk about your two published books so far - Peter Pants (a collection of silly poems) and Optimal Learning (a practical guide for teachers) Two very different books aimed at two very different audiences I guess?
My first book was published around five years ago. I wrote it with a former colleague. Lee Pace and we are known on Twitter as @thought_weavers.
The Book is called, ‘Optimal Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers.’ It’s a practical guide for teachers that enables young learners to become more independent learners.
The book that I am most proud of is my little poetry book: ‘Peter Pants and His Collection of Silly Poems.’
Little Peter was the phoenix that rose out of the ashes of my mental illness. I have written poetry for 40 years but never had the courage to publish them. It was whilst I was off work and through my subsequent recovery that I realised that:
I am not my thoughts.
Fear tells lies.
I came out of the shower one day and had that Eureka moment.
I said to my wife Paula, “celery!”
“What about celery?” She replied looking rather puzzled.
I went on, “Celery, I don’t like celery and I never will. In the same way some people won’t like my books and that okay. But others will love them.”
So with the help of my beautiful nephew Matthew Edward (ME Books) and my friend of 30 years, Sue Dooley (a talented illustrator) I set about publishing Peter Pants. He was released in October 2019 and to date has sold just under 1,000 copies.
Next year will see the release of Quentin The Squirrel?
I have found writing it totally cathartic. It’s something that I have to do. My brain left to its own devices, will plan all sorts of disasters and negative situations. If my brain didn't need me for transportation, it would’ve done me in years ago.
I had so much fun writing, producing, marketing and selling Peter Pants. It is something that I had to do again. Quentin the squirrel came from a joke that a child told me years ago. It was a little bit rude but very funny.
He asked me one day, “Why do squirrels swim on their back?” Answer: “To keep their nuts dry.” Obviously if you are a squirrel and have to transport your food source across a stream, on your back is the most logical way to do it.
Quentin will be joined with: Norma the Newt; Tony the Butterfly, The Rock Hard Robin and The Dalek in a Chip Shop. There will be talking mushrooms, snails who fall in love and who can forget the Chicken Wrap?
You've had many ups and downs in your life Pep, but this particular phase must fill you with a lot of excitement? And your family are supportive of the direction you are going in?
Phil, I can't even start to tell you how happy I am. The work I've done on myself since my little ‘sabbatical’ as I like to call it, has been a lifesaver. I can honestly say sitting here today, that every ounce of anxiety and fear has left my body. I am very optimistic about the future.
People ask me, “What happens if your books don’t sell?’ My reply is, “What happens if they do?”
This isn’t being flippant or over optimistic. It’s just reprogramming your psyche in believing that good things will happen, if you are positive and optimistic. My wife Paula and my two beautiful, grown up boys - Ryan (25) and Leo (20) - are fully 100% behind me.
Thank you for the chat Pep. There might be a number of school owners reading this interview and liking the idea of a Pep the Poet workshop. How can they contact you?
Like I said I am definitely coming to Thailand in the Autumn of 2020. I will be offering poetry workshops for children aged 8 to 12 years, and also workshops focusing on mental health and well-being for children aged from 8 to 18.
Thank you so much Phil for giving me the opportunity to speak with you and your friends on The Ajarn Hot Seat. When I am in Thailand I will certainly meet up with you or if you are over here in England before next autumn let me know and I’ll treat you to a curry. Carry on being brilliant and keep scattering sunshine wherever you go.
Love and best wishes to you and all your readers and followers. Pep the Poet x