Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Leila Berg

Oration given on 15 July 1999

Chancellor, Senate has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Leila Berg.

Anyone who has read what one hopes is but the first volume of her autobiography, Flickerbook, will know that Leila Berg spent her childhood and formative years in Salford. In certain respects it was the Salford of Love on the Dole and Hobson’s Choice, the Salford that in the popular imagination is depicted in L.S. Lowry's paintings. But to leave it at that would be a serious error. The 19th Century radical Russian philosopher and critic, Nikolai Dobrolyubov compared getting at the essence of a person to tearing away the clouds that surround him or her, razoblachenie cheloveka. Or, as he also said, it was like peeling away the layers of an onion until you reach the very core of a person’s being.

Leila Berg’s autobiography is something like that. For her, Salford is not only the Salford with which we are reasonably familiar from other literature sources, it is also the street that is entirely Jewish, the individual household and family that is unmistakably Northern lower middle class  (her father was a teacher before coming a doctor) yet also - perhaps primarily - Jewish. In her home, they took the Manchester Guardian of C.P. Scott and The Jewish Chronicle. It is a moving and inspiring account. There is emotion but not sentimentality - no dressing up of the truth, (for example, hers was a far from happy family) and it takes the reader from the  back streets to the affluent suburbs, from the infant school to Manchester High School for Girls. There is self-discovery and self-improvement by way of Manchester reference library, the Halle Orchestra,  cinema and music hall, and above all, books, books, books. It was an 18th Century journalist, Sir Richard Steele, who once wrote that:  “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body”. At that time of course, the reading audience, was tiny. But, whatever his intentions, the aphorism contains an essential truth:  books, words, understanding, ideas, expression are as indispensable to us as are the material goods upon which,  perhaps too much at times, we depend.

Books, Leila Berg writes, are “about people's lives, about feeding people's anger and giving them hope and making them laugh deep down for joy.”  This is 1930s Salford, remember: Fascism is on the rise in Europe - soon there will be war. Two of her loves are killed in Spain. She joins the Communist Party. Leila Berg’s permanent war throughout her life has been with hypocrisy and humbug, and whatever particular cause she has espoused, she has never forgotten the lessons of childhood: the need for love, for understanding, for compassion, for justice and above all for seeing things from a child’s point of view.

After the second world war, and by then married and the mother of two children, Leila Berg, inspired by the child psychologist Susan Issacs, began to write stories for children. By temperament and persuasion a rebel against authoritarianism (at that time still prevalent in our schools) she directed her creativity at the child. When you read her stories as an adult, you can see how they are aimed at the individual, no matter how young, at her or his experience, at the child’s real universe. Moreover, they proceed from the premise that words are power. The more words the child knows, the greater are her or his life chances - there is a kernel of truth in the rather sad advertisements in some Sunday newspapers calling on the reader to “increase your word power !”. If a child has a sparse vocabulary and also comes from a disadvantaged background, so much the worse. Which is why Leila Berg’s books are about real people in real situations, using real language:  The Little Pete stories for example, Topsy Turvy Tales, and Little Nippers and Nippers.

When she first started writing stories for children, Leila Berg's social realism was extremely uncommon and not a little criticised by some traditionalists. Today, it is rare to find books for children in the schools and in the home that do not adopt that kind of approach.

In 1973 Leila Berg’s pioneering efforts were recognised formally when she was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon medal for her services to children’s literature. But her books were not just books for children, they were also books about children. Already, in 1968, her Risinghill - Death of a Comprehensive School, had, unusually for a work of non fiction, headed the best seller list for weeks,  contributing hugely to the general ferment of debate in the turbulent late 1960s. Specifically, it took up the case of the head teacher Michael Duane, dismissed by his local education authority and of his school Risinghill in Islington, which was closed down. The non-use of corporal punishment of children and the substitution of love for coercion, were it seems, still too advanced, even in that heady decade when it was said anything went.

Leila Berg moved from London to nearby Wivenhoe in 1974. There she kept up a steady output of writing, but as ever her main concern was for children. However, even adults are just children that have grown up and it came as no surprise, therefore,  when she embarked upon an imaginative project to bring children and the elderly together. Having set up a writing for pleasure group under the auspices of the University of the Third Age in her own home and having linked up with two local primary schools, she brought out an anthology entitled Children Talking ,Older People Remembering and Writing  which narrowed the gap, too prevalent these days, between old and young. As she wrote then:

 “we compartmentalise everything. We compartmentalise ages…. as if children weren’t aiming to be grown up, as if old people had never been children. In this book they hold hands.”

Leila Berg has never been one for pomp and ceremony. In the past, she has eschewed certificates and diplomas. Sometimes, however, it takes the panoply of ceremony to draw all the threads together and to enable those who might not otherwise have had the chance, to celebrate the achievements of an individual. Today, the University of Essex seeks to honour the achievement of a campaigner, a writer for and about children and a remarkable literary talent.

Chancellor, I present to you Leila Berg.