Leila Berg - Photograph by John Walmsley
© Copyright John Walmsley
8 Whitmore road, Guildford, Surrey GU1 1QT,
Leila Berg grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Salford in the twenties and thirties, when the scissors-grinder and the ragman and the bagel-seller still came round the houses, and grandmothers kept barrels of pickled herrings and onions in the living-room.
As an adolescent, she crossed Manchester on foot daily to get to school, an hour’s walk. She loitered in record and book shops, not buying anything, always sampling, and forestalling actual transactions with adult phrases like “I’m so sorry. This isn’t quite what I’m looking for.”
Because she wasn’t a boy, her father never spoke to her, until her mother left home and he needed her help. This non-relationship is explored in ‘Flickerbook’, a book about life as seen by a child, Leila.
‘Flickerbook’ was published in 1997 and received many generous reviews. It was the first book ever to be proclaimed Book of the Month by a unanimous vote of Waterstone’s booksellers.
As a student, Leila walked out of a teaching course, but completed a journalism one with distinction, not bothering, however, to pick up her certificate. She started her career as a journalist with ‘The Daily Worker’, while lovers were getting killed in the Spanish War. Whilst still at school, she had joined the Youth Front against War and Fascism. Then the war, World War II, started.
She got married, was bombed out of her house, and had her first child as a refugee in her own country.
After the war and the birth of her second child, Leila began writing for children, inspired initially by Susan Isaacs (the child psychologist, who did some very important work, and who she feels was outrageously neglected, because she was a woman, Jewish, and divorced) and then by her own children. Her anti-authoritarian attitudes led her to an interest in children’s rights, alternative education, and informed teaching methods. She began to meet people like A.S. Neill, Michael Duane, and other progressive education leaders, forming long-lasting and deep friendships, particularly with Michael Duane, and with the American writer and educationist, John Holt.
During this period she wrote many books for children of different ages, and also became Children’s Books Editor for Methuen, then a well respected independent publisher in London. Leila’s own books were published under a wide range of imprints. She also edited, and became particularly well known for the ‘Nippers’ and ‘Little Nippers’ series, most of which she wrote herself, but all of which carried her characteristic attitude.
She always wrote either for children, or for adults about children. She was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Medal in 1973 for her services to children’s literature.
‘Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School’ was published in 1968. It headed the best-seller list for weeks and it was the first non-fiction book to become a best-seller.
The fight to keep the school open illustrates the issues which have galvanised Leila’s writing throughout her career. She was commissioned by Salisbury Playhouse to turn the book into a play (‘Raising Hell’) and a small touring company took it round to institutions of all kinds, including an open borstal, where it moved the boys to tears. The play was also performed at the Young Vic.
Now aged nearly 88, Leila is battling age and arthritis with homeopathic medicine, Alexander work, exercise, flower remedies, and friendships.
7th. July 2005