The school gate mothers

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Thursday 23rd May 2013

Gill Hornby The HiveGill Hornby’s first novel has attracted the sort of coverage that most debut novelists dream of. A former BBC producer, ex Daily Telegraph columnist and wife of superstar writer Robert Harris, she’s now written The Hive, a novel set at the school gate. Publishers were falling over themselves to buy it and after a bidding war Little, Brown snapped it up for a six-figure sum.

It’s out today so I downloaded it on to my Kindle and started reading it at dawn. Hornby (sister of Nick Hornby) writes well and has a great turn of phrase but I just don’t recognise her set of school mothers.

In today’s Daily Mail she claims that school gate mums fit neatly into one of four distinct groups – the cool ones, the ultra-keen ones, the sporty ones and the naughty ones. Sure enough, the characters in her book cover all those bases. There’s the stunning Bea, the undisputed queen bee – a terrifying creation who gathers the other mums in the playground on the first day of term to coerce them into fund-raising action. There’s the unpolished Heather, “mutton dressed as mutton” and desperate to belong, the chaotic Georgie, who completely forgets her turn to host the St Ambrose Primary School Lunch Ladder and newly single Rachel, who watches the rest of them from the sidelines.

It’s a neat idea for a plot, though if you’ve never stood at the school gate, it probably won’t appeal.

My gripe is that after hours spent waiting for my children outside schools all over the country Hornby’s mothers didn’t strike a chord with me at all. I’ve certainly never come across a queen bee, nor a bunch of admiring acolytes like Bea’s.

Many of my school gate days were spent outside a tiny village primary in North Yorkshire and for the life of me I can’t match Hornby’s characters to the women I stood alongside in the wind, rain and (very occasionally) sun. We got to know each other pretty well over the years and all I can remember is having a laugh, fixing up tea invitations and sleepovers for our children (I refuse point blank to use the ghastly “playdates”) and helping each other out. No one ever commented on each other’s clothes or made bitchy remarks about each other’s children. And when tragedy hit one school gate family I’ve never seen such love, compassion and support in my life.

The Hive by Gill Hornby (Little, Brown, £12.99)

7 comments so far

  • I’ve done my time at the school gate myself, and I’m with you on this one.

    Of course, as a plot device……………………..

    John (whose just about to finish School Ties 🙂 )

  • Hello!

    I think it’s what goes on in your head though, isn’t it? I used to be at my daughters’ school gates every day, and, like you, knew everyone. Now though, my daughters go mostly by bus, and on the rare occasions I have to schlep over the hill, I get to school and don’t know hardly anyone. It’s terrifying! And I can easily imagine the cabals gathering, muttering about my wellies and wild hair.

    Logically, I know they’re probably not saying or thinking anything about me at all – but you could see how they might, and so I might identify with Gill Hornby’s book.

    You’ve made me think, though (rare, pour moi) – imagine the terror of writing when hitched to one international megastar bestseller, and being sister to another.

    Also – I’d think of Hornby’s book as chick lit… though there’s no chick-lit cover, no pink glitter. The Independent said something about an exciting new genre to replace 50 Shades – but what actually is it? Chicklit? No? WHAT!? I need to know.

    Anyway. I’ll shush. Great post, thank you.

  • Thanks so much, John and Carlie, for your comments. I’m sure the mums aren’t muttering about your wells and wild hair, Carlie! I’d say it isn’t chick lit, maybe more mums’ lit – very readable but certainly not a new genre… Let me know what you think when you read it.
    PS. Hope you enjoy School Ties, John…

  • Great post as always, Emma, and good to have someone being honest in a book review! Although I take exception with the sunshine comment…(she says, looking out to a North Yorkshire that is part sunny and part rainy!).

  • Ok I’ve got to read the book to really compare it to our old school gate crowd but I think they may have been quite close. There were definitely little cliques centred on the ‘stars’ – the radio DJ’s wife and the rich haulage contractor’s wife – a lot of bitchiness about the behaviour of other people’s children or who’d been banned for drink-driving and once a near-punch-up between 2 mums! I miss this kind of thing at secondary school 🙂

  • It sounds like you’ve got the plot for a novel there, Mary. And I completely agree about secondary school – the school gate days are definitely over when your children get to that stage. I still quite miss them though.

  • I’ve just realised that I’m too late for the secondary school gate. This week was the last of ‘proper’ lessons. Only exams left now 🙁

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