Pangbourne College is not a place for the feint-hearted. Or, at least it didn’t use to be. Set up as a training academy for the British merchant navy in 1917 by the shipping line Devitt and Moore, it was for many years known as the Nautical College, Pangbourne.
That had changed before I went there but even in 1976 Pangbourne was still steeped in naval tradition and thriving on a philosophy of hard work and discipline.
Parades every morning, a military band, guard of honour, punishments such as extra drills on the parade ground and ackers – an early morning run and cold shower – were all building bricks in our education.
For most it worked, for others it didn’t.
Not everyone battled through to the sixth form, leaving in a blaze of cap-flinging glory one sunny July afternoon. Some simply did not adapt so well to the strictures of the college and preferred to sling their hook two years earlier, after what used to be called O Levels, nowadays GCSEs.
“I’m not at my best with a disciplined regime,” he says by way of explanation.
He was a couple of years younger than me so we didn’t use to hang around much together. When we both left in the summer of 1981 we went our separate ways – until 2011 when I received an encouragingly rude message from him on Facebook.
“My last memory of you was when we were whiling away time playing Space Invaders at Reading station with a local yob,” he wrote.
“If I remember correctly he took a bit of a dislike to you for some reason. Was glad when the train came. Do you remember that?”
Actually, no, although the mention of Space Invaders gave me a shiver of nostalgic glee. However, I did remember Kevin as an extremely handy fast bowler who made the 1st XI in the fifth form when he had only just turned 16.
Occasionally one would slip and fly into the knee caps of a sleeping Jonny Hanscombe at second slip but in general he was a more than handy opening bowler. Had he stayed he would surely have plundered a shedload of wickets.
As it was he left – and found himself on a twisting path of career highs and lows and personal tragedy, before landing on his feet in the world of children’s books.
“After leaving Pangbourne at 16, I went to Swindon sixth form college,” he says.
“That lasted all of a term as I discovered beer and women, not necessarily in that order. By 19 I was married with a son and working in the construction industry in builders’ merchant sales.”
The marriage did not last as Kevin took himself off to Warrington, then Nottingham – where he met his current partner Andrea with whom he had two children – and finally Norwich in 2002 where he was managing director of Althon Ltd, a company manufacturing and distributing construction products throughout the UK.
At this point, life was rosy. A beautiful family and a job that brought in a six-figure salary.
“Then in October 2009, disaster struck,” says Kevin.
“My daughter Maisie, who was eight at the time, woke up feeling poorly on a Monday morning. By evening we had watched her slip away at the hospital.
“It turned out that she had swine flu and her immune system had over-reacted, causing damage to her heart. It was, as they say, a life-changing moment, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
Kevin started writing poetry as a way of expressing his grief.
“Nothing can describe the pain of losing a child,” he says.
“But Andrea had been visiting a friend who is a gifted artist and this friend was amusing herself by doing some paintings to go with a children’s story that she’d written. Andrea suggested that I should have a go at writing a children’s story as i’m ‘quite good at rhyme’.
“A couple of weeks later I had written The Beauty Contest at the Zoo and then followed an outpouring of material.
“As I had made Maisie the central character of Beauty Contest, I wanted to get it published. It soon became apparent that I would need to do this myself as I could then keep control of the artwork.
“I commissioned Vicky Fieldhouse to do the artwork and by November had published, having set up KAMA Publishing as the vehicle to bring it to market.”
KAMA incidentally named after the four members of the family – Kevin, Andrea, Maisie and Albert.
“I found that I enjoyed the process so much that I was spending ever-increasing amounts of time doing the marketing and so on. I also found that I wasn’t enjoying my job so I decided to chuck in the six figure salary and big car to scratch a living being an author and publisher.
“I can’t pretend that, for the moment anyway, I don’t miss the money.
Obviously if we hadn’t faced the catastrophe we did then I would still be there and the thought of being a children’s author wouldn’t have entered my head.”
Zoo, as he affectionately calls it, was published in November 2010 and immediately hit a nerve with parents looking for fun and educational books for their kids.
“This entertaining rhyming story features an array of unique animals brought beautifully to life by the illustrations of Vicky Fieldhouse and it is a real book to treasure,” trumpeted a review at Fantasy Book Review.
A part of the proceeds of each book, incidentally, goes towards the World Land Trust. It had sold over 10,000 by the end of June 2012, prompting a third print run.
Instead of building sites, Kevin now found himself slogging around the country to visit bookshops and zoos where his books went on sale.
The Silly Solar System – a kid’s guide in verse to the planets and stars with artwork by Robin Carter – was published in September 2011. It was equally well-received and a third installment is already in process.
The next book was called Crazy Creepy Crawlies. It’s a collection of 12 short poems about…..well…..creepy crawlies – spiders, flies, dung beetles and so on. It will be aimed at an age group from 4-7. Artwork is again by Robin Carter.
As if that wasn’t enough, he has also written poems for More Crazy Creepy Crawlies and has new Zoo stories as well.
Sadly, the success of the new venture has come at a price, so to speak. After years of terrorising village batsmen around the country, Kevin now finds himself too busy at the weekends to pound in from the Duck Pond End. Disappointing for many, although second slip can rest a little easier.
©Barney Spender 2012