Norman Llewellyn Clay (1905-1991) was a Yorkshire schoolmaster who wrote a series of textbooks for schools, colleges and the home in a career that stretched from the late 1920s to the 1960s. His books ranged from classroom courses in oral and written composition through to anthologies of prose and poetry, brief plays adapted from literature, and guides to better writing for adult learners.
Clay believed that if England was to escape a drift into totalitarianism, it was essential for ordinary people to be fully engaged in debates over current affairs. This required a command of ‘straightforward English’ in contrast to the slogans, statistics and soundbites fed to us by politicians and the press. It also required a willingness to form judgments on important matters and defend them against the shoddy thinking, snobbery, and appeals to prejudice which he saw in much of the media.
Norman Clay was born in Tingley, Yorkshire, on April 22nd, 1905, the son of Charles William Clay and Sarah (Sadie) Catherine Griffiths, and younger brother of Laurence Griffith Clay. Charles was manager of the village Co-operative store; among other things Sadie was a teacher and a correspondent for two local newspapers. Norman turned down work as a clerk in the local mill to remain at the Grammar School — most Tingley men worked in the mill or down the pit — and went on to become a teacher of English language and literature, thanks largely to his mother, a Welshwoman who gave him a love of words and books and encouraged his aspirations. He taught English at Wath-on-Dearne Secondary School, and later at Ecclesfield Grammar School near Barnsley; his wife Hilda, whom he married in 1930, was a classicist and a fellow-schoolteacher.
Beyond the classroom, Norman and Hilda would spend happy days together exploring antique-shops, looking especially for those items which shed light on the dining habits and customs of the past, and on the lives of ordinary women in bygone days, subjects in which Norman took a keen interest. Amid the mass of unpublished manuscripts he left behind were easy-to-read guides to English domestic history, and studies of Jane Austen’s heroines and their time; these were written before such topics became as fashionable (and as academicised) as they are today. He delighted in countryside scenery and moorland, a fondness which he attributed to his Welsh heritage, kept a Yorkshire terrier called Kim, and wrote poetry on countless scraps of card.
Norman died on May 19th, 1991, aged eighty-six.
Note: In making Clay Lane, I have not republished Clay’s books online. Clay Lane may be very like his books in spirit, but it is not those books themselves. The choice of passages in The Copy Book and the exercises in my version of Think and Speak are my own; any shortcomings you may find must be laid at my door.
Think and Speak (J. M. Dent: 1929)
The Young Writer (J. M. Dent: 1930)
School Certificate Practice (J. M. Dent: 1933)
English Exercises: Twelve to Thirteen (William Heinemann: 1933)
The English Critic: from Chaucer to Auden (William Heinemann: 1939)
Advanced English Exercises (William Heinemann: 1939)
The Narrative Art in Verse (John Murray: 1942)
American Sampler (John Murray: 1943)
Dialogues for Discussion (John Murray: 1945)
This Half Century: 50 Poems from 1900 to 1949 (William Heinemann: 1945)
Record and Report (William Heinemann: 1947)
Straightforward English (MacDonald: 1949)
The London Bridge Book of Verse (William Heinemann: 1962)
I Remember: an Anthology of Childhood Reminiscences (Heinemann Educational Books: 1964)