Of books and ballads

27th December 1996, 12:00am
John Mitchell


Of books and ballads

John Mitchell talks to Adam McNaughtan, once an English teacher, now a folk singer and bookshop proprietor

Status and job security were never high on Adam McNaughtan's list of priorities when he was a teacher. He had a geographically and professionally diverse career, a career which came to end in 1981 after 20 years of teaching English when he decided to take a year off. Fifteen years later, he doesn't look like returning.

"Part of the reason for giving up was to further my academic writings on folk music and, initially, to devote myself to making a collection of children's songs. I'd got permission from the head teachers of two Glasgow primaries - one Catholic, one Protestant - to go into their schools and research the kids' playground songs.

"I'd cleared it with the police too, as well as the parents and the local youth organisations. I then made the foolish mistake of checking that it was OK with the regional offices at Bath Street.

"So, at the same time as I got a letter from them accepting my resignation (as principal teacher of English at Cathkin High), I got a letter saying 'No you will not go into our schools to do this research . . .'" The project was cancelled and McNaughtan spent the next year living off savings, immersed in the Mitchell Library and collating and cataloguing 19th-century broadside ballads. He says: "I enjoyed doing nothing so much that I decided not to go back."

He mixed a limited amount of supply work with being a part-time assistant at Cooper Hay's antiquarian bookshop. In 1981 he set up Adam's Books, which offers a cornucopia of rare and secondhand titles and specialises in Scottish texts. Originally established in the Battlefield area of Glasgow's south side, it has since moved to its current, and more successful, location behind the Tron Theatre.

As McNaughtan says: "I get few people coming in and asking if I'm a library now." Fifteen years on, he has no regrets at the change and no regrets at having been a teacher either. He clearly loved the times he was teaching.

"In English especially, it's all about two-way communication, whereas in other subjects, such as languages, you have to put stuff in before you get anything out.

"But as you get older in teaching, you don't want to be a policeman.

"If I had to force children to learn, and discuss, and enjoy English, I didn't want to do it." On wider educational matters, McNaughtan is particularly scathing about the current fashionable modular approach to learning.

"I don't like modules. I've been on the receiving end in an evening class, but I've transferred to a non-modular course, because it seems that if the module has to last 13 weeks then the material has to be spread out to last 13 weeks, no matter the aptitude of the class. And modular assessment is perfunctory - you keep doing the one thing until you pass it, and then you forget it. "

McNaughtan's views on Standard grade English are reflected in one of his most recent songs "You've Got To Get Your Folios Done" from his new album Last Stand at Mount Florida: The people that devised it, I'm sure were well intentioned, (You've got tae get your folios done), But I know lots of English teachers longin tae be pensioned, (You've got tae get your folios done), They came intae the job because they had a love o writin, They thought they'd pass on knowledge o the books they took delight in, They've feenished up as parrots ever endlessly recitin - You've got tae get your folios done.

Perhaps it loses a little in the writing down. You have to hear the whole, hilariously-presented song, for the full effect. The message is clear: its author does not miss the administrative demands that would certainly have loomed as too large a part of his teaching life.

McNaughtan has the kind of free spirit which was unlikely to submit to the constraints of a straightforward teaching post. Two years into his career he applied to teach English in Zambia and went for a month's induction. "Unfortunately, I failed the medical, having had all the injections."

So he taught for six months in Hamilton and then filled the post departed by fellow folk enthusiast Norman Buchan at Rutherglen Academy. In the 1968-69 session, however, his wanderlust took him to Norway to teach English in a British Council-funded position. The Rutherglen post was held open for him but he arrived just in time for the school to shut.

A brief spell at Cathkin High was followed by a four-year stint as principal teacher of English at Dalziel High, where he found a kindred spirit in the late James Scobbie, renowned rector of the school and a proponent of whole school experience before it became a fashionable claim to put on a CV.

Chess clubs, table tennis clubs, football teams and hostelling all formed parts of Adam McNaughtan's teaching style. He became Dalziel's artistic director for a drama festival which saw him at school every evening for three weeks at a time. But the rewards were self-evident in the unity of purpose demonstrated by staff and pupils.

When Scobbie retired in 1974, McNaughtan felt it was "time to round things up", so he resigned to go to Denmark to spend another year teaching English in various schools before writing back to Scotland for an ordinary teaching post. Two years at John Street were followed by an appointment to his second and final principal's post, this time at Cathkin High.

At the same time, McNaughtan was pursuing a parallel career on the folk singing world.

As a founder member of the Glasgow University folk club, he had maintained links with, and performed for, many clubs across the country. Three records in 12 years confirms his point that he "doesn't sing very much", but he is in strong demand for after-dinner performances at gatherings of teachers and others. And it's his own songs they love to hear.

His songs range from "Oor Hamlet" (staple fare for any English teacher wishing to enliven the Shakespearean diet) and "The Glasgow That I Used To Know" (granted royal approval at Prince Charles's opening of the Glasgow Garden Festival), through children's favourites such as "Skyscraper Wean" and more recent offerings such as "The Scottish Song" (another three-minute blitz on Shakespeare) and "Cholesterol" (an iconoclastic teaching aid for the health educationists).

His shop is a six-day-a-week tie, but McNaughtan just likes being surrounded by books. Quiet moments, of which there are many, give time for composition and reflection, but the entry of a customer is an opportunity for welcome, for re-acquaintance (he has many regulars) and for establishing the kind of friendly relationship which served him well during his teaching years.

Drop by, if you're in the area. Have a chat. And buy a book - or one of his tapes or CDs - if you fancy.

As an antidote to classroom stress, they take some beating.

Adam McNaughtan's CDs and tapes are on the Greentrax label, or direct from Adam Books, 47 Parnie Street, Glasgow. Tel: 0141 552 2665.

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