Des Dillon

Two guiding lights from his schooldays helped the novelist and playwright to decide what not to be

Tes Editorial

Looking back, I probably had attention deficit disorder or something like that. I used to finish my work dead quick. I wasn't some idiot who finished the work and didn't get anything right but Miss Boswell, who taught me towards the end of primary, was always having to keep me occupied. She would do that by bringing on my artistic talents.

I got to draw and paint and I wrote my first book, put together using six or seven jotters, about space, the stars and the cosmos. At other times, I would be told to take these big white cards that could be about any topic from the South Pole to Marie Curie. You had to learn them and then do the questions.

Miss Boswell and I had an antagonistic relationship at times. My report cards tended to say I was impudent and cheeky. Around that age I was starting with a bit of bad behaviour, which came from me being totally bored. She tried to take control by giving me stuff to do. She belted me a couple of times, which was unusual for that school. I think she thought I had some talent and she could bring it out of me and help me in my life, and she probably did.

She can only have been in her twenties. She met my mum years ago and asked after me. When Mum told her I was a fruit machine engineer, she nearly started crying because I was better than that and she knew it. She could not believe I was doing a stupid job that would never take me anywhere. I loved that job, though. I was loaded - everywhere you went there was money lying about.

When I started secondary, I was first in the school for science and maths but by S3 my marks had dropped to 20 or 30 per cent from 80 or 90. I started drinking, getting into trouble with the cops and all that - just running about crazy. It's just what you do when you come from that background - west of Scotland boy stuff. Education was not the thing to do.

Glen Martin, a physics teacher, must have started asking the other staff, "How come this guy is starting to fail?" You changed to a different building as you moved up the school and he had heard about me, but by the time I got there I wasn't this brilliant mind. I was just a fucking ned.

He called me into his room. I thought I'd been caught for doing something, but he just wanted to try and get to the bottom of it. I sat there and mumbled. A couple of months later, he took us all to a mine - his brother worked in a pit. Afterwards he told us: "That's what you don't want to be."

I remember these people because in some way they cared about me but you can't rehabilitate anybody - it has to come from them.

When I was younger, they used to take us out in this "bad boys' club". There were 12 boys who were selected in Coatbridge because they were heading for prison - I was one of them. We did mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking.

These people in the past give you gifts, but you don't necessarily open them until years later. When I decided to make a change I started going up the hills again.

Teaching was a last resort for me because I couldn't get a job after university. I remember my PT saying that when he was running, he would be creating lessons for the kids in his head, but when I was running I was thinking of poems and my next story. I realised then I'd not be long in teaching. To be honest, by the time I left my mum's house I was weaned out. As one of the oldest of nine children, you were always being handed a greeting baby.

Des Dillon is the author of the acclaimed novel Me and Ma Gal. His powerful Old Firm play Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim will be at the Festival of Politics, 17 August


Born: Bellshill, 1960

Education: St James' Primary, Coatbridge; Columba High, Coatbridge; Coatbridge College; University of Strathclyde; St Andrew's Teacher Training College, Glasgow

Career: fruit machine engineer; English teacher; writer.

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