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Iain M. Banks

The author's finest teacher was a `wee and dumpy' woman who also served as his `cultural lighthouse' for many years

The author's finest teacher was a `wee and dumpy' woman who also served as his `cultural lighthouse' for many years

I've still got an old drawing that I did when I was back in Primary 7 and the teacher asked us to draw what we wanted to be when we grew up. This was 1965 and it was still cool to want to be engine drivers or firemen or astronauts - something you would never have thought of five years earlier. I had no idea how to draw a writer, so I drew someone on stage in a dramatic pose and wrote up in the corner, spelt correctly, "and writer".

I had a couple of very good English teachers. Mr Hare at Gourock I remember teaching The Bridge over the River Kwai. The whole point of the novel is that the final sacrifice is not enough; the bridge does not get blown up. That opened up the possibility to me of how a book can work with a more realistic ending and the film tends to require a more uplifting denouement. But the person that made the biggest difference to me was Joan Woods, who was my English teacher for a year at Greenock High, but also ran the creative writing club that my friend Ken MacLeod, another science fiction writer, and I went along to for a couple of years.

She was a big fan of T.S Eliot. I didn't like his politics but I liked his work. She also pointed us in the direction of stuff we might be interested in. I wrote my sixth-year dissertation on science fiction, saying how brilliant it was and she was very supportive when a lot of teachers at that time might not have been.

I stayed good friends with Joan years afterwards. She was a good person and an excellent teacher. Like the very best teachers she was not just well-read in her particular speciality, but she had that ability to put across her enthusiasm. Obviously I was interested in these teachers' particular field, but when I listened to them talk I became even more of a fan than I thought I was. They had the proper gift of teaching.

Joan was quite wee and dumpy - not at all showy or flowery. It was about her voice and her delivery but she did not show off, there was no great drama, just an appreciation and a very keen mind. She read very widely, had been to lots of plays, knew her Shakespeare back to front, but was also good at keeping up with a variety of genres and contemporary literature. She was really just the kind of teacher that opens your eyes. In terms of her physiology she was quite compact but there was nothing compact about her mind.

Ken and I had already kind of decided science fiction was our thing; she made us feel not quite so embarrassed about admitting it. She just encouraged us to do it as was well as we could, to make it as intellectually accomplished as possible, to have high ambitions for it and raise the standard. Writing in any given form was capable of elevation - that's what she believed.

I enjoyed school a lot. It probably helped that I wasn't weedy. I was thin but I was always tall. I always got on with people; I was never bullied and never did any bullying as far as I'm aware. I was never picked first for sports but I was never picked last, and I enjoyed school more and more as time went on.

Joan was a friend for a lot longer than a teacher. For both Ken and myself she continued to be a cultural lighthouse until well after I was published. She knew we respected and valued her, but unfortunately she died 10 years ago and I never got the chance to dedicate a book to her.

Iain M. Banks' latest novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, is out now in hardback. This is the 25th anniversary of the first novel in the Culture series, Consider Phlebas, which was published in 1987. He was talking to Emma Seith.


Born: Dunfermline, 1954

Education: North Queensferry Primary, Fife; Gourock Primary, Gourock High and Greenock High, all Inverclyde; University of Stirling

Career: Author.

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