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Michael Moore

The Secretary of State owes much to the man who helped give voice to his debating skills

The Secretary of State owes much to the man who helped give voice to his debating skills

My favourite teacher was a guy called Martin Marroni, at Jedburgh Grammar. He was our English teacher in my final year of school and two things have always stood out for me.

He was one of the first teachers who, when we were writing essays, would hand them back and say "interesting ideas", but challenge you to develop the idea, say "but you don't explain this", "you don't develop the idea very far at all". It wasn't good enough just to have a creative idea and get the narrative; you would try and explore things. For me, it was about learning to construct arguments.

He was very sharp on that, and in the transition from school to university that was a really important set of skills to be learning. I probably didn't realise it, but I have had cause to reflect that he was important in helping me make that transition.

The other thing that really sticks in my mind is that once a fortnight or so, he would devote our double period of English on a Friday morning to a discussion, led by the pupils, on all the difficult issues of the day, from abortion to hunting to the wealth of churches. Really quite big, tricky things.

He would get two or three of us to research it, prepare it, present a set of arguments to the class, and then lead the discussion. In terms of feeding the interest I already had in current affairs and politics, that was a pretty important part of my school life. It was one of the rare opportunities actually to get proper debating going. There wasn't a formal debating society or anything like that. This was a more informal style, but you had to prepare yourself and be ready to take the debate and the questions on.

I don't regard myself as particularly pushy, but always keen to participate. The kind of format Mr Marroni developed for us debating things suited me very well, because you did it as part of a team and it was reasonably informal.

He wouldn't let arguments slip by. If there wasn't somebody there to challenge it, he would quietly, but firmly, ensure that other points of view were explored as well. There was no room for sloppy preparation; you had to have thought things through.

Of course, with all these big issues of the day, I doubt we resolved any of them satisfactorily for anybody, but I certainly found it invaluable to have had that kind of inspiration and that encouragement to ask questions of yourself, as much as other people.

He was pretty firm, clear about what he wanted to cover in terms of the syllabus, and this was a kind of privilege that we got - to be able to take time out from the more traditional studying ways of the early 1980s. He didn't give it away lightly.

My recollection is of a well-disciplined class, but not excessively so. He was quite a relaxed teacher, quite mild-mannered. But his thoughtfulness and firmness meant that you weren't there for an easy time.

Did he strike me as young at the time? I guess we always think our teachers look old when we are only 16 ourselves. Now that I am 46, I realise just how young he must have been. He must have been younger than I am now, and I don't like to think I have got old yet.

I met him two or three years ago at Hawick High School - he transferred there. He was very generous and very kind, and perhaps quite amused. I don't know if he looked around the class in 1982, if he imagined I would be the one who would end up in politics. It was an interesting little class in terms of the people who were in it making the arguments.

I am not sure he would necessarily be thrilled with my politics, but I would like to thank him for the contribution he made.

Michael Moore was talking to Julia Belgutay


Born: Dundonald, Northern Ireland, 1965

Education: Wishaw Primary, Wishaw Academy, Strathallan School, Jedburgh Grammar

Career: Liberal Democrat MP, Secretary of State for Scotland.

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