Michael Russell

The education secretary's love of literature stems from a small and slightly dishevelled English teacher who loved a cigarette or two

Alex Syme was head of English at Marr College when I was in my senior phase. I always had a love of reading but it was him I would credit with inspiring in me a real love of literature.

He was in his late forties or early fifties, and he was a man of eccentricity. He had a little cupboard next to the room he taught in, the floor of which was thick with ash. He would disappear halfway through the class for a cigarette and his gown - all our teachers wore gowns - was just covered in ash.

He was small and slightly dishevelled. He was a very engaging individual, quite humorous, very bright - a real personality. I don't think he was particularly clubbable; he was a strong individual, and just a good man who had such a passion for literature - the way it sounded, as much as the reading of it. He was a teacher who saw himself as part of the learning experience, rather than apart from it.

I remember reading King Lear in his classes. The last scene is tragic when the father realises what he has lost and the reader is made to come to terms with the fact that life does brutal things to people.

That final scene stunned everyone into silence. He wanted people to understand how things were performed and read and the passion in it. Literature transcends the words on the page and becomes something that touches you very deeply. He understood that and it showed. I've never forgotten that experience.

In terms of my own career and the work I have done as a cultural commentator and a writer, and my own love of literature, he is one of the people who, I think, is most responsible. In fact, he is the individual.

My father was a teacher and my mother was a teacher, so I thought well of teachers generally. He was an example of how an individual's passion for a subject and desire to impart knowledge is one of the great things in teaching.

We had a number of good teachers at Marr College - and one or two whom I did not like, but I'm not going to name them. But Mr Syme was outstanding. I don't remember any discipline problems in his classes - we wanted to be there.

I didn't keep in touch; I don't think anybody did. In Mr Syme's case, it was about his relationship with the class, as opposed to just my relationship with him; it was a shared experience. Some of the great cultural experiences are shared experiences. That's why going to see a film in the cinema is better than watching at home, and it also applies to literature.

I had more of an individual relationship with a teacher when I was very much younger, a history teacher and retired army major called Major Cooper.

That was when I was 10 or 11 and I remember very well what a good support he was to me when I was not enjoying school very much - I had a good time at secondary school, but did not have a great time during my early schooling.

It was a small private school. Major Cooper was a Highland soldier and owned a small antique shop in Glencoe. He did not work in the summer term because he was running his shop.

What I remember of him was that he was a kind individual and in fact his shop is in my constituency now and I think his son still runs it.

Michael Russell was speaking to Emma Seith


Born: Kent, 1953

Education: Marr College, South Ayrshire; University of Edinburgh

Career: Worked on and off in the media, establishing his own media company, Eala Bhan Ltd. First elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as a regional member for the South of Scotland; lost his seat four years later; was elected again in 2007; became education secretary in 2009.

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