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Nick Barley

The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival was set on his literary path by a teacher who made poetry real

The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival was set on his literary path by a teacher who made poetry real

I went to Dringhouses Primary in York. It was just a little foosty primary school but I loved it. My secondary school was Boston Spa comprehensive. My parents moved there because, at the time, it was the best-respected state school in Yorkshire. They didn't want me to have private education but they moved me to get into the best school. So I benefited from a certain amount of middle-class angst, but the teaching was fantastic.

It wasn't until I was in secondary school that I got interested in books. I think English teachers are the really crucial part of education for lots of people. It seems to me that children come to an understanding of the world through fiction; through the extremes and the unusual quality of stories they start to understand their own place in the world. My English teacher had exactly that effect on me.

Her name was Julia Deakin. She must have been 22 or 23 and it was her first teaching job. I would have been 15 and to us she seemed like a middle-aged lady. I was trying to read Dostoevsky and concrete poetry, and struggling. I had this impression that poetry was always abstract, always conceptual and never actually relevant.

But then she mentioned Tony Harrison to me, a poet who spoke with a Yorkshire accent. In one of his poems he mentioned a hairdresser's shop that I had seen on the bus to Leeds and I remembered it because it was called Kurl Up and Dye. It's tragically corny, but at that age I thought what a cool name, what a great pun.

It was that poem that turned on for me that poems could actually be about stuff in your immediate vicinity and not just about abstracts. Miss Deakin switched on that light, the possibility for literature and poetry to be much more relevant to now.

She had this extraordinary frothy explosion of hair which none of the other teachers had. She was quite rebellious - she refused to teach in the way that others did. She would write mini-essays at the bottom of my essays about why she thought what I had written was interesting or not. Previous teachers had put ticks and written "very good".

One day, my friend and I were going to a York City match. I had a bet with him that York was going to win three-nil; I was sure of it. And if they didn't, I said, I would send a valentine card to Miss Deakin. Needless to say they lost, so I had to send the card.

To her credit, her response was to send me a valentine back. If that was to happen now she could have exposed herself to all sorts of problems, but it really wasn't intended in that way. It was a fake valentine card. She had cut a piece of cardboard into the shape of a lightbulb and written in beautiful calligraphy a poem which was basically taking the piss out of me and which ended very ironically with the line, "You are the light of my life".

There was no way it could be remotely construed as her making a pass - she was playing with language and basically standing up to me. But it was also poetry.

Years later, when I was a student, I went to a CND rally and bumped into her. There was the realisation that the teacher can be a political animal, and she was standing with this guy with dreadlocks who was possibly her boyfriend. It was that amazing moment where the authority barrier between teacher and pupil is completely gone.

Since then we've remained friends. She's a very talented poet and has had a couple of books published. She hasn't yet played at the book festival but I think it may only be a matter of time.

Nick Barley was talking to Chris Small. The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from 13-29 August.


Born: 1966

Education: Dringhouses Primary, York; Boston Spa comprehensive; University of Kent at Canterbury; University of Sussex.

Career: Publisher of books and magazines; editor, The List magazine; director, the Lighthouse Centre for Architecture and Design; director, Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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