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Nick Nairn

Passion was infectious for the celebrity chef, but not all of his teachers shared the same joy in their subjects

Passion was infectious for the celebrity chef, but not all of his teachers shared the same joy in their subjects

My favourite teacher was my English teacher at McLaren High in Callander, Alistair Thompson. He only taught me for the first two, maybe three, years and he died when I was in third year, I think. His nickname was Shylock, and he wore a master's gown, which gives a degree of presence. He was probably in his 40s or early 50s.

He read to us in class, and read brilliantly. He turned the written word into something that was incredibly lively. I vividly remember sitting there, captivated by what he was saying, thinking "I didn't know that books could do this"; it was that sort of engagement. The great thing about Dickens is that he was a great storyteller. One of my all-time favourite books is Great Expectations. What a fantastic story, and the characterisation is just brilliant.

Shylock was quite strict, but I instinctively liked him. I am quite anti- authoritarian and I don't engage well with authority, but somehow, I respected his knowledge and I was excited by what he was teaching us.

I went and hunted these books out, and they really made me think. When I left school, I joined the merchant navy. I was away from home for chunks of time on a boat, so I read voraciously. I read challenging novels, such as Nabokov, Anthony Burgess and Dostoevsky. I don't claim that I had full comprehension of some of them, but I read them all.

Apart from Shylock, who turned me on to reading, we also had a great physics teacher called Mr Alexander, who was able to make his subject interesting, and then we had a great music teacher.

Ian Milligan was passionate, larger than life, fought tooth and nail for his music department, and got me, although I am tone deaf and have no musical ability, to learn the trumpet and play in the school orchestra. I remember going to music camp, and the orchestra played Sibelius' Karelia Suite. When I hear that, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It's an amazing piece of music. And were it not for the music master, I would never have listened to classical music. I listen to a lot now.

It was about the passion these teachers brought to the subject. The thing that affected me most at the school was that I had a really rubbish maths teacher in my O-level year. He had no respect from the class. He was near retirement age and had no interest in what he was doing. He was dull and couldn't hold a class, so people messed about, and I got caught up in that. I had an earpiece, listening to Pink Floyd and that sort of thing, and chucking snowballs at the blackboard. As a result, I failed my maths O-level, and I got an A band 1 in physics and A band 1 in chemistry - I'm not stupid.

This is the important thing to me: to highlight how a good teacher can really change your life for the better by getting you to engage with a subject, and a bad teacher can cost you dearly.

I have never been back to my old school. They have asked me several times, but I had such a rotten time there, and a big part of that was failing my maths O-level. It meant that I had to resit it in my Higher year, so I had to drop one of my Highers to do it. I became obsessed - I was so horrified that I failed, and got an A band 1 in the resit.

My days at school were spoilt for me by not coming in contact with a better teacher in my maths education, but they enriched my life by coming into contact with a great teacher in English literature, an enthusiastic teacher in physics, and the music thing was extraordinary.

Nick Nairn was talking to Julia Belgutay


Born: Port of Menteith, 1959 Education Killearn Primary, Port of Menteith Primary, McLaren High, Callander, all in Stirling

Career: Celebrity chef - became youngest Scottish chef to gain a Michelin star in the 1990s; owner of the Nick Nairn Cook School.

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